Rising Stars Ortiz and Ali Back in Action

Photo: Will Hart

By Nat Gottlieb

An undefeated heavyweight with extraordinary power, and an unbeaten welterweight who looks like the real deal will headline what promises to be an exciting night of boxing March 5 at the DC Armory in Washington on HBO’s Boxing After Dark (10 PM ET/PT).

Cuban heavyweight Luis Ortiz (24-0, 21 KOs), whose rare one-punch knockout power is reminiscent of Wladimir Klitschko in his prime, will square off in the ring with Tony Thompson (40-6, 27 KOs), a cagey veteran who has fought the aforementioned Klitschko and is always a tough out.

In the co-feature, welterweight Sadam Ali (22-0, 13 KOs), a multi-skilled, slick boxer on the verge of stardom, will face another fast-rising 147-pounder in Jessie Vargas (26-1, 9 KOs), a former lightweight world champion whose only loss was inflicted by elite boxer Timothy Bradley.

Ortiz, a Cuban defector with a decorated amateur career, is starting to look like the Gennady Golovkin of the heavyweight division. Few fighters seem to want to step into the ring with him because of his breathtaking ability to knock opponents out with one shot from either hand.

Thompson, a fearless veteran, seems more than happy to test Ortiz, who’s aptly nicknamed “The Real King Kong.” In fact, he relishes the opportunity. “Am I afraid of his heavy shots?” Thompson said with a smirk. “You want to kick my ass, you gotta bring some ass. If he’s King Kong, I’m Godzilla, baby. Let’s go!”

Ortiz, however, doesn’t seem all that impressed with his foe. “This fight is just another steppingstone on my path to becoming the unified heavyweight world champion,” the Cuban says through an interpreter.

But if Thompson’s history shows anything, treating the now-44-year-old as a steppingstone has proven to be the downfall of several highly-touted young prospects including Dominick Guinn, Luan Krasniqi, Timur Ibragimov, David Price, Chazz Weatherspoon, and Odlanier Solis. The man comes to fight and you’d better be ready.

“I’m not the youngest guy in the sport,” Thompson acknowledges. “But I’m probably still the hungriest guy in the sport.” He mocks Ortiz’s reputation as the most feared heavyweight in the game. “I don’t know how I’m going to be facing the most feared fighter in the division because that’s myself. It’s all good, baby. He won’t have no problem finding me.”

Although the 36-year-old Ortiz’s power has overwhelmed virtually all of his opponents, Thompson has only been knocked out twice, both times in title fights with Klitschko, one of the hardest punchers in heavyweight history. And KO power is not the only thing the Cuban brings to the table that Thompson will have to deal with.

Ortiz is a skilled boxer with fast hands, a full arsenal of punches—including a downright filthy uppercut—and is also a talented counterpuncher. While Thompson is easily the most accomplished fighter the Cuban has faced, the brutal manner in which Ortiz knocked out Bryant Jennings in his last fight, another highly-touted heavyweight prospect himself, suggests he’ll be more than up to his latest test.

The welterweight co-feature pits two fighters eager to show they belong among the best boxers in the already jam-packed 147-pound division.

Ali, 26, is a 2008 U.S. Olympian who’s been regarded as a potential champion since he turned pro. He’s done nothing to change that opinion. In fact the Brooklyn native born to Yemini parents seems to be getting better with each fight. With his superlative talent, his upside might be unlimited.

In 2014 Ali had his breakout fight when he easily handled power-puncher and then unbeaten Argentinean, Luis Abregu. What opened more than a few eyes was the manner in which Ali dispatched Abregu. With just 12 knockouts in his first 21 fights, Ali was regarded as a light hitter. He changed that perception by not only knocking down Abregu in the 6th round, but he so overwhelmed the Argentinean with power punches in the 9th that referee Harvey Dock stepped in and stopped the fight.

Lest anyone think that fight was a fluke, Ali came right back in his next fight and had little problem handling the always scrappy Francisco Santana, winning a unanimous decision.

Making this welterweight fight even more intriguing is that Vargas, who took Bradley the distance in a relatively close bout, has vowed to make Ali cower and run for cover.

“I’m planning on making Sadam Ali quit,” Vargas says. “That’s my goal and I plan to achieve it.”

On the surface that seems an unlikely boast from a fighter who counts just nine knockouts among his 26 victories. But in the 12th round of his fight with Bradley, who has never been knocked out, Vargas put him down and may have been on the verge of finishing him off when the referee appeared to save him in a controversial ending.

Still, Vargas has always been a measured fighter not known for his aggressiveness. So why the bold prediction? Apparently his new trainer, Dewey Cooper, has been retooling his style by training him to fight in attack mode.

“I’m not going to stop pushing from beginning to end,” Vargas says. “I’ve prepared myself for this fight to come in busy and basically not leave it up to the judges. He doesn’t have the experience I have with world-class fighters. He’s never had to dig deep and hasn’t been in the wars I have.”

The loss to Bradley has only added fuel to Vargas’s inner fire. “I’m coming back with rage into this fight,” he says. “I want to destroy any opponent that’s in front of me, not wait until the last round or not let any second, any minute of the fight just go.”  

Asked about Vargas’ vow to make him quit, Ali looked amused. “This may piss him off, but it makes me laugh,” the Brooklyn-based boxer says. “That’s the way a fighter should be. But make me quit? That is not an option for me.”