Just look at him," whispered Frankie, a ferretlike, lonesome hunter from Everywhere. "From the waist down he...." He stopped for a moment. Yes, he seemed to be thinking, he should preface his critique. He should mention that Frankie Del Rios is a brilliant pedagogue of the sport of boxing, an apostle of Peter the Hermit in Hollywood, a historian of the occult blessed with a frightening gift of ESP, a Somebody. "As I was sayin'," he continued, his eyes following Carlos Ortiz in a training ring in San Juan, Puerto Rico, "look at him. He's had it! I had a fighter like him once. All the high life went to his legs. He ends up an iceman in Cleveland. There goes another iceman."
Two nights later in San Juan's Hiram Bithorn Stadium, Frankie, who was supposed to be hustling popcorn, was squatting like an African sculpture at ringside, his arms hugging his basket, his eyes expressing a private pain. After the ninth round, by which point it was obvious Ortiz would win, Frankie jumped to his feet, dropped his basket and faded like the shadow he is. He could not bear to look inside himself and see Nobody, could not bear to think that Ortiz was a Somebody still. Six more rounds and Carlos Ortiz, who had lost the lightweight championship of the world half a year before to Panama's Ismael Laguna, had won it back. But only a few knew how close Frankie had come to being right, how near Ortiz had come to stepping through the gate that leads to Frankie's world, one where everybody had been somewhere and had been something, with the emphasis on the had been. Nineteen sixty-five had been a trying year for Ortiz, and if he caused a lot of the trials himself, that does not make him exactly unique among humankind.
For the year and a half preceding the San Juan bout in November, Ortiz had been a fighter who was 4 o'clock in the morning in his legs. He loathed the cruel, ascetic routine of pain, and he confused excess with living in the grand style. Now, after winning the title back, he sat alone in his eerily silent dressing room. His head was buried in his arms. Outside, the people were singing his name, but not even this could reach him.
Finally he stood up, his eyes red and wet, took a drink of brandy and said, "Excuse me, gentlemen. I was just thinking." Of what no one asked. His estranged wife? The bars he had leaned on? The inflating drivel that came with the drinks? What it was to be a champion again? The sweet words fell on him and, smiling, he caught them without comment. He was a fighter once more. Or was he? Nobody could or can be sure, because nobody knows Carlos Ortiz—the fighter or the man.
January 10, 1966
Since winning the title from Joe Brown in Las Vegas in 1962, Ortiz has been the most active champion in boxing, but he remains an anonymous figure in this country, mainly because it has been four years since he last fought in Madison Square Garden. Until recently his manager, Honest Bill Daly, who is controversial and often accused of behavior befitting a boxing manager, has not been in rapport with the Garden. But if Ortiz' absence from New York constricted the exposure of his name it hardly bothered him financially. He and Daly went where the cash was: Tokyo, Manila, Rome, London, Milan, San Juan, Panama City, all the places where a lightweight champion is still an attraction. As a result, he made more money than any other champion, excluding the heavyweight. "Yeah," says a friend, "but what still bugs him is that nobody knows his name." To this Ortiz says: "Who cares? I'm more of an international champion than anybody. I've been a damn good fighter."
His appraisal of himself is hardly exaggerated. Although he is only 5 feet 7, he is a big lightweight. His body is muscular, and his forearms are shaped like beer bottles. He is a slick package of controlled fury and probably the most complete fighter around. His left hook is not as punishing as it should be, but his left jab is crisp and jolting, and on the inside his right hand to the kidney is cruel and constant. He can also lead and counter, a talent rarely seen these days. "On the ropes, in a corner, in the middle, he can do it all," says Daly. "He's a primitive—when he wants to be." This is what is visible of Ortiz the fighter. The part of him that throws or does not throw all of his splendid skills into motion is not so easily visible. "The body, the instincts are somehow there," said a Puerto Rican friend, "but the heart is not. The question is: How long can a body go without desire?"
Always, in the literature of the ring, the fighter is a naive soul who is ravaged by men who slobber over cigars, have piggish eyes and gravy stains on their ties. Neither Ortiz nor Daly can be categorized so simply. Daly believes a fighter should just fight, not think. Daly will do the thinking and the talking, and if the fighter listens and is good enough and does not open (or close) nightclubs, chances are he will not end up a ragged ghost peddling old triumphs in an arena lobby.
Ortiz, suppressing his innately rebellious nature, followed the maxims of the book of Daly reverently for a time. But now, at 29 and after 10 years in the ring, Ortiz feels he no longer needs boxing. The ritual of training bores him, and his body does not slip into condition as easily as it used to. Indeed, he finds it difficult to think of boxing anymore, and when pressed to discuss it he sounds bored and matter-of-fact. He prefers to talk about the Tropicoro, the immense and ornate nightclub he opened recently in The Bronx. He enjoys explaining the club's décor, its service and how he helped with the plans for its construction. He becomes quite annoyed when someone implies that maybe, just maybe, the place will be a warehouse in two years. "Look at the crowd," he says, moving through the tables, shaking hands and smiling at the recognition: " Hey, champ!" "How you been, champ?" "Some place, champ." "This place is going great," he says, forgetting the day when once again there will be an "ex" in front of his name. He looks upon the club as an annuity. There is no doubt in his mind that his investment—$77,000 in cash—is one that will guarantee his future, sparing him any ignominious end. He does not, he says, intend to become fodder for a nightclub comic or a setup for a hotfoot in some dirty gym. "Maybe he won't," says one boxing man. "but he sure as hell is giving it a good try." Ortiz smiles at such comments, and answers, "O.K. But how come I'm the champion again?"
Ortiz knows how come. He knows that if he had been under any manager other than Bill Daly he would never have gotten that return bout with Laguna. He knows that Bill Daly is a big part of what happened in this strange year of Carlos Ortiz.
Daly is the last of the oldtime fight managers, and he moves in the style of Doc Kearns, which is to say he has the natural manner of a conspirator. He asks for the time of day the way Nero might ask for a match. He is not particularly fond of being called Honest Bill, a name given him many years ago because he used to begin every sentence with, "Now, let's be honest about this," or perhaps—as some claim—because he never stole a boxcar. "Just call him The Squire," says Al Braverman, his aide. "He lives in the country." But it does not matter what Daly is called. All you have to do is look at him and you can tell he is C. Larceny Whipsnade roaming the midway of the state fair, his head crowned with a top hat and his hand twirling a cane. Ah, yes, the Panamanians were made for Daly.
Honest Bill went to Panama last April with his Lavender Hill Mob of Ortiz, Braverman and Teddy Bentham. The plan was carefully laid out. Daly and Braver-man, the troubleshooter, would see to it that the Panamanians did not try to steal the title for Laguna. Bentham, the always suspicious trainer, would be sure that Ortiz did not steal away into the night. All agreed that the fight would be an easy touch, especially in view of Daly's master stroke. Somehow he had persuaded the Panamanians to allow him to bring his own referee and judge. This logical defensive ploy caused some outcry. "We couldn't let 'cm just rob us of the title," explained Daly. The Panamanians finally decided they woud like to have something going for them, too. They asked that their doctor be given the authority to stop the fight. "No." insisted Daly, "the referee will be the only one to stop the fight." From then on all that Daly had to worry about was the victory celebration. This, too, he planned. At poolside the day after the fight there would be fresh pineapple drinks, rum punch and the sound of marimbas.
Daly was being quite himself, but Ortiz was not. He looked dull in training, and he snapped back at the emotional, insulting Panama mob that watched him work every day. Out of perversity he insisted that Daly go into training, too. When in Ortiz' company Daly could not drink or smoke cigars. The ultimate imposition came one day at his hotel bar. While he and Ortiz were at a table Daly turned his head for a moment, and the fighter hid the bowls of peanuts and potato chips. "Hell, Carlos," complained Daly, "I like peanuts." Nevertheless, when Carlos was looking on, Daly adhered to his fighter's requests. "I wanted to keep him happy," said Bill. But Ortiz was hardly happy. "He was thinking of all that dough he's got tied up in that nightclub," said one of his aides. "That's where he wanted to be." Was he ready by the day of the fight? "Who knows," says the aide. "He had been a bad boy for a long time."
This first Laguna-Ortiz fight is best remembered for the fact that not only was Laguna ready for Ortiz, so was the whole country of Panama. A bellicose crowd of 20,000 showed up. So. fortunately, did 300 National Guardsmen carrying guns, tear gas and nightsticks. Braverman remembers saying, "If it's close and Carlos wins it, we're done for."
"Calm down, m'boy. It won't be close," Daly answered, and he was right. The fight was not close, because Laguna, with flashing hands and stunning speed, did everything but dump Ortiz in Daly's lap. It soon seemed evident that Daly would leave Panama with ample loot—but no title. Or would he? The Panamanian judge ruled heavily for Laguna. Then the American judge—Daly's judge—gave the fight to Ortiz. The fans started to rumble out of the stands. The Guardsmen restrained them. Frustrated, they booed for five minutes, and then became strangely quiet. The referee—Daly's referee—was being encouraged to make his decision. Unmoved by a chance to display both loyalty and high valor, he decided instead on accuracy and discretion. He ruled that Laguna had won decisively. The crowd swept toward the ring. Most of them tried to climb into it, and the rest looked for the American judge, but he had been plucked from ringside by the secret police and moved from car to car until he was safely in his hotel room. Back in the dressing room, where the referee was throwing up, Ortiz answered the silence by saying, "So I lose a fight." He then left quickly, without bothering to change his clothes.
Ortiz had made a lot of money in Panama, but it had cost him more than just the championship. The respect of the Puerto Ricans, which he had always had and which he valued greatly, was fading rapidly. "The people here," said a San Juan reporter later, "were convinced that he had become an arrogant playboy." The consensus in New York as well as Puerto Rico was that Ortiz was through. Ortiz reacted by running away. He split with his wife and went on a gambling spree. Daly did not hear from him for months. Then one day Ortiz called and asked Daly if he could possibly get a rematch with Laguna.
Convinced that once again Ortiz felt like fighting—"He could finally see himself becoming a street guy, a bum," said a friend—Daly flew to Panama. The Panamanians were understandably reluctant to deal with him again, but they made the mistake of letting him talk. Daly said something like, "Look, you guys have got the best fighter I've seen since Sugar Ray. Ortiz is through. He couldn't beat my mother. He's on the sauce again, and he's blown all his money. He just wants a payday. It'll be a cinch fight for Laguna." The Panamanians grew more attentive as Daly continued with the kind of rhetoric that sells Brooklyn Bridges—or canals. Finally they told Daly they had signed to defend the title against Carlo Hernandez of Caracas in December. "That's all right," said Daly. "You can slip this one in. Hernandez is a tough. Ortiz would be a nice tune-up for Laguna. We'll hold it in San Juan and you'll make a million." The Panamanians nodded, and then made their demands. They wanted $40,000 before the light and the right to name their own referee. "Sure, anything," said Daly. "Just sign right here." The Panamanians signed, but they apparently did not read the small print. The contract did indeed say that they could name the referee, but it also said that the Puerto Rican Boxing Commission was the ultimate judge of who would or would not referee. Pleased so far, Daly flew to San Juan to find a backer. He had no trouble. "I don't care how much it costs," said Peter Serralas, the Don Q rum tycoon. "Just bring the title back to Puerto Rico."
The fight was set for November 10, and Ortiz trained hard. He boxed 175 rounds, and he concentrated on following Daly's strict instructions not to chase after his sparring partners, because he must not chase Laguna.
By the day of the fight Ortiz had only one major problem, his weight. He had ducked his shadow, Teddy Bentham, one night and gone to a restaurant for a bowl of fried rice. At 6 a.m. Daly, Bentham and Braverman paced Ortiz' room while the fighter skipped rope in the bathroom, now a steam room because of the hot water running from the shower. An hour later Ortiz was still half a pound over, and so back to the bathroom he went. At the 9 a.m. weigh-in Daly was not confident that Ortiz would make the weight, and he decided to do something about it. Stationing Braverman—280 pounds wide—in back of him for cover, Daly took a position near the scales. When Ortiz stepped on the scales Daly reached down with his right hand and tried to hoist Ortiz slightly up by his behind. The Panamanians caught him, and they screamed in disbelief. Daly retreated. Ortiz—without Daly's help—finally did make the weight, but Bill lost a few pounds in the process.
Between Ortiz and the Panamanians, who were suddenly again insisting that they be allowed to use their own referee, Daly was unnerved, a rare condition for him. The commission had flown in three possible referees, Billy Conn, Rocky Marciano and Barney Ross, none of them known for being Panamanians. The Laguna camp balked—right up until two hours before the fight. They said they wanted to pull out, so they got another Daly speech. "Go ahead, but you're crazy," said Bill. "Ortiz doesn't have a chance. You saw him work down here. He didn't do anything at all. You don't believe me. Here's $500"—he held out the bills—"to bet on Laguna for me." The Panamanians looked at the money. "You want more?" yelled Daly. "Al, go get another $500." Laguna's manager did not accept the money but walked away with his friends, all of them waving their hands and talking excitedly. Daly smiled and said, "Now all we've gotta do is win."
Two hours later, the above concern having been disposed of via an easy 15-round decision, Ortiz gulped down five bottles of beer in 20 minutes and went to hear Billy Daniels sing. Meanwhile, the Panamanians were arguing with each other in the lobby of the Condado Beach Hotel and Daly was at its Trade Winds bar trying out a fresh pineapple drink generously laced with rum. He looked like an international jewel thief who had just reached Rio.
"Bill," asked one reporter, "how did you ever get the title back?"
"Ask them," said Daly, gesturing toward the Panamanians.
"I did," said the reporter. "They say they don't know."
"Is it true, Squire, that Ortiz has been drinking all week?" he was asked.
"I don't know anything about that," Daly said.
"Well, they say he was drinking and gambling until early in the morning all week," another reporter said.
"The same answer," replied Daly.
Later, after the reporters left, someone asked: "Who does he fight next. Squire?"
"Himself," said Daly sadly.