"There was never any doubt in my mind that I would succeed,'' Ortiz says. "There were questions arising when I was younger about how things would turn out, but I never said, 'I can't do this,' or felt sorry for myself. I kind of took every day for what it was worth."
Part two of a two-part feature on a select group of fighters to watch in 2009. Already gaining attention from fans and press alike, these guys are tearing it up in the ring on HBO.
James "Mandigo" Kirkland and "Vicious" Victor Ortiz are attracting plenty of attention as they continue to pile up victories.
Both southpaw sluggers stand on the precipice of stardom and are being featured against tough opposition Saturday night as part of HBO's Boxing After Dark tripleheader from The Tank in San Jose, Calif.
The worldwide exposure for Kirkland (24-0, 21 KOs) and Ortiz (23-1-1, 18 KOs) marks yet another opportunity for this latest generation of boxers to connect with fans. Kirkland, 24, is a junior middleweight whose 87-percent knockout ratio ranks him among the most devastating finishers in any weight division. Ortiz, 22, has rapidly moved up the junior welterweight ranks, with a controversial disqualification in 2005 dealing him the only loss on his otherwise unbeaten record.
During a video and photo shoot last month, Kirkland and Ortiz basked in the Hollywood spotlight as members of what HBO has billed as "The Class of 2009." Their inclusion among this select cast of elite young fighters is yet another indication that their stock is rising as potential world champions.
"I struggled a long time in boxing, but I stuck with it,'' Kirkland says. "It's exciting to see that my career has taken off and is turning out this way. It's really more than I can believe."
A product of Austin, Texas' tough east side, Kirkland once did his fighting in the streets and spent almost three years in jail for an armed robbery conviction. But like Ortiz, Kirkland's hard-hitting prowess is now being used to improve what had been a life of hard knocks.
Ortiz was just 16 when he left Garden City, Kansas, determined to find a better life for himself and his younger brother after they were abandoned by their parents and forced into the foster care system.
"There was never any doubt in my mind that I would succeed,'' Ortiz says. "There were questions arising when I was younger about how things would turn out, but I never said, 'I can't do this,' or felt sorry for myself. I kind of took every day for what it was worth. A lot of my motivation came from my parents' separation and them leaving us. I was determined to make it."
Still today, one of Ortiz's main motivations is to set a positive example for the brother he adopted while still a kid himself. Judging from the admiration Temo Ortiz had in his eyes as he watched his hero pose in front of the cameras, big brother is doing a good job of leading the way.
"My brother moved out to Denver, Colorado, as soon as he turned 16, and that's when he got noticed in the Olympic Trials,'' says Temo. "Before he left Kansas, he told me 'Bro, one day I'm going to have you with me. I'm going to take custody because I think you'll have a better lifestyle with me.'
"He was true to his word. He was 18 and I was 16 when he brought me to live with him in Oxnard Calif., and since then I've graduated high school, I got a college scholarship and I'm doing well my first semester at Ventura College. If it wasn't for my brother, I don't know where I'd be today. I'm proud of him. My brother came all the way from nothing to make something of himself. He's like a father-figure to me."
In leaving his own troubled past behind, Kirkland has grown into fatherhood. He has two sons: James Jr., 4, and Michael, 1. He says he wants to show them the right way. The growth he's shown as a responsible parent hasn't gone unnoticed by his long-time trainer Ann Wolfe.
"James has always been a fighter, but what I'm most impressed with is that he's becoming a man,'' says Wolfe, a world champion boxer in her own right and one of the few female chief trainers working the corner for a world-class male boxer. "James is learning to be a father, and he's growing up. He's taking everything serious. He's not putting his head in the clouds. He's still hungry and he's still grounded."
Like Wolfe, whom he met when he was 10, Kirkland learned to box from Donald "Pops" Billingsley, who has spent his entire adult life taking youngsters off the streets and bringing them into his east Austin gym.
"The only Dad I ever had was Pops,'' says Kirkland, who was just 6 when Billingsley introduced boxing into his life. "He's done things for me and others that he didn't have to do. That's a real, real good man."
As a production assistant escorts Kirkland back to the set, Wolfe takes note of the transition that boxing has made in the street-tough fighter's stature.
"Only in America can you take a kid like James and get him to this level,'' she says. "When he was young, he was dirty, raggedy and didn't have money. He didn't even have bread for a sandwich. And now everybody's talking to him and treating him like this. But he's worked hard for it. He deserves it."
Kirkland faces fellow knockout artist Joel Julio (34-2, 31 KOs) Saturday night in the scheduled 10-round main event, while Ortiz collides against Mike Arnaoutis (21-2-2, 10 KOs) in a scheduled 12-rounder.
"I'm getting to see a lot more of the big-time now, so all the hard work is paying off," Kirkland says. "I'm not going to change anything. I'm going to continue to do the same things, and that's put my heart, mind, body and soul into it. Hopefully it will work out that I'm enjoying life even more."
Ortiz still bears the emotional scars of his dysfunctional childhood, but his ring success has helped him heal.
"My parents put me down and insulted me since I was a little guy, so I've already beaten their odds,'' he says.
"When I was younger, I didn't have anything, and that's what I tell myself now when I go in the ring. I have nothing to lose and everything to win. I'm shooting for the stars."