Wednesday, May 29, 2024  |



Best I Faced: Gaspar Ortega

Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Fighters Network

Hard-nosed Mexican warrior Gaspar Ortega never won a world title, but throughout the 1950s to mid-1960s he was a bona fide welterweight contender, who fought 10 past or future world champions and five Hall of Famers during 176 recorded fights.

Ortega was born in Mexicali, Mexico on Oct. 21, 1935. His father was in the army so, along with his 11 siblings, he grew up in the Colonia Morelos neighborhood of Tijuana with his mother in charge of the family. Ortega knew only poverty; his house didn’t have electricity and the streets were covered in dirt. He liked to go hunting for rabbits and squirrels.

From a young age, Ortega was never far from trouble but boxing wasn’t his first choice of profession.

“I was always looking for fights before and after school in the streets,” Ortega told The Ring. “I had a teacher who set up a ring and let us fight each other.

“I started training in a firehouse when I was around 13. I actually wanted to be a bullfighter, and I fought some amateur bullfights in Tijuana when I was 14.”

Following a short amateur career that culminated in him winning the Golden Gloves as a flyweight in 1950, the eager young novice turned to the paid ranks.

Ortega (right) lets fly against Federico Thompson in 1960. Photo by EyeOn/ Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Ortega earned his stripes fighting in Mexico before relocating to New York in 1954. As the nickname “El Indio” suggests, he is of Indian decent, with his mother being a Zapotec Indian.  He gained a cult following wearing a headdress to the ring in her honor.

In the space of 68 days from the fall of 1957 into early 1958, Ortega fought former welterweight champion Tony De Marco three times, winning the first two encounters by split decision, before dropping the third match by unanimous decision.

“There were so many proud moments but the proudest was when I fought Tony DeMarco,” Ortega acknowledged. “I beat DeMarco. Nobody thought I would win that fight. They made a parade for me in Tijuana, from the border to my Colonia. Soldiers, police, and many people were in the parade.”

Ortega had shown that he belonged in elite company and later split a pair of fights with the great Kid Gavilan, the latter one being an eliminator for the world title. However, another rival, Isaac Logert, would defeat Ortega in an eliminator and that was a setback. Logert, a talented Cuban fighter, would have a 2-1 edge in their trilogy.

Perpetually unlucky on the scorecards, Ortega dropped close decisions to past or future world champions: Ralph Dupas, Don Jordan, Denny Moyer, Emile Griffith and Carmen Basilio.

After beating Benny “Kid” Paret in February 1961. Ortega finally got his world title opportunity. It would come in the form of a rematch with Griffith, who had been fortunate to win a split decision over Ortega a year earlier.

“I remember when I went to the ring, the fight was already lost,” admitted Ortega. “I had over trained and I did not feel good.”

Griffith retained the welterweight title with a comprehensive 12th round stoppage and became the first man to stop Ortega.

Ortega (left) poses with Emile Griffith. Photo by Los Angeles Examiner/ USC Libraries/ Corbis via Getty Images

Over the next couple of years Ortega won more than he lost. In October 1963, he packed his bags and ventured to Rome for a showdown with middleweight champion Nino Benvenuti. The highly-skilled Italian won a decision.

“He was a really good fighter,” Ortega acknowledged. “I was trying to make sure I survived the 10 rounds with him.”

A year later Ortega was invited back to Italy, but this time he was stopped in seven rounds by Sandro Mazzinghi.

Although he had clearly slipped, Ortega made several more paydays before retiring in the fall of 1965 with an official record of 131-39-6 (69 knockouts), although the former world title challenger insists that he had in excess of 200 fights.

During his career, Ortega worked with two of the greatest trainers in boxing history; Whitey Bimstein, famed for his work with Rocky Marciano and Benny Leonard among others, and Freddie Brown who worked the corners of Dick Tiger and Roberto Duran.

Ortega boxed 1293 recorded rounds, although that number should be much higher. He was only stopped twice inside the distance.

“Today’s managers don’t push fighters to fight like in my time,” he said. “They would have you fight today, then say you must be ready again tomorrow. I would tell them, ‘I am ready.'”

Ortega moved to Connecticut in 1968 and worked several jobs, all of which were centered around giving back to the local community. He worked for a New Haven city program for school dropouts, counseling at a half-way house and spent a lot of time at the gym helping children.

Former referee Joe Cortez, a 2011 International Boxing Hall of Fame inductee, was heavily influenced in his early years by Ortega and is quick to praise his mentor.

“When Gaspar Ortega first arrived in the United States at age 19, he was always involved in the community with youngsters. I was one of those youngsters, I was only 12 years old when I met Gaspar Ortega,” explained Cortez who later acted as Ortega’s interpreter

“One of the reasons I made it successfully out of the neighborhood was because of Gaspar; with his influence, advice and caring ways.

“Gaspar guided me through my boxing career and taught me how to fight. Following his style and guidance, he taught me how to discipline myself, developed my self-esteem and to become a better person. Gaspar has always been an inspiration to me and still is today.”

Ortega, now 83, has been married for 62 years. He and his wife live in East Haven, Connecticut and have four children, one of which is world-class referee Mike Ortega. He also has nine grandchildren.

The former world title challenger graciously took time to speak to The Ring about the best he fought in 10 key categories.

Isaac Logart: I was always physically and mentally trying to avoid punches. I was even doing it with my body before the bell rang, especially by moving my waist. Logart was very fast in his jab.

Kid Gavilan: It was very difficult to hit Gavilian with a solid punch because he could move his upper-body side-to-side beautifully.

Tony DeMarco: He didn’t have far to throw a punch. He was right in front of me and never took a step back, so his punches seem super-fast. There was a lot of toe-to-toe action.

Logart: He was always moving around. It’s hard to hit a moving target and he was very fast on his feet.

Emile Griffith: He really knew how to box and could adjust his style at any time.

Griffith: When I fought Emile, he was the only one who could hurt me. After the fight I was urinating blood.

Carmen Basilio: He could hit you from all angles. Just when you thought you were out of his range, or were well covered up, he found a way to land a shot. Florentino Fernandez was very heavy-handed. If he hit you with a clean shot you knew you were hit.

DeMarco: I hit him with everything I had and he just kept coming.

Kid Gavilan: He was a real good fighter, though not a hard puncher. His footwork was excellent, always on his toes and ready to move so he could dart out of harm’s way or set his feet to throw punches. He had great balance, which enabled him to have superior upper-body movement for bobbing and weaving. His jab and hand speed was very fast, accurate, and he had a sneaky bolo punch. He was elegant in the ring.

DeMarco: He was a hard puncher. When the bell rang he was after you right away; he was aggressive. First, I have to say he was truly a gentleman in and out of the ring; he always fought a clean fight. Fighting him was like trying to move an immovable object. He had tremendous determination, willpower and heart. Combined with his punching power and aggressiveness, it made him extremely dangerous in the ring.

Mike Ortega helped co-ordinate this feature. The Ring appreciates his assistance.


Questions and/or comments can be sent to Anson at [email protected] and you can follow him on Twitter @AnsonWainwright