By Maria Maxham
Sixteen-year-old Jeremy Ortiz is wearing a hoodie and sweatpants. Sitting at the dining room table with his father, he laughs as his little brother puts on his own headgear and boxing gloves. Ortiz is humble and polite. Respectful, with a slow but genuine smile. According to his father David Ortiz, who is one of his boxing coaches, Jeremy is also a good student.
He doesn't act for one second like he's the #2 ranked boxer nationally in his age and weight class. But he is.
When he steps into the ring, something happens — an intense but controlled fierceness emerges.
"I can't explain it," he said. "It's like I can hear what's around me, but my only focus is on the match." That focus is what has driven him to compete — and win — some of the biggest tournaments in the country.
"I've always liked contact sports," he said. "I like to punch, and I love the adrenaline I feel during a fight. It's incredible."
What makes Jeremy's rise in the sport even more compelling is the fact that he's only been boxing for about four years. He played football for years and was a junior blackbelt in Tae Kwon Do. He's tried wrestling and Judo, doing well in both. But it was the minute he stepped into a mixed martial arts (MMA) gym and tried kickboxing that it became evident boxing was the sport for him. Or, perhaps, that he was meant to be a boxer.
"Right away, he started countering attacks with punches. It was his natural reaction," said David. "I knew that boxing was what he needed to pursue."
At the age of 12, Jeremy started competing. Although David's father had boxed, David and Jeremy were new to the sport.
"We were strangers walking into competitions and signing up to fight. We weren't with a gym. We just showed up," said David. "I was his coach, but I wasn't even allowed in his corner because I didn't have the right credentials. We had a lot to learn."
It took about two years for both Jeremy and his father to become familiar with the sport, not just the athletic component of it but the regulatory aspect as well. And it wasn't just Jeremy who trained. David became a USA certified boxing coach in order to be an advocate for his son.
Jeremy's always training — boxing doesn't have seasons like most other sports — but right now he's gearing up for the Team USA Championships in Louisiana in December. He earned his spot by reaching the finals at the USA Boxing Elite Amateur National Tournament in Ohio this October.
There, he competed against the #1 ranked fighter in the same age and weight group, Emilio Garcia, who had previously won the gold medal at the Junior World Championships in Bulgaria this past summer, making him arguably the best boxer in that age and weight range in the world.
It was the first time Jeremy fought Garcia, and the match went back and forth to the last bell, when Garcia was awarded the victory in a 3 to 2 split decision.
Although disappointing, he lost to the best.
"I wanted to prove to myself that I could get to the finals," said Jeremy. "I fought the #1 kid in the world, and I was nervous but felt accomplished that I made it that far. It was proof to me that all my hard work is paying off."
And hard work it is. Jeremy's schedule — and his father's, for that matter — are grueling. Jeremy lives part time in Forest Park with his father, stepmother and stepsiblings. But he attends high school in Oswego, where his mother lives. Every day David drives from Forest Park to Oswego, either to train Jeremy there or pick him up and bring him to his gym in Chicago.
Jeremy trains out of the Chicago Youth Boxing Club (CYBC) in Little Village in the city, with coaches Lalo Beas, Gavriel Navarro and his father. CYBC is a nonprofit, running programs for at-risk kids. Boxing is a way to get those kids off the streets and into a competitive sport. Over the years, it became more than that; the young athletes became really good, reaching top national rankings annually.
On days he doesn't spar, Jeremy runs cross country. "He signed up for the team to help with endurance and stamina for boxing," said David. "And then he came home one day and casually mentioned he'd placed in the top 20 of over 200 kids in the junior varsity state cross country meet."
In December, when Jeremy travels to Louisiana to compete, there's a lot at stake. He hopes to make the 2020 Team USA Youth & Junior squad, which would mean high-performance training camps at the Olympic Training Center and the possibility of being on an international competition team.
The Olympics is one of his ultimate goals. He'd be eligible to compete when he's 18, and the next time boxing will be represented in the Olympics after that is 2024.
In the meantime, he'll keep competing and training. He's working on endurance.
"I'm an aggressive puncher," he said when asked about his fighting style. "I combine defensive and offensive moves. I'm initiating more now, pressing forward."
His father says in boxing, as well as in life, dreams are achieved "one goal at a time."
"Our parents taught us how to survive," said David. "We teach our kids how to dream."
David plans to look for opportunities to share the sport with the community. He's considering opening a boxing studio in Forest Park or offering classes at the Roos Recreation Center.
"We want to do what we can to share the sport of boxing, and the discipline and confidence it brings, with as many people as possible," he said. "We love this community; we love living in Forest Park. I'd love to bring the sport here."