Carlos Ortiz: Miracle on 29th Street
“I had 18 title fights,” said Ortiz. “I only lost four. I did what I set out to be and I did it better than what I expected…”
“Where else could a poor kid from Puerto Rico get the break I got, if not from boxing?”—Carlos Ortiz
There have been some amazing lightweight champions over the years. Men like Joe Gans, Battling Nelson, Benny Leonard, Tony Canzoneri, Lou Ambers, Ike Williams and Roberto Duran were kings of the ring to their very core. The great boxer-puncher Carlos Ortiz, by any estimation, earned his place in their august company.
Ortiz was junior lightweight champion from 1959 to 1962, followed by two reigns as lightweight champion, from 1962 to 1965 and from1965 to1968. During his long and illustrious career he defeated such outstanding boxers as Kenny Lane, Battling Torres, Duilio Loi, Joe Brown, Flash Elorde, Ismael Laguna, Johnny Bizzarro, and Sugar Ramos. His sneaky jab, clever right, swift feet and ring smarts were the hallmarks of his Hall of Fame career.
Carlos Ortiz was born in Ponce, Puerto Rico on Sept. 9, 1936. He is no longer young, but is sturdy and good-humored, and he spoke to me about boxing and how it transformed his life.
“I came to New York City, the United States, back in 1947, and I was eight years old,” he said. “Next year I went to Macy’s and got into trouble and they told me you have to join a Boy’s Club or else we’re gonna come get you and put you in the slammer. They scared the shit out of me!”
Carlos Ortiz was lucky. He may have needed a second chance. A third chance wasn’t necessary. Good fortune, as it turned out, was right near his home.
“I found this Boy’s Club just a block from where I lived,” Ortiz said with a smile. “Madison Square Boy’s Club it used to be, right on 29th Street. I lived on 28th Street. I went right there and I joined.”
It was a decision Ortiz has yet to regret.
“The director gave me a tour of the Boy’s Club,” he recalled. “It had a swimming pool. It had a place where you could play billiards. They had a movie theater. Then he brought me over to the gym and it just happened that there was a boxing class going on and I heard a noise—‘boogadoo-boogadoo-boogadoo boom-boom boogadoo-boogadoo-boogadoom’—and I fell in love with that noise. I said, ‘Where’s that noise coming from?’ And he says, ‘The boxing team is practicing today.’ I said, ‘I got go upstairs. I wanna see it. Can you show me?’”
Ortiz and boxing were about to touch gloves.
“So he brought me upstairs and there’s this kid pounding this bag—and it was the most beautiful thing I have heard and ever seen. I mean that ball was going back: boogadoo-boogadoo-boogadoom. ‘That noise! I says. ‘This is beautiful. I got learn to punch that.’”
So lucky little Carlos Ortiz, at the age of nine, joined the boxing team at the Boy’s Club on 29th Street.
“I got up there the first day,” Ortiz said, “and I felt like I was in heaven. Once I started practicing with that bag I felt at home. It was a godsend. From that day I never missed a day in the gym. I did whatever they told me to do. I had to go to school, so I used to do roadwork after school and then at the nighttime I used to go to the gym. And that was my introduction to boxing.”
Ortiz was fresh off the boat from Puerto Rico. I wondered what it was like growing up in New York in those days. Things had to have been different than they are today.
“In my time you came over here it was strangers in paradise. People didn’t like intruders. I used to get my ass kicked in every day. Any place I went to in the city I was always beat up—because I was Spanish. I had to survive. I had to find a way to protect myself. And then I got into boxing. I learned how to defend myself, and I learned how to go to school, when to go to school, with whom to go to school, with whom to walk around in the street, how to walk around in the street, and how to take care of yourself.”
Ortiz turned pro in 1955 with a first round knockout over Harry Bell at the legendary St. Nicholas Arena. After going 29-2 with 1 ND over the next four years, he TKO’d Kenny Lane (57-6 at the time) on June 12, 1959 at New York’s Madison Square Garden to win the vacant junior welterweight crown.
“I was junior welterweight champion, which I won in 1959 and then I lost in 1961. But I got the opportunity to fight for the title I really wanted. The junior welterweight title was made up, brought back from the old days. I really wanted to be the lightweight champion and in 1962 I fought Joe Brown in Las Vegas and I became lightweight champion of the world. And that was the beginning of my life.”
The long reigning lightweight champion had won the title in 1956. “Old Bones” was a formidable presence and had successfully defended the crown 11 times. The bout with Brown, who was 96-22-11going in, was nationally televised and turned Carlos Ortiz into a star.
“I was champion for at least nine years,” Ortiz said. “I had 18 title fights. I only lost four. I did what I set out to be and I did it better than what I expected. I got inducted into the Hall of Fame, which to me was a glorious moment. Everybody calls me the champ. No matter where I go, I’m still the champ.”
Boxing takes its toll—it’s the nature of the beast—but Ortiz is remarkably fit for a man his age.
“I come to the gym. I go to the gym. I feel good coming into a gym. I work out in the gym and when I work out I feel good,” he said. “That’s what I’ve been doing all my life and my body’s used to it. I still hit the heavy bag. I still jump rope.” Ortiz paused. “Boxing I never do no more. But I do train. I run. I don’t run in the winter, but I run in the summertime—and constantly. This is what I’ve done all my life.”
Ortiz has given his life to boxing, but boxing has given back.
“Besides God, I think boxing has been a blessing to me. I practice it, but I practice it right. Boxing is dangerous, but it’s not dangerous if you do it the right way. I’ve always done it the right way. I always was sure I was in top shape. I was always sure that I would do exactly what I was supposed to do in the ring, and not do what I was not supposed to do outside the ring. I love boxing. It means everything to me. Today is because of boxing. God put me in this game, to practice it, to be a man and learn how to live.”
Boxing seems so basic, so elemental, yet misconceptions abound. I’ve heard it once if I’ve heard it a thousand times that “Boxers don’t feel pain like the rest of us.”
I asked Ortiz if that was true.
“It’s the same pain,” he said. “It’s the same pain. No matter what, it’s the same pain. When you go into the ring, it’s ‘I’m gonna hit you but you’re not gonna hit me,’ and anyone who lets the other guy hit him is just plain stupid. I’m not gonna show off that I’m big, aggressive, and tough enough to take punches. No, I’m good enough not to take punches. I practiced that technique. You throw at me—but you ain’t going to hit me. I throw at you—I knock you out. I had almost 200 fights, amateur and pro, and getting hit is nothing nice.”
Ortiz retired from boxing in 1972 with a 67-7-1 record. I asked if he was as defensive a fighter as his record suggests.
The champ laughed and said, “I was everything but a coward.”
I wanted some perspective on Carlos Ortiz and spoke with Mike Silver, boxing historian and author of “The Arc of Boxing: The Rise and Decline of the Sweet Science,” to get his take on the former champion.
Silver needed a nanosecond to assess the fighter.
“I consider Carlos Ortiz one of the greatest lightweights of the 20th century,” he said. “I’ve been following his career since I got involved with boxing at the age of fourteen. In fact, one of the first fights I ever saw on television was Carlos Ortiz vs. Kenny Lane for the junior welterweight championship.”
Silver not only saw Ortiz on TV. He knows and has spent time with him over the years and is as impressed by the man as he was by the boxer.
“He’s a boxing historian,” Silver told me. “Like all the fighters, they hate the business of boxing—but they all love the sport. Carlos loves the sport. He loves the history of the sport. I’ll never forget talking to him after he was inducted into the Hall of Fame. He said, ‘You know who was sitting on the dais with me? I couldn’t believe it!’ I said, ‘No, who was sitting with you?’ He said, ‘Jimmy McLarnin! Can you imagine that! Jimmy McLarnin was sitting on the dais with me and I had a chance to talk with him.’
“Now here was a great fighter, who has a sense of boxing history, who appreciates the great fighters who came before him. What most impressed me about Carlos is his intelligence. He graduated from high school in the 1950s—not usual for a Puerto Rican who came here as an immigrant—with honors by the way. Based on conversations with him, I have absolutely no doubt this man could have graduated college without a problem. He could have become an engineer, perhaps a lawyer. I mean he had the ability and that intelligence. You’ll find that fighters for the most part, fighters who are intelligent, they transfer that intelligence to their boxing. When you talk to him about boxing, you’re talking to a scientist, somebody who has broken down the sport, understands it completely. And his style was so intelligent. The way he fought was so precise and beautiful to watch—a master boxer who could punch too. Every fight with Carlos Ortiz was like watching a boxing instruction book come alive.”
Mike Silver husbands his enthusiasms. There are those he admires and those he does not, but he resorts to superlatives only when it’s appropriate.
“If you want to see what Carlos could do to today’s fighters, there are two fights to watch. You could see it in Carlos Ortiz vs. Battling Torres. If Battling Torres was around today he would be considered an all-time great. He was wiping out the competition. Unfortunately for Battling Torres, he came up against a fighter he wasn’t ready for. He didn’t quite have the experience. He was a very tough fighter, but Carlos just took him apart in ten rounds and stopped him. It was Torres’ first defeat. He was never the same after that. The next fight was Carlos at his absolute triumphant best—his third fight with Ismael Laguna. That fight is a master boxer handling an extremely talented, athletic fighter who simply cannot overcome, despite his superior speed, Carlos Ortiz’s magnificent boxing ability. It’s watching a lost art. If you want to see a profoundly talented boxer incorporating the art of boxing into his repertoire, just view either one of these two fights and you’ll get an idea of what Carlos Ortiz would do with today’s so-called, in quotes, ‘champions.’
“Carlos is a proud man, as he should be, and all great champions have ego when it comes to their ability. But he’s not enthused by the modern-day fighters and I quote him in my book talking about Floyd Mayweather and explaining why he could beat him. It’s all logical, makes sense—just as his boxing style was logical and makes sense.” Silver paused. “I think that he’s a living treasure, the last of the truly great fighters who employed the art of boxing to win, and young fighters would get more out of viewing those two films than they would a year under their trainer.”
Ortiz’s greatness is not open to dispute. But Carlos Ortiz, at least as Silver describes him, sounds like an anomaly, a throwback, a remnant from a bygone era, a vestige of the last golden age.
“He was the exception to the rule,” Silver said. “When he turned pro in ’55, the industry was not developing the numbers of great fighters, or near-great fighters, that it had in the past when the competition demanded it. Television also had a lot to do with it. But it’s like a spinning top. It doesn’t stop all of a sudden. It slows down, it slows down, it slows…and then it stops. Boxing was slowing down. But you still had Charley Goldman training fighters. You had Bill Gore, Willie Pep’s old trainer. You had some of the old-time trainers working with fighters and imparting their knowledge. You didn’t have the tomato can mentality, the mismatch culture you have today. Fighters were still put into competitive fights. Not many great fighters were developed after the war, but there were enough to keep the art of boxing alive. You had Joey Giardello coming after the war. You had Harold Johnson coming after the war. You had Joey Giambra and Duilio Loi coming up. You had Emile Griffith, Luis Rodriguez, Jose Napoles, and of course Carlos Ortiz. And it still made the sport interesting. So I think anomaly is too strong a word.
“I’ll tell you who the anomalies are,” continued Silver. “The only two anomalies that I see are Pacquiao and Mayweather. You have an incredibly talented athlete with tremendous natural ability and instinct in Mayweather, who, with that type of reflexes, skills and sense of anticipation, in his prime would have given lots of fighters lots of problems. I don’t think he would have become a champion, because he would have had to develop extra skills, he would have had to develop more technical ability—how to get out of the way of a straight left jab, how to get a barrage going without darting back ten feet, and how to use his athletic ability to become more effective because the old-timers would have known how to counter that speed.
“Pacquiao has that incredible old-school work ethic and he has a difficult southpaw style. He’s interesting to watch. I don’t think he’s a great fighter, I don’t put him in any top ten, but he adds interest to the sport. But if you go back thirty, forty, fifty years, we didn’t have just one Pacquiao. We had maybe twenty Pacquiaos. You didn’t have just one Mayweather. You had maybe a dozen guys with that type of natural ability—or more. So every now and then we see somebody come up and they develop some skills and that’s an anomaly. A lot of fighters today have TREMENDOUS natural ability. I see it all the time when they turn pro. You have someone like Yuriorkis Gamboa. What a talented fighter! In the golden age, who knows how far he could have gone? But we do not live in a boxing environment that can bring out that talent to its fullest potential. The training isn’t there. The competition isn’t there. It’s just the way it is.”
There will be naysayers. That’s to be expected when one challenges the status quo. It sometimes seems as if Mike Silver goes out of his way to divide opinion, consciously, willfully, perhaps gleefully, and he may or may not be a nostalgist. But having pushed the clock forward, I wondered if Silver could turn back the hands of time and tell me how he thought Carlos would have stacked up against lightweights like Gans or Leonard, two of the sweetest sweet scientists the game has ever known.
“After Benny Leonard and Joe Gans, the lightweights are one of the most difficult divisions to place a top ten,” he said, “because there were so many super fighters in that division. I don’t think he’s in the top ten, but I would have no problem putting him somewhere among the top twenty-five. I think Leonard would have been a little too smart, even for Carlos. But I think Carlos against Roberto Duran, who was a great lightweight, is a pick ‘em fight. I’ve spoken to a few old-timers whose opinions I respect tremendously who said that they felt Carlos Ortiz would have out-boxed Roberto Duran. Duran always had problems with guys who could move and knew how to throw a jab and were elusive—and Carlos could be very elusive, just look at his fight with Joe Brown. Leonard and Gans would have considered Carlos Ortiz a dangerous opponent and they’d really have to be on their game to defeat him. But you could name any one of a hundred lightweights of the golden age that would have been competitive with every other great lightweight that ever lived. That’s how deep the talent in that division was. You had Lou Ambers, Henry Armstrong, Barney Ross, Tony Canzoneri, Kid Chocolate, Sammy Mandell. Now we’re talking about the greats of the great.
“Carlos would say, ‘Well, I’m not sure how I’d do against those guys.’
“I believe he’d be the first to tell you that.”