Following two postponements, Vergil Ortiz Jr. and Eimantas Stanionis will finally meet on Saturday in San Antonio in a welterweight contest that’s been in the works for well over a year. This fight is highly anticipated, featuring two action boxers on the short list of rising contenders looking to stake their claim in one of boxing’s most-popular divisions.
Errol Spence Jr. and Terence Crawford, who will fight for the undisputed welterweight championship on July 29, stand alone at the top of the 147-pound heap. Spence is 33, while Crawford will turn 36 in September, and the pair of pound-for-pound boxers will almost certainly scrap again with a bidirectional rematch clause in the contract. It’s also possible that the return bout will take place at 154 pounds as both fighters have discussed a move to junior middleweight in the future.
Rounding out ESPN’s welterweight top 5 is the man many have earmarked as the division’s future: Jaron Ennis. “Boots” has the look of an elite talent, and he’s clamoring for a chance to prove his skill level in the sort of marquee fight that’s eluded him.
Ennis also fights Saturday, a PBC on Showtime main event against Venezuelan brawler Roiman Villa (No. 10 in ESPN rankings) in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Villa (26-1, 24 KOs) is coming off the biggest win of his career, an upset majority-decision victory over Rashidi Ellis in March. He’s once again an underdog this weekend, and a significant one at that (+700, per Caesars Sportsbook).
Ortiz and Stanionis were set to fight on March 18 before Stanionis underwent an emergency appendectomy while training in Lithuania. The fight was rescheduled for April 29 before Ortiz withdrew with a flare-up of rhabdomyolysis.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, rhabdomyolysis occurs when damaged muscle tissue releases its proteins and electrolytes into the blood. These substances can damage the heart and kidneys and cause permanent disability or death.
Ortiz told ESPN he was fully cleared in May after being treated by Dr. Juan Bautista in Fresno, California, who diagnosed him with long COVID following a battery of tests.
“I actually had a hunch that that’s what it was, but I didn’t know too much about it — I’m not a doctor,” Ortiz said. “I’ve never felt this good in a good maybe three or four years…. I’m still training hard … that was never the problem…. I’m noticing that I’m not huffing and puffing, and I just feel great overall…. I can’t explain how good I feel compared to how I was.”
Now that Ortiz has received a clean bill of health and this pivotal key welterweight matchup is on, who is best-positioned to take over the throne from Spence and Crawford once they leave the division? Here are five welterweight champion hopefuls, beginning with Ortiz, Stanionis and Ennis.
Vergil Ortiz Jr.
Hometown: Grand Prairie, Texas
ESPN welterweight rankings: 3
Record: 19-0 (19 KOs)
Ortiz owns a 100 percent knockout ratio, with his best wins coming against Maurice Hooker and Egidijus “Mean Machine” Kavaliauskas. Since that August 2021 victory over Kavaliauskas, Ortiz has competed only once as he dealt with the lingering effects of rhabdomyolysis.
Ortiz told ESPN he believes the illness is under control ahead of the biggest fight of his career. Stanionis is a rising star in his own right, a punishing body puncher who’s displayed immense strength in the clinch.
Ortiz’s relentless pressure style and ability to string together powerful combinations have been enough to overcome all 19 of his opponents, but Stanionis is a level or two above the rest.
If Ortiz can also dispense of Stanionis inside the distance, he’ll leave little doubt that he’s poised to take on the likes of Spence and Crawford — if not Ennis — in the biggest fights the division can offer.
“I’ve been so inactive, it’s depressing when you’re just at home and you feel like a bum and you know you should be out there…,” Ortiz said. “I’m trying to show them that I’m here like I never left.”
Hometown: Kaunas, Lithuania
ESPN welterweight rankings: 5
Record: 14-0 (5 KOs)
Trained by Hall of Famer Freddie Roach, Stanionis has been itching for a big fight for some time.
A pressure fighter with a strong jab and a penchant for body punching, Stanionis is coming off a career-best victory. He was able to grind out Radzhab Butaev last April, but hasn’t competed since as he looked to finalize the Ortiz fight.
Now, recovered from surgery to remove his appendix in January, Stanionis is days away from the biggest fight of his life. With a win over Ortiz — Stanionis is a +320 underdog — he can cement himself as an elite fighter in line to take over the division. And like Ortiz, Stanionis will be stepping up several levels in opposition. Butaev is an accomplished fighter, but Stanionis must prove he can handle the finishing power of Ortiz.
Not much defense is expected in this DAZN matchup between Ortiz, who fights for Golden Boy, and Stanionis, who has impressed on a series of PBC cards.
Stanionis was extended the distance by Thomas Dulorme and many other mediocre fighters while Ortiz wasn’t, perhaps one reason Stanionis is surprisingly such a decided underdog.
Hometown: Philadelphia, PA
ESPN welterweight rankings: 4
Record: 30-0 (27 KOs)
“Boots” Ennis is arguably this group’s most talented and looks like a pound-for-pounder.
He can box off the back foot, on the inside and has displayed plenty of power. His hand speed is impressive, too, and there isn’t any glaring weakness. Now, Ennis needs the dance partners to show he’s ready for the best.
Ennis finished off Sergey Lipinets inside six rounds and Dulorme, who went the distance with Stanionis, in only one round. Custio Clayton lasted just two rounds.
Ennis still needs to prove he can absorb a powerful punch and handle adversity. Those question marks won’t be answered until Ennis is tested against an elite opponent. And Villa likely won’t provide any clarity.
The Venezuelan is tough and can punch, but might not have the boxing skills to contend with Ennis. If “Boots” can handle Villa as he did Lipinets, Clayton and Dulorme, his less-than-thrilling shutout victory over Karen Chukhadzhian in January will be quickly forgotten.
Ideally, Ennis will find himself in a fight against the winner of Ortiz-Stanionis. After all, they’re on the same schedule, too.
“I know Villa is a straightforward fighter and that’s tailor-made for me,” Ennis said. “I’m going to win because I’ve been putting in the work, day in and day out. All my hard work will show on fight night. I’m ready to shine and make a big statement on July 8.”
Hometown: Essex, United Kingdom
ESPN welterweight rankings: N/A
Record: 21-0 (14 KOs)
The son of British legend Nigel Benn, Conor appeared on the fast track to a title shot before being mired in a doping controversy. Benn’s planned fight with Chris Eubank Jr. last October was scrapped following an adverse finding for the banned substance clomiphene in Benn’s A sample, and he continues to argue his case with U.K. Anti-Doping (UKAD).
Benn has maintained his innocence all along.
“We have never cut corners or cheated the grind in any way,” Benn said in a statement released on social media in December. ” … It’s been really hard for me to accept that people think that I would do what I was accused of.”
Whenever Benn does return — he hasn’t competed since a KO 2 over Chris van Heerden in April 2022 — his explosive punching power and star appeal in the U.K. should lend itself to more big fights.
Hometown: Irvine, California
ESPN welterweight rankings: 9
Record: 23-1 (15 KOs)
Rocha is the least proven of this bunch. Promoted by Oscar De La Hoya, Rocha has impressed with a series of stirring knockout victories, but none have come against world-class opposition.
Since a close decision defeat to Ellis in October 2020, Rocha has scored seven consecutive victories, with his biggest win a ninth-round KO of Blair Cobbs last March.
Rocha will have to step up several levels in class before his ceiling is clear, but we already know his floor: a reliable action fighter. And that goes a long way in this sport. He’s strong, durable and has proven his punching power. He’s not there to box and move but plow forward as a brawler.
Rocha makes a lot of sense as a future opponent for Ortiz since they’re both with Golden Boy, and he’s also in position for a shot at the WBO title currently held by Crawford.