THE climax of their thrilling first fight offered Deontay Wilder the perfect get-out, that is, the chance to never again have to deal with problematic Cuban southpaw Luis Ortiz. Yet what preceded his 10th-round stoppage win made enough of a case for Ortiz to chase a second chance and a rematch to take place, which it does this Saturday (November 23) at the MGM Grand, Las Vegas.
That it takes place speaks to a few things. Firstly, it says a lot for Wilder’s fearlessness and his desire to clear up any grey areas on a record dominated by knockouts of the clean, conclusive variety. Secondly, it says a lot for the WBC heavyweight champion’s reluctance to go down the same path of Tyson Fury as he waits to rematch the ‘Gypsy King’ at some point in 2020.
Instead of killing time against soft touches, Wilder seems happy to risk everything he has, and all he could get, to go over old ground in what could amount to a hiding to nothing. After all, should he stop Ortiz again Wilder will merely be repeating a trick he performed in March 2018. Lose, though, and everything goes up in smoke.
“He’s a very smart fighter, he’s a counter puncher, he’s great at what he does,” said Wilder, outlining some one of the reasons why most heavyweights tend to avoid Ortiz. “I can understand why I’m the only person in the top 10 – top five really – giving him an opportunity.”
Another reason Wilder appears happy to again oblige Ortiz: Wilder’s daughter, Naieya, was born in 2005 with spina bifida, a birth defect, while Ortiz has a daughter, Lis, who left Cuba with her father when she was four years old in search of treatment for epidermolysis bullosa, a condition that causes skin to be fragile and blister easily.
On learning of Ortiz’s struggle, Wilder agreed to face him last year and will likely always have a soft spot for a man he now looks to damage with hard punches.
“We have similarities,” Wilder said before the pair’s first fight. “His daughter suffers from something like mine did. That takes money to be treated properly and to support the family. I looked at him as a father and from one father to another father that loves their family, and loves their children, I said, ‘I’ve got to give him an opportunity to support his family.’”
The fact Wilder sees no issue doing Ortiz another favour – this despite Ortiz failing performance-enhancing drug tests in 2014 and 2017 – is a testament to the self-belief the Alabama native possesses. That and his punch power, of course, which, in terms of getting out of jail, is every bit as effective as a Rita Hayworth poster on the wall.
Jail last time looked like this: Ortiz did everything right for half of the fight and managed to shine a light on everything Wilder does wrong. Steady, well-balanced and composed, the challenger claimed the centre of ring, refused to relinquish it, and went about breaking Wilder up with jabs, body shots and skilled footwork. He cut the ring off when it needed cutting off. He punched when it was time to punch. He covered up when he saw the muscles in Wilder’s chest contract and sensed a punch was about to be uncoiled.
Essentially, Ortiz, the thinking man’s heavyweight, was in control. His feet were better, his shots straighter, and stabbing jabs and crosses to Wilder’s torso had the champion beating his chest in frustration because it was all he could hit clean.
By the seventh round, as Wilder moved less and traded more, Ortiz was landing at will and appeared seconds away from stopping a champion whose eyes were now the size of Olympic pools.
“In that round I was talking to myself and was very clear about what was going on,” Wilder recalled. “I was buzzed, highly buzzed, but I had my consciousness and was coaching myself.
“I knew if I smothered him, he couldn’t release his punches or get enough steam to hit me flush.
“When I survived the seventh round and came out for the eighth, Ortiz charged me. I made sure to come back with two punches, not to hurt him, but to let him know I’m still here.”
More than just there, Wilder was there and firing, his faith placed in an ability to turn things around with just one punch. A solid investment, soon the mere threat of Wilder connecting flush on an exposed chin had Ortiz cautious of going for the finish, then tired, then eager to return to the calm, measured fight of before. A fast-paced shootout was something new to Ortiz, at odds with his style and mentality, but now he was stuck in one with no escape plan.
Wilder, in stark contrast, is more alive in a shootout – certainly more dangerous – than he is in anything resembling a boxing match. For it is in a shootout he can do away with any pretence of style or technique and simply pit his power and heart against the power and heart of his opponent. If stripped back like this, few can match Wilder, a truth hammed home to Ortiz when stopped in the 10th round.
“We are correcting things from the last fight (with Wilder) that won’t happen in the rematch,” said Ortiz. “A lot of things happened in the camp and in the fight and even in the hours before the fight.
“There are no excuses and it won’t happen like it did last time. I have one of the best physical trainers and my trainer is 100 percent on me. My condition is 100 percent. I know for a fact I won’t gas out on the night of the fight.”
Whether he gasses out or not remains to be seen, but Ortiz is a 40-year-old heavyweight whose style has never been conducive to a particularly gruelling, high-paced fight. When he wins, he wins on his terms, at his speed, usually to the frustration of the watching audience. He is surgical. He is economical. He is in control.
In fact, the very thing that made him a danger for Wilder in the opening rounds of their first fight is also what made him vulnerable against Wilder in the second half. Good when in control but a mess when losing it, Ortiz is liable to unravel when removed from his comfort zone and asked to work at a younger man’s speed.
Wilder, far more adaptable, is young in heavyweight terms. At 34, he is also close to his athletic prime and close to the finished article, if cackhandedly drawn. We now know, having seen plenty of the good and bad, that his only consistency is the extreme punch power which travels with him and remains true from rounds one to twelve. It comes with no warning, and won’t be easy on the eye, but this power ensures Wilder, 41-0-1 (39), is dangerous for every second of a fight and, moreover, knowing this ensures he stays relaxed and confident for the same length of time. All in all, it makes him a fighter easy to talk about beating but far tougher to actually beat.
On Saturday a lot will depend on the freshness of Ortiz, 31-1 (26), whose form, since losing to Wilder, has included wins against Razvan Cojanu, Travis Kauffman and Christian Hammer. Each were low-key affairs in which he schooled opponents he was meant to school in fights watched by very few people. This enabled Ortiz to keep his heart rate low, his profile low, and operate like the technician he has always been. His kind of fights. His kind of opponents.
Yet Wilder is a different animal and this fight, too, is different to fights in which Ortiz usually excels. It is, like Wilder, big, loud and vital. It places Ortiz front and centre and asks a 40-year-old man to keep up with a champion six years his junior who will, at some stage, crack him with the kind of power that proved too much for him in 2018.
Ominously, the power won’t have changed. It won’t have diminished. It won’t be distributed differently. But what might have changed, crucially, is both Wilder’s ability to decide when and how to use it and Ortiz’s ability to either get out of its way or soak it up. As experienced as Ortiz is, don’t underestimate the impact a knockout loss has on a fighter desperate to avoid it happening again.
Experience, of course, can work in one of two ways. It can either provide knowledge and an awareness Ortiz lacked first time around, or it can provide an awareness a fighter would rather do without, one better described as wariness or, in some cases, fear.
For Ortiz, there will be a fine line between a sensible approach and a scared approach. If sensible, as he was for half of their first fight, he has the tools to present Wilder with every one of the same problems he struggled to solve in Brooklyn. He will again be too clever for him, too cute for him and too good for him. If, however, Ortiz is scared, which is to say expecting the ‘Bronze Bomber’ to detonate, it could have a more adverse effect on his overall performance and leave him burning the kind of nervous energy he really needs to save.
Wilder is a master of timing, both with punches and, in this case, matchmaking. He appears to have softened Ortiz up – made a dent in him, to be exact – and then allowed 20 months to pass and three other men to exert him a bit too. Now feeling generous enough to give him another chance, he will be aware the Ortiz of 20 months ago was a force, one he just about overcame, but just as aware Ortiz probably isn’t the same force in 2019.
If correct, Wilder can survive some more awkward moments – Ortiz will remain the better technician for as long as he can stand – to grind out a stoppage in the second half of the fight. Again.
The pick of a very strong undercard at the MGM Grand sees controversial Mexican Luis Nery take on Puerto Rican Emmanuel Rodriguez over 12 rounds in a battle of former bantamweight world champions.
Nery, 30-0 (24), holds two wins over Shinsuke Yamanaka and has pieced together 11 stoppages in a row but had his reputation blackened somewhat by a failed performance-enhancing drug test (for Zilpaterol) he delivered ahead of his first fight with Yamanaka in 2017.
Rodriguez, meanwhile, appeared to be one of the hottest prospects in world boxing before the monstrous Naoya Inoue got hold of him in May and stopped him in two rounds. Wins over Paul Butler and Jason Moloney, against whom he won his IBF bantamweight title, had many excited about Rodriguez’s potential and some were even siding with him ahead of his fight against Inoue in Scotland. But ultimately he was no match for the Japanese star and now Rodriguez, 19-1 (12), attempts to return to winning ways against Nery, hardly the kindest of comeback fights.
Also on the card Brandon Figueroa, 20-0 (15), and Julio Ceja, 32-4 (28), compete for the WBA super-bantamweight title and Leo Santa Cruz, 36-1-1 (19), meets Miguel Flores, 24-2 (12), for the WBA Super super-featherweight title.