The All-Time Great Bantamweights: No 6: Manuel Ortiz
6. Manuel Ortiz 100-28-3 (54 KOs)
Numbers don’t lie, but numbers need to be put into context. In boxing, it’s no different.
Manuel Ortiz bested 100 men, including flyweights, bantams, featherweights and even lightweights.
He engaged in 23 contests for the world bantamweight title, only coming up short twice, and failing to beat just one of those opponents.
To put it into perspective, his compatriot Rafael Marquez would manage eight successful defences of a world bantam title some 50 years later. Jeff Chandler left the ring with his world title a sweet-looking ten times. Shinsuke Yamanaka fended off 13 challengers to his crown and Orlando Canizales defended his world strap 17 times.
The difference is not just in the numbers though. Yes, Ortiz managed more defences but it can be argued (and will be) that Ortiz didn’t fight in the very strongest bantam era. Having said that, he missed out no one in the eight years he sat atop the division.
Stopped? Don’t even think about it. Dropped a handful of times, stopped once on a cut. In over 130 professional contests. Take that in. Ortiz was an iron man.
Skill? Watch him. The footage out there of Ortiz in his prime is minimal, but he looks to have everything you’d want in a Mexican great; well-balanced technically, a nasty looking inside game and stamina that lasted days. Ortiz lacked a fight-ending dig but his persistence and aggression meant he felled quality pros anyway. Born in the States, Ortiz is still what we expect to see when we hear the currently in vogue phrase 'Mexican style'.
But what of the opposition? If you’re just joining us at number 6, don’t. Go back and see what gets fighters high up this list.
Numbers don’t lie, but they need to be put into context.
Numbers are easier to quantify than the yarn-spinning of boxing scribes. But sometimes the legend is interesting enough to run with. This is one of those instances. Manuel Ortiz supposedly got his start in the sport when a fighter found himself without an opponent at an amateur show he was attending.
“Six years ago, an 18-year old Mexican farm worker stepped out of an audience at the amateur fights in El Centro and accepted a challenge to box as a substitute”, an A.P report said on the eve of Ortiz’s world title challenge against borderline great Lou Salica. “The lad, scrawny Manuel Ortiz, knocked his opponent down 17 times and the next day decided to take his first lesson in boxing.”
Whether a local amateur show really would have allowed an unpaid fighter to hit the deck this amount of times is up for debate, but Ortiz definitely did become an amateur around this time, carrying this ability up the ranks, stopping his opponents in the 1937 Golden Gloves tournament to win top honours in the flyweight division.
He turned pro in 1938 and before the year was out he was 15-3. Tellingly, some of those that beat him would face him later with more at stake than a small purse and a rung up the ladder. With prospects fighting prospects and prospects fighting wily veterans, there was nowhere to hide in the red-hot California fight scene - and only the best of the best could rise to the top.
Ortiz was still a flyweight with growing pains during the first few years of his career. He stepped up with mixed results. Superb Filipinos such as Little Dado and Small Montana extended him, got the better of him even. The best American midgets such as Jackie Jurich beat him.
It took him a few attempts to prove himself the best bantamweight in the state, the very good Tony Olivera turning him back once before Ortiz got the measure of him. Then he turned the trick on Mexican journeyman Panchito Villa in three fights and he was on his way.
1942. Ortiz’s fourth year in the pro ranks. Tony Olivera, old foe, is the State champ at bantam. Olivera has already fought for world honours. He’s no domestic rival, and easily outpointed Ortiz in their first fight in front of 6,000 punters. According to one source, "hammering out a decisive ten-round victory" Olivera utilised "blinding speed and crafty ring work" to get the nod. Every source also said Ortiz had a cold, but he shrugged off the bug of inexperience in their second fight, taking a majority decision and winning the Californian bantamweight championship.
At this point, Ortiz was still closely matched with his rivals.
He’d soon pull away, and once he did it was difficult for anyone to keep pace with him.
Manuel Ortiz had first faced Lou Salica when still a prospect, and had struggled to get inside Salica’s jab, losing a decision.
This is no black mark against him though. Salica was a bantam of the highest order. An Olympic medalist, he quickly found himself among the top-class professionals of the game much as Ortiz did. He beat all-time greats such as Midget Wolgast and Sixto Escobar, holding both the California and New York versions of the bantam title, which could be argued made him the legit world champ due to Panama Al Brown not fighting the best available opposition at this point of time.
But Salica’s championship winning performance against Puerto Rican great Escobar was very controversial. Next day reports were full of outrage, which is telling as they were the publications from Salica’s New York stomping grounds. He had been roundly out-boxed and out-punched according to these writers, and when Escobar reclaimed the title from Salica later on in the year the Coney Island boy was "clearly out classed and generally man-handled".
Not that Salica wasn’t a fine fighter. He won the vacant bantamweight title against Tony Olivera, who had beaten Escobar (above the bantam limit) and was a natural second man when Escobar abandoned the division, unable to squeeze himself down to 118lbs anymore.
Salica defended the title against good fighters also, destroying Small Montana and Jackie Jurich, and splitting a series with the superb Little Dado 1-1-1. Going into his fight with Ortiz the ten-round decision loss to Dado was the only blemish on an excellent run in the bantam division stretching back five whole years to a rubber match defeat against Escobar. Unbeaten within the limit during this time, Salica only suffered losses when either he or his opponent were above the limit.
At least on paper, a great bantamweight then.
But in his last ten bouts, Salica was 6-4. He had looked poor in his second fight with Dado, being gifted a draw. He had shown flashes of his prime in their third meeting, switching stances and outfoxing Dado, but didn’t have the wind for a hard fight anymore and "Dado beat the Hell out of him, winning the last five rounds and the decision by a mile" according to The Oakland Tribune. Dado was no chump - he was generally recognised as the best flyweight in the world at this point - but Salica allowing him to break into his home and smash the place up shows he wasn’t the strongest champion.
His last official title defence going into the Ortiz bout was 16 months earlier, an unpopular decision against Lou Transparenti. Salica had battled his way into the fight late to deservedly retain his title, but reviews of his performance were not great.
Contemporary reports back this up, saying Ortiz was the favourite as Salica had looked unimpressive of late in the ring as well as in training sessions.
He was still a highly-skilled operator, who tried to utilise all of his experience when defending the strap against Ortiz, but his nous was all for nothing, despite an effort worthy of his best years.
The Bakersfield California report said that "the game little New Yorker, a veteran of more than ten years in the prize ring, gave his best when he knew from the outset that his crown was slipping away from him. He tried to fight in close and got whipped. He stood off and let fly from long range, and the long-armed Mexican boy slapped him across the ring.”
It was in stark contrast to their first meeting, when Salica had dictated the range and Ortiz had struggled to get much going.
Ortiz took the title, barely losing a single round despite being cut, and was paid a paltry $250 merely to cover his training expenses. Salica bleated in the press about how he was still champion, stating that a 12-round contest wasn’t the right length for a championship contest, despite being on the right side of the negotiations.
Ortiz pasted Salica in a 15-round return, silencing the mouthy New Yorker’s protests before it that the officials were skewed in the champion's favour. One thing Salica still had going for him was his durability, and Ortiz even rinsed that from him, battering him to a standstill in 11 rounds. Salica was described as washed-up but continued his tirade in the press, saying Ortiz was a poor champion and that he must surely retire now if he was losing to a fighter of his quality.
Everything Manuel Ortiz did in this next phase of his career put that claim to shame.
The Long Reign
Dominant champions have the hardest careers to analyse. Even the greatest have their hiccups, and no gauntlet is easy to run for even the most battle hardened gladiators.
Does a lack of top-class competition foster the environment for a fighter to dominate? Or are excellent fighters relegated to minor status by virtue of being in the same era as a generational talent?
This is what makes Manuel Ortiz a difficult fighter to assess. The competition he faced during his eight-year time reign at the top of the bantamweight division was more than likely solid rather than spectacular from what we can gleam from reports and from the (admittedly scant) footage of these contests.
During this period, Ortiz was not just as untouchable as any man of the poundage that ever lived, he was arguably as untouchable as a fighter of any weight. In the first five years of this reign he lost just three out of 20, once to the immortal Willie Pep, then smack bang in the middle of his prime, once at featherweight to Carlos Chavez, who Ortiz would go 2-2-1 with, and once to talented amateur Harold Dade, who would snatch Ortiz’s bantamweight crown only to have it taken back off him two months later.
“If you could bottle Ortiz’s essence you would have yourself the stuff of not just champions but, for me, the defining bantamweight champion”
- Matt McGrain, TheSweetScience.Com
Ortiz did all this while running his own 160-acre farm, driving a truck, and managing a baseball team! In short, he was a workaholic, and it showed in the schedule he kept as a true fighting champion.
During his long title run (interrupted by being called up for duty in World War II) he beat a wide range of talented battlers in defence of his title.
He’d beaten Canadian Kenny Lindsay en route to Golden Gloves glory. In the pros he smashed him in five.
Jackie Jurich had left no stone unturned in his fly and bantam campaigns. He’d fought Benny Lynch (L KO12), Peter Kane (L UD15) Small Montana (3-0-1), Little Dado (0-4-1), Kenny Lindsay (1-0-2), Lou Salica (L KO9), Little Pancho (1-1), and even held a win over Ortiz when they were matched for the American flyweight title in the late 30s. Ortiz had turned the trick on Jurich twice in their trilogy, but in their fourth meeting Jurich was riding high on an 11-fight winning streak, beating third-ranked bantam Luis Castillo before he met Ortiz. Due to his form line, Jurich was thought by one reporter to give Ortiz "one of the toughest bouts he has seen since turning professional". But Ortiz ruthlessly dispatched Jurich in 11 rounds, convincing him to end his bantamweight endeavour and retire.
Teak tough Dado Marino fought at the very highest level of the lower weights in the 40s and 50s. He won a version of the world flyweight title, and was strong enough to take on some of the best bantams around. Ortiz "battered his face into a pulp in 15 torrid rounds".
Chinese-Hawaiian hard man David Kui Kong Young was an inconsistent but dangerous fighter who once held a version of the bantamweight title. He had also beaten Ortiz when they were both young prospects, but had little success when Ortiz was in his prime. Stopped in seven above the weight, a world title battle in Young’s Honolulu hometown saw the challenger drop the champ in the fourth with a left hook. Late on in the fight, Young dropped Ortiz again, this time with a body shot, although Ortiz protested it was low. In clear distress, the Mexican battled through the pain, winning the final round and is doing so "left no doubt as to who was the winner" according to those ringside.
Talented southpaw Benny Goldberg was a standout amateur as well as an old rival of Ortiz’s, giving him the worst possible start to the paid ranks and beating him twice over his first six months of his career. He would suffer only two losses in his whole career, the only one at bantam a 15-round decision loss for Ortiz’s bantam title. Goldberg - despite being the underdog - was given a good chance due to his earlier victories over Ortiz and the champions apparent issues with port-siders.
The first eight rounds suggested that Ortiz was indeed in deep. They were about even, but Ortiz was struggling to get too much going offensively. Ortiz then seemed to dispense with all notions of strategy and "suddenly lashed out with a terrific body attack that all but exhausted his foe", battering him from one corner of the ring to another for the rest of the bout.
The foe Ortiz met most whilst champion was the diminutive Mexican slugger Luis Castillo. With muscles on muscles packed on to a frame that didn’t reach five feet, Castillo had three cracks at Ortiz, putting him down but never keeping him there. A gash cut their first title fight short in four, then Castillo and Ortiz traded knockdowns in a rematch that saw Castillo beat down in nine.
Their rubber match is interesting due to it being the most extensive footage of Ortiz anywhere near his prime. It would be revelatory if Ortiz didn’t just look as good as advertised; a nasty presence on the inside, able to jab at range or as a tool for getting close, and able to slip shots in close instinctively in order to set up damaging looking body shot counters. Castillo made for a good foil, but Ortiz smashed him in 13 anyway, rendering the rivalry null and void.
As alluded to earlier, Harold Dade was the contender that gave Ortiz the most hassle, catching Ortiz off guard with his speed and skills and winning the world title. Before they fought their inevitable rematch, it was said that Ortiz had taken Dade lightly first time round, and had not trained properly. This seems to go against the grain of what Ortiz was like as a fighter, always active and the consummate professional, but with his schedule it can also be understood as human error. Who doesn’t slack off at work every once in a while, eh?
If Ortiz did indeed take their return more seriously, the closeness of their second title bout in the space of three months suggests that Dade was simply a tough match-up for him.
It was one of those fights. Dade’s speed and precision versus Ortiz’s digs - which carried more weight - at least to the judges and referee who all had Ortiz by slim margins. The crowd booed the decision.
The A.P report had it a draw, and said "it was the consensus that if Dade’s punches had packed more authority he would still be champion today. The 23-year old outboxed Ortiz much of the way and landed more punches, but they did little damage." There would be no talk of a robbery though as Ortiz had hurt Dade badly late in the fight and it was said to be one of the closest bouts in recent memory.
Ortiz was also now said to be an aging champion that lacked the speed he had in his prime. It is a testament then to the rest of his tools and general badass nature that he held the title for three more years and added four defences to his already lengthy list. Eventually outfought in close by South African Vic Toweel (while unsurprisingly making a real fight of it) he ended his long career in Mexico, a far cry from the great bantamweight of old but still a tough out for the youngsters trying to beat him. Footage of Ortiz desperately trying to win gives a glimpse of how electric he must have been during his prime.
The Sum Of It All
Everything about Ortiz screams all-time great fighter and I am firmly of the opinion that he is one. If you were to take into account the work he did above bantamweight as well you would see him make any sensible list of the 100 greatest men to ever don boxing gloves.
It is also true that even without a standout victory - or a rival of all-time great status to propel him into the stratosphere - he faced a wide variety of stylists and beat them all, at least in his prime.
And what of that prime? It was long, and Ortiz was so good during it that he once one-upped Joe Louis, making eight defences of a legit world title in a single year.
The bantamweight class has always been stacked. It’s much easier to find 20 or 30 capable fighters in between 8 and 9 stone than it is to find five legitimate world class talents at 105lbs or ten heavyweights that aren’t uncoordinated lummoxes at any given time. So Ortiz was undoubtedly fighting good pros and unlike later champs he didn’t have a fractured talent pool holding a quarter each of the division hostage thus denying him the chance to prove himself the top dog.
I have seen Ortiz ranked anywhere from number 1 to not at all on these type of lists, which are often hampered by poor research which favours modern champs.
It is my hunch that if Ortiz had been born a decade earlier or 20 years later he would have made a strong run for the top spot on this list. But we can only go with what we have, and the sixth greatest fighter in one of boxing’s greatest divisions is nothing to be sniffed at.
The numbers don’t lie, but those above Ortiz faced a greater bunch in my opinion.
The next gladiator on this countdown is a similar fighter to Ortiz; a great champion with a glittering reign that doesn’t quite reach the top spot.
This article was originally published on boxingmonthly.com and was edited by Luke G.Williams. You can purchase Luke’s excellent book Richmond Unchained here