Sunday April 17th, 2011

MASHANTUCKET, Conn. -- Victor Ortiz walked into the second floor ballroom at the MGM Grand late Saturday night, a toothy smile creasing his face and the WBC welterweight title raised high above his head. He was two years removed from his lowest professional point, a no mas moment against Marcos Maidana that threatened to define his career. Two years. Here, it seemed so much longer.

Questions about Ortiz's heart and chin are gone now, erased by a scintillating performance against Andre Berto. Over 12 brutal rounds, Ortiz dropped Berto twice, peeled himself off the canvas twice and hounded the unbeaten Berto with relentless pressure. He winged 570 power punches at Berto, according to CompuBox, connecting on 266 of them.

"I didn't prepare to knock him out," Ortiz said. "I pictured both my eyes closed after this fight. But I wasn't walking away without that belt."

Yes, Ortiz has a belt, his first major title. But he also has the respect that comes with it. A 4-to-1 underdog coming into the fight, Ortiz rarely looked like anything but the favorite. He walked straight through some heavy shots -- Berto has knocked out 75 percent of his opponents -- and was surprisingly accurate (40 percent) with his punches. He weathered storms when he needed to and showed remarkable resolve when faced with adversity. After getting knocked down by a thudding right hand early in the sixth round, Ortiz rallied to put Berto down with a left late in it.

"This was the moment I have been working for my whole life," Ortiz said. "This was my dream. I wasn't going to stand for anything less."

He's proven now, Ortiz. But he's not a star yet. A paltry 2,491 fans turned out for the fight, a quasi sellout (the lower bowl of the arena was filled) but only because the upper level was curtained off. Ortiz's next task will be to win over fans, something true superstars like Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather have already done.

He can do it, of course, with more fights like this one. A rematch seems likely -- Berto's promoter, Lou DiBella, and HBO want it, Ortiz and his camp are open to it -- and the buzz from this fight and a change of venue to Southern California (where Ortiz trains) will likely lead to a much bigger crowd. The pure brawling style of Ortiz and Berto effectively guarantees another slugfest.

Berto will be better, too. He will need some time to heal -- a stretcher waited for him outside of his locker room to take him to the hospital to treat a broken right hand and a possible concussion -- and perhaps need a new trainer. Moments after the final bell Bernard Hopkins tweeted "Berto needs a professional teacher," and he may be right. Berto didn't appear to have any discernible game plan for Ortiz -- he connected on just 32 jabs -- and looked gassed from the second round on. His longtime trainer, Tony Morgan, has done an admirable job getting him to this point, but if Berto's development has stalled, a change may be in order.

Whoever is in Berto's corner, Ortiz will be ready for him. He was brimming with confidence as he addressed the media, declaring that he was now ready for the big names. Mayweather (who was ringside for the fight) and Pacquiao (who called Ortiz to wish him luck before the fight) are probably still out of reach, but there are plenty of other names at 140 and 147 pounds (Shane Mosley, Amir Khan, Timothy Bradley, just to name a few) who are. There is also Maidana, the man that nearly ended Ortiz's career on a night that now is little more than a distant memory.

"Stuff happens," Ortiz said. "That was the past. Maidana still doesn't have anything on me. That wasn't my night. I fought with a broken wrist, and the fight was stopped. They said I gave up, I didn't give up. He wouldn't give me a rematch but I'm the guy with no courage, no heart, no balls. But now, I'm the guy with the belt."

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