Luis Ortiz stops Bryant Jennings in seventh round while battling flu

VERONA, N.Y. -- Luis Ortiz, welcome to the heavyweight big time.

In an extremely impressive performance, Ortiz overpowered former world title challenger Bryant Jennings in a violent seventh-round knockout victory to retain his interim title Saturday night at the Turning Stone Resort Casino.

It was the kind of exciting knockout that figures to launch Ortiz into the consciousness of boxing fans, especially with the heavyweight division being wide open following Tyson Fury's dethroning of former longtime champion Wladimir Klitschko on Nov. 28.

Making Ortiz's victory even more impressive was his disclosure after the fight that he has been sick with the flu all week, which was obvious by the way he was coughing during a ringside interview.

"I would never do that, pull out of the fight," he said through a translator. "But the whole week I was vomiting. I had a fever, but I kept training."

Just imagine if he had not been ill.

"Amazing performance," said Eric Gomez, vice president of Golden Boy Promotions, Ortiz's promoter. "There's a new heavyweight on the scene that can do it all. He can box, he can punch, he's exciting. He had the flu all week, but he didn't want to pull out of the fight. He wasn't going to pull out of the fight."

Ortiz started very strongly in a huge first round. He drove Jennings into the ropes midway through the round and opened up with a series of shots that caught Jennings and had him wobbly and in trouble. Moments later, a right hand rocked Jennings again. Ortiz also landed a hard right hand to the body and later had Jennings wobbling backward across the ring.

Ortiz picked up where he left off in the second round, hurting Jennings with an uppercut, although Jennings landed an uppercut later in the round for a little get back.

Ortiz had Jennings (19-2, 10 KOs), 31, of Philadelphia, in big trouble again in the third round, hurting him with another uppercut and again with a chopping left hand that had Jennings grabbing onto Ortiz in order to stay upright.

Jennings came back nicely in the fourth round to land some heavy shots, although Ortiz didn't budge.

Ortiz (24-0, 21 KOs), 36, again caught Jennings with a huge uppercut late in the fifth round. The crowd gasped, but Jennings surprisingly stayed on his feet. He didn't in the sixth round.

Ortiz nailed Jennings with a massive flush left uppercut, and Jennings went down. It appeared as though the fight would be called, but Jennings got to his knees and impressively beat referee Richard Pakozdi's count. Although Jennings was very shaky, Pakozdi allowed the fight to continue.

But Ortiz, a southpaw, was all over Jennings, nailing him with a powerful right hand that sent Jennings into the ropes and then landing a left hand that nearly knocked him down again as Pakozdi stepped in to stop it at 2 minutes, 41 seconds.

"There was a game plan, but when you go up in the ring you have to adapt," Ortiz said. "I told my trainer I saw a lot of flaws in his style and one thing I noticed was he likes to lean forward. I told my trainer after that uppercuts would work."

When the fight was stopped, Ortiz, known as "The Real King Kong," leaped onto the corner turnbuckle and began beating his chest.

"I was a little surprised, but it was a good thing he was able to get up," Ortiz said. "I knew he wasn't right mentally when he got up. I wanted to knock him out, though. I didn't want a TKO. But I did my job. I train hard in the gym and fight hard."

Jennings was fighting for the first time since going the distance but losing a lopsided decision to Klitschko, then heavyweight champion, on April 25. He took a lot of hard shots from Klitschko and has a reputation for having a solid chin.

"I think it was me underestimating his pedigree and me thinking that my pressure would [be better than] his pedigree, and he outlasted me," Jennings said. "That's how it was. He was hitting me with clean punches, good punches.

"I wasn't on my game, and he got the best of me tonight. I should have tried to wear him down earlier."

Said Ortiz, "[Jennings] is a fighter who deserves much respect. Not everyone goes 12 rounds with Klitschko."

Ortiz was making the first defense of the vacant interim belt he won on Oct. 17 by knocking out unknown Matias Ariel Vidondo in three rounds on the Gennady Golovkin-David Lemieux undercard. But he came into that fight and this one with the baggage of testing positive for a banned steroid following a first-round knockout of Lateef Kayode to win the same interim belt in 2014. But that result was erased, and Ortiz was fined and suspended.

Ortiz said he has put the incident behind him and also agreed to undergo rigorous random drug testing, blood and urine, for the fight conducted by the Voluntary Anti-Doping Association, the leader in the field.

Now Ortiz, who was a standout amateur in Cuba with a record of 343-19 who defected and now lives in Miami, just wants to continue pursuing his dream.

"I'm trying to accomplish my dream," Ortiz said. "Ever since I saw my first fight, Muhammad Ali on a small, dingy TV back in Cuba, my dad introduced me to boxing, and my dream has always been to be heavyweight champion."

With his kind of pure power, speed and amateur background, Ortiz could be on his way.

"We'll go for the biggest fight out there that we can get," Gomez said. "We're willing to fight anybody."

Said Ortiz, "I don't care who's next. I want the best. Line 'em up. I'll fight them all. I invite everyone to come fight me on HBO."

HBO certainly plans to keep him on the air.

"I think after a performance like that, the sky's the limit for him," HBO Sports executive vice president Peter Nelson said. "Riveting fight and spectacular knockout. It closed a great year of fights for us."