The CBZ Newswire

Touching Gloves with…Gaspar Ortega

by on Apr.24, 2014, under Boxing News

By Dan Hanley

Indian Red #1

While my Dad was appeasing his voracious appetite for the sweet science during the mid – 60s, he was inadvertently jump-starting the same desire in his 8 year old son, who was peering curiously over his shoulder. And as that desire grew, I hung on every word he had to say about those leather-pushers whom I had missed. Perhaps it was in part to my overactive imagination, but it allowed me the privilege of seeing through my Pop’s eyes one particular welterweight. He was described as lean and strutting confidently in an Indian headdress, which created an aura of edge-of-your-seat-boxing. I could’ve listened forever to Pop’s stories of Gaspar ‘El Indio’ Ortega.

 DH: Gaspar, where in Mexico are you from?

GO: I was born in Mexicali, but when I was about a year old we moved to Tijuana.

 DH: What was life like growing up in a tough border town like TJ?

GO: Tijuana was a very busy town because of the visitors and tourists coming up from San Diego. And with 14 kids in our family there were a lot of mouths to feed, so we were always out working. It was expected of us. I shined shoes, I sold gum and I sold newspapers. Anything to make money.

DH: What got you interested in boxing?

GO: I had an older brother who was fighting. He was known as ‘El Torito’ Ortega. I went to see him fight and I liked it. Eventually we had a younger brother fighting as well. He was known as ‘Sapo’ Ortega.

DH: Did you have any kind of an amateur career?

GO: Oh, yeah. I won the 1950 Baja Golden Gloves title at flyweight.

 DH: Gaspar, Mexican boxing records are always so sketchy. How accurate is the existing record that you turned pro in ’53 at the age of 17 and had 176 fights?

GO: (laughs) Not very accurate at all. I actually turned pro in 1950 at the age of 14 after winning the Golden Gloves. Also, I had over 200 professional fights.

DH: That is amazing! Who did you turn pro with?

GO: I had no manager or trainer. My brother, ‘El Torito’ would help me out getting fights.

DH: When did Nick Corby take over as your manager?

GO: That was around…1954. I had come north – just over the border – and he found me. He had been hearing things about me and approached me when I was working in a shoe shine shop. He said, “There’s a gringo looking for you.” I asked him where he was and he says, “I’m standing right in front of you.” I shadow-boxed for him, and of course, he saw me fight and I signed on with him and Jimmy Stinson as co-manager.

DH: Most Mexican fighters who migrate north will venture as far as Texas or California. But, after four years of fighting in Sonora and Tijuana, you went straight to Madison Square Garden in New York. Tell me how that came about?

GO: That was Jimmy Stinson. After signing with them he told me he wanted to take me to New York. I actually asked him why I had to go so far. (laughs) I would have been happy enough going as far as San Diego. But that was the place to go to make some money.

 DH: Who introduced the ‘El Indio’ nickname along with the Indian headdress?

GO: Well, the headdress was just for promotion because I was a Zapoteca Indian and they thought it would look good and set me apart. But the nickname I had since I was a kid. Down in Mexico everyone had some kind of nickname and believe me, they were never complimentary. My brother, ‘Sapo’ Ortega got that because of an issue he had with his throat and ‘Sapo’ means frog-like. We were poor and my nickname loosely translates into ‘Barefoot Indian’. But these were names that stuck and became a part of us.

DH: 1956 became your breakout year. But it started out rough by losing your first main event in the Garden against Isaac Logart. Tell me about that fight.

GO: Isaac Logart was a very good fighter and a good body-puncher. We fought four times over two years.

 DH: You reversed that loss to Logart in Boston later that same year and then shot to #2 in the world ratings with two wins over former welterweight champ Tony DeMarco. Tell me about those fights.

GO: I knew I could outbox DeMarco and I just kept it up to the end of the fight. Everytime he would attempt a left hook, I would counter it with a right. I fought smart both times.

 DH: How soon did you know you were fighting him in a rematch?

GO: Almost immediately. They said I was fighting again in three weeks. I said, “Who am I fighting?” They say, “Tony DeMarco!” And we’re on again. But I have to tell you a funny story about that rematch. I called home and told my Mother I was fighting again in Madison Square Garden and she actually hopped on a plane for New York without me knowing it. She gets to New York and even the Spanish-speaking people don’t understand her because of her Zapotec dialect. She’s in a cab and the cabbie is asking her where she wants to go and she’s telling him things that he doesn’t understand but she said something he caught and he says, “Gaspar Ortega?!” It was lucky I had been on TV a few times because he drove her to Madison Square Garden where the promoters told them where I was staying. (laughs) It’s amazing she ever made it.

 DH: After losing the third fight to DeMarco in Boston, you continued mixing in good company. Tell me about your two fights with Kid Gavilan in ’57.

GO: Gavilan won our first fight in Miami and we rematched in Los Angeles. Well, just before the fight, my wife, Ida, goes into labor. She’s taken to the hospital and I have to go through with the fight. Somewhere around the 7th round our son Michael was born. (laughs) I guess I was doing good because they wouldn’t tell me until the fight was over. I had a newborn son and a win over Gavilan.

DH: My Dad always told me you could throw a mean bolo punch. Is this something you picked up from Gavilan?

GO: No, I had been using the bolo much earlier, but I used it primarily to the body. My preferred punch was a looping overhand right.

DH: In late ’57, after Carmen Basilio gave up his welterweight title, you were involved in the eliminators to crown a new champion. How did this come about?

GO: Well, I was rated #4 or 5 at the time and the top contenders were involved. I drew Isaac Logart and I lost which I believe was our fourth fight.

 DH: By mid ’58, I understand Nick Corby was trying to drum up interest to bring the winner of the tournament – Virgil Akins – out to L.A. to defend his title against you. How close was this to being made?

GO: Dan, he couldn’t get the kind of money that was needed. This was never close to being made.

DH: In late ’58, you lost two split decisions to Don Jordan on the west coast. And of course, Jordan got the title shot against Akins. Tell me about those fights.

GO: I thought I had won but there was something fishy going on when Don Jordan was involved. I’ll tell you something that went on before our second fight. I’m in the hotel room with my manager when the phone rings and Nick says he has to see somebody in the lobby. Well, the minute he leaves I get a knock on the door. A very well-dressed man comes in and offers me $10,000 to lay down in the 4th round. I tell him, no way. And I tell Nick when he comes back to the room. When we get in the ring I spot the guy at ringside and I tell Nick. By the time we turned around he was gone.

DH: There were always rumors that Jordan was mobbed up.

GO: I heard the rumors too. And it was the only time I was ever approached.

 DH: In early ’59 you took on undefeated future champ Denny Moyer in the Garden and lost was was described as a horrible decision. You were actually being called by the press as the ‘Unlucky Indian’ because you always seemed to be on the short end of these split decisions. Do you recall?

GO: I do. I just wasn’t getting any breaks.

DH: You finally nailed down one of those split decisions in mid ’59 when you beat Benny ‘Kid’ Paret. However, he got the title shot the following year. Tell me about your first fight with Paret.

GO: Benny was a very tough fighter, but I went into that fight with the same mindset. I gave it everything. But like you said, he got the title shot. There is no justice in boxing. You had to have connections to make it.

DH: In October of ’60 you took on the #1 ranked Federico Thompson in another Garden 10 rounder and lost what was generally recognised as another bad decision. Do you think the fact that he had already signed to fight for the title in the Garden in December had anything to do with it?

GO: Dan, I would have had to knock him out to win that night.

 DH: In January of ’61 you took on former 3 time champ Carmen Basilio, also in the Garden. Now, he drew a 30 day suspension for coming in almost 5 lbs. over the contracted weight of 155. Gaspar, he had 10 lbs. on you. How did you cope with that?

GO: Dan, my job was fighting. I didn’t look at the particulars of a fighter because I often sparred with heavier fighters. And to tell you the truth, I thought I won that fight.

 DH: With all those great Garden assignments you were drawing, were you seeing much money between the gate and TV?

GO: I fought for 4 years in Sonora, Tijuana and Mexicali and was making about $50.00 for a 10 rounder. When I fought my first 4 rounder in the Garden they paid me $150.00. So when I got my first taste of that kind of money I said to myself, (laughs) “No more Tijuana for me!” Eventually I was making $4000.00 in TV money plus 35% of the gate per fight. That was incredible money back then. And I had 41 fights on national TV.

Gaspar Ortega (left),  lands a left uppercut to the jaw of Benny (Kid) Paret during their August 7, 1959 scrap in Madison Square Garden, which Ortega won over 10 rounds.

Gaspar Ortega (left), lands a left uppercut to the jaw of Benny (Kid) Paret during their August 7, 1959 scrap in Madison Square Garden, which Ortega won over 10 rounds.

 DH: In February of ’61 you took on now-reigning welterweight champ Benny ‘Kid’ Paret in a non-title 10 rounder at the Olympic Auditorium in L.A. You upset the odds on that one, didn’t you?

GO: Dan, Benny ‘Kid’ Paret was made for me. I was like a Professor everytime he came in. I knew all his moves from the first round and won a unanimous decision.

 DH: The title changed hands in Benny’s next fight and you got the call for your long-awaited title shot for the welterweight championship of the world with the new champion. Tell me about your title fight with Emile Griffith.

GO: Well, first of all I should tell you that Emile Griffith did not want to fight me. He had won a split decision over me a year earlier and it must have been in his head. It was Gil Clancy, his manager, who talked him into it. I trained so hard for this fight, but then it got postponed a week. Instead of easing up on the training for the new date, I kept going. Then they had me sparring in open-air sessions. You know, with a crowd present. Well, I didn’t want to look bad, so every sparring session was a war. And they had me in with middleweights. I can tell you right now that the day of the fight I had absolutely nothing. I was so burned out and overtrained that Griffith had no problem with me.

DH: You got back on your bike and went on a crazy run of wins, including an 8th round stoppage of Stan Harrington in Honolulu. He was a tough man to beat in Hawaii.

GO: I remember training very hard in Hawaii for that fight. When we weighed in he looked so much bigger than I. He had a big upper body and was very strong. Somewhere in the fight I remember coming up from a crouch with a crazy uppercut, which sliced him open. The fight was stopped on a bad cut in the 8th.

 DH: I hate to bring up the ‘Unlucky Indian’ thing again, but, despite his loss, Harrington got the title shot against Denny Moyer for the jr. middleweight title in his next fight.

GO: (laughs) I never got a break.

DH: Gaspar, you had an incredible amount of fights. Just looking at 1962 for instance. You fought 4 times in May, 5 times in June and 4 times in July. That’s 13 fights in 3 months, which would take a fighter today a couple of years to engage in. Was this just to stay sharp or because the money was small?

GO: I think it would take a fighter today about 3 years to have 13 fights. But why I was so active was because I didn’t think I would get another title shot and just decided to take the show on the road.

 DH: On the same note of comparing your activity to today’s fighters, I always notice that in today’s game rematches are few and far between. Yet, looking at your record you fought Charley ‘Tombstone’ Smith 3 times, Stan Harrington 4 times, Isaac Logart 4 times, Tony DeMarco 3 times and Kid Rayo 5 times. How was the rematch looked upon in your day?

GO: The rematch meant you put on a good show the first time. You make a good purse because of that and the crowd gets a good show. Everyone wins. A rematch was a reward.

DH: Speaking of ‘Tombstone’ Smith. What happened to Nick Corby in the corner after your 3rd fight with ‘Tombstone’ in Butte, Montana?

GO: Nick had a heart attack. I didn’t even know it. I was dressed and wondering where he was. I went to the hospital when I found out and had to explain to them he was my manager so I could see him. He spent a week in the hospital, but he was okay.

DH: Who was training you throughout your career?

GO: Around 1954 when I went to New York, Nick and Jimmy brought in Happy Rodriguez. I didn’t speak a word of English at this time and Happy, being Puerto Rican, made it work. Then as I started fighting regularly in Madison Square Garden they brought in Freddie Brown to train me and Whitey Bimstein as my cornerman. Whitey wasn’t a great trainer, but what a cornerman! I remember once picking up a bad cut and within the one minute rest between rounds, Whitey had it stopped completely. Towards the end of my career, I finished with ‘Tiburon’ Rojas as my trainer.

 DH: You finished out your career in ’65. And, although you were only about 30, there was a lot of road you covered in Europe, Mexico and across the U.S. Were the reflexes just gone?

GO: I don’t think so. I was just tired of fighting. (laughs) It was to the point where it felt like I didn’t know where I was half the time. I was just tired of the road.

 DH: What did you get into after hanging up the gloves?

GO: I was living in New York when a fellow I knew named John Hicks contacted me about a position he thought I would be just right for. It was basically social work for the town of New Haven, Connecticut. I really liked it and worked in that field until retirement. I worked for Project More, which helped ex-offenders and for another project called Crossroads. It just seemed to be made for me.

 DH: Where is home today?

GO: East Haven, Connecticut. I’ve lived here 45 years with my wife Ida, whom I’ve been married to for 57 years and blessed with 5 kids.

 DH: Tell me about the book that was written about you.

GO: I was helping out training some kids and fighters in this gym when this fellow came in just wanting to get in shape. He asked an awful lot of questions about me, which I answered, and the next time he came in he said he spoke about me to his Dad in California who said, (laughing) “What do you mean ‘Indio’ Ortega is training you?” He was curious of who I was after that and eventually he wrote the book, ‘Friday Night Fighter – Gaspar ‘Indio’ Ortega and the Golden Age of Television Boxing’. The author is Troy Rondinone and he’s actually a History Professor at Southern Connecticut University.

DH: Gaspar, last question. In your long career, what would you have done differently?

GO: Truthfully, I have absolutely no regrets. I fought everyone that was out there and always fought a good fight. I’m okay today at 78, and when you think of the hard road I took – beginning in Tijuana – I think I’ve lived a great life.

#   #   #

The author’s late Father, Dan Hanley, Sr. (left) finally meeting up with one of his ring favorites, Gaspar Ortega, at the 2009 World Boxing Hall of Fame banquet in Los Angeles.

The author’s late Father, Dan Hanley, Sr. (left) finally meeting up with one of his ring favorites, Gaspar Ortega, at the 2009 World Boxing Hall of Fame banquet in Los Angeles.

There are absolutely no airs about Gaspar Ortega. Telling his tale seemed so matter-of-fact to him I don’t think he realized I was wide-eyed and slack-jawed listening to him. Followers of today’s game would have a hard time getting their heads around a 200 bout veteran who toed the mark with the very best and was non-plussed in its retelling. As I mentioned before, Gaspar was one of my Dad’s favorites. My Pops didn’t suffer fools and knew what he liked in this sport of boxing. He sure could pick ‘em.

See ya next round,

 

Dan Hanley

 

pugnut23@yahoo.com

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