THIS summer I was on a WBC podcast. The panel was asked if there was one dream fight they could make which one would it be? No pun intended, but when Gleason’s Gym owner Bruce Silverglade said his would be Roberto Duran against Carlos Ortiz, a bell rang for me.
It had been eight years since I had spoken to Ortiz. It was on a spring night in 2012 when he was an invited guest at the Boxing Writers Association of America’s award banquet in New York City. Ortiz and his wife Maria sat at my table. Also at the table was Vitali Klitschko.
During the intermission fans swarmed Klitschko. One of the great boxers of his era and one of the greatest lightweight champions in history went unnoticed, completely ignored in fact. As the stream of fans frantically rushed past Ortiz trying to get Klitschko’s autograph the hurt on his face was evident. For a legend of the sport to be relegated to complete obscurity was an unpleasant sight.
If you want an idea of the pull that Ortiz once had you have to go back 53 years to the summer of 1967, when then Mayor John Lindsey called upon him to help ease tensions within the Puerto Rican community that was threatening to turn New York City into a war zone. There was a heat wave, combined with a water shortage that had people on edge. The city seemed ready to implode until their hero Carlos Ortiz stepped in and calmed down the masses by speaking to the huge crowds. But there remained speculation that if Ortiz were to lose his rubber match against Ismael Laguna at Shea Stadium later that summer the repercussions would reverberate beyond the ring. However, a supremely confident Ortiz assured everyone there was nothing to worry about. He then delivered by easily outpointing Laguna over 15 rounds.
Had Duran not suffered an injury and been forced to pull out of a September 20, 1972 date with Ortiz at Madison Square Garden, Silverglade’s dream match would have become a reality, at least on paper. Fortunately it didn’t, because by then Ortiz was far past his prime as evidenced by him retiring on his stool after six rounds against Ken Buchanan who filled in for the Panamanian. Ortiz never boxed again retiring with a 61-7-1 (30), 1 NC record, which included winning the 140lbs title as well.
“People don’t remember or care about what I did in the ring,” Ortiz told me a couple of decades ago. Unfortunately the scene with Klitschko bore that out to a degree even though to some of us Ortiz will always be revered. In the years since, Ortiz has mostly disappeared from public view. His phone number remained unchanged enabling me to touch base with him recently.
When he came to the phone Ortiz was initially vibrant. At 83, he has not lost any of his charm. But it soon became apparent that he was not recalling his past fights with the speed he once could. I decided not to press the issue in that regard. But I am happy to report that if you stay with Ortiz in the moment his voice is strong, his mind is sharp, and he sounds just the same as he did during his championship years.
At this stage of his life Ortiz is content to maintain a low profile. He is living proof that fame does not last forever even when it should.