Small town kid hoping for big things to come

Victor "Vicious" Ortiz hardly lives up to his name -- outside the ring, that is. Chris Farina -- Top Rank

Pressure? Victor Ortiz isn't feeling it.

Fighting a former world title holder on a pay-per-view card at Madison Square Garden?

That isn't pressure.

"I think I'm going to go in there and set my pace, fight my fight," says the amenable 20-year-old of his Saturday date with Colombia's Carlos Maussa. "I think we're going to be good. We're on a good roll right now."

How about the fact that he is widely touted as one of the best prospects in boxing? That his promoter Top Rank is grooming him to be the company's next big star, in the mold of recent successes Miguel Cotto and Kelly Pavlik? That Top Rank Chairman Bob Arum describes Ortiz as a combination of Cotto and Alexis Arguello?

That isn't pressure, either.

"I've got to be aware at all times, because other fighters are just as hungry as I am," Ortiz says. "I'm not going in there with a big head, my head held up, my chin all up there and then get dropped. I don't think so. I've got to go with my inner self, keep myself at 100 percent and keep my feet on the ground."

"I grew up in a small town so when people are like, 'Oh yeah, you're this and that,' I kind of let it go in one ear and out the other, you know?" laughs Ortiz, a native of Garden City, Kan. "So I don't really take it to where I'm saying, 'Oh, I'm good, I'm this good, I'm this and that.'

Pressure is your mother leaving home when you are 7 years old, and your father spending most of the next five years drinking before also walking out. Pressure is holding down a job at age 15 while fighting in the Junior Olympics, helping your sister pay the bills so you can both have a roof above your heads. Pressure is taking care of your kid brother when you're at an age when somebody should be taking care of you.

In those circumstances, boxing isn't pressure, no matter how daunting the opponent or how big the stage. Boxing is compensation for enduring those hard times, and his fight with Maussa, underneath Cotto's welterweight title defense against Shane Mosley, is the latest stop on a journey almost 15 years in the making.

Beaten up one day by two kids who targeted him because he sang solos at Victor Ornelas Elementary School in Garden City, he was dragged to a boxing gym by his father.

"After I got beat up, my dad told me, 'In this family, there aren't going to be any [wimps].' He took me to a boxing gym and believe it or not, I almost wanted to run out of there.

"I saw people's heads getting snapped back and I thought, 'This is not for me.' But I kept my heart and my head in there. After my parents left me, I had to make a decision that would stay with me forever. Ever since, it's been boxing. And of course, I kept up school so that I could graduate and go to college."

After a spell in a foster home, he went to live with his sister in Colorado, who he says was like a mother to him and his brother.

Ortiz held down a job during the day and ran the mountains and trained in the gym whenever he could. In 2003 he entered the Junior Olympics, where he not only took the title in his weight class but was also named outstanding boxer of the tournament.

It was there that he came to the attention of Robert Garcia, the former junior lightweight champion and now a respected trainer, whose younger brother was also competing. Initially drawn to Ortiz's skills in the ring, Garcia was blown away by the 15-year-old's maturity outside the ropes.

"I took him and my brother and a bunch of kids to the mall, because they were there for about a week, and they had about $70-per-diem money," Garcia explains. "At the mall, they all went to a sports store. They were all looking at shoes and warm-up suits and all that stuff for themselves, and I saw Victor on his own looking at some tennis shoes. I asked him, 'You going to buy yourself those shoes?' And he said, 'No, I'm going to buy them for my brother. He doesn't have any shoes right now, and my younger brother needs shoes.' That told me a lot about Victor, that he was a kid thinking of his younger brother."

At the conclusion of the tournament, the winners and runners-up had the option of remaining for the world championships. But when Garcia asked Ortiz if he would be staying, the youngster explained that he would probably have to return to Colorado and his job at a fast food restaurant, so he could help his sister pay the bills.

"I gave him my number," Garcia continues. "I didn't tell him, 'Do you want to box out of my gym?' or 'Do you want to come to Oxnard and be a boxer?' I told him, 'If you ever need help, if you're ever having a hard time, call me up.' Two weeks later, I received a call from Victor, telling me that they got kicked out of the apartment because they couldn't keep up with the payments, and he told me that the sister was going to move in with her boyfriend, and he said he didn't want to move in with the boyfriend and he didn't want to go back to foster homes. 'Would you like to come to Oxnard and live with me?' And that's what he did."

For the kid from Kansas, the mean streets of Southern California were something of a culture shock.

"It was very different," he laughs. "First off, it's huge here. Oxnard's probably not the biggest city around, but to me it's enormous. My town has a population of about 30,000. You come up to these places; it's like, 'Wow.' It's insane. It's a big change, but you just have to overcome it and get used to it, or it will eat you alive."

Ortiz, though, had a focus, an objective that kept him occupied.

"He is absolutely, completely dedicated to boxing," Arum says. "That's all he does, virtually, is stay in the ring."

"He trains so hard," agrees Garcia. "He's the first one in the gym and the last one to leave. He always asks for extra rounds in training. He never complains about it being too much, or in the mornings during running, he never complains about being tired. He knows that's the way it is. During workouts with strength training and everything, he never complains; he always does everything we tell him. But we do have to be careful, because if we let him, he would do 20 rounds of sparring."

That dedication, Garcia says, is to a large degree responsible for the success so far of a 21-fight professional career that, it not for a DQ loss for hitting on the break and a technical draw after an errant elbow opened a deep gash on his forehead, would be unblemished. It is a career that has attracted the attention of ringside observers and marked Ortiz as a prospect with real potential.

"I think he's really good. I've been impressed with him for a long time now," says Graham Houston of FightWriter.com. "He does everything well … He can box and punch. He's very calm in the ring; when he's under a bit of pressure, when an opponent opens up on him he comes right back and doesn't let the other guy take charge of the fight. He seems like a young man who really is focused on his boxing. He really wants to be a champ and a good fighter. I think he's got huge potential."

For Houston, Ortiz's most impressive outing was his most recent one, when he stopped rugged veteran Emmanuel Clottey at the end of the 10th round on Aug. 30.

"I was very impressed with the way he completely controlled the fight," Houston says. "[Clottey] is a very seasoned guy; he's a good, decent-level fighter, and [Ortiz] completely outclassed him. That to me was very impressive. He didn't give Clottey a chance to get in to the fight. He just took him apart, round after round. Clottey's quite durable, but at the end he was just about gone. He was broken right down."

Maussa is a different challenge altogether. The awkward veteran knocked out Vivian Harris to annex the WBA junior welterweight crown in June 2005, and five months later gave Ricky Hatton all he could handle before surrendering the belt to the Englishman via ninth-round stoppage.

"It's a very hard fight," Arum says. "Maussa is a real tough guy for him to fight. He has sneaky knockout power. We don't think so, but a lot of people may think we're rushing the kid too fast, because he is a baby still."

Even so, Houston thinks Ortiz -- whom he describes as a sharp, southpaw boxer-puncher who "looks to hurt his opponents" -- has what it takes to pass the sternest in-ring test of his young career.

"He needs to stay focused, stay calm, keep the hands up," he advises. "The guy's going to be throwing these looping punches. He'll have to make him pay, as they say, when he makes him miss -- which he will, he will make Maussa miss. And to step in with his own nice, really compact punches and look to break him down. I think he can do that to Maussa."

Should he emerge victorious, there is talk of matching Ortiz with another tough Colombian, once-defeated Ricardo Torres, for the WBO belt. Garcia, reasonably, doesn't want to entertain discussion of that until the Maussa bout is completed, but he does acknowledge that the biggest tests of Ortiz's professional life lies ahead, and not just in the ring.

"Myself, my dad, my brother, we talk to him a lot, and we've got to prepare him, because any 20 year old who starts to get big paydays and a lot of fame has a chance of letting things go wrong," he observes.

It doesn't look as if Ortiz will fall into that trap. After all, for the past year, he and his younger brother Temo have been living by themselves in an apartment, a circumstance that for most young men of their age would be an invitation to excess. But the Ortiz brothers are clearly not like most young men of their age.

"I have keys to the apartment," Garcia says. "I go stay with them here and there when it's getting closer to fights, just to make sure he's not doing things he's not supposed to. You know, I go in there at 10, 11 at night, and I see them already in bed, sleeping. Victor's head is on so straight, it's hard to believe. He thinks like an older man, thinking about his career; he doesn't let anything get in the way of his career."

Perhaps that's only to be expected from someone whose twin devotions to career and family have lifted him from the abyss of abandonment to the precipice of championship glory.

"That's what fueled me up," Ortiz says of the prospect of nights like Saturday, when he'll showcase his talents in the most famous arena in the world.

"My parents gave me a lot of fuel as well. Just making sure I have my brother on my side gave me a lot of fuel. And my nephews: I have little nephews from my sister, and those little dudes are like, 'Uncle Victor,' whenever they see me on TV. They give me fuel, too.

"It's been a very long journey for me, and it's still the beginning. We're still in the opening stages of this whole journey. It's just going to get a lot bigger from here."

Kieran Mulvaney covers boxing for ESPN.com and Reuters.