On April 16, 2011, Victor Ortiz and Andre Berto met in one of the best fights of the last five years, a knockdown, drag-out war in Mashantucket, Connecticut, headlining an HBO card for the undefeated Berto's WBC welterweight title.
Berto, then 27, had been given a big TV push and all but gifted the WBC belt when he was allowed to face Miki Rodriguez for the vacated title in 2008, but he had yet to truly earn the respect of the boxing diehards and many of the sport's pundits. He had made five successful defenses since gaining the title, but they came against Steve Forbes, Luis Collazo, Juan Urango, Carlos Quintana, and most recently, Freddy Hernandez, who was chopped down in two minutes and seven seconds.
His stiffest test had come in January 2009 against Collazo, a crafty southpaw veteran who nearly pulled the upset before Berto laid it all on the line in the 12th and final round, winning that round and the fight, on scores of 116-111, 114-113, and 114-113. On the latter two cards, it was the 12th that sealed the deal for the young fighter, saving his belt and undefeated record.
Ortiz, then 25, was a different story -- he almost always is. "Vicious" Victor was a prized prospect at one point, a favorite of the "Golden Boy" himself, Oscar De La Hoya, but he'd come up short in his two most significant fights, against Marcos Maidana in 2009 and Lamont Peterson in 2010.
Maidana, it should be noted, was signed up to be a showcase win for Ortiz on HBO, but it turned out quite different. In a back-and-forth war, the fighters traded knockdowns -- Maidana down three times, Ortiz twice -- before Ortiz quit on the fight in the sixth round. When asked by HBO's Max Kellerman what convinced him to stop fighting, Ortiz replied, "I was hurt. I'm not gonna go out on my back, I'm not lay down for nobody. I'd rather just, hey, I'm gonna stop while I'm ahead, that way I can speak well when I'm older." He repeatedly complimented Maidana, and blamed himself for not executing the game plan correctly, instead getting caught up in a war with the Argentine slugger.
More infamously, Ortiz told Kellerman, "We'll see what happens from here on out, man. I'm young, but I don't think I deserve to be getting beat up like this, so I have a lot of thinking to do."
Looking back, it comes off like a young fighter more aware of his future and his goals than it did at the time, when he was roundly criticized by the macho boxing world. And of course he was -- it's an environment that is, as Ortiz is fond of saying, what it is, and right or wrong, silly and idealized or not, the expectation is that a fighter would rather go out on his shield -- on his back, looking up at the lights -- than admit defeat, worried about things such as how his speech is going to sound later in life.
Ortiz did his thinking, and it didn't take long. Two and a half months later, he embarked on a comeback tour of sorts, beating veteran Antonio Diaz, and following that up with wins over club fighter Hector Alatorre and worn out versions of Nate Campbell and Vivian Harris. The Peterson fight was one where Ortiz looked as though he was maturing and coming into his own early, fully in control and putting Peterson on the canvas two times in the third round. But Lamont battled back, and Ortiz wilted in the heat, resulting in a 10-round draw.
The fight with Berto, with Ortiz moving up to 147 pounds, was pretty much a sink or swim scenario for Ortiz. He was still very young, but had already indicated an uncertainty with his career, which was enough to wonder if he'd ever really get over the hump. And his collapse against Peterson only strengthened the doubts.
Against Berto, Ortiz finally bloomed. He put the titleholder down in the first round, but had to come off the canvas himself in the second. They waged war through the first half of the fight, with both men down again in round six. From there, Ortiz took over, taking the second half of the fight, the belt, and Berto's "0."
That was the peak for both fighters. On Saturday, they face one another again, live on FOX at 8:00 pm EDT, in another main event. A lot has changed. Neither man is considered a contender at this moment in the welterweight division. Each is widely looked at as damaged goods. Berto has gone 3-3 in the last five years; Ortiz has gone 2-3. Injuries have derailed both.
The first time they met, it was about taking the next step. This time, it's about staying in the game.
Let's look back on the last five years for both fighters.
Berto was first back in the ring, facing IBF welterweight titleholder Jan Zaveck on September 3 in Biloxi, Mississippi. Zaveck was the underdog to most, as the 35-year-old Slovenian had no U.S. experience and thus no real name value in the American market. When in doubt, the guy you know is almost always the favorite, if you have to choose between one you don't and one you do.
But more diehard fans knew that this wouldn't be an easy night for Berto coming off of his first defeat. Zaveck wasn't necessarily a special fighter, but he was tough and experienced, a traveled veteran who had fought in his native country, plus Germany, South Africa, Czech Republic, and Croatia. He'd won the IBF belt in Johannesburg in late 2009, stopping Isaac Hlatshwayo in the third round, and had made three successful defenses, including getting his win back against the lone fighter to score a victory over him, Rafal Jackiewicz.
Berto and Zaveck battled for five rounds in a gritty, all-action fight, one that was plenty entertaining for those watching on Labor Day weekend. After five rounds, Zaveck was stopped, unable to see out of his right eye. Berto had another belt, and was right back in the mix.
Ortiz landed the biggest possible fight, which took place two weeks later, on September 17. Ortiz defended the WBC welterweight title that evening against Floyd Mayweather, who had been at the Foxwoods for Berto-Ortiz. Many suspected that if Berto had scored the win, Mayweather would face him, looking to take on the unbeaten young fighter with the preferred green belt. Ortiz had thrown a wrench into those plans, but Floyd rolled with it, and signed on to face Ortiz.
With Victor promoted by Golden Boy, it also gave everyone another dose of the unending rivalry between Mayweather and Ortiz's promoter, Oscar De La Hoya. De La Hoya pretty hilariously predicted that the fight would break the pay-per-view buys record that he set with Mayweather in 2007. It didn't (and didn't come close, though it did quite well and made a lot of money), but it went down in history anyway as one of the more bizarre big fights of the modern era.
Mayweather came to the ring with his normal collected confidence, Ortiz with a point to prove and an opportunity perhaps too big for him to handle mentally. Victor had been known as something of a hothead in the past. His first loss had come way back in 2005, a DQ against a fighter named Corey Alarcon, when Ortiz hit Alarcon on the break. Whether or not Alarcon milked it is beside the point -- no one much counts that loss against Ortiz, and the more important thing is that it was a mental error that many fighters of a high level simply wouldn't make. His folding against Maidana and the second half deflating against Peterson were in the past, as well, but not too far. The win over Berto erased some doubts, but not all of them.
Mayweather was Mayweather in the fight, frustrating the less-skilled Ortiz, making him look crude at points. But Ortiz fought with a serious fire, too, and his efforts to engage Mayweather were pretty admirable. He went in looking to make Mayweather fight his fight. In reality, it was a better game plan than a lot of guys have had against Mayweather. And unlike Ricky Hatton, who also wanted to bull-rush Floyd in their 2007 fight, Ortiz had the physical size and strength to get a bit more accomplished.
The frustration, though, mixed with Ortiz's one-track mindset of brawling with Mayweather, led to an instantly infamous finish in the fourth round. With Mayweather leaning back over the ropes, Ortiz leapt forward with an almost comically blatant headbutt.
Ortiz, showing immediate regret, came forward after referee Joe Cortez separated the two, to hug Mayweather and give him a kiss on the cheek in apology. Mayweather displayed only confusion and anger. While Cortez made the official point deduction, Ortiz stayed focused on Mayweather, again apologizing. He extended his glove, and Mayweather tapped it, while using his other hand to check for any blood on his own face.
When Cortez called time in, Ortiz looked for another hug. Cortez, whose eyes were focused on the timekeeper, made the verbal call, but hadn't really made it particularly clear to the fighters that the fight was back underway. He allowed the two to get close to one another, physically touching on Ortiz's second hug of contrition. Mayweather heard Cortez call time in. Ortiz did not. A left hook on Ortiz's jaw stung the champion. When Ortiz looked to Cortez, Mayweather dropped him with a right hand.
Ortiz referred to it as a sucker punch. Mayweather felt he had followed the rules. Really, he had. Referee Joe Cortez had sort of lost control of the situation in the moment, which is where the first blame here lies -- well, the first blame after Ortiz for throwing that ridiculous headbutt and setting the whole chain of events in motion in the first place.
2012: Rematch Scrubbed, Controversy and Defeat
Ortiz and Berto were in a perfect spot for a rematch going into 2012. Berto had a belt again, and had picked up a win after losing to Ortiz, and Victor had, for better or worse, only become a bigger star with the outrageous loss to Floyd.
They signed to meet again on February 11, but Berto had to postpone the fight due to an arm injury suffered in training. The rescheduled date was June 23. That, too, was scrapped, when Berto tested positive for the steroid norandrosterone, which was caught by VADA testing, which both fighters had agreed to undergo for the rematch.
Ortiz kept the June 23 date, and also agreed to a big September pay-per-view showdown with a young Saul "Canelo" Alvarez. In advance, he was to tune up against Josesito Lopez, a solid 140-pound fighter who wasn't considered a serious threat to Ortiz.
With Canelo in attendance for the Showtime-televised event at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. It was a return of the inconsistent Victor Ortiz -- really, he'd never left. Ortiz struggled mightily in the fight, with Lopez showing absolutely no fear of Ortiz or of the moment, determined to pull the big upset that could change his own career.
In the fifth round, Ortiz threw a cheap shot at the back of Lopez's head, and referee Jack Reiss made sure to warn him not to come back into the fight trying to touch gloves, looking to avoid another Mayweather incident.
In those middle rounds -- Ortiz's trainer Danny Garcia said it was the fifth or sixth round -- Lopez cracked Ortiz with a shot that may have broken his jaw right then. Garcia convinced Ortiz to keep fighting, but by the ninth, he'd clearly taken too much punishment. His jaw was slack, blood in his mouth, and Lopez was not relenting. Ortiz quit after the ninth round, simply unable to fight for three more rounds with that sort of injury.
It was more than just an upset. Ortiz didn't just lose, and didn't just lose the opportunity for a big fight with Alvarez in September, and didn't just lose a second straight fight, he suffered an injury that would serve as a major setback, undergoing surgery and keeping him out for a year and a half.
In November, Berto returned to action. He'd been licensed by the state of California in August, as though he'd never even failed a drug test in May, and signed on to face Robert "The Ghost" Guerrero at Citizens Business Bank Arena in Ontario.
Guerrero had moved from lightweight to welterweight in July 2012, beating Selcuk Aydin in a pretty entertaining 12-round battle. He and Berto had an absolute war of attrition. The fight was dirty, rough, and fast-paced. Neither man left the ring looking good, with Berto going down in both the first and second rounds, a result in part due to his unexpected and frankly somewhat bizarre strategy of adopting a Mayweather-style shoulder roll defense.
Though he battled through all 12 and could barely see out of either eye by the midway point of the fight, Guerrero won a clear decision. Like Ortiz had, Guerrero used the win over Berto to land a fight with Floyd Mayweather. Berto, meanwhile, was back to the drawing board following a second defeat.
2013: Berto-Soto Karass
Eight months after the loss to Guerrero, Berto was back in action against rugged veteran Jesus Soto Karass. Similar to Ortiz's bout with Josesito Lopez, this was meant mostly to be a tune-up. And just like Ortiz-Lopez, things did not go as planned.
Soto Karass had beaten the aforementioned Selcuk Aydin in a mild upset in January 2013, which helped make him a bit more credible as a foe for Berto, who needed to get back in there with a win. A victory for Berto could have set up any number of bigger fights with one of the top welterweights in the game.
But an old shoulder injury cropped up on Berto early, and left him fighting one-handed for most of the night. Soto Karass, who makes up for in guts and toughness what he lacks in speed or skill, took advantage. A ruptured tendon in the shoulder took away Berto's right hand, but he hung in as best he could, and fought Soto Karass on more or less even terms in spite of the handicap.
In the 11th round, Berto dropped the Mexican fighter, but feeling the urgency from that, Soto Karass came back with a big attack, and early in the 12th round put Berto down and finished him off to secure the victory. Scores at the time of the stoppage were 105-103 Berto, 105-103 Soto Karass, and 104-104, all defensible.
Like his old foe Ortiz, Berto was now not just dealing with a loss, or a second straight loss, but a career-altering injury that was going to take valuable time away from him. It would be 14 months before Berto fought again.
2014: Ortiz-Collazo, Dual Comebacks
In January 2014, Victor Ortiz readied to make his return. Showing all the swagger of a younger Ortiz who had dealt with less defeat, he appeared confident and fresh going into the fight at the Barclays Center, where he would face Luis Collazo, the fighter who had given Berto such fits back in 2009.
During his 19 month absence from boxing, Ortiz had competed on the reality competition show "Dancing with the Stars," and had a small role in The Expendables 3, which filmed in late 2013.
But for all his confidence portrayed in the lead-up to the fight, and for as fresh and ready to return as he looked, once the action got underway and Ortiz got hit clean, he didn't look like he wanted to fight. On offense, he was throwing combinations, looking rusty but still fairly crisp, like he'd just have to get his timing back. He looked aggressive and somewhat like his old self, landing some decent punches. But he also had defensive holes, with Collazo landing clean punches.
Never known as a puncher, Collazo caught Ortiz with a counter right hook on the button at the very end of round two. Ortiz immediately turned his back and stumbled toward the ropes, then went down to his knees. Referee Benjy Esteves Jr counted to 10.
After the fight, promoter Oscar De La Hoya said that he felt Ortiz should retire and enjoy his life, feeling as though he'd lost the will to fight the way he would need to in order to be successful in boxing. And it seemed to be reasonable advice, too. When Collazo caught Ortiz with that shot, Ortiz simply looked like he wasn't ready to be hit again. Coming off of a long layoff and a broken jaw, Victor showed a fear of the consequences, and that can be the end for any fighter. Once you're worried about what happens when you get hit, it's over.
Berto broke his own lengthy layoff with a return on September 6 against Steve Upsher Chambers, a gatekeeper type from Philadelphia who was coming off of two straight losses, one to Collazo and the other to prospect Eddie Gomez.
A rusty version of Berto, working with new trainer Virgil Hunter, didn't look particularly good in the fight, but Chambers' effort allowed Berto to cruise to a wide decision win over 10 rounds, and most importantly, get himself back into the swing of things, working post-shoulder surgery and picking up his first victory since 2011.
On December 13, Ortiz returned to the ring against another gatekeeper level opponent, facing the tough Manny Perez in Las Vegas. This time around, Ortiz was kept off of television. He scored a stoppage win early in the third round, also claiming his first victory since 2011. Unfortunately for Ortiz, however, he suffered yet another injury to his left hand and wrist, requiring another surgery that would put him back on the sidelines for a year.
2015: Berto-Mayweather, Ortiz's Latest Comeback
Berto made a step back up in class to start 2015, and the Berto/Ortiz common foes connection added another name, as Josesito Lopez was lined up as his opponent on March 13.
Once again, Berto looked rusty. He struggled to get off first in the early rounds, and after five, was down 50-45, 48-47, and 47-48 on the judges' scorecards, with the last card pretty generous to Berto.
In the sixth round, though, Berto caught Lopez with a counter right hand that put his opponent down. When Lopez got up, Berto caught him and dropped him again, at which point referee Raul Caiz Jr jumped in and stopped the fight, to the protests of Lopez and his corner.
The win also netted Berto the interim WBA welterweight title, which didn't need to exist (the sanctioning body had "super champion" Floyd Mayweather active, as well as "world champion" Keith Thurman, who had just fought six days prior), but did set him up for a potential big fight.
And he got that big fight. After Mayweather defeated Manny Pacquiao in their blockbuster May 2 bout, Floyd needed an opponent for a September return, which would be the end of his contract with Showtime, and reportedly the end of his career.
Andre Berto, who had been on the doorstep of a Mayweather fight in 2011, got the call. The response from fans and media was lukewarm at best. Berto had won two straight, yes, but hadn't looked great in either victory, even counting the fact that he had stopped Lopez. Still, with Mayweather pretty much free and clear to do whatever he wanted, he decided to give Berto the shot.
Some argued it was because Mayweather wanted no risk in his final fight, and Berto's style really presented none. He was seen as neither effectively aggressive enough nor skilled enough to give Floyd a real challenge, and there was still the feeling that Berto's best days were behind him -- that despite the two wins, he remained "damaged goods," a fighter who had peaked, taken some licks, had some injuries, and started down the other side of the hill.
Regardless, the two met on September 12. For a "mega-fight," it was a pretty low-key affair. There was no trash talk between the fighters, there was no big narrative other than it was supposedly Mayweather's last fight -- which few seemed to really believe -- and there was, quite frankly, no buzz around the fight. Mayweather-Pacquiao had resulted in a big hangover for many in the boxing world, and the sport struggled to rebound from what was, first of all, a fight that had been hyped for about six years, and second of all, a disappointing spectacle, when all was said and done. With so much effort put into Mayweather-Pacquiao, there just didn't seem to be energy for much else to do with either fighter.
Mayweather defeated Berto handily, as anticipated, routing him over the 12 round distance and securing his 49th victory. It wasn't necessarily a bad performance from Berto, he was simply outclassed by an all-time great talent, and that's what everyone expected going in. The fight lacked spark, had no drama, and ultimately came off as little more than a contractual obligation. Berto's effort was sincere, but no amount of effort was going to help Andre Berto beat Floyd Mayweather.
Ortiz returned once again on December 12, stopping journeyman Gilberto Sanchez Leon in the eighth round in San Antonio. Once again, he was deep on the undercard, perhaps to keep the pressure low and just let him focus on the fight and nothing more. Sanchez Leon was down in the first and third rounds, and ringside reports were that Ortiz looked solid, though it wasn't against a serious opponent.
2016: Rematch Redone
And now, here we are, four days from the Ortiz-Berto rematch. Ortiz is now 29, Berto is 32. Neither are old, but they've seen a lot more than they had five years ago. They've been beaten three times apiece since they first met. They've both had extended layoffs due to injuries. And at times, each man has considered the possibility that maybe, their career was over.
There is a personal rivalry here. The two are at least selling genuine animosity. But more importantly, this is an absolute must-win on both sides. Berto cannot afford a loss to a questionable Victor Ortiz. And Ortiz simply can't afford a loss, period. Neither is likely to have their last fight on Saturday, win or lose, but it's about staying relevant in a welterweight division that is changing quickly, and has a lot of younger, fresher, less tired fighters at the top and coming along.
The winner will most likely get some sort of world title fight next. The loser will have to hope that the PBC brand's overextended reach gives them another significant opportunity quickly, if only out of necessity. Ortiz says he feels he can be the best welterweight in the world. Berto says that he's learned a lot, and that he's better now than he was before.
Both of them say it won't go the distance, and that it will be another war.
It's a must-see fight, for any number of reasons. They had a great one the first time. The stakes are high for both men. And there is a sort of uncertainty about what we're really getting here that makes it somewhat more intriguing. What do these guys have left? Are they ready to embark on new chapters, or are they nearing the end of the story?
A lot of questions will get answered with this fight. And if we get something that approaches their first meeting, it's going to be a hell of a battle.