Just look at him," whispered Frankie, a ferretlike, lonesome hunter from Everywhere. "From the waist down he...." He stopped for a moment. Yes, he seemed to be thinking, he should preface his critique. He should mention that Frankie Del Rios is a brilliant pedagogue of the sport of boxing, an apostle of Peter the Hermit in Hollywood, a historian of the occult blessed with a frightening gift of ESP, a Somebody. "As I was sayin'," he continued, his eyes following Carlos Ortiz in a training ring in San Juan, Puerto Rico, "look at him. He's had it! I had a fighter like him once. All the high life went to his legs. He ends up an iceman in Cleveland. There goes another iceman."
Two nights later in San Juan's Hiram Bithorn Stadium, Frankie, who was supposed to be hustling popcorn, was squatting like an African sculpture at ringside, his arms hugging his basket, his eyes expressing a private pain. After the ninth round, by which point it was obvious Ortiz would win, Frankie jumped to his feet, dropped his basket and faded like the shadow he is. He could not bear to look inside himself and see Nobody, could not bear to think that Ortiz was a Somebody still. Six more rounds and Carlos Ortiz, who had lost the lightweight championship of the world half a year before to Panama's Ismael Laguna, had won it back. But only a few knew how close Frankie had come to being right, how near Ortiz had come to stepping through the gate that leads to Frankie's world, one where everybody had been somewhere and had been something, with the emphasis on the had been. Nineteen sixty-five had been a trying year for Ortiz, and if he caused a lot of the trials himself, that does not make him exactly unique among humankind.
For the year and a half preceding the San Juan bout in November, Ortiz had been a fighter who was 4 o'clock in the morning in his legs. He loathed the cruel, ascetic routine of pain, and he confused excess with living in the grand style. Now, after winning the title back, he sat alone in his eerily silent dressing room. His head was buried in his arms. Outside, the people were singing his name, but not even this could reach him.
Finally he stood up, his eyes red and wet, took a drink of brandy and said, "Excuse me, gentlemen. I was just thinking." Of what no one asked. His estranged wife? The bars he had leaned on? The inflating drivel that came with the drinks? What it was to be a champion again? The sweet words fell on him and, smiling, he caught them without comment. He was a fighter once more. Or was he? Nobody could or can be sure, because nobody knows Carlos Ortiz—the fighter or the man.
Since winning the title from Joe Brown in Las Vegas in 1962, Ortiz has been the most active champion in boxing, but he remains an anonymous figure in this country, mainly because it has been four years since he last fought in Madison Square Garden. Until recently his manager, Honest Bill Daly, who is controversial and often accused of behavior befitting a boxing manager, has not been in rapport with the Garden. But if Ortiz' absence from New York constricted the exposure of his name it hardly bothered him financially. He and Daly went where the cash was: Tokyo, Manila, Rome, London, Milan, San Juan, Panama City, all the places where a lightweight champion is still an attraction. As a result, he made more money than any other champion, excluding the heavyweight. "Yeah," says a friend, "but what still bugs him is that nobody knows his name." To this Ortiz says: "Who cares? I'm more of an international champion than anybody. I've been a damn good fighter."
His appraisal of himself is hardly exaggerated. Although he is only 5 feet 7, he is a big lightweight. His body is muscular, and his forearms are shaped like beer bottles. He is a slick package of controlled fury and probably the most complete fighter around. His left hook is not as punishing as it should be, but his left jab is crisp and jolting, and on the inside his right hand to the kidney is cruel and constant. He can also lead and counter, a talent rarely seen these days. "On the ropes, in a corner, in the middle, he can do it all," says Daly. "He's a primitive—when he wants to be." This is what is visible of Ortiz the fighter. The part of him that throws or does not throw all of his splendid skills into motion is not so easily visible. "The body, the instincts are somehow there," said a Puerto Rican friend, "but the heart is not. The question is: How long can a body go without desire?"
Always, in the literature of the ring, the fighter is a naive soul who is ravaged by men who slobber over cigars, have piggish eyes and gravy stains on their ties. Neither Ortiz nor Daly can be categorized so simply. Daly believes a fighter should just fight, not think. Daly will do the thinking and the talking, and if the fighter listens and is good enough and does not open (or close) nightclubs, chances are he will not end up a ragged ghost peddling old triumphs in an arena lobby.
Ortiz, suppressing his innately rebellious nature, followed the maxims of the book of Daly reverently for a time. But now, at 29 and after 10 years in the ring, Ortiz feels he no longer needs boxing. The ritual of training bores him, and his body does not slip into condition as easily as it used to. Indeed, he finds it difficult to think of boxing anymore, and when pressed to discuss it he sounds bored and matter-of-fact. He prefers to talk about the Tropicoro, the immense and ornate nightclub he opened recently in The Bronx. He enjoys explaining the club's d�cor, its service and how he helped with the plans for its construction. He becomes quite annoyed when someone implies that maybe, just maybe, the place will be a warehouse in two years. "Look at the crowd," he says, moving through the tables, shaking hands and smiling at the recognition: " Hey, champ!" "How you been, champ?" "Some place, champ." "This place is going great," he says, forgetting the day when once again there will be an "ex" in front of his name. He looks upon the club as an annuity. There is no doubt in his mind that his investment—$77,000 in cash—is one that will guarantee his future, sparing him any ignominious end. He does not, he says, intend to become fodder for a nightclub comic or a setup for a hotfoot in some dirty gym. "Maybe he won't," says one boxing man. "but he sure as hell is giving it a good try." Ortiz smiles at such comments, and answers, "O.K. But how come I'm the champion again?"
Ortiz knows how come. He knows that if he had been under any manager other than Bill Daly he would never have gotten that return bout with Laguna. He knows that Bill Daly is a big part of what happened in this strange year of Carlos Ortiz.
Daly is the last of the oldtime fight managers, and he moves in the style of Doc Kearns, which is to say he has the natural manner of a conspirator. He asks for the time of day the way Nero might ask for a match. He is not particularly fond of being called Honest Bill, a name given him many years ago because he used to begin every sentence with, "Now, let's be honest about this," or perhaps—as some claim—because he never stole a boxcar. "Just call him The Squire," says Al Braverman, his aide. "He lives in the country." But it does not matter what Daly is called. All you have to do is look at him and you can tell he is C. Larceny Whipsnade roaming the midway of the state fair, his head crowned with a top hat and his hand twirling a cane. Ah, yes, the Panamanians were made for Daly.