By Iron Mike Gallego
The first thing you need to know about Victor Ortiz is that he is among the most exciting fighters in the world. His combination of devastating punching power, a questionable chin, and an inconsistent temperament almost invariably results in crowd-pleasing, knockdown-filled brawls. He's also completely unpredictable, as the country witnessed when he inexplicably went helmet-to-helmet with Floyd Mayweather, then tried desperately to apologize (even going so far as to plant a respectful kiss on Floyd's cheek), and then made the biggest mistake of all: looking away from his opponent just long enough for usually-passive Mayweather to score his only KO since George W. Bush was in office.
The result is that every moment of an Ortiz fight demands your attention. Turn away for even a second and someone might be unconscious when you look back. So, with Ortiz returning to the ring for the first time in 18 months on Thursday evening (Fox Sports 1, 9:00 p.m. EST) one would expect fight fans to be licking their lips. But they're not. The reality, like all things Ortiz, is significantly more complicated.
You see, Ortiz is soft, the most disparaging insult any fight fan can hurl at a fighter. He looks and acts more like a movie star than a boxer (look for him in The Expendables 3 this summer). He took a sabbatical from the sport to appear on Dancing With the Stars. He has his own brand of facial moisturizer called, ugh, "FaceLube." He was famously promoted as the successor to Oscar De La Hoya, who himself was viewed as a little too pretty, pampered and soft to ever achieve boxing immortality. Worst of all, he has twice "quit" in the ring rather than absorb any more punishment. And, in so doing, Ortiz transformed himself from boxing's Gorgeous George -- an easy-to-hate but popular pretty boy -- to the embodiment of every fight fan's existential dilemma.
The most violent confrontation in boxing occurs not between the two warriors inside the ring, but between the heart and brain of most fans. Our guts lust for violence while our better angels pray that both men escape the night unharmed. We howl about the inhumanity of the sport when a fighter is beaten to death before our eyes, and then we walk out of Floyd Mayweather fights early because there's not enough action.
Ask any fight fan what is on their wish list for the coming year and they'll beg for another fight in the spirit of Gatti-Ward or Corrales-Castillo. And yet, only a few years after those epic wars, both Arturo Gatti and Diego Corrales were dead. And while neither death can be directly linked to damage suffered in the ring, both men were battling substance abuse and personal troubles at the time they prematurely passed away, following a heavily-trod path that led many other fighters to an early grave. (Corrales was three times over the legal limit when "he basically killed himself" by slamming his motorcycle into a car at a high rate of speed; Gatti was fighting with his wife over his problem drinking the night he either took his own life or was murdered by her, depending on who you ask.)
So do we want more Arturo Gattis and Diego Corraleses, or fewer of them? This is our great ethical quandary: We want blood, we want guts, we want to marvel at the courage of men willing to fight until their last ounce of strength is sapped, and yet we want them to be fine as soon as the fight is done. And, usually, we can get away with our dissonance, at least as long as our man is in the ring. Gatti and Corrales died after their fight careers had effectively ended. Most boxers don't begin to slur or stumble noticeably until years after the limelight has dimmed. It's easy for fight fans today to watch Muhammad Ali tremble and wish he hadn't answered every bell in Manila, even if we would have cheered for him to keep going that night. It's always easy to wish they'd taken better care of themselves, in retrospect. It is only when an Ortiz comes along that we're forced to wrestle with our conflicting wishes. How are we to deal with a man still at his physical peak who seems unwilling to make the sort of sacrifice we both demand and abhor?
For me, and for many other fans, the easiest route is simply to boo. To call him a coward, or worse. After all, it's as easy to boo Ortiz today as it is to wince at the young Ali with the benefit of hindsight. And yet, Ortiz has given us so much. Twenty-nine wins. Twenty-two knockouts. A fight of the year with Andre Berto. Ortiz is, in some sense, the boxing equivalent of a slow-moving airport security officer or the cop who gives us a speeding ticket: something we find so easy to condemn when it's there even as some part of us knows that the consequences of not having it would be even worse.
Finally back in the ring, Ortiz faces off against Luis Collazo at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y. Collazo is the blue-collar antithesis of Ortiz. He's never been given any breaks in the sport, he fights hard, he's tough, he doesn't have much in the way of natural talent but gets the most out of everything he has. He's the kind of underdog we should all root for, and he's the guy I will be rooting for. But, maybe, if Ortiz wins, that will be OK, too. I might not be happy about it while I'm watching the fight, but maybe I will be somewhere down the road. Boxing needs fewer funerals more than it needs another knockout.
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Iron Mike Gallego is the online identity of a passionate boxing fan. IMG is an occasional contributor to Deadspin, where he has written about topics ranging from boxing to champagne, and can regularly be found on twitter @ironmikegallego.