It's the first rule of boxing. And one that Victor Ortiz picked the wrong time to forget Saturday against Floyd Mayweather.
In one of the most bizarre endings in boxing history, Mayweather capitalized on a moment of immeasurable negligence by Ortiz to score a dramatic fourth-round knockout before a crowd of 14,687 at the MGM Grand Garden Arena.
The devastating left-right combination came moments after Ortiz appeared to intentionally foul Mayweather with a head butt near Mayweather's corner. After referee Joe Cortez immediately called time so Mayweather could recover and deducted a point from Ortiz, both fighters moved to the center of the ring, hugged and touched gloves.
As Ortiz looked toward Cortez for some signal to restart -- with the veteran referee out of position and not even looking at the fighters -- Mayweather stepped back and uncoiled a sharp left hook that froze Ortiz, followed by a heat-seeking right that snapped the young champion's head back and dumped him to the canvas. Cortez counted him out and a disoriented Ortiz remained on the floor for several minutes. The mostly pro-Ortiz crowd, out in force on Mexican Independence Day weekend, rained boos and catcalls on the surreal tableau.
A cheap shot, but a legal punch.
"Once we touch gloves, it's open season," said Mayweather (42-0, 26 KOs), who will make a minimum of $25 million, a figure certain to swell to as much as $40 million based on the pay-per-view receipts, closed-circuit revenues and foreign sales in 168 countries and territories. "What goes around comes around."
Even though he was technically the challenger to Ortiz's alphabet title, Mayweather was an 8-to-1 favorite at the MGM's sports book -- though a rush of late action on Saturday cut those odds to 5-to-1. Regardless of the perceived chasm in class and experience, Ortiz was widely regarded as the best opponent Mayweather could have chosen short of Manny Pacquiao.
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Nearly every clean shot through the first three rounds came from Mayweather, who dominated with speed, accuracy and ring intelligence. He connected on 73 of 208 punches (35 percent) compared to just 26 of 148 for Ortiz (18 percent). Even more glaring was the disparity in jabs: Ortiz threw just 31 and landed zero.
From the opening minute Mayweather tagged Ortiz with right-hand leads -- the most disrespectful punch a world-class fighter can throw -- a tactic for which the 24-year-old had no response. Mayweather was slippery and artful in defense, showing no sign of rust after 16 months away from the ring.
Ortiz (29-3-2, 22 KOs), who made $2.5 million, had been marketed as a naturally bigger, stronger, dangerous puncher -- his handlers claimed he'd knocked down every one of his professional opponents -- and many felt he had the relentless forward-moving style to trouble if not upset Mayweather. Indeed, Ortiz had rehydrated to 164 pounds by Saturday night, while Mayweather weighed 150 (when he finally agreed to step on HBO's unofficial scale after initially declining). But even when he backed Mayweather up, Ortiz couldn't do much except absorb his opponent's sneaky and compact punches. Midway through the third, Ortiz connected with a right hand, and Mayweather shook his head in defiance.
Mayweather came out aggressively in the fourth, throwing a flurry of at least 15 punches and connecting with several before Ortiz managed to return fire. But Ortiz caught Mayweather against the ropes and unloaded midway through the round -- his best moments of the fight -- whipping the crowd into the white-noise wall of sound only championship fights can produce.
Near the end of the round, Ortiz bullied the challenger into his corner and drove his head toward the right side of Mayweather's forehead -- a contemptible deliberate foul that Ortiz blamed on "the heat of the moment" and apologized for profusely afterward. Mayweather immediately recoiled, while Cortez called time out and made the deduction. Ortiz made a spectacle of the apology, even kissing Mayweather on the cheek while the fighters were still in the corner.
Cortez said he called time in. Ortiz claimed he never heard it.
"Time was in," said Cortez, a seasoned referee who was inducted to the International Boxing Hall of Fame in June. "The fighter needed to keep his guard up. Mayweather did nothing illegal."
Ortiz, impossibly upbeat during the post-fight presser, differed with Cortez's account.
"It wasn't a fair fight," said Ortiz, who asked for a rematch.
Widely regarded as one of the two best pound-for-pound fighters in the world -- despite being dropped from most organizations' rankings due to inactivity -- Mayweather did little to reaffirm his place in the public regard by winning through an approach many have already decried as unsportsmanlike if not illegal.
"We came together, we touched," Mayweather reasoned. "It's fight time. You hit me and two minutes later we are friends? This is the hurt business."
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Ortiz was coming off his career-best victory, when he twice came off the floor to outpoint previously unbeaten Andre Berto for the WBC's version of the welterweight title in April. The courageous performance helped rub out the acid memory of a 2009 loss to Marcos Maidana, when he simply quit midway through the sixth round of a slugfest. The ignominious defeat threatened to short-circuit the rapid ascent of Ortiz's career at least as much as a listless draw against Lamont Peterson nine months ago.
"I'm not mad anymore," Ortiz said. "I let it all out in the locker room after the fight. I've swallowed my pride and ready to move on."
Saturday's nine-fight card featured 10 fighters of Mexican descent, none bigger than Ortiz, the SI.com 2008 Prospect of the Year who's long been fancied by Golden Boy Promotions as the heir apparent to the crossover Mexican-American audience Oscar De La Hoya once commanded.
But with a star-studded crowd that included Mike Tyson, Magic Johnson, Denzel Washington and Sugar Ray Leonard looking on, Ortiz instead became the latest in a long line of Mayweather victims.
Mayweather is 34, but the mileage is not commensurate to his age. He'd fought just 24 rounds since a 2007 knockout of Ricky Hatton entering Saturday's fight. (Ortiz, who's never had a layoff of more than six months, fought 11 times in that span.) A defensive mastermind, Mayweather has never absorbed much punishment or been in an all-out war. He rarely gets hit flush by two punches in a row -- a streak that wasn't snapped against Ortiz.
Some bemoaned the fact the public was too focused on the possibility of Pacquiao instead of the reality of Ortiz -- but the concerns proved irrelevant.
Despite Saturday's highly controversial denouement, it didn't take long for the coversation to turn to the Mayweather-Pacquiao megafight, a bout the public made years ago. But the bad blood between Mayweather and Top Rank CEO Bob Arum -- Pacquiao's current and Mayweather's former promoter -- was given an international showcase during Saturday's press conference.
While many chose to view Mayweather's choice of Ortiz as a de facto tune-up for Pacquiao -- they're both heavy-handed southpaws with pressure styles -- Mayweather's acrimonious comments and insistance that he "doesn't need Pacquiao" after Saturday's fight made the possibility of Mayweather-Pacquiao seem more remote than ever.
"All Pacquiao is doing is fighting my leftovers," Mayweather said, referring to Shane Mosley, Ricky Hatton and Juan Manuel Marquez (whom Pacquiao fights a third time on Nov. 12). "The difference between me and certain fighters is there's a boss at other companies. I move when I want to move. I fight when I want to fight.
"How can [Pacquiao] offer me anything? I do the offering. He has to get his business in order. When he fights, he gives up 30 percent of his check, I get 100 percent."
Before stepping away from the dais and signing autographs for the dozens of fans who'd infiltrated the press room, Mayweather didn't rule out the possibility of walking away for good -- a move that would relegate the long-anticipated Pacquiao fight to a theater of dreams.
"I'm not saying I'm retiring," he said, "but if I take another long layoff, I don't know."