Many of them had come from far away, the interior, the bush country, every town in Panama, and they sat there, bare from the waist up, burning in the noon sun. Above, a flock of buzzards circled. The buzzards, like the empty ring in the center of the stadium, seemed to have a hypnotic effect on the people. Sitting in large, scattered pockets, they stared either up or down. Now and then a hand waving a chicken leg jerked up and pointed to the lazily drifting birds. One man wailed something unintelligible, and his friends broke up with laughter and then yelled: "Si, si, si, Laguna, Laguna, Laguna." Occasionally an excited Panamanian stood up and threw a combination of punches. Seeing this, a brave few screamed back, "Ortiz, Ortiz, Ortiz."
A couple of hours before sundown the bands arrived, and the people danced in the stands to the music and drank beer, growing more festive as daylight hid. At 10 p.m. last Saturday in Panama City, after sitting nearly 10 hours in a dismal, steaming lot called Olympic Stadium, they were primed for what they had waited months to see: El Tigre, Ismael Laguna, challenging Carlos Ortiz for the world lightweight championship.
Panamanians dearly love a fight, but a fight with Ismael Laguna in it is almost unbearably stimulating. Not since Panama Al Brown, the bantamweight champion back in the '30s, a diamond-bedizened dandy who eventually was destroyed by civilization, has there been a man like Laguna in the Republic.
At 22 Laguna already is a legend, and everywhere you go the young and the old talk about him. "He ees as fast as lightneeng," they will tell you. "He ees Pepee [Willie Pep] and Sugar Ray all een one. He weel be the greatest fighter who ever leeved." The Panamanians do not end it there. They go on to relate impressive facts. Laguna has inflicted cuts on 38 out of 40 opposing fighters. He has knocked out 25 opponents in his 40 fights, and, too, "he has never bled from thee mouth or thee nose."
April 19, 1965
Laguna grew up in the bush country, one of 12 children. His father was a politician who always managed to be on the losing side in elections and political battles. One day, when he was 14 years old, Ismael walked into a bar in Colon, 38 miles from Panama City, and told the owner, Isaac Kresch, he wanted to be a fighter. Kresch, a Jewish Panamanian who still manages Laguna, agreed to give him three meals a day. Laguna expressed his appreciation in the ring, but at least once he became disenchanted with Kresch. The late Davey Moore, looking for an easy payday, wired Kresch he would defend his title against Laguna, who at the time was 18 years old. Kresch turned down the match, and then implied that Moore needed help—mentally. Laguna did not think so. Upon hearing that Kresch had ignored Moore's offer, he walked in and dropped his manager with a right. This is surprising, because Laguna is a quiet, pleasant sort. "Yes, he ees," said Kresch. "He do not have one bad habit." This, too, is somewhat surprising, because in Colon, where Laguna now lives, anything goes. Just a few weeks ago a man was killed during an argument over a penny in a crap game. "I don't bother with that kind of stuff," said Laguna the day before the Ortiz fight. "I ween the title and I weel buy a yacht and join thee yacht club." As he said this, Laguna seemed inordinately confident and relaxed.
Carlos Ortiz, the 28-year-old champion from New York, was quite the opposite. Ortiz was tense and cranky all week. Now and then he would joke, or gently needle his trainer, Teddy Bentham, in a high-pitched voice, but for the most part he was a grim individual. The atmosphere in Panama was responsible for his mood. Every day 2,000 people would turn out in a fetid downtown gymnasium to watch him work. They grabbed him and jostled him when he tried to get into the gym. When he was in the ring they screamed obscenities, and they threw things at him. Finally it reached the point where Ortiz, when walking from the dressing room to the ring, had national guardsmen on each side of him (the guardsmen, impeccably dressed and quick with their clubs, act as Panama's police force). Restrained physically, the spectators concentrated on spitting vitriol. "You gonna die, Ortiz," they screamed. "El Tigre gonna keel you. You gonna die, you boom [bum]." Riding back from the gymnasium one day, Ortiz said, "If they act like this now, what are they going to do when I knock this creep out after two rounds?"
Another reason for Ortiz' black disposition was his profound hatred of training. At one time he was invigorated by the routine but now after a year's layoff, it had become irritating, especially so in the enervating heat of Panama. Abstaining from the pleasures of life seemed almost unbearable for Ortiz. He wanted everyone to suffer with him in Panama. His manager, Bill Daly, had to give up cigars, and then drinking, that is, drinking in front of Ortiz. "We will find some more things for you to give up, Bill," Ortiz said, laughing. Daly laughed, too, but he knew Ortiz was serious.
This was only a minor problem for Daly, who had other, weightier matters on his mind. When he decided to accept an offer for Ortiz to defend his title in Panama, many people were of the opinion that Daly had become senile. Even the Panamanians were stunned. The Panama boxing officials and promoters secretly believed they had a "feesh" on the line. What other explanation could there be?
Obviously, the Panamanians were not familiar with Daly's reputation. They were given a hint of what was to come when Daly pulled out of the originally scheduled date in February. Ortiz had been training for over a week in Panama City. Then, suddenly, Daly notified the Panama Boxing Commission that the bout could not be held. Ortiz was sick, he said. The boxing commission, the brewery that was promoting the fight and all of Panama went berserk. Five medical specialists were assigned to Ortiz, and the fighter was put through every test imaginable. The brewery officials said, "Aw, good old Beel, he weel be all right. Let heem rest for another week, and then he can fight." At that suggestion Daly flung a chair at one of the officials. Calming down, he said, "I'm taking my boy home so he can rest up. We will return." The general manager of the brewery refused to believe him. "You are not Douglas MacArthur, Se√±or Daly," he said.
He is not, of course, but after encountering considerable harassment Daly and company did leave, and did return. The unverified rumor was that Ortiz was not in shape, and Daly had decided to take him home to New York for some concentrated work. Daly, his critics contended, had made another of his famous moves.
When Daly returned with Ortiz, he taught the Panamanians a lesson in boxing diplomacy they will not soon forget. The brewery did everything to please him. Having signed to promote Laguna's next 10 fights, it desperately wanted the title in Panama. A native champion would not hurt its advertising a bit. Daly knew this, and he made the brewers squirm. He had everything his way except for one vital point: the Panama Boxing Commission insisted that its doctor would make the ultimate decision on whether or not to stop the fight. "I don't want that guy hopping in and out of the ring all night bothering my fighter," said Daly. "If he does, I'll kick him in his teeth." The commission would not yield. For three hours the night before the fight the two factions argued bitterly. Finally Daly emerged victorious. Jersey Joe Walcott, the referee, would decide, if he had to, when one of the fighters had had enough.
"Whew!" said one of Daly's aides after coming down from the meeting. "Up until 20 minutes ago there wasn't going to be a fight." Daly was not through. He measured the ring, inspected the canvas and the ropes and, in short, had the Panamanians talking to themselves. He was no longer "good old Beel" to them, he was "Meester Daly." They no longer had a "feesh" on the line, they had a shark.
In the midst of this intrigue Daly was suspicious of everybody. He insisted there were Panamanian spies shadowing him and his fighter everywhere they went. But, watching Daly and his brain trust relax around their hotel, you got the idea that they had not enjoyed themselves so much in years. Even a stranger could tell they were boxing people. Their faces were pallid, and in the absence of Ortiz they smoked cigars and sipped tall, cool drinks. Daly dominated the picture. He has a face and a build somewhat like W. C. Fields and the same sort of grandiose gestures.
Around the pool and on the balcony of a hotel room facing the ocean, the mood of the boxing people was always nostalgic. They talked of Doc Kearns and the way he sacked Shelby, Mont., and they regretted that he could not be there with them in Panama, because he would have loved this situation. It was made for the doctor, they agreed. Others talked about the state of boxing, and every now and then someone would nominate Joe Walcott for National Boxing Commissioner. There is no such post, but Joe would make a good one, everybody agreed. Walcott merely answered, "I thank you kindly."
It was all fine and easy, but there was an undercurrent of tension that would not go away. Daly constantly noted the fact that Laguna had cut 38 of 40 fighters. "A guy just don't cut that many fighters," he said. "I'm gonna keep a tail on him in his corner all night. They're liable to pull anything down here."
"Why you worry, Meester Daly?" a voodoo doctor asked him one night. "I hex Laguna for you. He no win."
The voodoo doctor was in a pronounced minority. Most of the big money, bet by those who had come from the States, was on Ortiz. (Two men from Puerto Rico had bet $10,000 to win $6,000.) But Panamanians were almost to a man behind Laguna, with their mouths and their money. Right up to the opening bell, they flitted through the stadium, waving currency in their hands and screaming, "Laguna, Laguna, Laguna!" Laguna was a 7-to-5 favorite when he and Ortiz entered the ring.
The scene at fight time was, simply, astonishing. Hundreds of national guardsmen armed with tear gas and carrying clubs were deployed throughout the stands. The 20,000 spectators, who paid from $5 to $50 for their tickets, shot off firecrackers and played bongo drums. When Laguna climbed into the ring, and then demonstrated his quick moves, his exquisite flash, they bellowed so loud and so long that the whole stadium seemed to vibrate.
For the first eight rounds the fight was just about even. Laguna was all that everyone said he was. His every move was a picture of speed and flawless timing. Ortiz, though staying close, looked far off his form, and Laguna's speed appeared to baffle him. Several times he sent shots to Laguna's head, but if they landed with any authority at all Laguna seemed unimpressed. The fact was that Ortiz, who put on five pounds directly after weighing in, must have had to struggle hard to make the 135-pound weight. He had heavy hands, and many of his punches were just thumps.
Laguna did not tire, and he steadily pulled away from Ortiz in the final rounds. Walcott scored the fight 143 to 142 for Laguna, but even Joe smiled later and said that he had been generous to Ortiz. Ben Green, a judge from New York, ruled it a draw. Upon hearing Green's decision, the spectators jumped out of their seats and screamed in sheer frustration. "What's that guy trying to do?" asked one observer. "Trying to see if these guardsmen are as efficient as everybody says they are?" Fortunately for those who sat at ringside with unprotected heads, the Panamanian judge gave the fight to Laguna. Had a riot occurred, it would have been one of the great ones of all time.
"The kid can fight," Daly said later of Laguna. "Ortiz tired. I don't know why he tired. He didn't show any signs in the gym that this would happen."
"I've never seen a man fight a gamer fight in my life," said Walcott. "From the very beginning Ortiz did not have a thing going for him. He was in there on pure courage. Carlos had nothing."
Others pondered the possibility that Ortiz, who had held the title for four years and has been recognized by many as the finest fighter around, may not have the desire to win anymore. "If he doesn't," said a close friend of Ortiz, "it is because he does not want to have it anymore."
Laguna, sitting quietly in his dressing room, was hardly ruffled by all the excitement. "I told you," he said. "I weel buy my yacht now."
And in the narrow streets, as night crawled toward morning, the people danced and sang and chanted, "Laguna, Laguna, Laguna!" "It feel good," said one. "We have El Campeón." Nobody asked the Panamanian promoters how it felt to reel in a shark.