Whenever someone asks who is The Godfather of boxing in Puerto Rico, there can only be one answer. It’s Carlos Ortiz. On the morning of June 13, 2022, Ortiz passed away in New York City at the age of 85. His family has yet to disclose the cause of death. While his death ends his life on earth, it can never end his endearing legacy of being the biggest pioneer in terms of boxing in Puerto Rico. He also stands alongside Roberto Clemente as the two most important figures in Puerto Rican sports history.
Because I’m Puerto Rican, fellow boxing fans always ask my opinion of what is the quintessential style of a Puerto Rican boxer. The prototypical Mexican style is the slugger who bangs the body while having an iron chin, a la Julio Cesar Chavez. The prototypical Cuban style is a defensive-minded boxer with lots of foot and head movement, a la Kid Chocolate and Kid Gavilan. My answer when it comes to a Puerto Rican boxer’s prototypical style always harkens back to the way Ortiz fought; a boxer/puncher who would adjust his style according to his opponent’s style. You can definitely see the influence of Ortiz on later Puerto Rican greats such as Wilfredo Gomez and Miguel Cotto.
Ortiz was born September 9, 1936 in Ponce, Puerto Rico. His parents moved their entire family to New York City when Carlos was a very young boy. The Ortiz family was part of the early great migration of Puerto Ricans to New York City throughout the 1940s and 1950s. My father’s family moved to New York from Puerto Rico in 1950, as did my mother’s family in 1954. Ortiz learned to box at a young age and turned pro on Valentine’s Day in 1955 at the tender age of 18. Ortiz would go undefeated in his first 27 fights at 135 pounds before losing a questionable decision on June 27, 1958 to Johnny Busso. Ortiz won the subsequent rematch and after losing another questionable decision to Kenny Lane on December 31, 1958, he secured an immediate rematch with Lane. The rematch would be for the vacant world junior welterweight title.
On June 12, 1959, in front of a predominantly boisterous Puerto Rican crowd at Madison Square Garden, Ortiz won the vacant 140-pound title by decimating Lane in the second round. My father was 10 years old at the time and used to brag all the time about how he snuck into the world’s most famous arena to see Ortiz win his first world title at the age of 22. Ortiz became only the second Puerto Rican world champion, 20 years after Sixto Escobar had worn the world bantamweight title.
After a two-year reign as the 140-pound titleholder from 1959-1961, Ortiz moved back down to 135 pounds the following year. On April 21, 1962, Ortiz challenged Joe Brown for Brown’s world lightweight crown. Brown was one of the most dominant 135-pound titleholders of all-time, having successfully defended his title 11 times over five-and-a-half years. Brown, similar to Ortiz, was a boxer/puncher and a prohibitive favorite over the challenger. Ortiz fought brilliantly, out-boxing and out-slugging the legendary Brown throughout the entire 15-round bout. Despite only having 39 pro fights compared to over 130 fights for the champion, Ortiz fought the fight like he was the wily veteran. Brown never recovered from the punishment he suffered at the hands of Ortiz, as he lost 24 of his last 46 fights.
During his first reign as champion, Ortiz defeated such notable names as Kenny Lane and Philippine legend Flash Elorde. After successfully defending his title four times, Ortiz would lose the title to Panamanian great Ismael Laguna on April 10, 1965. Laguna was a master boxer who had to fight the fight of his life to barely defeat Ortiz over 15 tumultuous rounds. Ortiz kept constant pressure throughout the fight. Despite the loss, Ortiz came out of the fight a winner as he gave Laguna hell and more. Ortiz’s constant pressure in the subsequent rematch seven months later was just too much for Laguna as Ortiz convincingly retained the title by 15-round decision. On August 16, 1967, Ortiz once again dominated Laguna over 15 rounds to regain his world title.
Ortiz’s second title reign was once again filled with wins over future Hall of Famers with two knockouts of Cuban great Sugar Ramos, another knockout of Elorde and the aforementioned final fight with Laguna. A title reign that lasted over two-and-a-half years and five successful defenses came to a controversial end on June 29, 1968. That night, Ortiz was robbed on the island of Santo Domingo against Dominican journeyman Carlos “Teo” Cruz. Over 15 rounds, Ortiz totally outfought Cruz, who spent the majority of the fight running and holding. Unfortunately for Ortiz, despite still being one of the best fighters in the world at the time, he was never given another title shot. After losing to former lightweight champion Ken Buchanan in September of 1972, Ortiz finally retired at the age of 36 with a stellar record of 61-7-1 with 30 knockouts.
Carlos Ortiz, like his contemporary Roberto Clemente was for Puerto Rican baseball, was a pioneer for Puerto Rican boxing. His boxer/puncher style set the standard for later great Puerto Rican boxers. Successfully defending his title nine teams over two reigns spanning almost six years, Ortiz defeated some of the greatest 135-pound fighters of all-time as well as winning his first world title at 140 pounds. My father always believed that Ortiz was solely responsible for the popularity of boxing in his native Puerto Rico. His reign as the first legendary Puerto Rican world champion laid the groundwork for future legends like Gomez, Cotto, Wilfred Benitez, Hector Camacho and Edwin Rosario. It is only fitting that he passed away not only the day after the latest Puerto Rican legend Cotto was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame, but also on the 36th anniversary of the biggest fight ever between two Puerto Ricans. On June 13, 1986, future Puerto Rican IBHOF members Hector Camacho and Edwin Rosario fought not only for Camacho’s lightweight title, but the fight also took place at Madison Square Garden, the division and arena Ortiz was most associated with. Like my father always told me, everything in life comes full circle.