The euphoria washed over Victor Ortiz, and for one brief moment all the negativity was swept away. Gone were the questions about his chin, the questions about his heart, the questions about whether he was ever going to amount to anything more than an overhyped prospect with a little bit of pop in his gloves. When referee Mike Ortega raised his arm last April and members of the fighter's entourage fastened Andre Berto's welterweight title belt around his waist, Ortiz had finally arrived.
Or did he? Ortiz's stunning win over Berto catapulted him onto the national stage and straight into a high-profile fight against Floyd Mayweather in September. The Mayweather fight was supposed to be another step forward; it ended up as two steps back. Mayweather picked Ortiz apart over four lopsided rounds, finishing the job late in the fourth when he drilled a defenseless Ortiz -- who had just had a point taken away for attempting to break Mayweather's nose with a head butt -- with a savage, left-right combination.
Four months later Ortiz is back and, not coincidentally, so are the questions. There is no shame in losing to Mayweather. Losing in a one-sided fight where Ortiz lost control of his emotions and spent weeks whining about the result, however, is another story.
"I don't think I lost," Ortiz said in a conference call on Wednesday. "[I still] believe in myself. I still see myself as a world champion. I will never bow down to not being a world champion because it wasn't right how it happened in my eyes."
Ortiz isn't back where he started, but he's nowhere near where he hoped to be. Ortiz believed his fight with Mayweather would lead to lucrative, career defining matchups with Manny Pacquiao and Miguel Cotto. Instead, on Feb. 11, Ortiz (29-3-2) will take on Berto (28-1) again, in a battleground fight with huge implications: To the winner could go a multi-million dollar shot at Mayweather or Pacquiao later this year, to the loser a spot in a crowded pack of second-class contenders.
"I've been working hard and keeping it positive," Ortiz said. "There are no worries in the world right about now, and Berto is certainly not one of them."
Well, he should be. Berto hasn't missed a beat since his loss to Ortiz. He regained a piece of the welterweight title with an emphatic fifth-round knockout of Jan Zaveck last September. He could have defended that title, too, but instead chose to vacate it for another shot at Ortiz.
"I've won two titles now," Berto said. "This fight right here is a fight that I wanted, a fight that the people wanted. It's going to be an exciting one and that's the only thing that I'm worried about."
Ortiz has slipped easily back into the underdog role, claiming Berto is discounting him, declaring publicly that nobody believes in him.
"Once again, it comes back that I'm the underdog," Ortiz said. "That's the story of my life. I don't really mind it one bit. At the same time, let's not forget this much: I was a 140-pounder in the first fight. Now, I'm a natural 147."
Indeed, the stakes are high for Ortiz, as they have always been. From life with an abusive father and an absentee mother, to a nomadic existence across Kansas, Colorado and California, Ortiz has always been one slipup away from catastrophic failure. His career has not taken off the way he hoped after his win over Berto but he will get a second chance to kick start it by beating him again.
"My rollercoaster is relaunching right now," Ortiz said. "Apparently Berto has a chip on his shoulder. Well I have a few chips on my shoulder due to the first Berto fight. It didn't end the way I wanted it to end and my last fight wasn't the greatest. I'm preparing for the best Berto there is possible. If he's gotten any better, hey, that's awesome. That's what we're expecting. We're expecting the best Berto and I'll be ready."