Published in Dallas Morning News
Vergil Ortiz Jr. grew up in Grand Prairie, fighting since he was 5 years old inside places such as a converted mechanic’s garage. Today, through grit and a father’s sacrifice, he’s become one the world’s best young boxers. By the time his career ends, he hopes that, even decades from now, others will compare future world champions to him.
ESPN and boxing’s influential magazine The Ring named the 22-year-old welterweight their 2019 prospect of the year. Since turning professional in 2016 — signing with Golden Boy Promotions, whose owner, former champion Oscar De La Hoya, calls Ortiz Jr. “the real deal” — he’s knocked out each of his 15 opponents. None made it past the fifth round.
Ortiz Jr. has fought at AT&T Stadium and in Las Vegas as part of undercards featuring the sport’s biggest star, Canelo Alvarez. Last August, he fought as the main event in The Theatre at Grand Prairie, a few miles northeast of Grand Prairie High School, from which Ortiz Jr. graduated.
He holds the WBA Gold welterweight championship, a secondary title recognized by the World Boxing Association.
Increasingly, as a spectator at fights, Ortiz Jr. attracts fans eager to shake his hand and take a picture with him. A few fights more and he could be fighting for a world championship.
“What I’m getting right now, really, I didn’t expect it at all,” Ortiz Jr. said during a recent phone conversation.
All this newfound attention has not just surprised Ortiz Jr., it’s also motivated him.
“I’m very excited for my future,” he said. “People are starting to recognize what I’m capable of.”
But for someone who won seven national championships and countless other tournaments as an amateur, Ortiz Jr.’s talents were never the question. That, along with the discipline and hard work, has always been there. Rather, for Ortiz Jr., the surprise of being on the verge of boxing stardom has more to do with the struggle to get here.
“My dad definitely made a lot of sacrifices to make sure that I was OK.” Ortiz Jr. said. “Sometimes he wouldn’t eat so that I’d be able to eat.”
Besides food, those sacrifices—for Ortiz Jr. and his father—included boxing. Whether it was a birthday or a holiday, a Monday or a Saturday, a hot summer day or a cold winter morning, Ortiz Jr. and his father would spend hours inside a boxing gym trying to get better.
Sometimes, to break the monotony, they’d go outside where, on a high school track, the elder Ortiz kept pushing the younger to run increasingly faster, all of it part of getting better.
The elder Ortiz declined several requests to comment for this report.
A dedicated student
Boxing is a sport that, if you want to do it well and reduce the risk of serious injury, requires extreme discipline and commitment. It requires a willingness to keep fighting.
“Some guys, they skip a tournament here and there,” Gene Vivero said of amateur boxers.
For over a quarter-century, Vivero has owned a cramped boxing gym in Oak Cliff. It’s a converted auto repair shop where the ring looks as if it’s held together by duct tape. Sometimes, when the temperatures rise and the garage and back doors open so a breeze can flow through, you can smell the mixture of sweat and car oil.
The gym’s walls are full of sweat-stained pictures, posters, and mementos of some of boxing’s greatest fighters. They hang among photographs of local boxers who began their careers there. Of the past three boxing world champions who have come out of the Dallas area, two of them—Quincy Taylor and Errol Spence Jr.—began at Vivero Boxing Gym. Counting Spence, the only two boxing Olympians from the Dallas area also began here.
This was part of the reason Ortiz Sr. brought his young son to train at what’s likely the best gym in Dallas at producing boxing talent.
“[Vergil] would fight when it was time to fight,” Vivero said when describing the young boxer. “He didn’t get in trouble or anything, so that was a good deal.”
Ortiz Jr. listened well. He was coachable. And he arrived every day, ready to fight, even if it meant his father had to rush home from a long day working at a warehouse, pick up his son from home after an equally long day at school, then drive to Oak Cliff during rush hour. Every day, ready to fight, even if it meant the father had to sacrifice and struggle to keep the son boxing.
“A lot of the national tournaments were like a 9-, 10-hour drive,” Ortiz Jr. recalls. “He would have to pawn stuff or sell stuff for us to go compete at these tournaments.”
For gas money and boxing equipment—gloves, headgear, shoes, whatever else was needed—Ortiz Sr. even sold his beloved Camaro.
Vivero, who remains friends with the Ortiz family, knew of their struggles.
“He told me, ‘It’s kind of hard to do this,’” Vivero remembered Ortiz Sr. telling him. “I said, ‘Well, let’s just do what we can do and go from there.’”
Today, before each fight, Ortiz Jr. trains in southern California among a group of past and current world champions. They make each other better.
“Training alongside them makes me want to work hard,” Ortiz Jr. said.
When he’s not preparing to fight, he remains here, in North Texas, where he can visit Vivero’s gym and offer advice to young boxers who, like him, hope to one day make something out of their talents.
Before the coronavirus forced boxing’s suspension, Ortiz Jr. was scheduled to fight Samuel Vargas on March 27. Once the sport resumes, if Ortiz Jr. keeps on the same trajectory, he could be the next world champion to have come from this boxing gym in Oak Cliff. A gym where, next to a cardboard cutout of the great Mexican boxer, Julio César Chávez, there are two framed photographs of a young Ortiz Jr.
Not even 6 feet from those photographs, on a door frame next to a white-colored brick wall, you can see the years of a young boxer’s struggle, growth, and fighting, written with a black marker.
“Vergil Ortiz —13 years old,” one of those markings, from 2011, reads. A few inches above that, another line across the doorway marks Ortiz Jr.’s height at 14 years old. Above that, four other unsteady lines, all of Ortiz Jr.
That last mark, the highest from the floor, was about three months before Ortiz Jr. turned professional. He was 18 years old and had yet to make any money from fighting. The struggles he and his father experienced felt closer than the memories they’re now becoming.
Back then, those same struggles made it so that Ortiz Jr. couldn’t imagine he’d be here now—on the verge of becoming a world champion, a star in boxing, and leading the way for all the great, young boxing talent fighting in Dallas.