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Rebel in the Ring

Criminal justice student Max Ornelas juggles hitting the books and hitting the heavy bag as a pro boxer.

Athletics  |  Apr 17, 2018  |  By Jason Scavone
Max Ornelas throws a left uppercut

UNLV student and boxer Max Ornelas practices at the Roy Jones Jr. Fight Academy before his April 20 fight at Cox Pavilion. (Josh Hawkins/UNLV Creative Services)

Leopolodo Martinez ran his mouth during the lead-up to his fight with Max Ornelas last April. Ornelas, a 19-year-old UNLV criminal justice major, wasn’t amused. The 118-pounders fought two rounds at a Mariott in Burbank, California, before a head-butt opened a cut on Martinez’s head and he couldn’t continue.

In most states, that fight would be ruled a no-contest — effectively erased from either fighter’s record. In California, it’s ruled a draw. In boxing, a draw doesn’t have the same stain on your record as a loss, but it’s a mark, nonetheless.

Three months later, they met again. Martinez, not learning any lessons from the first fight, never stopped yapping. Ornelas listened with one ear while he stayed busy going to school while attending to the rigors of training camp

“We were supposed to fight in December the year before,” Ornelas said. “He pulled out of it. Then in March he pulled out of that. But he kept running his mouth the whole time. [The draw] just motivated me even more. He kept talking and he kept talking. I'm already a motivated person without the talking, but that motivated me more.”

Bad idea.

In the fifth round, Ornelas punished Martinez with a barrage of body shots. He retreated to the ropes and threw up his guard, hoping to last the minute-plus left in the round. Ornelas drove a right uppercut through Martinez’s exhausted defenses, and the older man crumbled, the first loss of his career.

Ornelas, with less than two years’ pro experience, came back in November for the first 10-round fight of his career against 13-year veteran Nick Otieno. Ornelas starched him. A shutout on all three cards for his 10th career win.

On April 20, Ornelas enters his 12th career fight with the best kind of home-field advantage, right at Cox Pavilion, when he faces Tony Lopez for a minor bantamweight title. [Ticket information.] The fight airs live on beIN Sports at 7 p.m.

“He's already fought here in Vegas a few times,” Gil Martinez, Ornelas’ trainer, said. “He brings a good crowd. I think it helps him and makes him feel at ease to have so many people there.”

Martinez has been training Ornelas since he started boxing at the age 7. Ornelas’ family moved to Las Vegas from California around then, and his older brother, who was in training, invited the younger sibling to the gym.

As the baby of the family, Ornelas had some convincing to do. Eventually, his mother came around and told him if he was going to fight, he was going to have to take it seriously.

That meant paying attention to school, too.  

“I would run before school,” Ornelas said. “And when I got to school, I couldn't wait to get to P.E. because I wanted another workout.”

Accustomed to juggling education with the school of hard knocks, Martinez had just one caveat for his charge when it came time for college — schedule morning classes, so the afternoons were free for training. Ornelas knew UNLV was his best option. It was already his hometown school, and it allowed the young fighter to stay in the epicenter of boxing in the United States.

As a pro, now Ornelas runs in the mornings, does strength and conditioning after that, squeezes in class, then goes to the Roy Jones Jr. Fight Academy (the retired champ shows up there sometimes) where he trains from 3:30 to 8 p.m.

Doing from two to four workouts a day is enough of a commitment, but throwing a load of coursework on top of it? Well, let’s just say that’s something Canelo Alvarez doesn’t have to contend with, too.

“If I'm at school, I’m not thinking about boxing too much,” Ornelas — who hopes to carve out a career as a detective if boxing doesn’t work out — said. “If I'm not focusing on school, what's the point of going to school? [Boxing] shows me if I have to do something, I have to do it. Don't lounge around. Don't get lazy.”

Nicknames in boxing often get recycled, but when they stick in later generations, there’s a rhyming quality to them that proves satisfying. Sugar Ray Robinson gave way to Sugar Ray Leonard, two champions united in dominance in multiple middle divisions, if separated by 35 years. Ornelas’ “Baby-faced Assassin” moniker recalls Johnny Tapia, a fighter from the ’90s and aughts who won his first two titles at 115 and 118 pounds, before going on to capture belts at 126 and 135.

Ornelas is tall for his weight and still growing — current 118-pound world champion Ryan Burnett stands 5-foot-4; Ornelas is closer to 5-foot-10. Martinez envisions world championships anywhere from 118 to 130. Every trainer says that about young fighters. Young fighters usually say that about themselves, too.

Ornelas, though, wants to take it one fight at a time. One opponent at a time. And right now, that means Tony Lopez in front of the home crowd at the Cox Pavilion.

Lopez might be well-advised, though, to keep a low profile beforehand.