These days, life is pretty good for 24-year-old Victor Ortiz. He has a home: a Spanish-style, two-bedroom place in Ventura, Calif., overlooking the Pacific, that is a significant upgrade from the three-bedroom trailer in Garden City, Kans., he shared with his parents, brother and sister growing up. He has a strong relationship with his brother, Temo, 22, whom he lived with after they were abandoned by their parents, was separated from and eventually took custody of, all before Victor turned 19. And he's a world champion—the WBC welterweight champion, to be exact—albeit one who is considered merely a tune-up for Floyd Mayweather Jr., when the latter makes his ring return on Saturday. "Thinking back to all I have gone through," says Ortiz with a smile. "It's kind of a miracle that I'm here."
This is an article from the Sept. 19, 2011 issue
Childhood horror stories are common among pro athletes; Oritz's are Saw-like. His mother, Manuela, neglected, belittled and eventually left him when he was seven. When Temo and their sister, Carmen, age nine, learned Mom was gone, they cried. Ortiz's reaction? "I remember thinking, F---, yeah, that b---- is out of my life," says Ortiz. "I don't know if she hated me, but she never wanted to be around me."
Ortiz's father, Victor Sr., according to Victor Jr., was a heavy drinker who hit his kids. It was Senior who pushed Victor Jr. into boxing not long before Mom left, irritated that his chunky, choir-singing son was getting picked on in school. He signed his eldest son up for amateur tournaments. Turned out Victor Jr. was good. He won his first 24 fights. Then, after his first loss, his father beat him in front of the entire crowd.
"You have to understand, these are really painful things to remember," explains Temo. "I wouldn't wish the way we grew up on anyone." In the years that followed, Victor Sr., who worked construction, drifted in and out of the picture. He took off for good when Junior was 12. Suddenly, Victor Jr. was the primary provider. He worked at a Burger King when he was 14, often sneaking leftovers to Temo and Carmen. He took jobs as a roofer, mover and field hand. At night the kids would seek shelter at friends' homes.
Keeping the family together was hard, and there were times when Ortiz lost track of his brother and sister. Carmen got pregnant at 15 and moved to Denver a year later, leaving Victor and Temo in foster care. She promised to return to take custody of Victor Jr. when she turned 18. When she did, Victor Jr. went with her to Denver, promising Temo he would do the same for him.
In Denver boxing got more serious. Ortiz hooked up with former heavyweight contender Ron Lyle, who worked with him at a community center. Naturally righthanded, Ortiz boxed southpaw because he felt his power was in his left. Ortiz had never liked hitting people, but now he recognized it as a way to make a living. "He was so focused," says Lyle. "This kid believed boxing was his destiny."
At 16, Ortiz began to make a name for himself at regional tournaments. It was at one of those tournaments that he met Eduardo Garcia and his sons, Robert and Danny. The Garcias were boxing lifers who trained fighters out of Oxnard, Calif., and they saw the promise in Ortiz, who agreed to join them. He gravitated to the soft-spoken Danny, whom he hired as his full-time trainer in 2009. The first big fight with Danny was against undefeated Marcos Maidana, a powerful Argentine. At the time Ortiz was a highly touted prospect with a 24-1-1 record, headlining his first HBO card. In the opening rounds he looked up to the task, dropping Maidana once in the first and twice in the second. But Maidana rallied in the fifth, opening a deep cut over Ortiz's right eye and putting him down in the sixth. In a moment of weakness Ortiz simply quit. Worse, in the postfight interview he suggested he might not have it in him to box anymore. "He had a lot of emotion going through him that night," says Ortiz's promoter, Oscar De La Hoya, "and it got the best of him."
The media crushed Ortiz, branding him a quitter and overrated. What wasn't mentioned was that at the time Ortiz was feuding with Temo and Carmen. Or that he had broken his right wrist two weeks before the fight. "Mentally, physically, he wasn't there that night," says Garcia. "He should have never been in that ring."
For two days Ortiz was inconsolable. But when De La Hoya and former world champion Shane Mosley told him he could be great, he listened. When his trainer and manager told him he was as good as anyone else in the division, he started to come around. So he stuck with it. He won his next four fights. In April he moved up to 147 pounds to face unbeaten Andre Berto. Ortiz went down twice against Berto. He got up, knocked Berto down and won a unanimous decision.
Now it's Mayweather who stands in front of him. Ortiz has the tools to win. He's bigger, stronger and 10 years younger than Mayweather. He's in supreme condition—he competes in triathlons for fun. He doesn't fear Mayweather. There were fighters Ortiz admired growing up: Mosley, Bernard Hopkins. Mayweather wasn't one of them. "At 126 or 130 pounds, Floyd was great," says Ortiz. "At 147, he ain't s---."
There's something else Ortiz will bring to the ring: peace. He speaks regularly with Carmen. He's an investor in Temo's trucking company in Garden City. He has even achieved some resolution with his parents. Two years ago Ortiz reached out to his father. It didn't go well, but he is happy that he tried. Last December he reconnected with his mother. Ortiz says Manuela admitted her mistakes and asked for forgiveness. She calls regularly now, and Ortiz is slowly allowing her back into his life. (Neither Manuela nor Victor Sr. could be reached for comment.)
Ortiz seems ready. But the tune-up tag has stuck. Mayweather picks opponents with infinite care. Ortiz is an aggressive, hard-hitting southpaw who fights a lot like another aggressive, hard-hitting southpaw: Manny Pacquiao. Ortiz, many believe, is just a rehearsal for the real thing. Not that Ortiz cares. He knows beating Mayweather will be a big challenge. "But," he says, the smile returning, "I've overcome a lot bigger."