The boxing world rejoiced last weekend as heroes, past and present, were inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame. One of the stars was Puerto Rican great Miguel Cotto, but a day later a shadow was cast over the sport and the famous fighting island when one of their great ones, Carlos Ortiz, passed away.
He was 85, a three-time world champion and a popular, familiar staple of many International Boxing Hall of Fame weekends.
The former lightweight and junior-welterweight champion with the big grin, who’d sign anything for anyone and could often be seen laughing with fans from beneath a sports cap died in New York where he’d lived since he was eight.
Born in Ponce, Puerto Rico, on September 9, 1936, Carlos was the fourth of eight children and was sent to the USA with a sister.
It wasn’t an easy transition and he was involved in a number of street brawls before lacing on gloves at the Madison Square Garden Boys Club.
He was inspired by the likes of Sugar Ray Robinson, Jake LaMotta, Joe Louis and Kid Gavilan and trained after working shifts as delivery boy.
Carlos had around 40 amateur contests and traveled to the UK as part of a New York team, turning pro because it was something to do. He won his first 20 without a blemish and remembered his early education from him saying: “On my way up you could n’t find any bums.”
By this time, he supplemented his income working in a Bronx warehouse and in 1957 he boxed to a No Decision against future referee Lou Fillipo at Hollywood’s Legion Stadium. Carlos was initially disqualified for landing a right to the body after the ninth-round bell but California’s ‘no-foul rule’ saw it switched to a No Decision before Carlos won a 10-round rematch five weeks later.
Ortiz was 27-0 when he suffered his first defeat, a split decision to Johnny Busso in Madison Square Garden. It was close. UPI had Ortiz up 6-4, the Associated Press had the same score but the other way and in a poll of 14 ringside sportswriters, six favored the Puerto Rican, three scored for Busso and five had it even.
“No, I won’t protest the decision,” Carlos sighed. “What’s the use? But I know I won the fight.”
Ortiz was victorious in an immediate rematch, then traveled to England to beat the brilliant southpaw Dave Charnley. Charnley was one of the best from England to never claim a world title, but Carlos won at a canter.
Ortiz had enjoyed his stay, even singing a duet with promoter Jack Solomons at the weigh in and the British press raved about his performance.
A couple of months later, the underrated Kenny Lane beat Carlos on a majority in Miami but that narrow loss kickstarted a stellar run in 1959 and 1960 that saw Ortiz win four of five, stopping Philadelphia Len Matthews and beating Lane on cuts in two in a return, this time for the junior-welterweight title.
The crown didn’t mean much to Ortiz. It had been dragged off the shelf and not been fought for in 13 years. It means more now in the record books than it did at the time. Even Carlos said he didn’t feel like a champion because no one recognized the weight class.
However, Ortiz stopped an ambitious Battling Torres and then beat 102-1-7 Italian Dulio Loi in San Francisco before losing a rematch back in Italy.
There was another defeat to Loi, in front of 40,000 fans at the famous San Siro stadium but Carlos wanted to get amongst the bigger money at lightweight. On April 21, 1962, he beat wonderful Joe Brown for the tile over 15, with some ringsiders giving Brown just one round.
Brown, a month shy of his 36th birthday, was outclassed.
Ortiz took occasional non-title fights and made four defenses, including victories over Flash Elorde and Lane again, before running into Panamanian hero Ismael Laguna in San Juan. Again it was close, again Ortiz was on the wrong end of a majority.
Seven months on, he took the title back from Laguna in a rematch in the first title fight in Puerto Rico since Sixto Escobar beat Harry Jeffra in 1938.
“He’s a great champion,” conceded Laguna. “He won it clearly and cleanly… don’t excuse me.”
When Carlos traveled to Argentina and drew with the great defensive master Nicolino Locche next, many thought Ortiz won.
“Most of the fans at Luna Park Stadium booed the verdict,” reported the Associated Press.
Still, Ortiz had grand plans. He talked of going up to welterweight to fight Curtis Cokes or Emile Griffith, but there was plenty of work at 135lbs and he made five defenses, beating strong opposition in Johnny Bizzarro, Flash Elorde and Sugar Ramos.
The Ramos fight – in Mexico, where the Cuban challenger lived – was remembered for the wrong reasons.
There was a post-fight riot which was so vicious Ortiz sped back up the aisle with a bucket over his head to avoid the incoming debris. Several spectators were injured.
Former world light-heavy champion Billy Conn was the referee and he’d stopped the fight in the fifth because of cuts around Sugar’s eye. Conn summoned the commission twice to inspect the cuts, but they refused. As 23,000 fans hurled their missiles, the WBC tried to get the boxers to continue their own hostilities, overruling Conn, but Ramos – bleeding badly – didn’t want to. Then, the WBC tried to announce Ramos as the winner to pacify the locals and ultimately their title was declared vacant.
It was a short-term fix and after Ortiz knocked out Elorde again (for the WBA only), Carlos Ramos fought once more (with the vacant WBC belt on the line) and this time hammered him inside four rounds in San Juan. Ortiz made $75,000 that night, the most a lightweight had earned, but he added $20,000 to that in a third fight with Laguna, winning over 15 rounds.
At one point, in Puerto Rico, Carlos sparred an exhibition with one of his idols, Ray Robinson, but in 1968 he defended his title in the Dominican Republic against another hometown fighter, Carlos Teo Cruz. Climbing off the floor in round one, an out of sorts Ortiz lost a split decision in what he’d call “my worst fight”. Ortiz retired in 1969 and won seven comeback fights in 1971 amid speculation of a contest against Jose Napoles, but Ken Buchanan halted Carlos in six as chief support to Muhammad Ali-Floyd Patterson II.
Buchanan – stepping in for an ill Roberto Duran – had taken the call while he was on vacation, making his way to America with barely a week’s notice. The fight told Ortiz what he had left. He could feel himself tiring in the fourth and knew he was spent two rounds later.
That was it for the Puerto Rican star. He’d never been stopped before. Although he’d cut Buchanan under the right eye, Ortiz ran out of gas and couldn’t come out for the seventh.
Carlos was booed and that was a sad way for a great champion to leave the ring for the final time. “This was my last hurrah. I’m through,” I admitted.
Ortiz boxed 70 times, winning 61, losing six and drawing just one. Thirty wins came by knockout.
Finally, Ortiz could rest. Puerto Rico’s first world champion since Escobar 30 years earlier had done it all. He was a road warrior before the term became fashionable. “I gave a chance to all the fighters, all the contenders, and I went in to their backyard,” he recalled. “I went to Manila to fight Flash Elorde, I went to Tokyo to fight Teruo Kosaka. I went all over.”
In retirement, he had a Puerto Rican nightclub, owned some apartment buildings and a liquor store in the Bronx and dry-cleaning businesses in Puerto Rico but fought a drinking problem, lost almost everything and then drove a cab in New York. He also trained fighters at Gleason’s Gym and why not? He’d learned from the likes of Whitey Bimstein, Charley Goldman, Al Braverman and Sammy Cherin.
In 1991, Carlos Ortiz was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame and told fight-writer Bobby Cassidy how his visits upstate New York were annual highlights.
“I cannot wait to come back to Canastota every year,” he smiled. “When I’m here I get so elated because of the fans. They don’t leave me alone. I must have signed 3-4,000 signatures, but it’s the most exciting time of my life, when I come to Canastota and I see my picture in the Hall of Fame and with all the fans. It’s just beautiful.”
He didn’t make it this year, and a day after the likes of Floyd Mayweather, Bernard Hopkins, Andre Ward and, of course, his countryman Miguel Cotto were enshrined, the flags were flying at half-staff for the little Puerto Rican great who’d traveled the world making his indelible mark on boxing history.