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Friday Night Fighter

Friday Night Fighter: Gaspar Indio Ortega and the Golden Age of Television Boxing

Troy Rondinone
Copyright Date: 2013
Pages: 304
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  • Book Info
    Friday Night Fighter
    Book Description:

    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.

    eISBN: 978-0-252-09466-8
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. PREFACE: Boxing Lessons
    (pp. xiii-xx)
  6. INTRODUCTION: Fight Night
    (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. He was once a cut man (a person in the boxer’s corner who applies Vaseline and other treatments to the face during a fight) for Rocky Marciano, and he prides himself on keeping his boys safe and on top. His attention to...


    • CHAPTER 1 ʺAnd the Winner—Television!ʺ
      (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. The new rules imposed uniformly sized rings, three-minute rounds, standardized judging, weight categories, and padded leather boxing gloves. In addition, by outlawing seconds “or any other person” from the ring during the fight, the Queensberry rules seemed to demand that everything be...

    • CHAPTER 2 ʺThe Regular Friday Coaxial Bloodbathʺ
      (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. “Yes it’s a little sore, but Carmen’s a tough guy and can deal with the pain.” Carmen was certainly a “tough guy.” But he was no anomaly. He was a product of his age.

      The quality of ruggedness that made Basilio so admired—...

    • CHAPTER 3 The Friday Night Fighters
      (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. By the early 1950s, boxers pulled in $4,000 per fight, plus a percentage of the gate. For big fights, they received $15,000 plus gate. At the time, this was a good deal of money. The standard $4,000 TV payout was nearly $500 more than the...


    • CHAPTER 4 The Mexamerican
      (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? Under what circumstances do some poor kids choose this dangerous sport? Each case is different. In this one, it begins with a dusty border town.

      Tijuana sits perched on the edge of the wealthiest nation in the world. The city features a hungry and diverse chiaroscuro of vendors,...

    • CHAPTER 5 The Discovery of New York
      (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. He said a prayer as he climbed aboard the bus in San Diego. Looking down the aisle he immediately began to relax; he knew these people. They were mostly white...

    • CHAPTER 6 Climb
      (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 from St. Nick’s to New York City and a few other localities since 1954 in the Monday night timeslot. So this was Gaspar’s first televised Monday Night Fight. Ida could not help but be nervous for Gaspar. She knew that boxing was a rough game. Plus,...

    • CHAPTER 7 The Tournament
      (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. His odd style had “caught the fancy of fight fans and fistic experts alike,” enthused one sportswriter. He was “lithe and graceful” and possessed “dazzling speed.” This made for great TV; Don Dunphy would later remark that Gaspar was “never in a dull bout.”...

    • CHAPTER 8 The Secret Government
      (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. By October 1958, Gaspar was at the doorstep of a title fight, closer in fact than he had ever been. But things would take a turn for the surreal. The Indian would discover the other, hidden side of the world of professional boxing. The underside.

      Before the strange events...

    • CHAPTER 9 Trouble
      (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. Now she learned that Gaspar had begat another child, and even worse, that Gaspar’s parents and siblings had known about the other woman and had purposely kept it a secret from her.

      The other woman’s name was Dalila Perez. Dalila had first met...

    • CHAPTER 10 The Shot
      (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. Whatever his actual reasons for getting involved in boxing, by the late 1950s George Parnassus had become one of the most powerful figures in boxing, helping to twist the sport from its East Coast moorings and...


    • CHAPTER 11 Bloodying the Sport
      (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. By the time Indio fought Griffith for the title, the writing was on the wall. Before charting the final lurches into the abyss for both TV boxing and Gaspar’s career, it’s useful to examine some ominous developments.

      Back in 1955,...

    • CHAPTER 12 The Ship Goes Down
      (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. He was “perpetually happy,” wrote the reporters, and now he had “more money than any 22-year old has a right to expect.” But, of course, he had every right to expect big money. He was probably the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world at the time. Plus, Griffith had personality, style, grace. His manager...

    • Illustrations
      (pp. None)
    • CHAPTER 13 Changing Times
      (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 and stop funding local boxing programs around the country. The president of Madison Square Garden Boxing, Inc., said the rumor of the show’s demise was “not true as far as I know.”¹

      But it was true. The official announcement, from...

  10. EPILOGUE: Nightmares
    (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.” Then he would jolt awake, slicked in sweat. Night after night, Benny’s disembodied voice would come and offer its grave request. After a week it got so bad that Gaspar didn’t want to go to sleep. He went...

  11. A Note on Sources
    (pp. 241-244)
  12. Notes
    (pp. 245-268)
  13. Index
    (pp. 269-274)
  14. Back Matter
    (pp. 275-276)