Victor Ortiz, right, reacts to fans as radio host Piolin speaks at a pre-fight… (Robyn Beck / AFP / Getty Images )
As much as Victor Ortiz has in common with Floyd Mayweather Jr. — neither is talking to his father, both left veteran promoter Bob Arum for greater riches, and they're fighting each other Saturday — there's one dominant difference.
Mayweather's gym maintains a consistently tense mood, saying that the fighter is there training hard to avoid the damage that occurs in the blood sport. Ortiz routinely halts everything for a "fun day."
Recently, Ortiz took everyone on a chartered deep-sea fishing boat off the Channel Islands. He's also invited the group to surf, enter a Camp Pendleton triathlon race with him, paddleboard, get massages in Ojai and sky dive.
"I'm not going to live forever. So you better have fun while you're here," Ortiz said from his home on Ventura Harbor.
That's the unmistakable vibe exuding from Ortiz, the 24-year-old World Boxing Council welterweight champion. He will make his first title defense in Las Vegas in a bout dominated by the story line of his celebrated opponent, the unbeaten Mayweather, who returns to the ring after 16 months.
"I think everyone is tired of him," Ortiz said of his foe. "I'm here to win this."
Ortiz is an aggressive puncher, with a 29-2-2 record and 22 knockouts, but oddsmakers say he's a 7-to-1 underdog.
Those close to Ortiz say that if victory is at hand, it will be because of the drive he's shown by overcoming numerous obstacles to win a world title.
"He takes his energy as a fighter into everything he does, and our kids need to hear that story," said Hector Cortez, chief diversity officer of Big Brothers/Big Sisters, a youth mentoring organization based in Philadelphia. Ortiz, a spokesman for the organization, recently hosted some youths from a gang-intervention program at his Ventura gym.
"To respond to the environment he came from is a testament to his resolve," Cortez said. "Everything around you comes from something deep within you, and tapping into that can be transformative."
Ortiz grew up in Garden City, Kan., and he and his siblings endured a difficult childhood as their parents abandoned them.
Mayweather, similarly scarred by unstable parenting, remains saddled with a reputation for being moody and difficult. He's facing felony charges stemming from allegations that he struck the mother of his three children, and he recently split with his father in an expletive-filled exchange on HBO's "24/7" reality series.
Ortiz has taken another tack. He simply doesn't speak to the father who left him.
Last winter, Ortiz said, he faced his own domestic crisis — he came home early one day and found his girlfriend of four years with another man, a U.S. serviceman. He recalled telling the soldier, "I should hit you, but I won't, because all the stories will say, 'Boxer beats up military hero.'" Ortiz ended the relationship.
In April, Ortiz's boxing career reached a pinnacle. He won the WBC belt from then-unbeaten Andre Berto in a stirring unanimous decision, a bout in which both men were knocked down twice, with Mayweather watching ringside.
"I could have easily headed in other directions throughout my life," Ortiz said. "Luckily, I was surrounded by a lot of positive people. I knew right from wrong. And it meant something to me to not be that person who in people's eyes was all messed up."
Ortiz credits his youth boxing mentor, the late Ignacio "Bucky" Avila. The trainer kept repeating the phrase "You can do it, Junior" so often that Ortiz said he heard the words echo during the Berto fight.
Ortiz values support from those close to him. It was a key reason why he dumped his former trainer Robert Garcia. The trainer was "mean" and not supportive, Ortiz said.
Rosas recalled that during the weigh-in for a 2006 fight in San Antonio against a then-unbeaten opponent named Nestor Rosas, he ended a verbal exchange by betting Rosas $100 that he'd win the fight. Instead of drawing admiration from Garcia for being confident, the trainer scolded Ortiz and warned him he faced a difficult fight.
"[Garcia was] always bringing me down," Ortiz said.
Ortiz knocked out Rosas in the fifth round.
Fight fans, though, haven't always been on Ortiz's side. In June 2009 Ortiz lost to Marcos Maidana on a sixth-round technical knockout at Staples Center when it appeared Ortiz could have continued. Fans shouted at Ortiz: "You're not a true Mexican!"
Ortiz believes that if he fought Maidana 10 times he'd win nine of the bouts. "Sorry for the mistake of being human" and losing one, Ortiz said.
Rolando Arellano, Ortiz's manager, added, "There's a reason the front windshield of a car is bigger than the rear mirror: You should look forward most of the time, and only occasionally check behind you."
On Ortiz's dinner table is the volume "The Book of Positive Quotations." His manager frequently reads passages from it to Ortiz. They also watch Anthony Robbins' motivational videos together.
"It's not what people think of you, it's what you believe about yourself," Arellano said, fixing his eyes on his fighter. "There are excuses to fail and excuses to succeed. . . . It's the story between the ears that determines your life."
Ortiz nods, relishing his own path.
"You've got to get over things," Ortiz said. "Otherwise, you'd sit there and want to kill yourself. I love life."