Photo: Ed Mulholland
By Diego Morilla
The heavyweight championship of the world has often been called the greatest prize in sports, and the path towards this crowning achievement can never be expected to be easy.
For Cuba's Luis Ortiz, however, his portion of the road so far has been as seemingly easy inside the ring as it has been tough outside of it, given the hardships he has had to endure in his personal life in exile. But the Camaguey native and former star of the fearsome Cuban national team is ready to turn all that heartbreak into inspiration for his impending challenge against two-time title challenger Tony Thompson (40-6, 27 KO), which will take place this Saturday. March 5th at the DC Armory in Washington, in a HBO Boxing After Dark telecast (10:00 pm ET/PT).
Known for his laconic ways, Ortiz (24-0, 21 KO) barely grunts a few words when asked about a prediction for this test against the battle-tested, tough-as-nails Thompson.
"A knockout," said Ortiz in a recent telephone interview. "I will stop Tony Thompson. I've trained well and I am well prepared, and I will fulfill my dream."
While Ortiz's dream of becoming the world heavyweight champion draws nearer every day, his open wounds – including a forced departure from his homeland and a suspension for use of banned substances (which he disputes having taken) – have managed to slow him down in that inevitable path.
True to his fighting spirit, Ortiz has vowed to make the best out of his latest ordeal and turn it into inspiration for his new challenge.
"They wanted me to comply with the 8-year requisite," said Ortiz about the reasons given by the Cuban government to ban him from entering his homeland for the first time in almost seven years to visit his mother a few months ago. "They wanted me to fulfill the proper travel requisites but I was just trying to get a permission to try to see my mother. But I try to not let this affect me when I am training. I try to leave my problems behind. My mom is my inspiration, and I talk to her every day before leaving for the gym."
Ortiz, a towering southpaw with a massive physical presence, is not a man of many words, but it is not hard to measure his mood in his changing tone, which can go from wryly menacing to profoundly emotional in just a few seconds. And nothing softens his tone more than the mention of his beloved and beleaguered island-nation, a place he hopes one day will receive him as world champion in a hero's welcome.
But if pressed to choose, he'd rather have his more modest and unselfish wishes fulfilled, for the benefit of his impoverished countrymen.
"I can fight anywhere on Earth", says Ortiz, his belligerent tone subsiding. "But it would be great if the government could conduct whatever negotiation needs to take place so that the people of Cuba could improve, mostly in terms of food supply, and on information on what happens abroad," said Ortiz.
The prospect of President Obama's impending visit to the island has renewed Ortiz's desire to return and finally stage a homecoming bout in his native land, but life has taught him not to expect a change in politics in Cuba too quickly.
"I haven't visualized it because apparently it is too far away right now," said Ortiz, about his eventual return to his old country. "But I hope in God that this would happen. For any person in the world it is an honor to return to his homeland and be received as a hero in the land of his birth, but I have gotten used to fighting here."
The word "here" takes a special meaning for Ortiz, who has fought his entire professional career outside of Cuba, now that he'll be facing a hungry, dangerous fighter in Thompson, a DC-native who plans on having a large following on site to cheer him on. For Thompson, this has the potential to be a redeeming victory in a career that has seen him lose only to the best in the division, including a career-crushing defeat of Cuba's once highly regarded contender Odlanier Solis.
But none of that worries Ortiz.
When asked to send a pre-fight message to Thompson, Ortiz bellows "King Kong is in the house," invoking his moniker. "Everyone knows that I don't play around. And I will be the next undisputed world champion, regardless of what Thompson or anyone thinks about that. Nothing will stand in my way. I will just do my job and I will destroy anyone who stands in front of me."
Considering how life has been putting Ortiz's will to the test, it is hard to see the 44-year old Thompson testing him beyond the usual trial-horse effort that has led him to lose three of his last five bouts.
"I will be a great test to him. That's all I can tell you. If he's well prepared I hope he brings it, because I've heard he's talking too much, and I don't like people who talk so much. I just want to fight, title or no title. I just want to do my job and I am ready to destroy and survive."