The difference between good and great can be miniscule. Distinguishing one tier of greatness from another is often a matter of opinion, and perhaps schooling,
In great divisions, figuring out rankings and who deserves what recognition is, again, splitting hairs. At lightweight, for instance, being even the 15th greatest fighter the division has seen still makes one likely a highly-regarded fighter in the grand scheme. Passing through the 135 pound ranks were men like Ike Williams, Beau Jack, Benny Leonard, Joe Gans, Tony Canzoneri, and others who would have fared just as well in virtually any era.
Beyond details even the keenest of eyes sometimes miss, one of the most effective way to separate the gladiators of the ruling warrior class is longevity.
Brief successes are certainly better than failures, but consistent success over time creates mythology.
One of the few fighters able to endure longer and with more patience than Chalky Wright was Joe Brown. It wasn’t until his 15th year as a professional that Brown won a title, and he’d already picked up the nickname “Old Bones.” Though largely forgotten today, Brown managed to accomplish much in his epoch.
On April 21, 1962, however, Carlos Ortiz had no respect for the elderly.
Born in Ponce, Puerto Rico, Ortiz and his family moved to New York when he was eight, and it was there that he began to fight on the streets as a kid, apparently developing decent skills. Ortiz went on to compile a reported 40 amateur bouts before heading for the paid ranks as an 18-year-old in 1955.
Ortiz was undefeated through 27 fights when he dropped a decision to New York contender Johnny Busso. Avenging the defeat less than three months later, Ortiz went on to lose again in December of 1958, this time to Kenny Lane in a close one. But when the two met in a return bout six months later, the vacant and relatively unpopular junior welterweight title was in the balance. Winning by brutalization in under two rounds, Ortiz carried the title through two defenses, first against Battling Torres, and then in his first of three bouts against European veteran Duilio Loi.
His rematch against Loi saw him lose his title, and he failed to retrieve it in a rubber match.
The Puerto Rican was more disappointed in the actual losses than the title; Ortiz wanted a showdown with Joe Brown, and he had for a while. The lightweight title carried with it greater prestige and better money.
Joe Brown was born in New Orleans and raised in Baton Rouge. Rather than continue his career as a carpenter as the family business would dictate, Brown picked up boxing and fought an unknown number of pro or semi-pro bouts in Baton Rouge at 15. In his New Orleans debut he was stopped in under a round by a fighter named John L. Robertson. Brown continued on with a spotty record until joining the US Navy, honing his skills somewhat on their boxing team.
In his first fight after being discharged in 1945, Brown was stopped in three rounds and continued on with his up and down career as if there had been no global interruption. Before too long Brown owned a win over future lightweight champion Jimmy Carter, and a loss to future featherweight champion Sandy Saddler, but Brown’s reputation came to be one of a light-hitting dandy that would use his legs and jab before anything else. In 1955, though, experienced trainer Bill Gore took over Brown’s corner, with his partner Lou Viscusi becoming Brown’s manager. Almost immediately, Brown seemed to transform into a sharper, more competent swatter.
A loss to top 10 contender Arthur Persley in August of 1955 was avenged by stoppage early the following year, and a non-title win over lightweight champion Wallace “Bud” Smith guided Brown to a crack at the title, which he snagged by close decision in August of 1956 on the strength of a few knockdowns late in the bout. Over the next six years, Brown would lose only three times, to Busso, Ray Portilla and Giordano Campari. But during that time he had also made 11 defenses of the lightweight title — an ongoing record at the time. (Though Joe Gans’ record 15 title defenses at lightweight is the official tally, some dispute the legitimacy of a few defenses, for reasons such as specific weights not being given, or the lightweight limit changing frequently.)
Every one of his title defenses was over an opponent ranked in the top 10.
At the start of 1962, both Brown and Ortiz were coming off of strong wins and a holiday rest, and a bout between the two was signed quickly. At a luncheon in January, not long after the bout was announced for late February in Las Vegas, Ortiz said, “I’m happy that Joe Brown finally gave me my chance. I’m going to oblige him by taking the title.”
Out of nowhere in early February, Brown was arrested for carrying a firearm in his car and was bonded out by his neighbor, who happened to be a bail bondsman. This led to a trash talking exchange between Brown and Ortiz at a Southern California Boxing Writers Association banquet. Ortiz jokingly said, “I hope Joe Brown won’t bring two guns into the ring,” and apparently not finding the remark funny, Brown held up his fists and responded, “These are the only guns I’m bringing.”
Durable British lightweight champion Dave Charnley, who had faced both men, said of the bout, “It would not surprise me if Carlos Ortiz wins the championship from Joe Brown. I know these men, their strengths and their weaknesses. I made much more headway against Brown than I was able against Ortiz. With just a bit of luck Ortiz will be the new champion.”
Former champions Rocky Graziano, Jackie Fields and Barney Ross — all expected to be in attendance — picked Ortiz, while Joe Louis and Willie Pep picked Brown. It’s fair to note, of course, that the same Gore/Viscusi team guided Pep to greatness. Nonetheless, the odds favored Brown, who opened as a 9-to-5 and slowly closed to 8-to-5.
After tearing into one of his sparring partners, Jim Jefferson, a few days before the scheduled February meeting, Ortiz said, “I feel swell. And I’m young enough and tough enough to wear out Brown like young Denny Moyer did to Sugar Ray Robinson last Saturday night.”
On Thursday, Feb. 22, two days before the fight was to have happened, AP reporters relayed a strange story about Brown nearly getting taken out when a sandbag that had been used to weigh down some training equipment fell off a ledge and hit him in the shoulder. The next day, the fight was called off after Brown was diagnosed with tonsillitis and given antibiotics. Luis Molina won a decision from Manuel Gonzalez in the new main event on the televised card.
By only a few days later, the bout was rescheduled for April 21, still in Vegas, televised on ABC. Amid speculation that Brown wouldn’t go through with the bout, Viscusi offered to post a bond, guaranteeing Brown would fight. As numbers go, Brown was guaranteed 40 percent of the gate and television receipts in addition to $50,000, while Ortiz was slated to receive $17,500.
Meanwhile, Ortiz maintained that Brown had been avoiding him, and foretelling that Brown would again pull out of their fight. In an interview, Ortiz said, “I thought I had the championship in my lap when I was scheduled to meet Brown Feb. 24 but Brown was forced to withdraw the day before the fight because he said he was ill. They said it was a virus, but I’ve a notion it was hardening of the arteries.”
Exactly one month after their canceled outing, Emile Griffith pounded Benny “Kid” Paret in their welterweight title scrap — a beating that resulted in Paret’s death. Brown’s wife Dorothy was asked about her concern when Brown stepped into the ring, and she responded by saying, “A thing like this [the Paret-Griffith fight] makes me rather scared. It leaves me rather shaky, knowing that Joe has a fight coming up. I want him to keep the title but the title without health is nothing. I would like for him to stop fighting, holding the title, in good condition. I know no one can beat him, but I just don’t want him hurt.”
Fighters fight, after all. Brown staked his tent at the Thunderbird Hotel upon arriving in Vegas, while Ortiz’s camp was at the Flamingo.
A week before the bout, odds hadn’t changed since the postponement, holding at 8-to-5 in favor of Brown. As fight time approached, Ortiz’s confidence soared. He told UPI reporters, “I though I’d win before, but now I know I will. I’m younger than Brown and stronger. I’ve been chasing him and it’s overdue time for me to catch him.” Brown’s said, “He may be a nice kid but he’s just a big mouth to me. I’ll find the spot and knock him out.”
Joe Louis, who tended to be in Las Vegas for his own diversion at times anyway, spent time in Brown’s camp for the canceled bout, and returned this time, comparing Brown to former lightweight champion Joe Gans. Seemingly off base, Louis pointed out a few curious parallels: both Brown and Gans had relatively long careers, both reigned as lightweight champion for about six years, and Goldfield, Nev., where Gans’ most notorious title defense against Battling Nelson took place, wasn’t far away from where Brown looked to defend his title against Ortiz.
News of Paret’s passing in early April led to the Nevada State Athletic Commission holding a hearing before Brown-Ortiz. It ultimately decided not to waive the mandatory eight count, meaning a fighter knocked down must be given a count of eight before action resumes. It would be a first for title bouts in Nevada.
In Brown’s search for his 12th title defense, he immediately had difficulty with Ortiz’s jab and ability to close distance on him. A slight cagey advantage inside and whipping counters from Brown were nullified by smacking jabs for minutes at a time from Ortiz. By the end of the 1st round, Brown’s left eye had been cut in the outside corner. And the jabs weren’t without wider purpose, it seemed, as Ortiz’s aim was to pin Brown into a corner and pour on the body work, but by round 3, Ortiz was still settling for controlling matters, mainly with his jab.
Brown started to step back and attempt to time Ortiz with uppercuts as he bulled in following salvos of jabs, but it left him having to clinch or wriggle his way out of danger when Ortiz reached his destination. But in round 4, the skittish jumping around had Ortiz hesitating enough to appear slightly aggravated. Referee Frankie Van warned Ortiz for rough tactics inside a few times, and Brown likely stole a round.
The bout became almost formulaic from that point forward, save for a moment at the end of round 6 where both fighters swung at each other after the bell, Ortiz clearly the more worked up. Afterward he said, “Joe hit me after the bell in the sixth round. I told myself, ‘Don’t get mad now,’ I didn’t get mad after the sixth round.”
But if chiseling away at the old man with a jab was Ortiz not getting mad, then Brown was sinking quickly. Ralph Wheeler of the Boston Herald said, “Certainly no fighter ever showed less ability to cope with a left jab than Brown did. Ortiz parlayed beautiful footwork with his dazzling left jab to make Brown look more pathetic than any champion I have ever seen. He kept the title holder retreating from the opening to the final gong so that Brown looked morel like a chumpion than a champion.”
Hyperbole aside, Brown’s efforts to draw Ortiz into a counter weren’t for naught, as he found success every so often and even cut Ortiz’s right eye in round 6. Brown tacked his feet down and traded on occasion, but it wasn’t in his best interest to do so excessively, and he knew it.
Rounds went by, as did jabs, and in addition to his cut, Brown’s left eye began to swell. Indeed he was well behind on the cards, and even if a borderline call in round 12 saw a potential knockdown for Ortiz called a slip, Brown was fading quickly. He couldn’t keep up with Ortiz’s pace, and he didn’t have the energy or punching power to shovel up a final show of force.
With the final bell came a jubilant cry from Ortiz, who seemingly knew he’d taken the title. With the sound of the bell still ringing in the air, Brown had the look of a man who knew it was over.
On the scorecards, round 4 was the only one anyone agreed should go to Brown, but the wide decision otherwise went to the new lightweight champion, Carlos Ortiz.
New names like Ismael Laguna, Flash Elorde and Nicolino Locche awaited Ortiz, who would go on to construct his own greatness over time. He had years of fight in him.
Brown, on the other hand, had pushed his luck enough. He went on to win about as much as he lost, and to mostly nondescript fighters and for not much money. Gone was his sturdiness, as he saw the canvas and early bell tolls frequently. His last significant opponent was Chango Carmona — the fighter credited with starting the tradition of having fight cards on Mexican Independence Day — in 1968, and his final bout came in 1970.
As for his streak of defences, it would be officially broken by Roberto Duran in 1978.