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Saturday, April 19, 2014

Kansas connection: Victor Ortiz builds following in varied places

BY RUSTIN DODD
Kansas City Star

LAWRENCE — Early afternoon, warm and sunny, and the pathways leading up to the big white pillars are empty and calm.

This is the front of the Sigma Phi Epsilon house, a red brick fraternity on the corner of Tennessee Street, just up the road from the University of Kansas.

If you're looking for a reason why Victor Ortiz, one of the best welterweight boxers in the world, spends his vacation time among the tree-lined streets in this Midwestern college town, you might as well start in front of these white pillars.

On Saturday night, Ortiz, a native of Garden City will defend his World Boxing Council Welterweight title against undefeated Floyd Mayweather Jr. in the most pressurized fight of his life. Ortiz is just 24, a survivor from a broken home in western Kansas. Mayweather, 34, is already a boxing icon and millionaire many times over.

When the time comes, Ortiz will walk into the ring at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, and celebrities will dot the first few rows, and a delicious fight-night buzz will engulf the city.

Back in Lawrence, at the Sig Ep house, they will crowd around the television and watch it all unfold.

Maybe they'll tell the story from this past summer, when Ortiz showed up with the WBC title belt he earned by beating the previously undefeated Andre Berto on April 16.

The prizefighter and the frat house. It seems like an unlikely pairing. That is, until you listen to the stories and understand why the championship boxer from humble roots now says this town feels like a second home.

"It's the regular college life," says Brennan Killen, a junior fraternity brother at Sigma Phi Epsilon.

"He always wanted to live that life," says Adam Price, a childhood friend from Garden City and former president at Sig Ep. "I know he wanted to have a part of that, but he had to grow up fast. He didn't have that support that a lot of us do."

Saturday night's fight has been dubbed "Star Power" by promoters, and maybe that's appropriate for a Mayweather bout. But while Mayweather's celebrity has exploded over the last four years — an appearance on television's "Dancing with the Stars" and a steady stream of legal issues fueling Mayweather's "Money" persona — Ortiz has been content to escape back to Kansas when he can.

The roots of this relationship sprouted more than two years ago, when Ortiz would return to Lawrence for short vacations between fights. He was a top prospect then, still having to prove himself in the unforgiving world of professional boxing.

Price had known Ortiz since middle school in Garden City, and he wanted his fraternity brothers to hear Victor's story.

So there was Ortiz, walking through the white pillars and speaking from the heart.

Ortiz says his mother abandoned the family when he was 7. He says his father was a heavy drinker who disappeared for long stretches, leaving Victor and his brother, Temo, to fend for themselves. But Ortiz would find sanctuary at the local boxing gym in Garden City. And after being taken in by a local family, he would eventually make his way to California to continue his career in a professional gym.

"I was supposed to be a druggie and an alcoholic, according to the statistics," Ortiz said earlier this year. "But instead, I turned that around... and now I'm still going strong."

Price invited Ortiz to Lawrence because he wanted his childhood friend to experience the college life, and he wanted his fraternity — filled with kids from money and privilege — to hear Victor's tale.

"It was pretty much his story," Price says, "And letting those guys know that he was not given anything; to let them know that you've got to work for what you want in life."

All around Lawrence, you can hear stories like this one, Ortiz coming back to visit old friends and leaving with a cellphone full of new ones.

"It was kind of funny," Price says. "Everybody would be being buddy-buddy with him like, 'Is this guy really a boxer?' He's not Floyd Mayweather. He's the total opposite of Floyd, as far as attitude goes."

Ortiz's connections stretch all over campus. Former KU basketball star Cole Aldrich counts Ortiz as a close friend. Aldrich says they met a few months after Kansas won the NCAA basketball title in 2008. And after a few years of waiting, Aldrich will finally make good on a promise this weekend: He'll be at the fight in Vegas.

"He's just such a humble guy," Aldrich says. "He's my age, and not many guys that age are huge names in boxing, especially coming out of a state like Kansas with his background. It just puts a really nice story together."

This is part of what Ortiz means when he talks about building his own family. He wore a Jayhawk on his boxing trunks during his last two fights. He says it's a reminder of his past — and the relationships he's forged over the past few years.

"A lot of friends (are coming) from Kansas," Ortiz told reporters in Las Vegas on Wednesday. "Kansas is taking over Vegas."

Ortiz will be a decided underdog on Saturday. The mercurial Mayweather has never lost in 41 professional bouts, knocking out 25 of his opponents; Ortiz comes in at 29-2-2, with 22 knockouts.

Still, Ortiz has at least a puncher's chance. He awed spectators with his prodigious power in a unanimous-decision victory over Berto, and he's 10 years younger than Mayweather.

Ortiz's hardscrabble childhood became part of the story line during Wednesday's bravado-infused news conference hyping the fight in Las Vegas, when Mayweather accused Ortiz of embellishing the tale for his own benefit.

Ortiz exchanged a few verbal jabs but mostly remained focused on his goal: handing Mayweather his first loss.

"He has to try to put somebody down to make himself look good," Ortiz said.

In times of stress, Ortiz recalls the good times in Lawrence. Pickup basketball games during the day. Food runs on Mass Street at night. An afternoon of video games, and maybe a couple nights of couch-surfing here and there.

"He's just a kid from a small-town place in Kansas," says Killen, "and that's what he still is. Most people don't even know he's a high-profile boxer until like the fourth time they've hung out with him."

Until this week, Killen had been planning to make the trip out to Vegas. He started working at a jewelry company last summer, and he designed a ring to commemorate Ortiz's victory over Berto.

"It's got a Jayhawk in the middle of it," he says.

If nothing else, Killen will ship the ring to Vegas and gather with a group of Sig Eps on Saturday night. He's hoping that the Wheel, a neighborhood bar that sits at the foot of campus, will air the fight — just like it would do for a KU basketball game.

A few weeks ago, Ortiz was imagining this very scene: thousands of people surrounding televisions in Garden City, and a campus in Lawrence bonding over an adopted son.

(That's) almost sounding like a Rocky movie," Ortiz said. "Remember... it was Christmastime and all these little kids are watching TV... and Rocky's like, "Adrienne!"

ABOUT THE FIGHT

Who: Victor Ortiz (29-2-2, 22 KO) vs. Floyd Mayweather (41-0, 25 KO)

When: Broadcast starts at 7 p.m. Saturday

Where: MGM Grand, Las Vegas

TV: HBO pay per view, $59.99

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