IBHOF inductee Graham Houston pays tribute to Mexico’s 1950s and 1960s welterweight contender Gaspar Ortega who passed away last week.

A true ring warrior has left us with the passing on December 16, at the age of 86, of former welterweight title contender Gaspar “Indian” Ortega. 

Never a champion, and afforded only one title opportunity in his long career, Ortega faced most of the top fighters of his era. He was a mainstay on American TV boxing broadcasts in the 1950s and early 1960s and the subject of the book Friday Night Fighter, the title derived from the night of the week when boxing was a highly rated programming staple for the ABC-TV network.

At this time, there were just three major TV networks in the US. It was a time when the whole family would gather around their monochrome TV sets to watch the popular programmes of the day. Boxing was very much part of the social fabric in the US and boys became fans watching the fights with their fathers. Those days are long gone, but Ortega played his part in what has been called the Golden Age of American TV boxing.

Born in Mexico, and with boyhood aspirations of becoming a bullfighter, Ortega relocated to the US to further his ring career. He lived originally in New York, where he met his wife, before moving to the state of Connecticut. His son, Michael Ortega, is a leading referee.

Ortega fought many contenders as well as champions such as Carmen Basilio, Tony DeMarco, Kid Gavilan, Don Jordan, Benny “Kid” Paret and Emile Griffith and, later in his career, Nino Benvenuti and Sandro Mazzinghi. His sole championship chance came against Griffith, who stopped him in the 12th round in Los Angeles on June 3, 1961. Ortega showed great gameness and tenacity in that fight. Down twice in the seventh round, he rallied and fought well for several more rounds. In the end, though, Griffith was too strong, and Ortega suffered a bloody nose and was cut over both eyes. The Associated Press report describes Ortega as “courageous to the core” but Griffith was “just too powerful and potent with his vaunted left”.

In a previous meeting, before Griffith won the title, the pair fought at Madison Square Garden, with the future champion winning by split decision.

And split decisions were a feature of Ortega’s career. Time after time, the referee and two judges (this was in the days when the referee also scored the bout) were divided.

Ortega twice defeated future welterweight champion Tony DeMarco by split decision in Madison Square Garden thrillers. DeMarco won a unanimous decision in a third meeting, this time on the future champion’s home ground in Boston. The three hard-fought bouts took place in the space of three months. That could never happen today.

Video of Ortega’s August 1959 split decision win over Benny Paret is on YouTube. It shows Ortega to be a rangy boxer who fought in busy-punching bursts. When Paret opens up, Ortega goes with him in punch-for-punch exchanges.

“Boy, these are styles the fans love,” the ABC-TV commentator noted in the fifth round. “No clinching. No stalling. Just working three minutes out of every round.”

Interestingly, ring MCs in those days weren’t particularly interested in spinning out the drama when a bout ended in a split decision. After Ortega vs Paret ended, the Madison Square Garden MC, Johnny Addie, first announced the scores of the two judges, who both had it on favour of Ortega’s favour. So everyone knew who had won the fight before the referee’s scorecard favouring Paret was announced.

Ortega’s active schedule included eight fights in 1959, starting with a split decision loss to an undefeated up-and-comer, Denny Moyer, and including a loss and a win two against an ill-fated contender named Rudell Stitch. There was the win over Paret and two defeats — one by split decision — against the Cuban bomber Florentino Fernandez, who went on to fight 15 tough rounds with Gene Fullmer for the middleweight championship.

There was no slowing down. Ortega’s 1960 schedule encompassed 10 bouts, including a win over Armando Muniz, who later made four attempts at the welter title, the split loss to Emile Griffith and a 10-round decision defeat against Luis Federico Thompson, a veteran Panama-born, Argentina-based contender who was riding an undefeated run of 36 fights without a loss going into the contest.

When Ortega fought Carmen Basilio at Madison Square Garden in January 1961 he was giving away some 10 pounds to the former former welter and middleweight champion. Yet despite the disparity in weight, Ortega fought Basilio down to the wire in losing a close but unanimous decision.

This, of course, was in an age when TV commentators worked solo and let the action in the ring speak for itself, with comments kept to a minimum. For instance, in the fifth round of the Basilio vs Ortega fight, these are commentator Don Dunphy’s only observations:

“We’re waiting the bell for round five now. They did a little patchwork on Basilio, beside his right eye, in between rounds. Basilio in the black trunks, 159½, Ortega the white, 149½, for those who just joined us. The contract called for 155.

“Ortega has been leaving his chin open but protecting his midsection, which is his most vulnerable spot. 

“Basilio switched to the right and it paid off.” (After noted left-hooker Basilio landed a right hand.)

“Al Berl, the very competent referee, staying out of the picture.

“They’re looking for toeholds, aren’t they?” (As the fighters exchanged punches, each trying to gain the advantage). 

“One minute to go in round five as Basilio turns back the clock.” (Nice little play on words there.)

And that was that from Mr. Dunphy for the fifth round.

According to Dunphy’s commentary, Basilio came in four and a half pounds over the contracted weight. Yet Ortega took the fight and despite the weight disparity still made it a tough, close battle.

But that was Gaspar “Indio” Ortega, who likely never turned down a fight.

Ortega had several bouts in Europe towards the end of his career. Welterweight contender Francois Pavilla outpointed him in Paris but Ortega defeated the two-weight Italian champion Domenico Tiberia in Rome. But the great 154lbs and 160lbs champion Nino Benvenuti, undefeated at the time and much the bigger man, outpointed Ortega in Rome. And junior middleweight (as the division was then called) champion Sandro Mazzinghi stopped Ortega on a corner retirement after six rounds in another Rome appearance.

Although Ortega was only 29 at the time of the Mazzinghi fight, his many bouts with world-class and championship-calibre opponents had taken a toll. The British champion Brian Curvis outpointed him rather easily in a disappointing bout at London’s Royal Albert Hall in February 1965. Ortega’s last fight came just  seven months later, a loss by decision to Charley Shipes, a competent boxer and one of the leading welterweights of the era (he fought Curtis Cokes for the title).

Ortega retired with a record of 131-39-6 (69 KOs) but in those days there really wasn’t much emphasis placed on won-lost-draw statistics. The important thing was how a boxer performed in the ring — and Ortega performed with honour and distinction, and considerable ability. 

In 176 bouts, Ortega was stopped just twice, once by the great two-weight world champion Emile Griffith and once by Sandro Mazzinghi, a bigger fighter and an extremely hard hitter. Tough? Gaspar “Indio” Ortega was the very definition of the word.