Before Canelo Alvarez took center stage against Daniel Jacobs in the main event during Cinco de Mayo weekend in Las Vegas, a 21-year-old Texan stole the show. On the undercard at the T-Mobile Arena, Vergil Ortiz Jr. dismantled the usually durable Mauricio Herrera in three rounds.
The old warhorse, who hadn’t been stopped in 32 bouts, was floored in the second round and knocked out in the third by a blistering set of power punches.
It served as notice that Ortiz (13-0, 13 KOs) is on the cusp of jumping from blue-chip prospect to a fighter making noise at welterweight. His performance in May created the kind of buzz that can build a more lucrative public profile in a hurry.
“It’s the first time I fought in front of that many people before live,” Ortiz told ESPN as he was getting his hands wrapped by trainer Robert Garcia during a recent training session. “I could just feel how excited that crowd was. I’m not like a big social media guy, but everything blew up, like double the following that I had. I was like, ‘Wow, it must’ve meant a lot.'”
For Golden Boy, Ortiz’s promoter, it was confirmation of what they thought about Ortiz: He could be their next breakout star.
After passing a major test against Herrera “with flying colors,” as Golden Boy matchmaker Robert Diaz put it, Ortiz is jumping back into the fire against Antonio Orozco on Saturday in a fight taking place in his hometown of Grand Prairie, Texas.
Orozco, 31, has competed at the highest levels of the sport and last September engaged in a memorable back-and-forth world title fight against Jose Ramirez in Fresno, California. This is as serious a measuring stick fight as Ortiz has had.
“I’m pretty much settled in at welterweight. I hope I get a shot within two years. I’ve got to make a name for myself, climb the ranks, and if they say, ‘Hey, you can fight in a month, or a month-and-a-half, for a world title,’ I’d take it.”
Ortiz and Golden Boy aren’t taking a slow, cautious approach to his career anymore, building up his résumé with easy wins and KO opportunities. How Ortiz responds to a jump in competition against Orozco will go a long way in determining his next step on the road to a world title.
If all goes according to plan, future world title bouts with Ortiz’s name on the marquee could include fights against the likes of junior welterweight titleholders Ramirez, Regis Prograis and Josh Taylor, as well as young 135-pounders such as Teofimo Lopez, who appears likely to move up to welterweight down the line.
By making the move from junior welterweight early in his career, Ortiz hopes to be ready and waiting when they do.
Joel Diaz, Ortiz’s former trainer, believes Ortiz has the tools needed to succeed.
“He’s hungry, he’s strong, he’s very smart, and most of all, he has devastating power,” Diaz told ESPN.
Diaz recalled a key moment from a few years ago that opened his eyes to what Ortiz could be. It came when Ortiz floored former world title contender Lucas Matthysse with a body shot during a sparring session at his gym in Indio, California.
Diaz notes that it isn’t just raw power that Ortiz possesses. He also has tremendous accuracy and a high boxing IQ. He showed all of that in his bout with Herrera, when the final right hand over the top was set up by a feint with the jab down low. Ortiz’s potential for success will hinge on how he reacts to the top echelon of fighters in the world. The intangibles that elite fighters have — the punch resistance and the ability to overcome adversity, among other hard-to-measure attributes — will be known only when he gets pushed.
Ortiz has moved on to Garcia’s Boxing Academy, where he has access to sparring sessions with talented fighters such as Ramirez and former four-division world titlist Mikey Garcia.
“We see him here in the gym. We see what he does with world champions, world-class fighters, the work ethic that he has,” said Robert, who trains all three — Ortiz, Ramirez and Garcia — at his facility. The noted cornerman believes Ortiz is the best young prospect in the sport.
He still has a long way to go before he reaches the apex of the welterweight division, which is currently stocked with talent such as titleholders Errol Spence Jr., Terence Crawford, Shawn Porter and Manny Pacquiao. Some of those names will move up or, in the case of “Pacman,” retire at some point, and a new generation will take over the division.
For now, Ortiz is keeping his head down, fighting the best competition that will step into the ring with him and, down the line, win him enough fights to earn a title shot. There are lessons to be learned from the journeys of young fighters who came before him, such as Lopez and Shakur Stevenson, who are now closer to making the leap with a shot at a world title.
A little bit of luck wouldn’t hurt, either. None of the titleholders at 147 pounds is under the Golden Boy banner, and though cross-promotional fights aren’t out of the question, Ortiz needs to continue to raise his profile with big wins and highlight-reel knockouts.
For his part, Ortiz sounds like he’s ready to grind it out for as long as it takes.
“I’m pretty much settled in at welterweight. I hope I get a shot within two years,” Ortiz said. “I’ve got to make a name for myself, climb the ranks, and if they say, ‘Hey, you can fight in a month, or a month-and-a-half, for a world title,’ I’d take it.”