travels of Charley O’Brien: a.k.a. Carlos Ortiz
By Mike Casey
It was a landslide. There was no room for complaints, no
opportunity to lambast the referee and judges for being blind, incompetent or
downright crooked. The scorecards had been announced and they were enough to
make even a worldly old pro wince with embarrassment. Referee Frankie Van scored
the fight 74-60. Judge Bud Trayner tabbed it 74-58 and Dave Zeno completed the
set with a tally of 74-66.
It was the night that Old Bones Joe Brown finally turned into the
tortoise that got whipped by the hare. After a six-year reign and eleven
defences of his lightweight championship, Joe had been bumped emphatically off
his throne by the dashing young prince of Puerto Rico. It was the twenty-first
day of April in 1962.
Carlos Ortiz had travelled to the Convention Center Las Vegas for
the hardest fight of his life and ended up strolling past one of the greats of
the game at a canter. Now Carlos was in his dressing room, bursting with that
strange mix of joy and magnanimity that comes with the adrenaline rush of
“Joe is not the same fighter of two, three or four years ago when
I was coming up, but he deserves a return bout. He is a great fighter and was a
very good champion.”
There was no return because Joe Brown was suddenly old and could
no longer win the big ones. He would drop a decision to Luis Molina in his next
fight and later get knocked out by Dave Charnley, the tough Englishman he had
frustrated and vanquished in two title defences.
While Joe’s old bones would continue to creak, young Carlos Ortiz
would prove a worthy successor as one of history’s greatest lightweights. The
twenty-five year old stylist possessed a shrewd boxing brain, an excellent jab,
a good range of skills and solid punching power. In his full pomp, he would come
to be a commanding ring general.
Ortiz had one other vital component in his armoury, an essential
quality that is so often misunderstood and misused: Arrogance. That important
ingredient has to be brewed and fermented to exactly the right measure. It must
co-exist in harmony with self-discipline and sober judgement.
After beating Joe Brown, Carlos claimed he knew he was going to
win from as early as the first round. If that was the case, then the cool and
intelligent challenger never gave the game away. He befuddled Joe all night long
with fast and accurate jabbing, never allowing the champion to set himself and
unloose his heavy artillery. When Joe tried some old tricks, Carlos kept a rein
on his temper and stuck to his game plan.
“Joe hit me after the bell in the sixth round,” Ortiz would
recall. “I told myself, ‘Don’t get mad now’.” Both fighters slugged away at each
other beyond the bell as referee Frankie Van tried to prise them apart. With a
mountain to climb, Brown simply couldn’t find a way to trap and slow Carlos.
Bleeding from a cut to his left eye from the challenger’s damaging jab, Joe was
virtually shut out of the fight and acknowledged as much. “I just couldn’t get
off the ground. I think the real Joe Brown could whip Carlos Ortiz. But Carlos
was smarter tonight than I thought he was.”
Ortiz had won and he had won the smart way. “When I was a kid,”
Carlos said, “I read about how Billy Conn had Joe Louis beaten, only to get too
cocky and get flattened. But not me, I told myself. Box and win. That is just
what I did in the Brown fight.”
Carlos Ortiz was always smart, a man with a plan who had total
faith in his ability to reach his destination. He knew fear like any other
fighter, but constantly challenged that most formidable of emotions by meeting
it square on. He wasn’t supposed to beat Joe Brown, any more than he was
supposed to have beaten the dangerous Len Matthews three years earlier.
Matthews, the experts said, would demolish Ortiz. Len was a big favourite to win
that fight before his hometown fans in Philadelphia. Ortiz stopped him in six
Globetrotting Carlos grew accustomed to being told that he would
come unstuck if he kept wandering into other people’s back yards. Yet he went to
London to beat Dave Charnley and Maurice Cullen, travelled to Manila to see off
Arthur Persley and Flash Elorde, and trekked to Japan to take care of Kazuo
Takayama and Teruo Kosaka. Ortiz earned a draw with fellow great Nicolino Locche
in Argentina and turned back the challenge of Sugar Ramos in the intimidating
cauldron of the El Toreo Bull Ring in Mexico City.
Ortiz knew what it was like to move around. When he was six years
old, his family uprooted from Puerto Rico and moved to New York. The transition
was tough and not immediately successful for Carlos. He described himself as ‘a
bad kid’ who gave his parents plenty to worry about. But Gotham was soon in the
blood of Ortiz. Like Emile Griffith, who migrated from the Virgin Islands,
Carlos would steep himself in the great city and become a big crowd favourite at
Madison Square Garden in the golden years to come. Not that he was ever allowed
to get too full of himself. To his colleagues in the famous and predominately
Irish task force of the Fighting Sixty-Ninth of New York, where he served as a
sergeant, Carlos continued to be known as ‘Charley O’Brien’.
Ortiz knew the value of a dollar and the good sense of
straightening himself out and finding a purpose in life. After becoming world
champion, he recalled the early days: “My old man made less than ninety dollars
a month. Do you wonder, then, why I sock my money way? I was a bad kid who gave
my parents trouble both in Puerto Rico and in New York, but I got over that
after I joined the Police Athletic League and took up boxing. Today I’m better
adjusted to my better surroundings and home in the Bronx. We don’t squander our
money, but we live according to our means.”
Ortiz made rapid progress after joining the Police Athletic
League under the guidance of his first manager, Ed Ferguson. By 1953, Carlos was
a member of the Boys Club team and won his first 135lb international
championship in London. He quickly added the Metropolitan AAU title to his
collection and was sailing along very pleasantly with no thoughts of turning
professional. How a generation of lightweights must have wished that he had
remained among the Simon Pures.
Ortiz’s limited amateur experience didn’t stop him from making
fast progress up the pro rankings. He matured quickly into a clever and adept
fighter, strong and capable in most departments of the game. He could box, punch
and defend himself ably when the game plan called for greater caution against
the division’s superior hitters.
Carlos was unbeaten in his first 27 pro fights, finally tasting
defeat when he dropped a split decision to Johnny Busso at Madison Square Garden
in the summer of 1958. Ortiz avenged that loss just three months later, before
travelling to the old Harringay Arena in London to upset the rugged Dave
Charnley by decision. A great southpaw and a very hurtful puncher, Charnley
would go on to lose a hotly disputed decision to Joe Brown in the Ring
magazine’s fight of the year of 1961.
My father once told me of a promising young amateur from that era
who was eager to turn pro and figured it would be a good idea to test the water
by sparring with Charnley. The experience was a rude awakening for the amateur
man. He said he couldn’t recall being banged in the body so hard and very
quickly revised his career plans. These were the top class men that Carlos Ortiz
was starting to beat. But he would be frustrated by a couple of other tough pros
before earning his championship stripes.
Kenny Lane and
There was never the best of blood between Ortiz and that feisty
little man from Muskegon, Michigan, Kenny Lane. When Carlos went down to Miami
Beach in December, 1958, he wasn’t at all happy about what transpired. Lane
walked off with a majority decision and Carlos believed he had been gypped. He
was ready for Kenny when the two men were re-matched six months later for the
vacant junior-welterweight crown at Madison Square Garden.
Lane couldn’t get through two rounds as Ortiz went to work in
coldly determined fashion. Carlos decked Kenny in the opening round and didn’t
let up in the second. Ortiz caught Lane with a peach of a right to the eye,
opening such a serious cut that the doctor had to stop the contest. Carlos would
describe that punch as the hardest right hand he had thrown since turning
At that time, however, the junior-welterweight crown was not a
greatly prized bauble, and Ortiz regarded the victory as little more than a
stepping stone to the lightweight championship. He wanted Old Bones before Old
Bones got too old, but tricky business in the junior-welterweight class would
keep Carlos tied up for almost another two years. The man mostly responsible for
the delay was the outstanding Italian, Duilio Loi.
Carlos defended his title against Loi at the Cow Palace in San
Francisco in June 1960, winning a split decision in the first of a trilogy
between the two modern greats. It would mark the only time that Ortiz would beat
the brilliant Italian, who would lose just three of his 126 professional fights.
Their second match in the noisy furnace of the famous San Siro
Stadium in Milan also split the three officials, with Loi getting the nod. Fans
of both fighters were equally divided on who won these closely contested
battles. In San Francisco, Carlos had won with the help of a knockdown that many
considered to be a slip, although he was the stronger man in the home stretch.
At the San Siro, before a massive pro-Loi crowd of 65,000, it was
the Italian who came on in the closing stages. Duilio fought a shrewd battle
throughout, confusing Ortiz by cleverly switching tactics as the fight
progressed. Loi was very much the canny counter puncher in the early rounds as
Carlos pressed the action. After eight rounds, Ortiz seemed to be on his way to
victory as Duilio began to slow.
With the crowd urging on their hero, Loi found his second wind
and assumed the role of attacker as he scored repeatedly with hard body punches
to have Carlos tucking up and retreating. The Italian was coming off better in
the quality exchanges and showing his full range of deft skills as he bobbed and
weaved under the champion’s blows and found the mark with accurate jabs and
hooks. When Carlos fired back, Loi took many of the punches on his arms and
Ortiz never stopped firing in his efforts to turn the fight
around, but the battle was lost and so was his junior-welterweight crown. Carlos
returned to the San Siro for the rubber match with Loi in June 1961, but came up
short again as the Italian fox won unanimously. A proud man, Ortiz felt bad
about the two defeats and continued to question who was really the better
fighter. The silver lining in his black cloud was that he was free to go back to
the vastly more respected lightweight division and realise his great dream. He
hammered out a pair of decisions over top contenders Doug Vaillant and Paolo
Rosi and then went to Vegas to take down Joe Brown.
Ortiz couldn’t crow loud enough after beating Old Bones. “I beat
Brown because I was in the finest physical condition of my life,” said Carlos.
“I won the title because I went after him right from the start and at once
proved to him that the only way he could retain the championship was to knock me
out. I trained for the toughest fight of my career. It turned out to be the
easiest. I want to prove that I am a fighting champion. I can adjust my style to
offset that of any opponent.”
In the years ahead, Carlos would prove both points in style as
the confidence of being a world champion enabled him to raise his impressive
game to a new level. Challengers would never have to come looking for Ortiz. He
was more than happy to pay them a visit. But New York and Puerto Rico would
still get their share of the champion between his treks to other boxing nations.
After making his first successful title defence with a fifth
round knockout of Teruo Kosaka in Tokyo, Carlos returned to his roots when he
gave former foe Doug Vaillant a title tilt at the Hiram Bithorn Stadium in San
Juan in April 1963. Twenty thousand fans came to see Carlos give a commanding
and dazzling performance. He made a big statement of intent in the opening
minute of the battle when he knocked Vaillant down with a left hook. Doug was a
courageous and determined challenger and fought back furiously for the remainder
of the round. He kept in the fight through the first five heats, but it was
Carlos who was scoring with the more authoritative punches.
Carlos forged ahead, but Vaillant never stopped trying. Doug made
a big effort to sway things his way in the tenth as he winged shots to the body
of Ortiz. But Vaillant’s desperation showed as the fight wore on and Ortiz kept
up his steady pressure. Referee James J Braddock, the old heavyweight champ,
issued five warnings to Doug for low punching and took away a point for butting.
Everything was going the champion’s way by the eleventh. Carlos
was employing his jab beautifully and with telling effect. He was also besting
Doug on the inside with some lusty body punching. When Ortiz came out for the
twelfth, he knew his man was ripe for the taking. Carlos charged from his corner
and pounded Vaillant with body blows, decking the challenger twice and nearly
knocking him out before the bell. Vaillant tottered back to his stool on
unsteady legs, a man buying himself a mere minute of respite before his
execution. He was down twice more in the thirteenth and being pummelled against
the ropes when referee Braddock rescued him.
The big crowds continued to turn out wherever Carlos Ortiz
journeyed. He was a national hero who waged war with other national heroes
before screaming crowds in vast stadiums. The atmosphere was rarely anything
less than electric at an Ortiz fight. When Carlos made the first of two defences
against junior-lightweight champ Flash Elorde at the Rizal Memorial Coliseum in
Manila in February 1964, the champion was also taking on a partisan crowd of
60,000. Many top class fighters have wilted and withered under that kind of
pressure. Not Ortiz.
Calm and collected as ever, Carlos ignored a gash to his right
eye in the second round and dealt with everything the game and talented Elorde
could dish out. A clever and exciting fighter, Flash looked a lively and
dangerous challenger in the early going as he counter punched skilfully and
navigated his way around Ortiz’s jab by ducking and weaving and rifling the
champion with solid combinations to head and body.
But Carlos had reached that wonderful point in his prime where he
seemed to know that he couldn’t be taken. He began to slow Elorde with some
vicious uppercuts to the body in the fifth round, piling up valuable points
thereafter and carving out a good lead. Flash was unable to close the widening
chasm and his spirited rally in the thirteenth round proved to be his last throw
of the dice.
There was always a noticeable little jig in Ortiz’s step when he
knew he was close to closing the show, and he sprang from his corner at the
beginning of the fourteenth to finish the job. He drove Elorde to the ropes with
a series of powerful blows and was battering the challenger with big lefts and
rights when referee James Wilson stopped the fight. Flash, courageous as ever,
was still fighting back and protested Wilson’s decision. “I had to stop the
fight or he would have killed you,” Wilson replied.
“The kid was fast, real fast - he was a whip!” So said Ortiz of
the new kid in town, Panama’s flashy and impressive Ismael Laguna. Carlos made
that discovery to his considerable cost. When he changed back into his street
clothes and departed the Estadio Nacional in Panama City in October 1965, Ortiz
was no longer wearing his crown. The young whip had whipped him in the climax to
a seemingly endless nightmare.
Carlos and Panama City just didn’t go together. Ortiz didn’t like
the food and then the local water gave him a bad attack of diarrhoea. The fight
was postponed for a month and the extra time didn’t improve the defending
Carlos was still unwell and nowhere near the weight limit on the
eve of the fight. A long session in a steam bath resolved that problem, but he
was too weak mentally for the lithe and ambitious Laguna. By his own admission,
Ortiz simply couldn’t cope with the challenger’s incredible speed of hand and
foot. The decision and the lightweight championship went to Panama.
It was a different story seven months later when Carlos regained
the title by scoring a unanimous points victory over Ismael in San Juan. But the
greatly talented Laguna was far from finished as a major player and would come
back to haunt Ortiz nearly two years later in the best of their three fights at
Madison Square Garden.
Carlos had his share of adventures on the way to that one. In a
bizarre title defence against former featherweight champion Sugar Ramos in
Mexico City, Ortiz became the innocent victim of incredible circumstances. The
Mexican supporters erupted when their man Sugar floored Carlos in the second
round, but their joy turned to despair and derision when referee and former
light-heavyweight king Billy Conn stopped the fight in Ortiz’s favour in the
fifth after Ramos had sustained a cut eye.
The World Boxing Council (WBC) wasn’t at all pleased. It ruled
that Conn had stopped the bout improperly and had given Ortiz the benefit of a
long count in the second round. In the days of only two controlling bodies in
the sport (and most of us thought that was two too many), Carlos was stripped of
his WBC title and left with the recognition of only the World Boxing
Association, the Ring magazine and almost everyone else on the planet.
If these events bothered Ortiz, he was too professional to allow
them to affect his ring performances. It is true to say that he hadn’t been in
top form against Ramos, but Carlos would respond by going on the roll of his
career over his next three fights. He successfully defended his WBA crown with
another fourteenth round stoppage of Flash Elorde at Madison Square Garden, and
then blasted Ramos to defeat in the fourth of their eagerly awaited rematch in
San Juan. The challengers were being steadily picked off and sent packing. Even
Kenny Lane got another chance and was unanimously outpointed. Now Carlos could
turn his attention to Ismael Laguna again. And Laguna and his army of fans were
coming to Shea Stadium.
The atmosphere crackled at Shea on the Wednesday night of August
16, 1967 when Ortiz and Laguna entered the ring. Puerto Rican and Panamanian
flags waved among the crowd of 18,000 fans as they anticipated a very special
match-up. The odds were even, Laguna having blossomed into a much more mature
and rounded fighter since his defeat to Carlos in Puerto Rico. The challenger
had compiled a 7-1 score since that match, a points loss to Flash Elorde being
more than compensated for by quality wins over contenders Carlos Hernandez,
Percy Hayles, Daniel Guanin, Frankie Narvaez and Alfredo Urbina.
Ortiz was a champion at the top of his game and eager to
underline his superiority over the panther-like youngster who had dazzled him in
the heat of Panama City. Carlos did so magnificently, finding the range early
and nailing Laguna with beautifully accurate shots all the way through. The
champion marked his territory in the second round when he staggered Ismael with
a powerful left-right combination to the jaw. It seemed that Ortiz hit the
jackpot every time he threw the right. He forced Laguna’s knees to dip with a
big shot in the fourth and cracked the challenger on the jaw with another peach
of a blow in the eighth.
What was now noticeable, however, was that Carlos was having to
pace himself more carefully as he approached his thirty-first birthday. Having
gained the upper hand, he allowed Laguna back into the fight in the middle
rounds as the spirited challenger let fly with his impressive repertoire of
punches. The Panamanian fans grew increasingly excited as it appeared that their
man was coming on strong and heading back to the top of the tree.
But quality champions always have quality moves in reserve.
Sensing the danger, Ortiz came to life again in the tenth round and re-employed
his damaging right cross to regain control of the fight. He jolted Ismael in
that round and again in the eleventh, and the challenger’s best rallies could
not offset the champion’s skill and guile in the home stretch. The decision was
unanimous for Carlos, by scores of 10-4-1, 10-4-1 and 11-3-1.
Ortiz had made the last successful defence of his crown. His
desire waning, he would lay off for ten months before losing his title to Carlos
(Teo) Cruz on a tight decision in the Dominican Republic. There would be other
battles for Carlos thereafter, but of far less significance. A ten-fight winning
streak that began in 1969 was eventually snapped by a sad and meek surrender to
Ken Buchanan in 1972.
But the important work had been done. Charley O’Brien had put his
numbers on the board and established himself as one of the great lightweights.
Like good wine, he travelled well.
> The Mike Casey Archives