Boxing fans were saddened to learn that the great Puerto Rican boxer Carlos Ortiz passed away on June 13 at age 85.
He was considered by most boxing fans and pundits as one of the greatest, if not the greatest Puerto Rican boxer of all time.
One could say that Carlos Ortiz was a sort of trailblazer. After Ortiz (see record here) won the first of his three world titles in 1959, 48 Puerto Rican boxers won at least one world title in every decade since.
Ortiz Came Of Age During Rugged Times
Ortiz was born on September 9, 1936, in Ponce, Puerto Rico, during the Great Depression. Like most of the world, Puerto Rico’s economy was affected by the severe economic downturn and World War 2.
During the 1940s, Puerto Rico's economy transitioned from a monocultural plantation economy into a platform for factory export production. This and other factors led to The Great Puerto Rican Migration of the 1940s. Starting in 1945, native Puerto Ricans left the island for the United States, looking for employment and a better way of life. According to the Center of Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College, it is estimated that over 4,200 Puerto Ricans would arrive in the United States each year between 1946-1956, and most of them would settle in New York City. In 1947 when Carlos was 8 years old, his family left Puerto Rico and they settled in New York City.
Puerto Ricans that came to the United States during this period faced many hardships, including poverty, unemployment, language barriers, and discrimination. Surviving the streets of New York City often meant that one had to learn how to fight. Ortiz was no exception. In a 2016 interview, Ortiz told writer Robert Ecksel, “In my time you came over here, it was strangers in paradise. People didn't like intruders. I used to get my ass kicked every day. Any place I went to in the city, I was always beat up—because I was Spanish. I had to survive. I had to find a way to protect myself. And then I got into boxing.”
Ortiz Starts Snagging World Championships
In 1948 Ortiz started boxing at the Madison Squares Boys Club. The Puerto Rican native became a professional in 1955. Between 1955-1959, Carlos would fight 32 times and amass a record of 29-2 (1 NC) before he challenged Kenny Lane for the junior welterweight title on June 12, 1959. Ortiz avenged a loss to Lane six months prior and won a majority decision to become the junior welterweight champion.
Mind you, that time wasn’t like this era, which has titles being bandied about like trinkets from a gum-ball machine. The young Puerto Rican champion successfully defended that title twice before losing it in a rematch to tough Italian boxer Duillio Loi in 1960.
Two years later, Ortiz would defeat Joe Brown and win the lightweight world title, making him a champion in two divisions, a first for a Puerto Rican boxer. As a result, Ortiz became a favorite amongst the Puerto Rican fanbase in New York and his native home. Carlos defended that title four times before losing it to the Panamanian Ismael Laguna in 1965. Later that year, Ortiz defeated Laguna in a rematch and regained his lost titles. For the next four years, Ortiz would successfully defend the WBA, WBC, and Ring lightweight titles five times in two years before losing them to Carlos Teo Cruz from the Dominican Republic.
Carlos Ortiz's last fight came on September 20, 1972, when he lost to Scotland’s Ken Buchanan. In a 17-year career, Ortiz dominated the lightweight division during the 60s. During that decade, Ortiz fought in 18 title matches and only lost 4 of those contests. Through his championship reign, Carlos fought 7 hall of famers, winning six of those fights.
Carlos Ortiz is recognized by most boxing experts as one of the greatest lightweights of all time, ranking amongst the top ten on most experts’ lists. Fight City has him ranked ten among the greatest twelve lightweights of all time. Boxing Scene and Sports Illustrated have Ortiz ranked number seven. In their 100th anniversary commemorative issue, The Ring magazine ranked the Puerto Rican champion number 21 out of 100 boxers “who personified the phrase ‘to be the best you have to beat the best.’”
Here's an excerpt from The Ring Magazine detailing Ortiz's achievements: “Ortiz was ranked no lower than second in the top 10 from January 1959 to July 1962 editions and was 7-4 against opposition ranked at lightweight and welterweight when he ended the almost six-year reign of Joe Brown in April 1962. From his second loss to Duilio Loi at junior welterweight in 1961 until losing his first lightweight title to Ismael Laguna in 1965, Ortiz went 12-0 with six wins against ranked opponents in title and non-title affairs.
Ortiz regained the title from Laguna in his next fight and went 5-0-1 in the following six before losing the crown to Carlos Teo Cruz. From the Laguna rematch win to the Cruz defeat, Ortiz faced only one unranked opponent and won a rubber match with Laguna.
Ortiz defeated three No. 1 contenders and was 4-0 against reigning world champions, including two stoppages (1964, 1966) of junior lightweight champion Flash Elorde. (Both came in round 14 of a scheduled 15 rounder. Click here to see the the '66 stoppage.) Ortiz successfully defended the lightweight title against Elorde in each of his lightweight title reigns. Ortiz launched a comeback in 1971 and won nine in a row before suffering the lone stoppage loss of his career to former lightweight champion Ken Buchanan.”
Carlos Ortiz’s legacy is such that his death was deeply felt across the boxing community. Fans, fighters, and journalists expressed their heartfelt thoughts about the tremendous Puerto Rican champion on various social media outlets. Here is a smart take from Ring's Tom Gray:
Hall of Fame matchmaker Ron Katz also tipped his cap to the Puerto Rican trailblazer:
In honor of the Puerto Rican champion, journalists and authors that cover the sport of boxing contributed their thoughts and anecdotes with NYFIGHTS:
Matthew Aguilar (Columnist and Sportswriter):
“Carlos Ortiz is one of the greatest Puerto Rican fighters in boxing history – if not the greatest. A two-division world champion and International Boxing Hall of Famer, Ortiz blazed the path for the iconic fighters that came after him – Benitez, Gomez, Trinidad, and Cotto – serving as a beacon of grace and dignity for them and many others. It is a sad day, for Puerto Rico has lost one of its all-time warriors and greatest ambassadors.”
Doug Fischer (Editor-In-Chief of Ring Magazine):
“I consider Carlos Ortiz to be one of the greatest lightweight champions of all time and one of the greatest boxers, pound for pound, of all time.
Whenever I come across a ranking of the best lightweights all of time or the greatest Puerto Rican fighters ever — either from a fan or a member of the media — that does not include Carlos Ortiz, I know the individuals who compiled those lists aren't as knowledgeable about boxing history as they think they are, and I always suggest that they do more research next time.
Ortiz, who was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1991, faced seven fellow hall of famers during his 70-bout pro career. He owns victories over five of the seven. Argentine legend Nicolino Locche held Ortiz to a draw in Buenos Aires and Ken Buchanan stopped him a way-past-prime Ortiz in his final bout, the only TKO loss of his 16-year career. Ortiz had trilogies with Panamanian great Ismael Laguna and underrated Italian wizard Duilio Loi. He beat the great Joe Brown for the title and twice stopped both Flash Elorde and Sugar Ramos in title defenses. Ortiz faced the best of the world while fighting around the globe. He was a true WORLD champion during the 1960s. He also faced numerous Ring-rated contenders, such as Joey Lopes, Battling Torres, Kenny Lane (who he fought three times and beat for the 140-pound title), Doug Vaillant (twice), and Johnny Bizzarro.
Ortiz is also among the greatest fighters I ever had the pleasure of meeting in person. I worked out at Gleason's Gym while attending Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism from 1992 to 1993. It was then and there that I was taught the basics of boxing by an affable amateur trainer named Martin Snow. Whenever Snow was busy with other clients away from the gym, Carlos Ortiz would sub for him at Gleason's, so I had the honor of having an all-time great take me through the floor exercises and bag work. For a hardcore fan and amateur historian, it was like being at a Fantasy Camp.”
Colin Morrison (Columnist for NYFights):
“He certainly took on all comers during his time. And when you look at where he fought – he was the true definition of a world champion as he boxed in Japan, the Philippines, Argentina, Mexico, Italy, the UK, as well as in many parts of America and, of course, in Puerto Rico. The other thing that stood out for me was he was only stopped once, and that was in his final fight against Ken Buchanan of Scotland. Perhaps his encounter with Father Time. May the champ RIP.”
Jake Donovan (Senior Writer for Boxing Scene):
“Puerto Rico—and New York—lost a giant. Carlos Ortiz's championship run defined his mettle, avenging a past defeat to win his first crown and taking pride in hitting the road to beat so many challengers along the way. During three championship reigns that spanned ten different nations, Ortiz earned his place on the short list of the greatest Boricua fighters in boxing history. However sad his passing, it's only fitting he lived just long enough to bear witness—from afar—to both the first Hall of Fame ceremony and Puerto Rican Day Parade with fans since the pandemic.”
Matt Andrzejewski (Columnist for NYFights):
“Where Ortiz ranks among the greats from Puerto Rico is up for debate, but what is not up for debate is that Ortiz was, in fact, an all-time great in this sport. Unfortunately, I never had the honor to meet him. But from what I understand, he was one of the friendliest and most personable people in this business. He deserves to be remembered for his greatness not only inside the ring but outside as well. RIP Carlos Ortiz.”
Christian Giudice (Author of several books, including Beloved Warrior, The Rise and Fall of Alexis Argüello and Hands of Stone)
“On April 10, 1965, in Panama, Puerto Rican star Carlos Ortiz put both his WBC and WBA lightweight titles on the line against “El Tigre” Ismael Laguna, beloved in all of Panama. This was before Roberto Duran and Eusebio Pedroza, and the other Panamanian boxing idols began to cement their lasting legacies. Ortiz did not know what to expect from the smooth Panamanian lightweight and was astonished by what he witnessed.
“It was a mystery,” he recalled. “I didn’t know his style, but that’s the way it was in my fighting days. I didn’t care to see the guy. I used to go all over, when I stepped into the ring, that’s where I saw the fighter.”
Although Ortiz was not looking to antagonize Laguna, he had certain expectations regarding how a champion was supposed to be treated.
“We went to this gym in a beautiful hotel, and I said, ‘This is nothing like where I’m staying.’ And I’m thinking that I’m the champion and I’m supposed to be the big shot. When I went to see (Laguna), he was at the Sheraton or something.
Ortiz added: “When I see this kid (in a training session), he was moving around his opponent, but you couldn’t see him because he was moving so quickly. I was thinking, ‘Oh God, what did I get into?’ But he was very skinny, and he wasn’t built like a fighter. He was fast and tall, and he had everything. He was something that I did not expect to see. And I knew I was going to have a hard time. But I trained for the best, and I saw how he was. That was all I had to see. I wasn’t going to be surprised when I got into the ring.”
Over 15 rounds, Laguna boxed beautifully to earn the belts with a majority-decision victory, but Ortiz refused to let the loss tarnish his memories of that time. “Ismael was the sweetest kid I ever met,” said Ortiz, 38 years later. “He was like a kid. But the son-of-a-bitch, once he stepped into the ring, he was different.”
Avenging the loss seven months later and then again in 1967, Ortiz made sure that he would no longer let Laguna dictate the action with his movement and speed. He was just too strong, too good at 135 pounds. In the process of winning three world titles, Ortiz always yearned to fight the best, never backing down. But even more than his rich accomplishments in the ring, Ortiz was a good man, a good friend, a decent person. And will be remembered as such.”
Carlos Ortiz was a tenaciously skilled boxer who fought and defeated the best fighters of his time. In addition, he was a teacher and mentor to most fighters who had the honor of being in his presence. Carlos Ortiz fought with honor and pride, motivated by his love for his country.
Carlos once said, “Everything I did I did for the love of my country. I wanted my country to be recognized- little Puerto Rico- from where I came from -it's a small island. I wanted to give Puerto Rico a good name by winning and being successful in boxing-I did that.”
Ortiz fought during an era where times were hard for many citizens in America, especially Puerto Rican migrants who were settling in New York City. Carlos was a tough fighter who gave the best of himself every time he fought, and he avenged most of his losses. In an era of utter despair, Ortiz’s success transcended beyond the ring providing a symbol of strength, resiliency, and national pride for the Puerto Rican people. Since Sixto Escobar, Puerto Ricans finally had a champion they could call their own for the first time in twenty years.
Carlos Ortiz was globally admired and revered. For the people of Puerto Rico, Ortiz was their hero.