- Friday Night Fighter: Gasper “Indio” Ortega and the Golden Age of Television Boxing by Troy Rondinone
Troy Rondinone is an associate professor of history at Southern Connecticut State University. In his Friday Night Fighter, Rondinone steps back in time and shapes a narrative that is a compelling scrutiny of televised boxing in the decades of the 1950s and 1960s. In this modern era where boxing, for the main, enjoys limited television exposure and, in terms of the profusion of cable outlets, allows viewers an astonishing choice of sporting action, it is difficult to appreciate the huge appeal of the Gillette Cavalcade which served up a consistent feast, and festival, of gladiatorial combat. Rondinone binds his boxing history around the life and times of the magical Mexican, Gaspar “Indio” Ortega. Ortega dominated primetime network televised boxing in the 1950s and 1960s. The classic product of a working-class Tijuana neighborhood, Ortega’s blend of quickness, aggression, and an ability to take a hit and return it with interest endeared him to his television fan base. The major sponsor Gillette knew that in the form and substance of Ortega they had a rare marketing tool. He never failed to give his heart, soul, and body, and battles with the likes [End Page 176] of Carmen Basilio, Tony DeMarco, Chico Vejar, Benny “Kid” Paret, Emile Griffith, Kid Gavilan, Florentino Fernandez, and Luis Manuel Rodriguez, Ortego established himself as a television celebrity and, according to Rondinone, presented viewers with an athletic and engaging minority at a time when the medium was mostly sustained by solidly white offerings.
Friday Night Fighter succeeds on many fronts. While it is a superior piece of sports history, Rondionone’s craft as a very good writer has already taken this reviewer on a circulatory journey to re-read portions of the book. A first-time meeting with Rondinone’s hero of his “wars” shows Rondione’s artful ability to convey the feel of the boxing landscape. On the first page of the preface Rondinone describes a post-apocalyptic community center and a place, and space, dominated by the smell of old sweat and mold:
An old man approached me. He was thin and bronze-skinned and stately, with ramrod straight posture and tight, close-cropped hair. He seemed very tall, though he couldn’t have been more than five-foot-ten. . . . His rough, accented voice sounded like a fist diving through a bag of gravel. I explained that I was here to learn how to box and that I had no experience. . . . He asked if I knew how much it would cost. I told him no. Twenty dollars a year, he beamed. He also told me that his name was Gaspar “Indio” Ortega, and that he had been a contender once(pp. xiii–xiv).
Hemingway couldn’t have done it better! Scene setting and storytelling of the first order.
As already noted Rondinone’s Friday Night Fighter places Ortega as a key protagonist in the wider telling of a series of stories that explore reasons for the success of boxing and the creation of what was in many aspects, an original “reality” show that helped the rise of popular support for television entertainment. Other issues tackled are Cold War masculinity, race relations in America, and—hardly surprising in a sport with a constantly embedded population of thugs and unsavory characters—the influence of organized crime.
Rondinone’s Friday Night Fighter is not only a lively historical analysis of boxing, it is consistently perceptive, avoids sentimentality, and yet is reassuringly sympathetic. This writer cares for his heroes:
The Friday Night Fighters as a whole met sad ends. Typically, retiring after long, steady declines, they would afterwards discover that their managers had been using them, that the mob had taken its slice up front, and that the government, after everybody had taken what they needed, now wanted its cut. Later, many would endure the experience of losing their minds(p. 239).
Friday Night Fighter...