Back in March, emerging welterweight superstar Vergil Ortiz Jr. was set to take on undefeated southpaw Michael McKinson. It was a key step in his journey toward a world title, as he had established undeniable career momentum after thrilling knockouts of Egidijus Kavaliauskas and Maurice Hooker.
But days before the fight, his father and trainer Vergil Sr. noticed some oddities: his son was dropping weight alarmingly fast, and his balance was off. Something wasn’t right. So Ortiz Jr. underwent tests. And the potentially deadly culprit was revealed: rhabdomyolysis, a serious condition that breaks down muscle tissue and releases toxic proteins into the bloodstream. The fight was postponed days before the opening bell.
Five months later, Ortiz Jr., 18-0 (18 knockouts), Grand Prairie, Texas – fully recovered from his rhabdomyolysis scare – is back, hoping to continue one of boxing’s prominent knockout streaks against United Kingdom’s McKinson, 22-0 (2 KO’s), at Dickies Arena in his backyard of Fort Worth. “We made some changes here and there; not huge changes,” Ortiz Jr. said. “Overall, I feel 100 percent now. We are ready to go. It did make me more anxious. I really want to get back in the ring now.”
Indeed, Ortiz Jr. is especially eager to return and show he is ready for whatever the future may bring in a division where a pair of pound-for-pound entrants reside: Errol Spence Jr. is the WBA/WBC and IBF champ, and Terence Crawford is the WBO titlist. He wants either one of those two – or the winner if that super fight ever happens – but knows he has to look good against McKinson if he has any hope of that.
By the time he steps toward McKinson Saturday, it will have been a week short of a year since he was in a boxing ring. He defeated Kavaliauskas via eighth-round TKO on Aug. 14, 2021, in nearby Frisco, Texas. In that fight, Ortiz Jr. showed championship mettle, surviving a second-round scare to drop the “Mean Machine” five times – four in the eighth round – to keep his perfect knockout streak alive. Kavaliauskas was considered his sternest test, as Kavaliauskas gave Crawford a tough fight in 2019 before falling in nine.
Five months prior to that, Ortiz Jr. engaged in a firefight with Dallas area rival Hooker before stopping him in seven.
Now, the 24-year-old Ortiz Jr. is focused on his opponent, McKinson, who fought on the very weekend he was supposed to fight Ortiz. McKinson, 28, defeated replacement Alex Martin by a 10-round decision in Los Angeles. The tricky tactician didn’t impress against Martin but was faced with having to change up quickly after Ortiz Jr. pulled out.
Even Ortiz acknowledges that you can’t base McKinson’s worth off that particular fight. “He’s undefeated, world ranked, and it would look good on my resume to beat him,” Ortiz said. “He’s a good fighter.”
With the Dallas/Fort Worth area something of a boxing hotbed – it has produced, among others, Curtis Cokes, Donald and Bruce Curry, Gene Hatcher, Stevie Cruz, Paulie Ayala, and Spence – Ortiz Jr. knows he’ll have some pressure come Saturday. Dickies Arena is a 25-minute drive from his house. But he doesn’t think it will necessarily give him an edge. “I don’t see it as a home-field advantage,” he said. “Definitely, people will be with me. But, regardless of where I am, the crowd erupts anyway, so I don’t see it as an advantage.”
Ortiz Jr., like cruiserweight Artur Beterbiev, is also receiving attention because of his perfect knockout ratio. His promoter, Golden Boy’s Oscar De La Hoya, says Ortiz Jr. is the definition of a finisher. When Ortiz Jr. has someone hurt, he goes for the kill. It’s an aggressive attitude reminiscent of De La Hoya’s prime when he took on the best available opposition in becoming the game’s biggest superstar in the 1990s and 2000s.
“The way fighters think today is so disappointing (the attitude) of not wanting to take the toughest fights, not wanting to take the toughest challenges,” De La Hoya said. “So when we think of Vergil, I think of a throwback fighter, a fighter who wants to take challenges. He wants to become great and to become great, you have to challenge yourself.”
Now, with the almost year-long layoff drawing to a close, and the medical issues behind him, Ortiz Jr. is ready to get on with knocking people out. He can hardly wait. “I’m back, I’m better, I’m stronger, and I’m excited to be back in the ring,” he said.