THE death of Carlos Ortiz at age 85, this past June 13, should serve as a reminder to all current champions that fame is fleeting. During his era, Ortiz was on the short list of greats. If pound for pound ratings had existed in the 1960s as they do today, Ortiz would have maintained a high ranking in them and at least periodically been at the very top.
A master boxer/puncher who had no hesitancy going into opponents’ backyards, Ortiz – when active – was considered one of the greatest lightweight champions in history. He still is to those of us who remember, but unfortunately so few do.
Although Ortiz claimed to be happy with life in retirement, he was never truly revered as the legendary champion that he was. Ortiz should have exited the big stage with a standing ovation, but instead was treated to a chorus of boos when in his last fight on September 20, 1972, at Madison Square Garden, Carlos retired on his stool at the end of the sixth round against Ken Buchanan.
Ortiz had been on the comeback trail. Like many before him, a number of bad investments had influenced his decision to return to the ring. Ortiz was bluntly honest in admitting that he had been exhausted versus Buchanan and was scared of getting hurt. Ortiz had been scheduled to box Roberto Duran, who pulled out of the fight 10 days before. Some said Ortiz was lucky in that he would have doubtless been beaten more comprehensively by the great Panamanian, but on reflection it would have at least saved him the unfair humiliation he was subjected to.
Ten years ago when I was the president of the Boxing Writers Association of America, I invited Carlos and his wife Maria to our annual awards banquet. Seated at our table was Vitali Klitschko who was one of the honorees. During a couple of the intermissions, people swamped the table trying to interact with Klitschko, showing no recognition of Carlos. Seeing the hurt on his face while this was occurring stays with me to this day.
This was in sharp contrast to the power Ortiz wielded in his heyday. In the summer of 1967, there was unrest among the Puerto Rican population in New York City, the potential of riots being high. Of particular concern was how they might react if their hero Carlos Ortiz were to lose his rubber match against former lightweight champion Ismael Laguna which was to take place at Shea Stadium. In the lead up to the fight, Mayor John Lindsey had Ortiz speak to large throngs to calm the tension. Ultra-confident he would defeat Laguna, Ortiz assured everyone that his people would do the right thing. Whether that motivated Ortiz to perform as brilliantly as he had is unclear, but he successfully defended his title by outpointing Laguna widely.
Ortiz never sounded bitter. if anything he claimed to be happy in life. For years he attended the Hall of Fame induction festivities in Canastota, riding in the parade and leading the crowd in his trademark “hip hip hooray” chant.
Ortiz 61-7-1 (30) enjoyed being a boxer and the elements of his ring career that saw him win the world lightweight title twice and the super-lightweight welterweight crown once, but had no desire to be a boxing lifer beyond attending the occasional show or banquet. Years after he retired, Ortiz suddenly became in demand as a trainer and was even linked to Oscar De La Hoya briefly, but was not up to the grind of being away for training camps or the long hours in the gym. Ortiz did train some fighters, but his career outside the ropes never approached that from within.
The money was gone, but not the memories. Ortiz spoke about how boxing allowed him to travel around the world and experience things that so few people did. While you can make a valid case for Ortiz having been the greatest boxer to come out of Puerto Rico, he did spend his entire ring career in New York City, being based in the Bronx.
Ortiz accepted that boxing had taken a toll on his well-being. Long ago he had admitted to difficulty remembering things. Last year when I spoke to Ortiz about some of his past opponents, it was obvious that he had no recollection of who they were. The important thing now is that Ortiz is remembered for not only being a great champion inside of the ring, but as a kind hearted individual who brought credit to his sport.