Many of them had come from far away, the interior, the bush country, every town in Panama, and they sat there, bare from the waist up, burning in the noon sun. Above, a flock of buzzards circled. The buzzards, like the empty ring in the center of the stadium, seemed to have a hypnotic effect on the people. Sitting in large, scattered pockets, they stared either up or down. Now and then a hand waving a chicken leg jerked up and pointed to the lazily drifting birds. One man wailed something unintelligible, and his friends broke up with laughter and then yelled: "Si, si, si, Laguna, Laguna, Laguna." Occasionally an excited Panamanian stood up and threw a combination of punches. Seeing this, a brave few screamed back, " Ortiz, Ortiz, Ortiz."
A couple of hours before sundown the bands arrived, and the people danced in the stands to the music and drank beer, growing more festive as daylight hid. At 10 p.m. last Saturday in Panama City, after sitting nearly 10 hours in a dismal, steaming lot called Olympic Stadium, they were primed for what they had waited months to see: El Tigre, Ismael Laguna, challenging Carlos Ortiz for the world lightweight championship.
Panamanians dearly love a fight, but a fight with Ismael Laguna in it is almost unbearably stimulating. Not since Panama Al Brown, the bantamweight champion back in the '30s, a diamond-bedizened dandy who eventually was destroyed by civilization, has there been a man like Laguna in the Republic.
At 22 Laguna already is a legend, and everywhere you go the young and the old talk about him. "He ees as fast as lightneeng," they will tell you. "He ees Pepee [ Willie Pep] and Sugar Ray all een one. He weel be the greatest fighter who ever leeved." The Panamanians do not end it there. They go on to relate impressive facts. Laguna has inflicted cuts on 38 out of 40 opposing fighters. He has knocked out 25 opponents in his 40 fights, and, too, "he has never bled from thee mouth or thee nose."
Laguna grew up in the bush country, one of 12 children. His father was a politician who always managed to be on the losing side in elections and political battles. One day, when he was 14 years old, Ismael walked into a bar in Colon, 38 miles from Panama City, and told the owner, Isaac Kresch, he wanted to be a fighter. Kresch, a Jewish Panamanian who still manages Laguna, agreed to give him three meals a day. Laguna expressed his appreciation in the ring, but at least once he became disenchanted with Kresch. The late Davey Moore, looking for an easy payday, wired Kresch he would defend his title against Laguna, who at the time was 18 years old. Kresch turned down the match, and then implied that Moore needed help—mentally. Laguna did not think so. Upon hearing that Kresch had ignored Moore's offer, he walked in and dropped his manager with a right. This is surprising, because Laguna is a quiet, pleasant sort. "Yes, he ees," said Kresch. "He do not have one bad habit." This, too, is somewhat surprising, because in Colon, where Laguna now lives, anything goes. Just a few weeks ago a man was killed during an argument over a penny in a crap game. "I don't bother with that kind of stuff," said Laguna the day before the Ortiz fight. "I ween the title and I weel buy a yacht and join thee yacht club." As he said this, Laguna seemed inordinately confident and relaxed.
Carlos Ortiz, the 28-year-old champion from New York, was quite the opposite. Ortiz was tense and cranky all week. Now and then he would joke, or gently needle his trainer, Teddy Bentham, in a high-pitched voice, but for the most part he was a grim individual. The atmosphere in Panama was responsible for his mood. Every day 2,000 people would turn out in a fetid downtown gymnasium to watch him work. They grabbed him and jostled him when he tried to get into the gym. When he was in the ring they screamed obscenities, and they threw things at him. Finally it reached the point where Ortiz, when walking from the dressing room to the ring, had national guardsmen on each side of him (the guardsmen, impeccably dressed and quick with their clubs, act as Panama's police force). Restrained physically, the spectators concentrated on spitting vitriol. "You gonna die, Ortiz," they screamed. "El Tigre gonna keel you. You gonna die, you boom [bum]." Riding back from the gymnasium one day, Ortiz said, "If they act like this now, what are they going to do when I knock this creep out after two rounds?"
Another reason for Ortiz' black disposition was his profound hatred of training. At one time he was invigorated by the routine but now after a year's layoff, it had become irritating, especially so in the enervating heat of Panama. Abstaining from the pleasures of life seemed almost unbearable for Ortiz. He wanted everyone to suffer with him in Panama. His manager, Bill Daly, had to give up cigars, and then drinking, that is, drinking in front of Ortiz. "We will find some more things for you to give up, Bill," Ortiz said, laughing. Daly laughed, too, but he knew Ortiz was serious.
This was only a minor problem for Daly, who had other, weightier matters on his mind. When he decided to accept an offer for Ortiz to defend his title in Panama, many people were of the opinion that Daly had become senile. Even the Panamanians were stunned. The Panama boxing officials and promoters secretly believed they had a "feesh" on the line. What other explanation could there be?
Obviously, the Panamanians were not familiar with Daly's reputation. They were given a hint of what was to come when Daly pulled out of the originally scheduled date in February. Ortiz had been training for over a week in Panama City. Then, suddenly, Daly notified the Panama Boxing Commission that the bout could not be held. Ortiz was sick, he said. The boxing commission, the brewery that was promoting the fight and all of Panama went berserk. Five medical specialists were assigned to Ortiz, and the fighter was put through every test imaginable. The brewery officials said, "Aw, good old Beel, he weel be all right. Let heem rest for another week, and then he can fight." At that suggestion Daly flung a chair at one of the officials. Calming down, he said, "I'm taking my boy home so he can rest up. We will return." The general manager of the brewery refused to believe him. "You are not Douglas MacArthur, Se�or Daly," he said.
He is not, of course, but after encountering considerable harassment Daly and company did leave, and did return. The unverified rumor was that Ortiz was not in shape, and Daly had decided to take him home to New York for some concentrated work. Daly, his critics contended, had made another of his famous moves.