Monday, June 25, 2012
The Crazy Drama of Ortiz-Lopez
By Rafe Bartholomew
Immediately after the ninth round in Saturday’s welterweight fight between Victor Ortiz and Josesito Lopez, I wrote a question in my notebook: “Who is crazier, Ortiz or Lopez?”
From ringside at Staples Center, I had just watched Lopez and Ortiz spend the last 30 seconds of the round exchanging violent hooks and uppercuts. First, Ortiz drove Lopez against the ropes, and then Lopez fought back with several whipping left hooks that landed square on Ortiz’s jaw. The punches were fast, reckless, and very hard. The fighters looked like two kids settling a beef at recess, windmilling wild blows at each other — only these two kids were prime boxers whose flurries came with a level of skill and lethality unheard of on any playground.
The crazy part (well, one crazy part) was that Ortiz and Lopez had been fighting at this pace since the beginning of the bout, with hardly any breaks. Ortiz would rush forward and rock Lopez with his right hook, and if Lopez got hurt he’d cling to Ortiz for five seconds, then return to winging hooks at the sides of Ortiz’s body and face. Even though they had both landed roughly the same amount of punches, Lopez looked far more beat up. His left eye was nearly closed and his brow and nose were swollen to Klingon proportions. When Ortiz caught him with power shots, they seemed to have a greater effect than the haymakers Lopez landed. That wasn’t terribly surprising, since this was Ortiz’s third match at welterweight and he was naturally bigger than Lopez, who accepted the fight at the last minute and moved up from a lower weight class after Ortiz’s intended opponent, Andre Berto, tested positive for steroids.
And just after I jotted down the note asking which fighter — after dishing out and taking such extreme punishment — was more insane, something even crazier happened: Ortiz couldn’t come out for Round 10. The ref waved his arms, the bell rang, and Lopez celebrated his huge upset by climbing the turnbuckle and shrugging at the crowd as if to say, “I don’t know what happened, either.” The next two minutes were very confusing. The mostly Mexican American crowd booed Ortiz because they assumed he quit, something he did in 2009, midway through an ultra-violent fight with Marcos Maidana. Somebody yelled, "You’re not from Oxnard, puto!" But Ortiz didn’t appear to be suffering the same way in this fight. Against Maidana, one of the hardest punchers in boxing, Ortiz was knocked down early and then suffered a deep gash in his right eyebrow later in the fight. In the sixth round of that fight, when Ortiz slid to his knees and waved his fists as if he wanted to be done, he had panic in his eyes. Saturday, he hadn’t looked that way at all. For most of the fight, Ortiz had shaken off Lopez’s best punches while managing to hurt Lopez several times. I thought he was slightly ahead in the fight, and indeed Ortiz was winning on all three judges’ scorecards when it was stopped. After I filled about half a notebook page with “WTF???” several times over, it was announced that Ortiz’s jaw had been broken and he told the referee he couldn’t continue.
Since the fight, the boxing media has done a fine job of advancing the major story line: Ortiz was already lined up to fight Mexican superstar-in-the-making Canelo Alvarez in a September 15 pay-per-view bout in Las Vegas. All he had to do was beat Lopez, something he was expected to do handily. That didn’t happen, and Golden Boy Promotions must now scramble to find Alvarez another opponent. Then there’s the angle of rival promoter Top Rank, which has its own pay-per-view fight planned for September 15 in Vegas, and what a giant mess it might be if neither Top Rank nor Golden Boy agrees to reschedule. But I’m not quite ready to move on from this bout yet, or from the question of these fighters’ sanity.
“Crazy” is too imprecise of a term to describe Saturday’s bout, but in the heat of the moment, that word kept running through my mind. Regarding the fight’s sustained fury and violence: These guys are crazy. Regarding the ending: This whole night is crazy. But "crazy" can mean just about anything. Start with the fact that to most people, what boxers do for a living — chase each other around a small, confined space and try to hit each other in the gut, ribs, liver, nose, eyes, and chin — is crazy to begin with. Here’s another iteration of insanity: Josesito Lopez fought crazy Saturday night. After he won, he called the match his “Rocky moment,” and it didn’t just seem like he was referring to the fact that he had been a late replacement and huge underdog, like Rocky Balboa against Apollo Creed. Lopez also seemed to be talking about the toe-to-toe nature of a fight could have easily passed for fake.
But Lopez’s Rocky style of lunacy is generally a good thing in boxing. When Lopez absorbed a powerful flurry from Ortiz in the seventh round, then responded by lowering his hands and beckoning Ortiz forward — the grizzled Come on, gimme more move — he was clearly out of his mind, but he won the Staples Center crowd like Rocky earned the Soviets’ appreciation. They chanted “Lo-pez! Lo-pez!” and he burst forward to tag a backpedaling Ortiz with wide, strafing hooks. Lopez’s eagerness to absorb punishment is what makes us call boxers “warriors” and “heroes,” even though if Lopez hadn’t landed that single jaw-popping blow he probably would have lost a decision and the only rewards for his bravery would have been a misshapen head and pats on the back from people saying, “You put up a great fight, kid.” But by being crazy enough to keep fighting through Ortiz’s heavier shots, Lopez gave himself a chance to throw that one punch that broke Ortiz’s jaw and made this “Rocky moment” possible.
That brings us to Victor Ortiz, who for my money is the craziest well-known fighter in boxing, which is saying a lot. That means he’s crazier than Floyd Mayweather Jr., who seems to have a looser grip on the dividing line between his real self and the “Money Mayweather” villain he plays to promote fights every time he appears on HBO’s 24/7. It would also make Ortiz crazier than Juan Manuel Marquez, who used to find strength by drinking his own urine and who now has settled into an Ahab-like fixation on defeating Manny Pacquiao, something he hasn’t managed to do in three previous fights. And, of course, it means that Ortiz is crazier than Pacquiao, whose eccentricities are too numerous to list and whose recent religious awakening has caused mega-church pastor Rick Warren to proclaim him a “Bible-quoting maniac.”
What distinguishes Ortiz is his steady detachment from the reality of the situations he finds himself in, as well as the trouble he seems to have regulating his emotions. This leads to moments of bizarre, almost inexplicable violence. Let’s start with the violence. In his last two fights, against Mayweather last September and Lopez on Saturday night, Ortiz has committed egregious fouls. Against Mayweather, Ortiz launched into a flying head butt that would make Street Fighter’s E. Honda proud. It seemed like an act of frustration. Mayweather had been tagging him with sharp right hands throughout the fight, and even when Ortiz managed to bully Mayweather into a corner, his huge swings had barely any impact. Then — this is where I imagine Ortiz letting out a feral, flustered Waterboy grunt — he launched the top of his head into Mayweather’s lips. Mayweather, of course, responded by waiting for the referee to deduct a point from Ortiz, then ended the fight with a one-two sucker punch while Ortiz thought the fight had not yet resumed and the ref was gazing into the crowd.
Against Lopez, Ortiz showed a similar lack of control in the fifth round, only this time it occurred not because Lopez had frustrated Ortiz, like Mayweather had, but out of something more like straight-up bloodlust. Ortiz had just rocked Lopez with a left uppercut, then sent Lopez stumbling back on his heels with five consecutive hooks — right, left, right, left, right. Lopez doubled over and grabbed Ortiz around the waist to keep from falling down, and Ortiz looked at the back of Lopez’s head, cocked his fist, hesitated, then punched Lopez in the exact spot he shouldn’t have. The referee called timeout while Lopez rolled around the canvas and looked at Ortiz with a bemused, “are you out of your mind?” expression. Then the ref told him, “Victor, go to your corner and don’t fucking move.” In the most emotional moments of a bout, when Ortiz is either struggling or taking control, he seems to cross the line between a violent sport and a street fight.
And then there’s the detachment. Immediately after Ortiz loses it, he goes to his happy place. After head-butting Mayweather, he kissed Floyd on the cheek and was so busy hugging and apologizing that he let himself get knocked out. Right after dropping a truly malicious rabbit punch on Lopez, Ortiz took a step toward him with his hands down, like he really wanted to say sorry. And the eerie thing about Ortiz is that both acts — the violent foul and the blubbery, beatific apology — seem equally sincere. In one moment he will do something to endanger another fighter’s life and career, and the next he will hug that fighter and rub his boo-boo. If I had to place a bet on one fighter who would bite off part of an opponent’s ear in the next five years, it would be Ortiz. But at least when it happens, Ortiz will promptly pick the chunk up off the mat and return it to its rightful owner with a kiss on the cheek and a “my bad, bro.”
Ortiz exhibits the same dissociative tendency in his postfight interviews, which don’t get the credit they deserve for being among the most mesmerizing spectacles in the sport. (And boxing is not short on these — think of Mayweather’s rhythmic glove work in training or the serpentine torso weave Sergio Martinez uses to set up his counterpunches.) On his way out of the ring, before he went to the hospital to have his jaw reset, the first thing Ortiz said to Jim Gray was, “Uh, yes, Josesito busted my jaw,” and then he chuckled. Thanks to his injury, he spoke in an oddly jolly mumble. Last year, after the loss to Mayweather, Ortiz opened his postfight interview with Larry Merchant by flashing a “hang loose” sign and a huge, shit-eating grin. When he saw footage of the head butt, he explained it as such: “I was like, oh, whoops.” And in 2009, after he gave up against Maidana, he uttered the infamous line, “I don’t think I deserve to be getting beat up like this,” which earned him the scorn of every macho boxing analyst on the planet. To me, the stranger parts of that postfight interview with Max Kellerman are the beginning, when Ortiz again opens up with a very courteous, very out-of-place, “How ya doin’ Max?” And when he watches Maidana land the crushing roundhouse left that split open his eyebrow: “My thoughts on that were wooowww! That was pretty crazy!”
In all three interviews, Ortiz had just suffered pretty devastating losses. The Maidana defeat set his career back greatly, and many boxing observers believe his loss to Lopez will do the same. Yet he talks about the fights not like the brutal trials they were, but instead like a tubing adventure down the Chattahoochee River. It’s like he either can’t grasp or refuses to grasp the gravity of the situation after these fights, or that he can’t summon an appropriate emotional response. As viewers, we’re just left with the bizarre sight of a man with a broken jaw or a giant, tumescent knob under his eye trying his hardest to smile and laugh. I guess he figures, probably correctly, that it’s better to flash that empty grin rather than whatever darkness occasionally seizes him and causes him to slam his head into opponents or punch them from behind.
Nobody in boxing does the train-wreck interview quite like Victor Ortiz, and in that way, it seemed almost poetic that Metta World Peace was ringside for Saturday’s fight. No athlete pulls off derailment as sensationally as World Peace, and while the majority of sports fans probably loathe him for it, I can’t help but root for him. Athletes like World Peace and Ortiz seem to try harder than anyone to be good guys, to joke around, to smile, to be always amiable. And 98 percent of the time, they succeed. But their professions put them in moments of extremely heightened stress, and for whatever reason, they lack that extra gear of self-control to prevent them from losing it. Then we get the other 2 percent: Malice at the Palace, head-butting Mayweather, elbowing James Harden in the back of the head, rabbit-punching Josesito Lopez. Those acts are inexcusable, and Ortiz and World Peace have suffered and will continue to suffer for their mistakes. Many sports fans may consider them villains and quitters and gutless fiends, but to me they’re just men with flaws, and because they’re professional athletes, we get to watch them try to overcome their demons on the court and in the ring. It’s great drama, but it isn’t always pretty.