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Friday Night Fighter

Gaspar "Indio" Ortega and the Golden Age of Television Boxing

Troy Rondinone

Publication Year: 2013

Friday Night Fighter relives a lost moment in American postwar history, when boxing ruled as one of the nation's most widely televised sports. During the 1950s and 1960s, viewers tuned in weekly, sometimes even daily, to watch widely-recognized fighters engage in primordial battle, with the Gillette Cavalcade of Sports Friday Night Fights being the most popular fight show. Troy Rondinone follows the dual narratives of the Friday Night Fights show and the individual story of Gaspar "Indio" Ortega, a boxer who appeared on primetime network television more than almost any other boxer in history. From humble beginnings growing up poor in Tijuana, Mexico, Ortega personified the phenomenon of postwar boxing at its greatest, appearing before audiences of millions to battle the biggest names of the time, such as Carmen Basilio, Tony DeMarco, Chico Vejar, Benny "Kid" Paret, Emile Griffith, Kid Gavilan, Florentino Fernandez, and Luis Manuel Rodriguez. Rondinone explores the factors contributing to the success of televised boxing, including the rise of television entertainment, the role of a "reality" blood sport, Cold War masculinity, changing attitudes toward race in America, and the influence of organized crime. At times evoking the drama and spectacle of the Friday Night Fights themselves, this volume is a lively examination of a time in history when Americans crowded around their sets to watch the main event.

Published by: University of Illinois Press

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. 2-7

Contents

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pp. vii-viii

Illustrations

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pp. ix-x

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Acknowledgments

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pp. xi-xii

Though many people have helped me create this book, without my having met Gaspar Ortega by chance in 2005, this project would simply not exist. So first and foremost, I would like to thank Indio for sharing his amazing story with me. Gaspar’s family has also been a wonderful help. ...

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Preface: Boxing Lessons

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pp. xiii-xviii

From the street, the building looked condemned. Murky windows and weather-blasted bricks overlooked a dismaying frontage of ragweed, dandelions, and broken cement. A chain-link fence off to the side surrounded an empty parking lot. No sign, marker, or any other evidence of human life availed itself. ...

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Introduction: Fight Night

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pp. 1-8

It is Saturday, June 3, 1961. Gaspar “Indio” Ortega sits patiently, his eyes looking at nothing in particular. Legendary trainer Freddie Brown carefully draws long strips of white gauze around his hands. A tough Lower East Side Jew whose flattened nose and ever-present cigar describe a life lived in the fistic world, Freddie Brown has seen it all. ...

Part I. Gladiators of the Age of Contentment

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Chapter 1. “And the Winner—Television!”

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pp. 11-21

Understanding the incredible success of TV boxing in the middle of the twentieth century first requires tracing the sport’s crooked path to respectability. What we now know as boxing was born in the late 1800s, when the adoption of the Queensberry rules ended the old bare-knuckle days of limitless rounds, neck choking, no weight classifications, and muddy deaths. ...

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Chapter 2. “The Regular Friday Coaxial Bloodbath”

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pp. 22-33

World champion Carmen Basilio once defeated Tony Demarco after Basilio had broken the bones of his hand early in the fight. He just continued punching with his shattered fist. When questioned later about how healthy his boxer would be to defend his title, Basilio’s manager dismissed concerns. “There is nothing wrong with Carmen’s right hand,” he said. ...

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Chapter 3. The Friday Night Fighters

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pp. 34-50

For Friday Night Fighters, the new age of television meant grand opportunity. As broadcasts expanded in the postwar years, fighters discovered that a main event fight in Madison Square Garden equaled instant national celebrity and a big pile of cash. In 1944 Willie Pep and Chalky Wright each received $400 for their premier TV fight. ...

Part II. Indio

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Chapter 4. The Mexamerican

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pp. 53-72

Perhaps the oldest aphorism of boxing is that poverty breeds pugilists. This is certainly the case for Gaspar Indio Ortega, but knowing this is about as useful as reading the opening lines of Anna Karenina—“each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”—and stopping there. Ghettos birth boxers. But why? ...

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Chapter 5. The Discovery of New York

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pp. 73-87

In the summer of 1954, Nick Corby gave Gaspar a one-way Greyhound bus ticket and five dollars and told him they would meet up in New York City. Gaspar’s mom gave her son three quarters and some advice: “If any gringo hits you once, you hit him twice.” Indio traveled light, bringing with him three pairs of pants, three shirts, a few pairs of underwear, and one pair of shoes. ...

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Chapter 6. Climb

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pp. 88-98

When sixteen-year-old Ida Ramirez showed up to watch Gaspar fight at St. Nicholas Arena, she was impressed. While not quite the Garden, St. Nick’s was still a highly respected boxing venue in New York, holding some four thousand seats. The battle was also a TV fight: the Dumont television network had been broadcasting fights ...

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Chapter 7. The Tournament

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pp. 99-117

The Indian had taken the boxing world by storm. Since his first televised fight in March 1956, Gaspar Ortega had ascended from the mass of the unranked to nearly the top of his class. Coming into 1957, Gaspar was the number two–ranked welterweight in the world. He had won five straight matches against top-notch boxers. ...

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Chapter 8. The Secret Government

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pp. 118-130

The tournament loss might have sent a lesser fighter into a death spiral. But Gaspar Ortega wasn’t nearly ready to give up on his dream. So Gaspar fought his way back into position, and after beating Mickey Crawford, he found himself again ranked the number one contender in the welterweight division. ...

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Chapter 9. Trouble

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pp. 131-149

Ida was going home. She had been living in Tijuana since tying the knot with Gaspar, but now all bets were off. It was hard enough adjusting to life in the dusty, chaotic streets of Tijuana, fitting in to a culture much different from her own while trying to raise a baby amid a large, bustling family. ...

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Chapter 10. The Shot

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pp. 150-166

According to legend, back in the 1920s there was a Greek restaurateur who was fed up. Fed up with all these young pugs bouncing over from the boxing gym across the street and eating his food on credit, running up mountains of unpaid bills. The Greek came up with a solution: in exchange for the meals, the boxers must let him become their manager. ...

Part III. The Hardest Game

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Chapter 11. Bloodying the Sport

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pp. 169-186

Emile Griffith defeated Gaspar Ortega on a Saturday night. Before regular TV boxing went off the air, a struggling Friday Night Fights limped into the Saturday night slot, then back briefly to Friday before vanishing forever. The reasons for the end read like the ingredients for disaster: some greed, some overexposure, some crime, some death, some changes in audience taste. ...

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Chapter 12. The Ship Goes Down

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pp. 187-214

Dismantling the Indian placed Emile Griffith firmly in the uppermost reaches of boxing royalty. He made fifty thousand dollars from the match and was named “boxer of the month” by the National Boxing Association. He bought a house on Long Island for himself and his family. ...

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Chapter 13. Changing Times

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pp. 215-230

Were they really going to kill the fights? Weren’t there still millions of faithful viewers? When word first leaked to the New York Times on Sunday, December 22, 1963, Gillette denied it as a rumor. Garden publicist F. X. Condon quickly warned that if the show was indeed dropped, the Garden might have to cancel its weekly fight shows altogether ...

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Epilogue: Nightmares

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pp. 231-240

The nightmares began soon after he retired. They were always the same. A voice would whisper, “Kill him.” He knew the voice. It belonged to Benny Paret. “Kill him,” Benny would say. “Don’t worry. I will be in your corner.” Kid Paret wanted Gaspar to exact his revenge against Emile Griffith. “No, I can’t,” Gaspar would tell the specter. “I’m retired now.” ...

A Note on Sources

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pp. 241-244

Images

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pp. 266-273

Notes

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pp. 245-268

Index

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pp. 269-274

About the Author, Production Notes

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pp. 304-305


E-ISBN-13: 9780252094668
Print-ISBN-13: 9780252037375

Page Count: 304
Publication Year: 2013