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THE MATURATION OF JOE ORBILLO

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Joey Orbillo began boxing professionally in 1964 when he was eighteen years old, and for awhile was considered, along with Jerry Quarry, as one of the heavyweight division’s rising stars. 

Quite a few boxing pundits considered Orbillo’s prospects to be greater than were Quarry’s. The two would fight near the end of 1966, and although Quarry knocked Orbillo down and won a lopsided decision, with Orbillo’s career never really recovering from the loss, he readily admits that losing to Quarry might have been the most fortunate moment of his life.

Growing up in the tough Los Angeles harbor area of Wilmington, Orbillo was a standout athlete at Banning High School, winning a league championship in the shot put, and playing center and linebacker on the football team. At 185 pounds, he was well-recruited by college football programs, but turned down multiple scholarship offers, including those from Arizona, Utah, and Oregon State.

It wasn’t that Orbillo was uninterested in an education, for he enrolled at Harbor Junior College upon graduating high school, studying police science – thinking he might one day like to enter law enforcement.

Orbillo’s decision to abandon football for boxing was, in large part, financial. Aware of how much money the newly crowned heavyweight world champion Muhammad Ali was making for a fight, he compared that to the annual salary of the average NFL lineman, about $10,000. He wanted to start making money as soon as possible so, for Orbillo, the decision was easy.

Money for nuthin..? No, you earn your pay as a prizefighter, as Joey, then Joe, did.

This was the case even though Orbillo, with no amateur experience, had never boxed competitively. He had been training regularly with the professionals at Jake Shugrue’s Seaside Gym on Hoover Street, later known as the Hoover Street Gym, since he was 11, having been introduced to boxing at age seven when his father took him to the gym for lessons so he could make his way around the neighborhood without needing to run or hide when trouble arose.

Orbillo knew how to box, and had been sparring with professional heavyweights since before he had a driver’s license, holding his own with guys like Chuck Leslie, and once knocking down Amos “Big Train” Lincoln. He sparred with top heavyweight contender Eddie Machen, and even went a few rounds with light-heavyweight champion Archie Moore.

Shugrue, who would manage and train Orbillo when he turned pro, wasn’t sure the young teenager should be allowed to box with Moore. But Orbillo, who was nothing if not brash, argued something along the lines that Moore had grey hair in spots, and that if he couldn’t box with a guy who had grey hair he shouldn’t even be coming to the gym. “OK, kid,” Shugrue relented. “Remember, you asked for it.”

Always a fast starter, Orbillo landed on Moore in the first round and got a little cocky. But then, as Orbillo describes it, “he was coming at me began bobbing and weaving and hiding behind those enormous arms of his…he hit me with a left and a right. People said I carried myself pretty well, but I don’t remember a thing until in the shower.”

Orbillo decisioned future state heavyweight champion and top contender Henry Clark in the professional debut for both boxers. He fought tough guys from the beginning, including a draw with Manual Ramos, the heavyweight champion of Mexico and future challenger for the world championship, in his third fight, and won their rematch in his eighth.

By 1965, Sonny Liston considered hiring Orbillo as a sparring partner, and by the end of that year, the bidding excitement among promoters for an Orbillo-Quarry match was growing. 

He beat the experienced veteran Johny Featherman and the promising Tony Doyle, who fought to a draw with Jerry Quarry in 1965, which led to a match with top heavyweight contender, Eddie Machen, in his twelfth fight.

All of Orbillo’s fights up to this point had been held at the famed Olympic Auditorium and, having grown up a local sports star in the heart of the neighborhood, with his enormously strong Mexican-American following, Orbillo was extremely popular and a lucrative draw whenever he fought.

Making fights for Orbillo had become complicated, though, with his enlistment in the army after the Doyle fight.

He was on leave when he fought Machen, with orders to return to Fort Ord, near Monterey, the day after because he was scheduled to immediately begin receiving advanced infantry training.

Machen had lost to Karl Mildenberger and Manuel Ramos in his two previous bouts, and was the betting underdog against Orbillo, who, being stylistically consistent with his previous fights, came out fast and took the lead. But, by the fight’s end, Machen’s skill on the inside and his ability to land right hand leads spelled the difference. 

Orbillo’s loss to Machen did not tarnish his attractiveness, and the drumbeat for a match between Quarry and Orbit was getting louder. The paid attendance at the Olympic for the Machen fight was 8,400, and Orbillo’s popularity was still growing. The February 2, 1966, edition of Sports Illustrated reported on the top heavyweight prospects in the country, and included profiles of Orbillo and Quarry, as well as a guy named Joe Frazier.

Both Quarry and Orbillo were familiar with the Olympic but, as it was the only place Orbillo had fought, he had developed a strong relationship with Aileen Eaton. Other promoters were trying to lure Orbillo out of the Olympic. So, Mickey Davis, the Olympic matchmaker, who had played a large part in developing Quarry and was solely responsible, promotionally-wise, for Orbillo’s place among heavyweights, made a “generous” offer to both boxers. But neither camp seemed interested in making a quick deal.

The fight would have to wait, primarily due to Orbillo’s military responsibilities. The army surely compromised Orbillo’s efforts with Machen, and would with Quarry, as well. But Orbillo had a vainglorious sense of self-bravado, accepting challenges that were exciting and admirable, of course, but not necessarily the wisest business decisions with regard to a heavyweight boxing career. Figuring he would be drafted into the army to serve in Vietnam anyway, Orbillo enlisted rather than wait for the lottery so he could go into the service with his buddy. The buddy, however, was transferred three weeks later to a different outfit. “I’ll be honest with you,” Orbillo said about this. “If I had suspected that was going to happen, I’d have waited to be drafted.”

Avoiding the draft, as did many athletes in the 1960s, was not a choice Orbillo would have made. “Of course, no one wants to get killed, but I’m glad to be able to do my part,” he said. About his volunteerism, Orbillo told the Los Angeles Times’ Dan Hafner that “all of us owe it to our country.” He considered serving in the army as part of his obligation to “Uncle Sam.”

This was another aspect of Orbillo’s popularity, as it is safe to assume the attitude of the average boxing fan toward the military in 1966 was much more in line with Orbillo than with the heavyweight champion at that time. Orbillo openly expressed his disappointment in Muhammad Ali for refusing induction.

A Boy Scout at heart if not by affiliation, Orbillo expressed shock that, by his count, 8 out of 10 kids in his neighborhood smoked marijuana. “They do it for kicks,” he said, “They say it ‘puts you on a trip.’”

The Southern California boxing world could not get enough of Orbillo, and local reporters gave voice to that love. Frankie Goodman of the Van Nuys Valley News wrote, before Orbillo’s second fight with Ramos, “California’s greatest contribution to boxing will appear at Olympic Auditorium Thursday night in the person of Joey Orbillo.”

Orbillo was otherwise occupied at Fort Benning, Georgia, as this noise reached a deafening level. 

He had volunteered to be the point man for his patrol when in Vietnam, and was enhancing his marksmanship skills while also undergoing “extensive jungle training.” 

Acknowledging he hadn’t been in the best condition for Machen, Orbillo had been “sparring with his captain” to keep in shape while in Georgia.

Quarry’s co-manager, Johny Flores, had written a letter to Orbillo – who admitted this much later – that suggested Orbillo might not come back from Vietnam as an explanation of why he and Quarry should fight beforehand. This letter surely inflamed Orbillo’s youthful apprehensiveness about the experience that awaited him. Ambivalent at first, about taking the fight under the conditions as they were, he decided to go ahead with it after the letter. “I wanted to make sure no one forgot about me,” Orbillo said.

But his reasons for fighting Quarry were not all colored by youthful, romantic pride. “I may be gone for a long time,” he said. “I wanted the money for my mother and father. They can use it and it may be a long while before I can help out again.”

Even though Machen, having beaten both Orbillo and Quarry, thought Orbillo was the better fighter, the line was 7-5 in Quarry’s favor. He had the amateur pedigree and had been a National Golden Gloves champion.  The stakes were high for both fighters, of course, but former world champion Floyd Patterson said he might be willing to fight Quarry if he was victorious, so Quarry had extra incentive.

Orbillo was considered to be faster than Quarry, who was the better puncher, but Van Barbieri, of San Pedro’s News Pilot, thought Quarry was “vastly overrated.” Quarry, for his part, called Orbillo a three-round fighter, not so much referring to a lack of skill as saying that Orbillo had not yet developed the patience to have a sense of pace, that he fought as amateurs do, firing on all cylinders from the first bell, knowing they only have three rounds to make their case. But professional boxers, at least in the 1960s, fought at a more relaxed level than amateurs, boxing with nuance, allowing the fight to develop psychological and even philosophical dimensions rather than being simply a physical contest. 

Orbillo, however, did not fight like that, having his eye on the finish line from the first bell. This aggressiveness added to his popularity, but also was at least partially a function of his lack of experience in competitive boxing. Sparring is something different that actually fighting, and although Orbillo was an excellent athlete with highly developed skills from his years in the gym, his lack of an amateur background accompanied by his relatively few professional fights would not have permitted him to be as emotionally developed, which is the basis of mature patience in a boxing ring, as someone like Quarry.

Quarry was only twelve months older than Orbillo, but that is only a reflection of time as measured by birth certificates. His life having been well-documented, we know that, even though Quarry was only 21 when he fought Orbillo, it had been a long time since Jerry Quarry had been a teenager. Joey Orbillo was still a kid.

The Pasadena Independent’s Joe Henderson described the Orbillo style, writing that Orbillo is “known for making his bid and then levelling off with no more uprising. He wins early or takes the lead and survives the opponent’s recovery. Orbillo affirmed Henderson’s thinking by saying, “Actually, I feel the quicker that you get it over with, the quicker the both of you get through the pain.” 

Henderson projected military service might be the answer to Orbillo’s problems, thinking he needed a bit of maturity.

10,200 people crowded the Olympic to see the fight. True to form, Orbillo came out quickly, landing jabs and keeping Quarry at a distance, winning the first two, and possibly three rounds.

But Quarry patiently settled in, knocking Orbillo down with a left hook and a right hand in the fourth round, and won the fight pulling away. Orbillo described the effect of the knockdown when he said, “After the fourth, I didn’t know where I was until the eighth round,” and complimented Quarry by admitting he had been carried. Quarry said he had not wanted to hurt Orbillo, who he called “the toughest man I ever fought.”

“His left hurt me a lot,” Orbillo explained. “I have no excuses. I asked for the fight. I was ready. I tried. Jerry was a lot better than I tonight.”

Orbillo had been granted a 30-day furlough to prepare for and fight Jerry Quarry, with orders to return to active duty two days after the fight, where he would have a one-way ticket to Vietnam waiting for him. Taking off to have a little fun before that, though, Orbillo ended his post-fight comments by saying, “God willing, if everything goes well in the Far East, I’d like a rematch. By that time Jerry should be right up there. He’ll go a long way.”

His lucky day was about to arrive, though. By the time Orbillo got back to Georgia, his ears were so acutely inflamed he sought medical attention. He was diagnosed with burst eardrums – both of them being broken during the fight. Orbillo’s deployment to Vietnam was delayed while he received treatment, and then cancelled. He would be re-assigned as an equipment issuing clerk for new recruits, which also allowed him to help run the base gym.

Orbillo would return home from the military a different person. The life of the soldier who took Orbillo’s place as point man would end after only three days in Vietnam, which, of course, would have an effect upon anyone. What Orbillo said publicly is, “I consider myself the luckiest guy in the world…Even though he beat me, Quarry did me a favor.”

“The army was a good experience,” he said, “but I wouldn’t want to go through it again.” Having spent the majority of his two years of duty in the south, Orbillo learned, “they react differently than people do here.”

Upon his discharge, Orbillo attempted to resurrect his career, but with frustrating results, injuries consistently interrupting his progress. Sportswriters began routinely referring to him as “Joe Orbillo” rather than the “Joey Orbillo” who had been a teenage phenom. He was no longer a teenager, and no longer a phenom, either. Orbillo would decision Roy Wallace twice, before being upset over ten rounds by Amos Lincoln in July, 1968, breaking a knuckle in the process. Lincoln was described as a beaten man after six rounds, but was even on the scorecards going into the final round, which he pulled out for victory. 

October surgery was a success, but rehabilitation was a long affair, extended when a car accident left Orbillo with a totaled Volkswagen, a head laceration, and a possible concussion. He would not fight again until June, 1969, when he stopped Marty Franklin in three rounds. There was talk of Orbillo being matched with Sonny Liston or Mac Foster, but those plans never got beyond the negotiation stage.

He tore a ligament in the same fragile hand while sparring in October, 1969, but fought Ray Ellis and Al Banks in January and February of 1970, respectively.  Inactive until November, when he beat Chuck Haynes, Orbillo had to cancel a December fight with Steve Grant. Making good on the commitment he had made to Grant, Orbillo beat him in February, 1971. Quarry and Orbillo would become good friends, with Orbillo regularly serving as a sparring partner for some of the major fights Quarry would have in the prime of his career, which helped keep Orbillo in condition and in money between fights.

“I think I’ve matured since the army,” Orbillo would say in 1971. “I don’t try for the knockout and I’m ready to go the distance.” He also admitted that since his return, boxing did not hold the excitement for him that it once did.

Another long layoff, which included the postponement of a May fight with Jose Luis Garcia followed by a retirement, was wearing on Orbillo. His doctor advised him not to box anymore.

But Orbillo was not quite ready to walk away. As he told the San Pedro News Pilot, “When I quit boxing…I thought it was for good. But you don’t realize how much you like something until you get away from it. My attitude is better now and I feel better.”

That feeling did not last long, as he was knocked out in five rounds by Robie Harris, a previous victim of Orbillo, in November. That proved to Orbillo he’d had enough. He retired with a record of 17-4-1, and was sworn into the Los Angeles Police Department in July, 1972.

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