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Unbeaten KO artist returns to ring healthy and hungry

Updated January 5, 2024 - 6:35 pm

Vergil Ortiz Jr. unsheathed his smile Thursday afternoon at Virgin Hotels Las Vegas as he stepped from his seat inside a conference room to the promotional press conference podium to his left.

“This feels kind of weird,” he said through a grin, his long-sleeved black shirt matching his jet-black buzzed hair.

But it also felt fantastic.

Inactive for 17 months amid a myriad of health concerns, Ortiz (19-0, 19 knockouts) returns to the boxing ring Saturday at Virgin Hotels opposite Fredrick Lawson (30-3, 22 KOs) — this time as a junior middleweight after campaigning previously at 147 pounds.

Ortiz, an unbeaten knockout specialist and Dallas-area native, was thrice scheduled last year to fight Eimantas Stanionis for the interim WBA welterweight title. But the fight collapsed, once because Stanionis required an appendectomy and twice because of a rare condition that afflicted Ortiz called rhabdomyolysis.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, rhabdo, for short, is “the breakdown of damaged muscle which results in the release of muscle cell contents into the blood,” potentially leading to kidney damage or kidney failure, arrhythmias, seizures, nausea and vomiting, permanent disability and in some instances death.

Healthy, spry and eager to perform Saturday, Ortiz insisted Thursday that he hasn’t ever had the energy he has this week.

“Well, I feel good now,” he added, “but I won’t feel 100 percent confident until I win this fight.”

Regaining footing

The overwhelming fatigue that Ortiz first felt while preparing in January 2022 to fight Michael McKinson paled in comparison to the doubt he would feel when that familiar fatigue overwhelmed him again a year later.

A byproduct of overtraining, the diagnosis “sounded fake because I had never heard it before,” he said, though he recovered to fight McKinson that August. But he hasn’t fought since, the fatigue returning during training camps as he prepared for Stanionis and relegating him to inactivity.

“It’s scary. It’s scary,” said his father and namesake, standing Thursday in the back of the conference room with a Texas Rangers cap atop his head.

“You’re always wondering, ‘Why is it happening to him? He’s a good kid. He doesn’t get in trouble. He’s very respectful.’ … I can only imagine how (he) feels.”

But Ortiz tried to remain positive and filled his idle time by playing his guitar, a hobby he’s maintained since he was in the fifth grade. He saw his favorite bands — Of Mice & Men and Avenged Sevenfold — in concert. He reassessed his future.

Fighting at 154 pounds is far better for his body.

When he returned to camp to prepare for Lawson with famed trainer Robert Garcia, he altered his routine — running a little bit less and sparring a slightly different schedule.

Targeting champions

At peak form, Ortiz is a top-tier title contender, with bricks for fists and an aggressive style.

“I believe he’s going to start (at 154 pounds) right where he ended up (at 147) — and that’s was knocking out people,” said Golden Boy Promotions chairman Oscar De La Hoya, Ortiz’s promoter.

“One thing about Vergil is when he has you hurt, he finishes you. And that’s the mark of a true champion.”

Jermell Charlo (WBA, WBC, IBF) and Tim Tszyu (WBO) are the beltholders at 154 pounds, and De La Hoya maintained Ortiz is ready to fight anybody.

Provided of course he first delivers against Lawson.

Not that Ortiz has any doubts about that.

“It feels amazing,” said Ortiz, who last fought in Las Vegas in 2019. “I feel like I’m doing something again. I have a purpose again.”

Contact Sam Gordon at sgordon@reviewjournal.com. Follow @BySamGordon on X.

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