LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and the Miami Heat are clicking at crunch time in the NBA playoffs. "Vicious" Victor Ortiz knows the feeling of proving the doubters wrong, finally. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
I always approach comparisons between boxing and its athletes with other sports a bit cautiously, and I suspect many of you do the same. Teddy Atlas does it all the time. Occasionally I mildly cringe, but usually I just get a decent chuckle out of it. Sometimes, Teddy loses me.
But hear me out here.
Watching the Miami Heat in this NBA playoffs season has been, for some (like me), a little deflating. Yes, I'm a Heat hater. I'm not out of control about it. I don't wish undue pain and suffering (this is popular on the internet in some circles) upon LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, or Juwan Howard. In fact, I love Juwan Howard. Cheaters or not, the Fab Five were my guys when I was entering the double digits of my life.
And if you're not new here, you know that in the past, I have been without question a Victor Ortiz hater. Like Chris Bosh, I felt Victor was soft when the chips were down. Like Dwyane Wade, I thought Ortiz often was more concerned about image than his game. Like LeBron, you felt the hype and at some point, had to wonder when the production was going to come.
LeBron, when he was a Cavalier, was surrounded by yes-men, lackeys, and teammates who couldn't get the job done. He was told he was the King, the savior of the NBA. Ortiz was told from the moment Golden Boy Promotions signed him that he was the next Oscar de la Hoya, the man who carried professional boxing through some dark years.
In his last playoff series with Cleveland against the Boston Celtics, James drew accusations of quitting on his team. Ortiz is no stranger to similar claims -- that he quit on himself against Marcos Maidana. James turned his attention to an image rebuilding, somehow using the embarrassing loss to the old Celtics to make himself a more visible star (good or bad) than he ever had been before. Ortiz and his handlers just plain turned their attention to rebuilding a career.
James had "The Decision." After one of the most absurd and over-the-top theatrical spectacles we will ever witness in sports, James, Wade and Bosh got together in Miami. The hype was unlike anything we may ever see again. The expectations placed on this team -- and placed on this team by themselves -- were enormous.
And they struggled at first. They were often embarrassed by good teams, and sometimes would drop inexplicable losses to bad teams. Victor Ortiz returned to mowing down shot or irrelevant fighters as he rebuilt his reputation and tried to distance himself from the Miami debacle.
But as the pages have turned in 2011, both Ortiz and the Heat have started to deliver on what has been promised, though they're not out of the woods yet.
Tonight the Heat took down the Boston Celtics, 97-87, in game five of their Eastern Conference semifinal series. Miami looks like the team they were supposed to be in this playoffs -- they're cohesive, they're playing with a lot of "swagger" and confidence, and their natural talent is shining through, beginning to eliminate fears that they would be too mentally weak to compete when it was really crunch time.
Sound at least a little familiar?
A month ago, Victor Ortiz was in the ring with Andre Berto, an undefeated alphabet titleholder who himself had plenty of hype. Now, I'm not comparing Berto to this year's Boston Celtics, a veteran team full of proven stars. But coming into the series, the onus was on the Miami Heat and The Big Two + Bosh to prove that they were mentally tough enough to overcome their rivals.
And the onus was on Victor Ortiz to prove, finally, that he could hang at the elite levels of the sport. In neither case was it a question of skill -- it was a question of will for both "Vicious" Victor and LeBron and Co.
Both won, and in emphatic fashion. Ortiz overpowered Berto, and the Celtics were sent home in five games. With the result of both, lingering doubts started to fade.
And in the cases of both Ortiz and the Heat, I don't think it's quite yet time to pull the plug on the doubts. (Of course, I am a "hater.")
Awaiting the Heat in the next round is likely the Chicago Bulls. Ortiz has no next opponent, but names mentioned have included Floyd Mayweather Jr. (just a rumor), Marcos Maidana, and Juan Manuel Marquez. Mayweather would sort of be like putting the 2010-11 Miami Heat up against the 1995-96 Bulls -- as good as the hyped Heat now look, the Bulls were battle-tested and ruled their sport without anyone able to stop them, which is, at this point, still the lasting image of Mayweather. (Note: Obviously you have to allow a little wiggle room here, since the sports are, of course, quite different in so many ways. Mayweather doesn't have to fight everyone, the Bulls did play everyone.)
As for Maidana and Marquez, those are different stories. Maidana has beaten Ortiz before, raising the largest questions about the Mexican-American would-be star, but that was a different Ortiz than we saw on April 16 against Berto.
Marquez, who turns 38 in August, he doesn't have any physical advantages against Ortiz, but would on paper probably have a lot of mental advantages. He would be more like a Celtics comparison. A great, old fighter, worn down by hard years, facing an opponent who is fresher and stronger. He may, in the end, have no real shot at beating this version of Ortiz, if he goes that route instead of a third fight with Manny Pacquiao in November.
Maidana would be the current Bulls. Chicago has had struggles with the Indiana Pacers and Atlanta Hawks in these playoffs, and don't look quite as good as advertised after some great performances. The Bulls killed during the stretch run of the regular season, led by MVP Derrick Rose, and became a hot topic for a little while there. Maidana, led by a right hand, became a diehard boxing fan favorite for his thrilling win over Ortiz. But he has had problems with faded versions of Erik Morales and DeMarcus Corley in recent fights, and expectations have dipped.
The weaknesses have been exposed for both. Maidana can't box and relies too heavily on one-shot power. The Bulls have Keith Bogans starting at shooting guard and have had to rely too heavily on Rose in the absence of a true top-shelf second scoring threat.
But can the Heat stand up to a team that's going to figuratively whack them in the mouth constantly? Can Victor Ortiz prove that the night against Berto wasn't a fluke against a possibly highly overrated fighter?
Different, I know. But in many ways, I believe, the same, or at least similar. As hot as they are right now, The King of the NBA, D-Wade and the supporting cast still have a lot to live up to and a lot of doubts yet to be erased. And the next "Golden Boy" does, too.