Boxer Jeremy Ortiz, left, gets in the ring with his dad, coach and gym owner, David Ortiz, on Thursday, Jan. 6, 2022, at The Barracks in Chicago | Alex Rogals, Staff Photographer

When David Ortiz and his son, Jeremy, showed up at their first tournament, the organizers asked the coach for his boxing books.

David, then new to the coaching business, and Jeremy, then a pre-teen, had no idea what he was talking about. The father-son duo also brought the wrong headgear, tried to wear the wrong mouthpiece and did as good a job as one possibly could at looking completely out-of-place and entirely beatable.

Then, David says, Jeremy stepped in the ring and beat every fighter that was put in front of him.

In the six years or so since then, Jeremy has gone on an incredible tear, becoming one of the country’s top-ranked boxers and defeating nearly all comers, including national champions, future professionals and potential Olympians. He is coming off his first tournament against adults, the 2021 USA Boxing Nationals, where he finished fourth in the Elite division at 132 pounds. The 18-year-old Ortiz, one of the youngest fighters in the field, came into the event seeded sixth in a field that included fighters in their 30s.

Next up is a professional career, one the Ortizes see as a logical step in the younger man’s progression, and a chance to create both a family legacy and bring attention to dad’s newly opened Chicago gym, The Barracks, where a growing number of young fighters are latching onto the coach who now knows well which mouthpiece and headgear to bring to the ring.

For hard-charging David Ortiz, who grew up in Chicago and now makes his home in Forest Park, and Jeremy, who splits time between here and Oswego, the path to boxing success was sometimes hazy, occasionally rocky, and remains full of potential pitfalls, but to get to where they have together has brought them joy beyond whatever success lies ahead in the ring, and closer as father and son than ever before.

“I feel like we’ve come a long way just learning about the sport, getting better at training and even our relationship,” Jeremy said from the floor of The Barracks earlier this month. “I feel like we’re able to talk to each other more now, about certain things that we can work on and things we’re doing.”

“There’s an off button now, too,” David, sitting nearby, chimed in with a laugh.

There’s also an off button, yes,” Jeremy said.

Gym owner David Ortiz, left, practices with his son, boxer Jeremy Ortiz, on Thursday, Jan. 6, 2022, at the Barracks in Chicago. Alex Rogals | Staff photographer

Finding the right sport

Jeremy Ortiz is an athlete. He’s a college athlete, in fact, a cross country and middle distance runner at Elmhurst University where he is a freshman studying exercise science. But it took a while for David and Jeremy to find the sport that suited the younger Ortiz best.

They started with the traditional routes, like soccer and football, before transitioning to combat sports and training in taekwondo. After a brief return to football, Jeremy found his way to judo for a short while, then to a mixed martial arts gym where his former taekwondo instructor, now working at that gym, suggested kickboxing.

“We put him in kickboxing for a couple weeks and I was realizing that every time the kid that he would spar with would kick, my son would check him with a punch,” David said.

The problem was there was no boxing pro- gram at the gym where Jeremy was training. So David, who never boxed either but said his dad (Jeremy’s grandfather) fought in his youth, started up the program himself, despite having only previously coached football and wrestling.

For Jeremy, who was around 12 years old when boxing came into focus, the fit was apparent right away.

“Boxing was where I felt my best,” he said. “I just really fell in love with it as I kept doing it and just kept going.”

“It’s kind of weird,” he added, “because really, basically, you’re volunteering to get punched. That’s it. It’s just the rush and the fact that it’s me. I don’t have to rely on a team. It’s just me. I’m relying on myself and my ability to win this match.”

Wins, however, didn’t come right away. After a brief stint at some other gyms, Jeremy made his way to the Chicago Youth Boxing Club (CYBC) in Little Village where he met a much stiffer brand of competition.

“They kicked the [crap] out of him,” David said of the young fighters at CYBC. “They whupped his [butt] every week. And I told him in the car, this will happen every single time until it doesn’t, and this is something I can’t teach you.”

There were moments, unsurprisingly, where Jeremy wasn’t sure that getting his butt kicked time and again was the right path.

“For sure there are definitely days where you’re just like ‘what am I doing? Am I even getting any better?’” he said. “But it’s just the fact that I didn’t want to leave. I just wanted to keep going. I just had a feeling that if I keep going, I’m going to get better … and that’s just how it went. We just kept going and then we saw progress.”

Lalo Beas was one of the first people to see Jeremy fight and after joining David Ortiz in the corner at an early event, the two went on to coach briefly together at Undefeated Boxing Academy, where Beas still coaches.

In those early days, Beas saw Jeremy’s immense potential when one of his prized pupils challenged an inexperienced Ortiz in the ring.

“My fighter fought Jeremy and we actually won [but] it was a great fight, it was a war,” Beas said. “And I was like, wow, that Jeremy kid is really, really good.”

Ortiz’s next major challenge would come in the Silver Gloves tournament in 2017 and 2018. Ortiz advanced to the national tournament in Independence, Missouri — his first major tournament — and he finished third. From there, he was off to the races, and his career has taken him across the country to find new challenges as word of his prowess has made finding opponents in Chicago more difficult, Beas said.

Then, of course, the pandemic struck, and everything in the world of traveling sports went on hold. David Ortiz converted his garage into a home gym, and father and son worked to develop a training plan ahead of the elite nationals in December, where Ortiz returned with a fury and posted his fourth-place finish.

And as they have moved up the ranks, David and Jeremy have managed to grow alongside each other as well. The younger Ortiz’s studies have helped him temper his dad’s high-intensity instincts in training, including more rest days and out-of-the-ring workouts among their schedule, and the elder Ortiz has learned to back off a bit, especially when competitions roll around.

“In the fights it’s a lot different than training,” Jeremy said. “In training, he’s on me about everything. Everything is for a reason. Offense has to be good, defense has to be nice and tight.”

“In the fights, though, there can’t be stress,” he continued. “It’s all up to the fighter. You don’t want to overstress the fight. I give [David] a lot of credit for that because he never really stresses me in those fights. He tries to make me as comfortable as possible.”

That doesn’t mean Jeremy goes into his bouts carefree. He is fairly soft spoken and claims to have never been in a fight out- side the ring. He has a thinking man’s approach to the sport — something David said he believes is driving a whole generation of young fighters — but Jeremy has an anger he can tap into as well.

David said he works to keep his fighters from seeking knockouts, something he said comes from a “bloodthirst” but there has to be a certain amount of anger, an ability to channel that anger effectively, that comes after getting punched in the face.

Beas said he’s seen a different side of Jeremy in the ring and, certainly, his opponents have as well.

“It’s not the fact that you shouldn’t be emotional,” Jeremy said. “It’s the fact that you need that control. You show it when you need to. If you’re angry, you wait for it. You’ve got to wait for it. And then when the opportunity shows itself, then you can use the anger.”

Gym owner David Ortiz, left, gives a tour of the facility with his son and boxer Jeremy Ortiz on Thursday, Jan. 6, 2022, at the Barracks in Chicago. Alex Rogals | Staff photographer

Making their name

Beas calls the Ortizes the “dynamic duo” and said David has begun to attract some of the top talent in Chicago to his gym, even though The Barracks has only been open for a matter of months.

“Talent attracts talent,” Beas said. “If you have a good boxer, people will notice. Other boxers will notice … David is acquiring a very, very good stable.”

Beas predicted the team from The Barracks could take home a handful of first-place finishes at the Chicago Golden Gloves later this year, assuming COVID-19 allows the event to be held, and David Ortiz said he anticipates as many as four of his fighters, including Jeremy, turning pro in the next several years.

As for the younger Ortiz, he says, “I definitely want to go professional” and David sees that move coming sometime while his son is still in his early 20s. For now, Jeremy has those Golden Gloves on the horizon, followed by some more national tournaments and then a reassessment of where a professional career can begin.

David said he is already working to get his son in front of influential managers and promoters, or get Jeremy invited to a camp held by a top professional boxer in need of training partners, something he said is a regular path to beginning a career where Jeremy can get paid to fight.

“This year, for him, is all about exposure. Notoriety,” David said. “Get him in front of the right people. [Jeremy] will be a professional real soon.”