Every generation of heavyweight boxing has its big men whose ultimate career achievements are simply winding up on a list of best fighters to not win a heavyweight title. The 60s and 70s had a litany of them, stuck behind a handful of all-time greats who ensured the likes of Jerry Quarry, Earnie Shavers, Jimmy Young and more never held the gold. The 90s had David Tua and Ike Ibeabuchi, memorable and thrilling fighters who for very different reasons never made it to the top. (photo by Ryan Hafey)
This current generation, however you’d like to define its timeline, has Luis Ortiz. “King Kong” has been near the top of the heavyweight rankings for over seven years, only ever capturing an interim version of the WBA’s title. At various times during that span, Ortiz was considered by some to be an “uncrowned” champion of sorts, someone better than the titleholders of the day but without an opportunity to prove it. To this day, Ortiz maintains the belief that he is avoided by other top heavyweights, save for Deontay Wilder who fought and knocked him out twice in Ortiz’s two attempts at a legitimate world title.
On Saturday night, Ortiz headlined a pay-per-view for the second time in his career and scored a sixth-round knockout victory over Charles Martin. In doing so, he both likely confirmed his standing as this generation’s best to never hold a world title, and showed that at 42-years of age, that could unfortunately be the highest peak he will reach.
Within the boxing community there is a running joke that is somewhere between humor and an actual accusation that Ortiz is in fact older than his listed 42 years, perhaps rooted in his weathered facial features. Whatever age you may think Ortiz actually is, his bout against Martin was the first time he looked that age in the ring. Before this fight, Ortiz had only been dropped by Deontay Wilder, a prodigious knockout artist, and had lost precious few rounds overall, even to Wilder. Against Martin, Ortiz found himself on the canvas twice and behind on the scorecards when he ultimately scored the knockout.
In heavyweight boxing, knockdowns are not always cause for concern. When the sport’s biggest men connect on a clean power shot, the person on the receiving end has a good chance of going down for a few seconds. What makes the knockdowns Ortiz suffered in this bout concerning was how seemingly innocuous the shots that landed were. In round one, a scraping left hand that landed between Ortiz’s temple and the top of his head put him down. Punches that land in that area can create momentary balance issues for even the spryest of fighters, but anecdotally, they seem to create bigger problems for aging fighters. Seemingly impervious fighters can find themselves on the mat from shots high on the head as they age, as we saw with Bernard Hopkins in the latter stages of his career. In the fourth round however, Martin dropped Ortiz with a jab, a knockdown that wasn’t aided by the tangling of feet or any additional forces other than the most basic of punches. In watching the replay of the knockdown, FOX commentator Joe Goossen remarked that Ortiz rarely gets hit with jabs, let alone dropped by them.
But after five rounds of shakiness and a few scares, Ortiz looked like his old self, and not an old version of himself. Early in the sixth round, Martin threw a jab that Ortiz slipped to the inside of while simultaneously launching an overhand left that connected flush. The shot landed with such force that Martin appeared frozen in time. He staggered with a few steps towards the ropes and was staring vacantly into the crowd, standing straight up, as Ortiz continued his onslaught. The bizarre scene continued as Martin, seemingly in an attempt to hold himself up, had his glove caught between the top and second rope. As more than one person has remarked since, it was reminiscent of Andre The Giant getting caught in the ropes during a wrestling match in the 80s.
As amusing as those comparisons may be, there was nothing funny about referee Frank Santore Jr. allowing the fight to continue after Martin was so visibly cognitively impaired, let alone allowing Martin to be hit more than once with his hand knotted between the ropes. Martin somehow continued, but was battered to the body and ultimately dropped again. As he swayed back and forth, dazed and bloodied, Santore finally waved it off.
Here’s the positive spin: Even at 42, Ortiz was still able to take out a heavyweight highly ranked by a sanctioning body inside six rounds. For a fighter on their way up, a win over Charles Martin would be looked at as a sign that they are on their way to becoming a true contender. For plenty of visible heavyweights in today’s landscape, a win over Martin would be the best of their career.
Here’s the negative spin: One can make a reasonable argument that Martin is the best opponent Ortiz has defeated since his 2015 win over Bryan Jennings, and he did so with a few stumbles. The win over Martin has placed him into a position to potentially face Filip Hrgovic in an IBF title eliminator for a shot at Oleksandr Usyk. There have also been calls for a bout between Ortiz and former champion Andy Ruiz, a battle of two heavyweights under the same promotional umbrella looking for a win that would give them a compelling argument for another title shot. Ortiz would have you believe that these are the types he was denied during his younger years by opponents not fond of the risk-reward ratio he presented at the time.
In an alternate timeline, Ortiz’s career could have turned out much differently. It is true that for whatever reason, he has rarely found himself in the ring with his fellow true contenders of the day. Aside from his two shots at Wilder, Ortiz’s career has mostly been placeholder bouts meant to kill time until his next big opportunity. Those types of fights seem to be on the horizon for him now, past the time when he would have ideally wanted them, and past when his supporters would have liked to have seen them. There were times when one could have counted on one hand the number of active heavyweights that would have been favored over Ortiz.
Is that still the case? Can Saturday’s version of Ortiz still be a threat? As the saying would normally go, “time will tell.” But time is one opponent that hasn’t ducked Ortiz, and it might finally be getting the best of him.
Corey Erdman is a boxing writer and commentator based in Toronto, ON, Canada. Follow him on Twitter @corey_erdman