Gaspar “Indio” Ortega appeared on prime-time network television more than almost any other boxer in history. Rising from poverty in his native Tijuana, Mexico, Ortega used his skills in the ring and a sense of showmanship to take the boxing world by storm during the sport’s television heyday.
Troy Rondinone is an associate professor of history at Southern Connecticut State University and author of Friday Night Fighter: Gaspar “Indio” Ortega and the Golden Age of Television Boxing. He answered our questions about Ortega and his new book.
Q: In the 50s, television really embraced the sport of boxing. How many people tuned in for Friday Night Fights?
Rondinone: The numbers varied from show to show, but it is safe to say that during the show’s prime years in the early to mid-1950s, an average of seventeen million Americans watched Friday Night Fights regularly, with upwards of fifty million watching various boxing shows. This was at a time when America had about 165 million people. So this number is significant.
Q: How many other Hispanics appeared on television at the time when Gaspar Ortega was fighting?
Rondinone: Not many. According to one study, just one in fifty characters on TV was Hispanic at this time. Probably the highest profile Hispanics on TV were Desi Arnaz (a white-complexioned Cuban), Duncan Reynaldo (who may have been of European descent), and Leo Carillo. The latter two being the Cisco Kid and his sidekick Pancho.
Q: Ortega had a persona in the ring. What was his image and how did he develop it?
Rondinone: He used his childhood nickname, “Indio” (meaning Indian) in the ring. He got this nickname as a kid, based on his Indian looks and his poverty. He couldn’t afford
shoes, and often went without any. His full nickname as a child was “Indo con Pata Rajada,” or “the Indian with the Cracked Foot,” related to the state of his feet. At first he saw the name as a putdown and did not like it, but eventually he became very comfortable with the name Indio. He is very proud of his mother’s Zapotec heritage, and the headdresses he wore into the ring and for publicity shots certainly boosted his visibility.
Q: Did TV change the sport? (And did the sport change the development of tv programming?)
Rondinone: TV certainly changed the sport. First of all, the demand for boxers emptied the fight clubs of their best talent, and if these men proved “bad” for TV—meaning they fought too conservatively or lost too often—their careers would be over. Watching boxing at home was also blamed for the decline of local boxing venues (why pay when you can see it for free?). Many also criticized TV for stressing showmanship over ringsmanship, meaning that what made for entertaining television did not necessarily correspond with longstanding boxing traditions of defensive “scientific” boxing. In other words, TV boxing was seen as causing a decline in skill. Finally, TV meant money, and the mob became
ever-more-intimately connected with the sport via the International Boxing Club, which basically exerted monopoly control. In terms of boxing changing TV programming, boxing sold many TV sets in the early days of programming, since it came over so easily given the extreme limits of the technology.
Q: How much did organized crime influence the sport of boxing in the 50s and 60s?
Rondinone: Organized crime exerted a tremendous, if limited control. To summarize, criminals (especially Frankie Carbo) controlled access to the ring by way of the Boxing Manager’s Guild. A manager would have to cut in Carbo in order to get his man in the ring on TV. Carbo, who was an intimate of Jim Norris, owner of the International Boxing Club, would take his cut via the Manager’s Guild. In this manner, most of the big fights provided the mob with a percentage, no matter who won. Fixed fights, interestingly, were more of a rarity. Although there were some notorious fixes (such as the 1947 LaMotta-Fox debacle), most fights were on the level. The mob made its money outside the ring, not in it.
Q: How did boxing fall from dominance on television? Was the rise of the NFL a key factor?
Rondinone: Boxing went off air for a number of reasons. The simplest probably has to do with demographics. Kids became a huge market by the early 60s, and they were not interested in boxing. Add to this the crushingly bad publicity of Senate investigations that proved organized crime was involved, some high-profile ring deaths (such as the killing of Benny “Kid” Paret in 1962), and the decline of fight clubs, and you have a recipe for disaster. The rise of the NFL also contributed. Football became more watchable on TV as technology improved, and its brutal team aesthetic was very appealing for a generation of Organization Men.