“Anyone who lets the other guy hit him is just plain stupid.”—Carlos Ortiz
Lightweight champions like Joe Gans, Battling Nelson, Henry Armstrong, Benny Leonard, Tony Canzoneri, Kid Chocolate, Lou Ambers, Ike Williams, and Roberto Duran were kings of the ring to their very core.
Carlos Ortiz, one of the greatest lightweights of the 20th century, earned a place in their august company.
Ortiz was junior lightweight champion from 1959 to 1962, followed by two reigns as WBA lightweight champion, from 1962 to 1965 and from 1965 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 80 years ago today, on Sept. 9, 1936, in Ponce, Puerto Rico. He is no longer young, but he is sturdy and good-humored, and we spoke at Gleason’s Gym about how boxing transformed his life.
“I came to New York City, the United States, back in 1947, and I was eight years old,” said Ortiz. “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!”
Ortiz found a Boy’s Club a block from where he lived. “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 he does not 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.”
I wondered what it was like growing up in New York in those days.
“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 NBA 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 96-22-11at the time, was for the WBA World lightweight title. The fight was televised nationally 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.”
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.”
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 in 1972 with a 67-7-1 (30 KOs) record. When asked if he was as defensive as those numbers suggest, the champ laughed and said, “I was everything but a coward.”
This article was penned by the author who is not related to the WBA and the statements, expressions or opinions referenced herein are that of the author alone and not the WBA.