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Profile: Battling Heart Failure

Vince Lombardi said that "once you learn to quit, it becomes a habit." Can Victor Ortiz kick the habit?

At 22 years old, Victor Ortiz was considered everybody's future Golden Boy—a can't-miss prospect with a winning smile and an exciting style of fighting. Until he lost to Marco Rene Maidana on June 27. After the disappointing sixth-round TKO, Ortiz's stock has plummeted and he's been widely written off. Is it wise to do that to a young boxer after just one loss?

History shows that many fighters have lost for the first time and then come back to be great champions. The difference with Ortiz is that he committed a cardinal sin of boxing: Refusing to go home on his shield.

Max Kellerman says Ortiz's decision not to fight on after being knocked down and battered in round six by Maidana raises serious doubts about the young fighter's heart. "If I had to guess I think it is more likely than not that he will quit again, based on his past behavior. But it is not written in stone."

Kellerman learned that lesson nine years ago when undefeated champion Vitali Klitschko quit on his stool before the seventh round after suffering a shoulder injury against Chris Byrd. Kellerman recalls that "I said to myself, "He is not willing to do what it takes to go through rough times."

It was a harsh judgment considering Klitschko had torn tendons in his left shoulder in the second round and fought on into the sixth until the pain became unbearable. Despite the injury, Kellerman still felt Klitschko should have continued. He has since reassessed his thinking. "Only later did I realize Klitschko didn't know what was expected of him," Kellerman said. "The fans in Germany were very negative to Vitali after that fight, so he came to learn he was expected to go on. And that's what he did in his fight with Lennox Lewis." (Klitschko suffered a deep cut underneath his left eyebrow early but kept fighting and was winning on all three scorecards, 58-56, when the referee stopped it.)

In the aftermath of the Maidana fiasco, Ortiz has certainly been told what is expected of him. Fans have battered him like a pinata on boxing forums and writers have taken turns sticking poison pens in him. If Ortiz hasn't learned the lesson that Klitschko did, he probably never will, and could end up as just another talented guy who amounted to nothing.

Kellerman did the stunning post-fight interview with Ortiz for HBO, and was as surprised as anyone that the young fighter decided not to keep going. "Earlier in the fight Ortiz did deal with adversity when he got up from a first round knockdown and continued to fight. But I think after the second knockdown in round six he said to himself, 'Okay, I got up and gave it my best but my best is not good enough tonight.' Ortiz is a smart kid and he realized he wasn't winning the fight so why take a beating."

Victor Ortiz

In the real world, nobody would crucify you for that kind of thinking. But boxing has its own culture and unwritten laws. "Most North American fans, because of the nature of boxing, feel that if you can't impose your will on a fighter you still need to keep going. Fans want to see a fighter willing to risk everything in order to win," Kellerman says.

Perhaps a big factor in Ortiz's decision was that he had knocked Maidana down three times with his best shots, and the guy just kept getting up like a terminator and firing bombs. "No doubt about it; that affects a fighter psychologically," Kellerman says. "Any fighter will tell you the same thing. Ortiz's behavior after the fight told fans what they didn't want to hear. He disappointed many people."

Kellerman says Muhammad Ali came close to doing that twice in his storied career, but trainer Angelo Dundee literally pushed him off his stool. In his first fight with Sonny Liston, "Ali wanted to quit after the fourth round when he had a burning sensation in his eyes and couldn't see. He told Dundee to cut off his gloves. Then in his third fight with Frazier, Ali was so exhausted he wanted to quit before the 15 round started even though he was winning."

But unlike Ali, Ortiz is not a proven warrior. He has the skills to become one and can win back fans, but Kellerman wonders if the young fighter's head is in the right place. "With Ortiz, the question is how will he handle it? After a fighter quits, he wakes up the next morning and sees the world is still there, the sun still rises in the sky, and he comes to the realization that if you quit it is not the end of the world. That makes it easier to quit the next time."

It is unlikely that Ortiz's heart will be tested in his December 12 fight with Antonio Diaz, a 33-year-old lacking the hands of stone that Maidana does. Diaz is a former two-time welterweight title challenger who retired in 2005, came back three years later and has won all four of his fights against journeymen, but none by knockout.

This bout is clearly designed as a confidence builder and a bridge back for Ortiz, but even an impressive victory will do little to erase lingering doubts. Jack Dempsey once said, "A champion is someone who gets up when he can't." Until Ortiz shows he can do that, fans will question whether he has the heart to be one.

"Most North American fans, because of the nature of boxing, feel that if you can't impose your will on a fighter you still need to keep going. Fans want to see a fighter willing to risk everything in order to win," Max Kellerman says.

Posted 12:00 AM | Dec 8, 2009

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