We’ve had ourselves a year, huh? It’s only July, I know, but aren’t all of us reaching to throw in the towel on 2020 right now? COVID. Kobe. Thirty years of Cops squeezed into a two-week off-off-Broadway shitshow. Existential dread surrounds us like Confederate Flags at a Charlie Daniels concert. (Alas, now we’re denied even that simple pleasure/terror.)
Yet somehow we soldier on. Something in the brain chemistry. An essential element in our spirit. Whatever the fundamental stuff is that makes us human, it is pliable and regenerative and eternally, almost insanely hopeful. When you find yourself, during These Troubling Times, halted by a moment of clarity, bowled over by the previously underappreciated or merely overtaken by the base existential joy of being – well, that, friend, is the universe telling you one thing: You’re alive, jack, and that ain’t so bad.
Unless, of course, you’re a boxing fan.
If you’re a fight fan, see, you can find fault in a rainbow. Baby duckling videos send you into a rage. Free lunch? There’s no such thing — and besides, you have a peanut allergy, and who knows what they do in the back of those restaurants, and even if you avoid the Pad Thai and your throat doesn’t close up on you, surely the acid reflux is gonna ruin your afternoon, and don’t get started on the gastrointestinal carnage eight hours from now, and … and … and …
And that, if you’re still with me, brings us to Vergil Ortiz Jr. On Friday at the Fantasy Springs Resort in Indio, California, Ortiz — a wildly promising 22-year-old prospect — returned to the ring on DAZN. Charming but business-like, self-effacing but confident, Ortiz (16-0, 16 KO) is a brilliant and gifted Mexican-American fighter who appears, by any reasonable standard, to be on the cusp of taking over the welterweight division and perhaps grabbing the sport itself by the short-and-curlies for the next decade. Just one problem: we’re too full of shit to enjoy the ride.
Ortiz had dispatched his first 15 professional opponents by stoppage — including credible threats Mauricio Herrera and Antonio Orozco — almost before he was old enough to buy a warm $14 beer at one of his own shows. He’d demonstrated precocious skill and the chops of a showman. On social media and in the streets, he’d given no one reason to believe he was anything but a good kid with a limitless future at his feet. Yet before the blood had dried on the face of Samuel Vargas (31-6-2, 14 KO) in a seventh-round stoppage Friday night, the misanthropes were already talking about Ortiz like a shiny new toy in the hands of an ADD-addled eight-year-old on Christmas morning: Awesome … but what else is there?
Rhetorical debates about Ortiz’s readiness for Bud Crawford or Errol Spence serve no purpose. (He isn’t, he shouldn’t be, and yet Ortiz still might be on track to whip one or both of their asses a year or two from now.) Arguments about whether he’s boxing’s best prospect are as fickle and inconsequential as a spelling bee in a Brazzers video. And any serious conversation comparing Ortiz’s Twitter following to that of, say, Ryan Garcia? Well, kindly spoon out my gallbladder with a melon baller, because I’m incapable of forming the proper amount of bile for this bit – and also, I no longer have the will to live.
Dramatic? Fine. But also fitting for a fighter of Ortiz’s soon-to-be-realized stature. Vargas may not have been a preferred foe among the speed freaks and nihilists, but he was the right man at this particular point in Ortiz’s career arc. The 32-year-old Colombian had fought Spence and Danny Garcia (the only two men to stop Vargas in 38 previous fights) and thus had been where Ortiz wants to go. And because the kid had never been pushed beyond six rounds before Friday, Vargas was just the sort of steel-belted opponent capable of drawing the first trickles of greatness from Ortiz’s as-yet-untapped reserves.
Ortiz started off pulping Vargas with a stinging jab, setting him up for the heavy right hands that would follow over the last minute of the 1st round. Vargas, his face already an ominous shade of crimson, redoubled his efforts in round 2, attempting to muscle Ortiz around the ring, hammer the body and take some of the steam off his power.
But in the 3rd, Ortiz achieved radar lock, landing five clean power shots — three of which might have dropped a rhino, let alone a lesser man than Vargas. A round later, the wheels began to come off for the Colombian. Ortiz stalked with the intent of another early stoppage, but Vargas retreated to the ropes, shoulder-rolled and countered with just enough to keep the prospect from finishing the job. On his stool between rounds, Vargas — though still maniacally game — was checked by the ringside doctor and warned by referee Jack Reiss that, at this rate, his time would be short.
Ortiz was now picking Vargas apart — to the point that the veteran, in a legitimate if botched attempt to clutch Ortiz, tackled the kid to the canvas. But Ortiz was salvaging art from the rubble: a phantom jab and overhand right feint twisted Vargas into a pretzel against the ropes, giving Ortiz time and opportunity enough to sidestep for a favorable launch angle on a hook that also kept him out of Vargas’ counterpunching range. On the occasions Vargas did get off, Ortiz — routinely hailed for his power, accuracy and offensive creativity — showed off quick feet, exceptional balance and the sort of attention to defense that belied his experience.
By the 7th, Vargas was cooked. In the final minute, Ortiz transformed into a thresher, searing the veteran with five- and six-punch combinations. The end was nigh, if overdue. But because it is axiomatic that boxing fans can’t enjoy a good thing, the fight’s final act required the precise sociopathic stylings of a certain referee.
Reiss, who hadn’t been heard from at this point in just shy of six minutes — a thespian suddenly without a stage — made his mark just seconds before the bell, calling the fight and etching another Ortiz stoppage in the books. Vargas, bleeding from the nose and mouth, had been given every chance (and then some) to weather the storm and stumble into a one-in-a-million punch that might turn his fortunes. No such luck.
The misers will grump that Ortiz dragged Vargas to the edge and couldn’t nudge him over, but the truth is, the kid played every note Friday in near-perfect pitch. Reiss could have just as easily called the fight two minutes sooner, when Vargas was under similar duress. Having heard the clacking of the 10-second warning, he could have allowed the round’s final seconds to tick away. He, like so many others, could have held back, kept his distance and simply let us enjoy the next step for boxing’s next big thing. But where’s the drama in that?
(Photo by Tom Hogan/Golden Boy)