Fight #41: Gaspar Ortega vs Benny Paret 1, August 7, 1959, Madison Square Garden, New York City
Boxing once occupied a far more prominent place in American life than it does today. That is partly what I find appealing about it, and one of many reasons why I just don't care much about MMA. Whether it is art, music, sports, or anything else, I tend to best appreciate things from a historical perspective, and boxing, which has an incredibly rich history going back hundreds and even thousands of years, resonates far more for me than whatever grabs the public's attention currently.
One sign of boxing's prominence back in the 1950s was its regular appearance on network television, in the early years when that medium existed. Every Friday night, Gillette would sponsor a national telecast from a major venue, with that telecast being blacked out locally so that people would be motivated to buy tickets to come to the fights. (There is a good argument to be made that television actually did great damage to boxing around the country, but that's a separate discussion.) These fights didn't require the hype that bouts today typically do. If two skilled men were ready to go to war in a ring, lots of people wanted to watch, regardless of whether or not a belt was on the line.
When the Mexican welterweight Gaspar Ortega met the Cuban welterweight Benny Paret for the first time in August 1959, there was nothing in particular on the line for either fighter. Going into the bout, Ortega had lost four of his previous seven fights, but he also had good wins in his career over future Hall of Famers Kid Gavilan and Tony DeMarco. He was a solid fighter who fought in the all-out Mexican style, rushing forward, head down, throwing a huge volume of punches. From the outside perspective (which could be quite wrong), there doesn't seem to be much tactical variety in his approach. He is there to punch and to be punched, and his bet is that he is going to be tougher than you in order to win. Sometimes it worked. Sometimes, especially when he faced a boxer who could resist the temptation to be dragged into an all-out war, it didn't work.
Benny Paret hailed from Cuba, a country that over the years has developed a reputation for producing a highly technical style in which victory is gained not through all-out slugfests, but instead with superior technique and ring generalship. During the reign of Fidel Castro (which would commence just a few weeks after this fight), this boxing style would come to dominate amateur Olympic competitions, as it relied more on scoring points with clean punching than on raw power and toughness.
As the son of a sugar cane field hand, Paret possessed the technical skill to control fights with his footwork and jab, but he also was known for giving into the temptation to fight fire with fire. Going into this match, he had lost two of his previous three fights, and was in fact a last-minute replacement opponent for Ortega. Nonetheless, there were a lot of Cuban boxing fans in New York, and throughout the fight you can hear them cheering for Paret.
In the opening seconds of round one, Paret sought to play to his strengths, establishing the jab and keeping the fight at a distance. However, not more than 30 seconds passes before Ortega gets inside and starts wailing away to Paret's body. A pure boxer would likely respond to this by going back to the jab, keeping Ortega off him, and attempting to win the rounds on technical skill. But Paret's sense of manhood seems to take over, and he decides to trade punches with Ortega instead. In the early rounds, it doesn't work out well for him, as Ortega seemed to land the harder blows and take command of the fight.
After losing the first three rounds, Paret's corner convinces him to go back to the jab, and he gets back into the fight by controlling the range against Ortega. Ortega is still relentless in his pressure, however, so the fight tends to alternate between inside fighting, which favored Ortega, and outside fighting, which favored Paret. Back and forth they go for ten rounds of uninterrupted action, with neither man giving an inch and both eagerly throwing leather. I ended up giving each man five rounds, scoring it a draw. The judges saw it similarly, with one giving Paret six rounds, one giving Ortega six rounds, and the referee giving 5 rounds to Ortega and four to Paret with one even. Ortega wins the split decision, the crowd at Madison Square Garden boos loudly, and Paret hangs his head dejectedly.
If nothing else, this fight seems to have proved Paret's marketability to the businessmen who ran the fight game in New York back then. Paret would go on to fight at Madison Square Garden eight more times, including a victory over Emile Griffith that made Paret the world welterweight champion. His last bout there took place in 1962, when Paret faced Griffith again in a rematch. Prior to that fight, Paret called Griffith maricon--Spanish for faggot. Griffith, who actually was secretly gay, responded by beating Paret to death in the ring, killing him at age 25. As for Ortega, he would go on to fight 176 times, finishing his career with a record of 131-39-6. He is still alive at the age of 85, and lives in Connecticut with his wife of more than 60 years.
Boxing is a wicked sport. Sometimes, it kills you. Sometimes, it doesn't.
Here is a video of the fight: