When Vergil Ortiz Jr. was 5 years old, his father, Vergil Ortiz Sr., who boxed as an amateur, picked his son up from kindergarten one day and took him to a gym in Dallas. Vergil Jr. remembers it well.
"I thought it was cool and all, but it looked kind of boring at first because they were just hitting the bag," the younger Ortiz said. "The first day I didn't really care for it. But the second day there was sparring and I was like, 'Oh, cool, they're fighting!' So I asked my dad, 'Hey, can I try it?' And he said, 'You want to try it?' I said, 'Yeah, I want to try it.' There was some other 5-year-olds training and they stuck me in there [to spar] with no prior experience, and they said I did pretty good."
That was when Ortiz's love affair with boxing began, and it has only grown. Ortiz said he began to realize how powerful he was when he was 17.
"I would spar some of these guys I would go to tournaments with and they were like four, five years older than me," he said. "I'm able to hang in there, and then next thing I'm hurting them and they don't want to spar me anymore."
Ortiz (15-0, 15 KOs), 21, of Grand Prairie, Texas, was a seven-time national amateur champion and approximately 140-20 in the unpaid ranks before turning pro as a junior welterweight in 2016.
Golden Boy Promotions has moved him quickly thanks to his tremendous power, intense work ethic and maturity. At 21, he is still growing. He moved up to welterweight in 2019 and went 4-0, with his past three fights coming against an increased level of opposition in former junior welterweight world title challengers Mauricio Herrera (in May) and Antonio Orozco (in August), as well as Brad Solomon (on Dec. 13). None had ever been knocked out, until Ortiz blitzed all three of them inside six rounds.
Thanks to those impressive victories and massive potential, Ortiz, an exciting crowd-pleaser, was the clear pick for 2019 prospect of the year.
"I don't want myself to get bigheaded or anything," Ortiz said. "I just acknowledge it, and I just tell myself this is happening because of the hard work I do in the gym."
Ortiz likely will be back in action in March, and Golden Boy plans to have him fight four times in 2020.
"We're going to march him up the rankings," Golden Boy president Eric Gomez said. "He needs a little bit more experience, but the talent, the tools he has, you can compare them to any of the great champions. He's aggressive, but he can box. He can knock you out with any punch. The kid is that good. It's exciting to see. He's one of the kids, when he fights, I get excited and make sure I'm in my seat.
"His defense is good. He tends to block a lot of shots with his arms, so I'd like to see a little more head movement. That will come with time. He's the total package."
Ortiz has been trained by Robert Garcia for his past six fights, after parting ways with Joel Diaz, and Ortiz has gained massive experience by sparring top fighters in each of their gyms. That list is impressive: Mikey Garcia, Jose Ramirez, Omar Figueroa, Lucas Matthysse, Timothy Bradley Jr., Josesito Lopez and Brandon Rios.
"That was really good sparring. I would say a lot of my experience comes from the sparring," Ortiz said. "It really rubs off. I love sparring. Robert and I are working on one thing and one thing only -- to become a champion. Robert doesn't have anything less expected from me."
Ortiz said he modeled his game off fighters such as Oscar De La Hoya (who also is his promoter), Floyd Mayweather and Miguel Cotto. And Ortiz was particularly stoked to meet Cotto during fight week ahead of the Herrera bout.
"My dad said he based me off of Cotto," Ortiz said. "He had a nice jab. He was really clean with his punches, his combinations. He was an awesome fighter."
Ortiz hopes that by the time all is said and done, he will become a household name and a four-division world champion, from welterweight to super middleweight. The potential is certainly there.
"That's what you have to do to be remembered in this sport," he said. "There are many world champions that win one, maybe two titles that you don't even know who they are. I want to be remembered in the next 50, 100 years."
In the shorter term, 2020 is when Ortiz figures to take the next step toward becoming a serious contender.
"I definitely would like some kind of title shot or at least a big name, a big respectable name," Ortiz said. "We might have to wait or we have to force a champion to fight us by becoming mandatory. I understand that. But we're gonna make our name heard and let people know we're here. We're gonna make it happen.
"I really do think I can be pound-for-pound No. 1, as long as I stick to what I am doing and my team supports me. I really do think I can do it. I'm not just saying it."
The rest of the top 15 rising stars
2. Daniel Dubois (22, England, heavyweight, 14-0, 13 KOs): Many think the 6-foot-5, 240-pound Dubois is a future star. He is built like a truck, has quick hands and good footwork for such a big man and has power in both hands and respectable defense. Dubois, who has sparred with Anthony Joshua and Tyson Fury, went 5-0 (all by KO) in 2019, including wins over former world title challenger Razvan Cojanu and unbeaten Nathan Gorman to win the British title. Promoter Frank Warren, hyperbole or not, calls him "the most exciting young heavyweight prospect" that he's had in almost 40 years of promoting. 2020 could bring a showdown with unbeaten countryman Joe Joyce.
3. Israil Madrimov (24, Uzbekistan, junior middleweight, 4-0, 4 KOs): The Joel Diaz-trained Madrimov, who now lives in Indio, California, was a standout amateur in a career that included a gold medal at the 2018 Asian Games. After a stint in the World Series of Boxing, he turned pro in November 2018, and he has looked like a future champion against legit opposition from Day 1. Madrimov and his team, including manager Vadim Kornilov and co-promoter Eddie Hearn, believe he can fight for a world title now. In his second pro fight, Madrimov destroyed Frank Rojas (24-2 at the time) in two rounds. In his next two fights, he stopped experienced Norberto Gonzalez and Alejandro Barrera. He'll move quickly.
4. Ryan Garcia (21, Victorville, California, lightweight, 19-0, 16 KOs): The 2017 prospect of the year has power, speed and a deep amateur background (215-15 with 15 national titles). He already is a popular attraction with a big fan base and has the potential to be a major star. He has smoothed things over after a rough patch with promoter Golden Boy in 2019, a year in which he fought only twice but looked good both times, including a sensational and unexpected first-round knockout of Romero Duno in November. He is now with trainer Eddy Reynoso and trains alongside middleweight champion Canelo Alvarez, which can only be a positive.
5. Filip Hrgovic (27, Croatia, heavyweight, 10-0, 8 KOs): The 6-foot-6, 235-pound Hrgovic looks like the real deal, and he is on the fast track. He was a 2016 Olympic bronze medalist and he has looked good since turning pro in September 2017. His power is excellent, his combinations are fluid and he is defensively responsible. He has shown dedication by training far from home in Miami with top trainer Pedro Diaz. Hrgovic capped a 3-0 year (all by KO) in 2019 by mowing down former title challenger Eric Molina in three rounds on the Anthony Joshua-Andy Ruiz II undercard. He is promoted by Eddie Hearn and Team Sauerland, so the connections are there for an eventual Joshua fight.
6. Janibek Alimkhanuly (26, Kazakhstan, middleweight, 8-0, 4 KOs): Alimkhanuly, a southpaw who lives in Northridge, California, had a stellar amateur career of more than 300 fights, including winning the 2013 world amateur championships and representing Kazakhstan at the 2016 Olympics. He has an all-star team behind him in trainer Buddy McGirt, manager Egis Klimas and promoter Top Rank. Even though he is only eight fights into his pro career, Alimkhanuly can probably handle himself with anybody; but McGirt is working with him to sit down more on his punches and develop more of a pro style. He could move very quickly, as well.
7. Jaron "Boots" Ennis (22, Philadelphia, welterweight, 24-0, 22 KOs): The younger brother of former pros Derek and Farah Ennis, Jaron has been a pro for 3½ years, following an amateur career in which he was 58-3 and a 2015 National Golden Gloves champion. He has all the tools: speed, power, skills and charisma -- and slots on Showtime to showcase his talent. However, Ennis boxed just twice in 2019 due to a promotional dispute. His handlers need to raise his level of opposition, which they are seemingly doing by matching him with Bakhtiyar Eyubov on Jan. 10.
8. Efe Ajagba (25, Nigeria, heavyweight, 12-0, 10 KOs): The 6-foot-6, 235-pound Ajagba, a 2016 Olympian who went 41-2 with 30 knockouts as an amateur, including a gold medal at the 2015 African Games, is an imposing figure with lights-out power. Based in Houston, he has a strong team behind him in elite trainer in Ronnie Shields, Premier Boxing Champions, manager Shelly Finkel and Ringstar Sports promoter Richard Schaefer. Ajagba was 4-0 in 2019 as he stepped up his level of opposition, including wins over Amir Mansour, then-unbeaten Turkish Olympian Ali Eren Demirezen and Iago Kiladze, who did manage to drop Ajagba in the third round of an otherwise one-sided, fifth-round beatdown.
9. Gary Antuanne Russell (23, Capitol Heights, Maryland, junior welterweight, 12-0, 12 KOs): Russell, a southpaw, is one of the fighting Russell brothers that includes older brother and featherweight world titlist (and former prospect of the year) Gary Russell Jr. Gary Antuanne has similar talent. He was a 2016 U.S. Olympian. And so far, the PBC fighter has yet to be challenged as a pro. He is mean in the ring, has excellent power and is more offensive-minded than his brother.
10. Charles Conwell (22, Cleveland, junior middleweight, 11-0, 8 KOs): Conwell was a 2016 U.S. Olympian to cap a tremendous amateur career, which also included gold medals at the 2015 National Golden Gloves and Olympic trials. He is very aggressive and has good power, but a hand injury limited Conwell to two fights in 2019. When he did fight, promoter Lou DiBella and manager David McWater stepped up his opposition. He defeated Courtney Pennington in June. Then Conwell fought Patrick Day, who died days later from a brain injury suffered in their October bout. Conwell took Day's death hard; it remains to be seen how he rebounds from that terrible situation.
11. Chris Colbert (23, Brooklyn, New York, junior lightweight, 13-0, 5 KOs): Colbert was a 2014 New York Golden Gloves and a 2015 U.S. national champion. He qualified for the U.S. Olympic trials for the 2016 games but instead turned pro in 2015. He has speed to burn and all-around skills. Colbert's power seems to be improving, because two of his four wins in 2019 came by knockout inside two rounds against experienced opponents. The Premier Boxing Champions fighter will face his first major test on Jan. 18 when he meets former junior lightweight world titlist Jezreel Corrales for a vacant interim title.
12. Abraham Nova (25, Albany, New York, junior lightweight, 17-0, 13 KOs): One of 10 children, Nova was born in Puerto Rico to Dominican parents and moved to Albany with his family as a baby. He was 167-11 as an amateur before turning pro in 2016, and he has looked good as a pro. He was one of the main sparring partners for Teofimo Lopez Jr. during Lopez's training camp for his lightweight world title victory on Dec. 14. Nova recently signed a co-promotional deal with Top Rank, which has big plans for him. Nova, with a reputation as a very hard worker, was 3-0 (all by KO) in 2019. He throws fluid combinations, has speed and is big for the 130-pound division. 2020 could be a breakout year for him.
13. Joseph Adorno (20, Allentown, Pennsylvania, junior lightweight, 14-0, 12 KOs): Adorno, who grew up in Puerto Rico, has power in both hands, but his left hook is his best punch -- one that has drawn comparisons to the money punch of Puerto Rican legend Miguel Cotto. Adorno was 3-0 in 2019, and he is the youngest prospect to make this list. He hasn't faced serious opposition yet, but he appears to have all the tools. Top Rank plans to give him a bigger push and step up his opposition in 2020.
14. Edgar Berlanga (22, Bronx, New York, middleweight, 13-0, 13 KOs): A pro since 2016, Berlanga has moved a bit slowly, but he didn't have a vast amateur career. His calling card is pure power. He is worth watching because he has won all of his fights by first-round knockout, including four in 2019, even when promoter Top Rank has tried to match him with opponents it believes will give him some rounds to gain experience. His popularity as a New York attraction is growing, and having recently signed with manager Keith Connolly, he figures to get a bigger push. Top Rank sees Berlanga having the potential to someday headline on the weekend of the Puerto Rican Day Parade in June in New York City.
15. Tim Tszyu (25, Australia, junior middleweight, 15-0, 11 KOs): When Tszyu turned pro in 2016, he was a curiosity to many simply because of his famous last name. He is the son of International Boxing Hall of Famer and former undisputed junior welterweight champion Kostya Tszyu. But as he has progressed, Tszyu has improved -- a lot. He has shown good power, is throwing straight punches and no longer appears to be living off his surname. He was 4-0 in 2019 against reasonable opposition, and he continues to develop nicely.
Also keep an eye on (alphabetical): Conor Benn (welterweight), Joshua Buatsi (light heavyweight), Brian Ceballo (welterweight), Christian Mbilli (middleweight), Meiirim Nursultanov (middleweight), Diego Pacheco (super middleweight), Stephan Shaw (heavyweight), Daniyar Yeleussinov (welterweight), Tony Yoka (heavyweight), Rubin Villa (featherweight).