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Review on ‘Friday Night Fighter: Gaspar “Indio Ortega” and the Golden Age of Television’

by on Oct.18, 2013, under Boxing News, Reviews

By Pete Ehrmann

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Friday Night Fighter:

 Gasper “Indio” Ortega and the Golden Age of Television Boxing

By Troy Rondinone

University of Illinois Press

304 pages, 14 b/w photos

 When I interviewed Gaspar “Indio” Ortega for The Ring magazine in 1995, the Mexican native who was a Top 10 welterweight in the 1950s and ‘60s and a staple of the fights that were a staple of TV network broadcasting then said, “I liked to be in the ring and show how Indio, with no education, can excite a lot of people.” Now 78, he’s doing it all over again thanks to this magnifico biography of a fighter and an era that ought to make up a little for the championship belt Ortega  never got.

Troy Rondinone’s history of television’s first go-round with boxing is outstanding in every respect. Twinning it with the riveting life story of the popular veteran of 200 or so pro fights was inspired and natural, since Ortega appeared in the Gillette series more times than anyone but Dick Tiger.

Ortega had his first professional fight at 14, and he arrived in New York City in 1954 on a Greyhound Bus with just $5 and the advice of his spitfire mother, Sebastiana: “If any gringo hits you once, you hit him twice.” The New York Times called him “Casper” Ortega, and when he got his first televised main-event two years later Gillette gave him a safety razor with which Gaspar is still shaving 59 years later.

His televised fights with Tony DeMarco, Kid Gavilan, Don Jordon, Benny Paret, Emile Griffith, Denny Moyer, Florentino Fernandez and so many more made Ortega as recognizable north of the border as Ozzie Nelson, and an idol to this day in his stomping ground of Tijuana.

Rondinone’s stories about the aforementioned warriors and such lesser-known but equally respect-worthy Ortega opponents as Hardy “Bazooka” Smallwood, Mickey Crawford and Rudell Stitch –“top-rated battlers, men who competed in a sport far more competitive than, and far different from, what we know as boxing today” — are compellingly poignant.

Griffith — perfectly anointed by Rondinone as the “Eternal Innocent” — stopped Ortega in their 147-pound title fight at the Olympic Auditorium in 1961, whereupon Indio became “The Boxing Gypsy,” fighting wherever and whenever he could make a buck. In ’64 he fought 29 times, 11 of them in May alone.

Rondinone’s unabashed admiration for the “living artifact of a forgotten golden age of boxing in America” doesn’t keep him from painting a lifelike portrait of his subject that includes a wart or two.

He also argues convincingly that the razor blades that brought pro boxing into homes for 22 years also cut the sport’s throat by scuttling the small club farm system, entrenching the mob’s control of boxing, and ruining the careers of many young talented fighters by pushing them into the spotlight too soon.

My hardly worth mentioning quibbles are that Rondinone’s roll call of historic Latino boxers doesn’t include Aurelio Herrera, that 1950s lightweight contender Johnny Gonsalves was not “unnotable,” and that Luis Manuel Rodriquez was more matador than “bullish.”

A self-described “academic historian,” Rondinone’s first book was The Great Industrial War: Framing Class Conflict in the Media, 1865-1950. After what he’s done for Ortega and boxing, I’m almost tempted to give it a try. Somebody punch me.

 

 

 

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