The Sound And The Fury Of Vergil Ortiz Jr.

If Vergil Ortiz Jr. doesn’t have his boxing gloves on, it’s most likely that he has a guitar in his hands. While he dabbles with the piano and is an avid gamer as well, his growing collection of guitars are the things he says he can’t live without.

Music and boxing have always gone hand-in-hand for the welterweight sensation. Hard rock music was the soundtrack of his trips to the boxing gym as a child with his father, and after Guitar Hero inspired him to pick up the real instrument, it became both an escape from the rigors of training and an educational tool. He’ll sit on Instagram live and take requests from fans and he’ll do interviews while holding his guitar, still gliding his fingers over its strings and between its frets.

Like other fighters in the past, Ortiz has described feeling a musical rhythm while in the ring. Sonny Liston would skip rope to Jimmy Forrest’s Night Train on repeat throughout his career. More famously, Sugar Ray Robinson would travel with crates of records he would train to, ultimately becoming so engrossed with the music that he became as much a figure in the jazz scene as the musicians he idolized, as a club owner, dancer and recreational pianist . “Rhythm is everything in boxing. Every move you make starts with your heart, and that’s in rhythm or you’re in trouble,” he would say. “Your rhythm should set the pace of the fight. If it does, then you penetrate your opponent’s rhythm. You make him fight your fight, and that’s what boxing is all about.” Robinson’s rhythm in the ring was the sound of the time—a Sugar Ray highlight film can be perfectly set to a jazz score. Robinson’s biographer Will Haygood described him as being “guided by the jazz in his head.”

The sound in Ortiz’s head is more likely to be Of Mice & Men than Miles Davis. An avid metal fan, his gait in the ring looks like he’s boxing with thumping drums and screaming guitars on his headphones. The rhythm of metal has been described as the gallop rhythm, and Ortiz’s footwork drums along. With his brow furrowed and lips pursed, shoulders hunched and chin tucked behind gloves bobbing in unison with his legs, Ortiz takes two gather steps—tap tap, tap TAP—and he’s on top of his opponent, shredding, throwing his combinations up and down , always hard and loud.

To the untrained or unwelcoming ear, metal music can sound like unplanned chaos, or merely a series of power chords, but a look at its sheet music shows its guitar riffs to be among the most challenging in contemporary music. Ortiz, likewise, can present as a straight-ahead pressure fighter in posture and cadence, and then he lets his hands go in combinations that can dazzle the eye.

“Now that I can play these songs, I can punch easier,” Ortiz told Andrew L. John of the Desert Sun in 2018. “It helps my rhythm. I’m more coordinated with both hands now. I’m more accurate. Using my hands is natural to me now. Like music, fighting is all about rhythm. You have to read a guy’s rhythm. You have to tell where he’s going to be, when he’s going to throw. For me, music is the main reason I can figure someone out.”

On Saturday night, it took Ortiz a little while to figure Michael McKinson out. It didn’t take him very long to figure out how to win rounds off of him, he did that from the outset. But Ortiz’s intention was to knock McKinson out, and the elusive underdog’s head movement made that more difficult than he’d hoped. It wasn’t until Ortiz decided he needed some lower notes, so to speak, a more concentrated body attack, that it finally clicked, stopping McKinson with a body shot in the ninth round.

“I’m not saying I got an “F,” but there’s a lot of room for improvement. I know I’m going to be mad watching this later tonight,” Ortiz said at the post-fight press conference. “There were a few instances where I had him hurt to the head. And I think where the main problem came was that I was headhunting. And the guy can move, he’s a very elusive fighter. And he knew I was going for the head because I saw him hurt. I picked it up, and unfortunately I made the wrong decision. I should have been chopping down the tree.”

Like any musician, Ortiz is a true perfectionist. In truth, Ortiz’s body attack with evident from the early going. The shots that were missing were mainly potentially fight-ending left hooks that McKinson was able to dodge up top. Eventually, he began freezing McKinson into a shell with feints and bringing those hooks with the same velocity to the body, or meeting McKinson with them as he attempted to pivot out of danger—throwing where McKinson was moving to.

Following the fight, McKinson said Ortiz hit him so hard in his hip that he couldn’t feel the right side of his body. In other words, the absolutely perfectly brutal body shot. But Ortiz will only see the mistakes, just as he only hears the mistakes as he’s learning a new tune. The goal is for the whole performance to be studio-perfect.

In 2021, after learning and memorizing Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata on piano, Ortiz began to learn blues songs on guitar, both because he wanted a new challenge as a musician and because he felt it might help him as a fighter. A new beat in his head could produce some new movement patterns, new combinations in the ring.

“It opens the musical library in my head,” Ortiz told Mark Whicker of the OC Register. “It’s hard sometimes, because I’m working out three times a day, but it’s how I relax. Plus it’s how I get into rhythm. You need the same sense of rhythm when you’re in the ring, trying to time your punches.”

It took him a little longer than he wanted against McKinson, but Ortiz ultimately found the right note in his library. A body shot is a little more blues than metal. A feeling in your stomach rather than a rattling of your head. A slow, agonizing crescendo ending.

Corey Erdman is a boxing writer and commentator based in Toronto, ON, Canada. Follow him on Twitter @corey_erdman


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