By Jose Corpas
When news started spreading about the death of Carlos Ortiz, one of boxing’s finest lightweight champions ever, I thought about my old boombox. It was a small one, not the type you carried on your shoulders, fit perfectly inside of my locker and because of it, I met Carlos Ortiz.
It was during the 1980s and I was changing into some sweats, getting ready to work out when I saw him pass by. We nodded our heads at each other the way you do when you say hello to a familiar face. Though we had been around each other for a few months, I only spoke to him once, when I asked him how many miles he used to run in the mornings. “Thirty minutes,” he told me. One day, because of the salsa music that was coming out of my locker, he hung around and spoke for nearly an hour.
Most music historians point to a Thursday night during the summer of 1971 as the birth of salsa music. That night, at the Cheetah Club on Broadway, a line of gyrating hips that stretched for blocks waited anxiously to get a glimpse of the hottest new act in town, the Fania All Stars. If salsa was born that night, then it can be said that it was conceived several years before in the Bronx, in particular a club owned by Ortiz.
Morphing from mambo, Cuban son, and what the old timers called “New York Street Jazz,” the sound we know as salsa formed. About five years before that night at the Cheetah Club, Ortiz paid $77,000.00 in cash, to open the biggest and grandest nightclub catering to the Latin scene. Located just off the Bruckner Expressway, Ortiz named it the Tropicoro.
The dancefloor was the biggest in the Bronx at the time, all the walls were mirrored and, towards the back, there was a sunken bar. Eddie Palmieri was the featured act on opening night and all the local musicians were allowed in for free so that Ortiz could take down their names and numbers for future gigs.
For about six years, on Saturdays and Sundays, the most prominent salseros performed there – Tito Puente, Willie Colon, and all the original members of the Fania All Stars. I never spoke about boxing with Ortiz. It was always music and me reminding him what my name was. He was not what you would call a serious boxing trainer.
I think he did it just to keep busy. A few times, he held the heavy bag for me and would give me water between rounds, occasionally squeezing the water bottle too hard and getting it in my eye. At a time when most trainers at the gym would charge you for giving directions to the bathroom, Ortiz never asked me for a single cent.
I once saw someone insist on paying him for a training session. Ortiz reluctantly agreed to take half and told the person to give the rest to Emile (Griffith)– another former champ who trained boxers at the gym.
Carlos Ortiz: “And don’t tell him it’s from me.”
Most tributes will focus on the magnificent career Ortiz had in the ring. He was champion in two divisions back when there wasn’t a belt for every third contender in the top ten. And he defended his championship against the best all over the world.
His boxing career should never be forgotten. And neither should his contributions to salsa. At a time when musicians were lucky to get $18 a gig, Ortiz gave them a place to make money and
hone their skills so that when that time came in 1971 to introduce to the world the phenomenal sounds of salsa, they were ready.
We never spoke about boxing. We spoke about music and the crazy things that went on during those weekends at his club. When I heard the news of his death, I did not think about watching highlights of his fights on YouTube.
Instead, I listened to some Willie Colon, Eddie Palmieri, and Pete Bonet. And while tapping my feet to the rhythm of the clave, I knew that those musicians were as good as they were in part because of the opportunities and steady work that Carlos Ortiz, boxing legend and salsa pioneer, provided them.
Carlos Ortiz, one of the very greatest lightweights and one of the greatest pound-for-pound boxers of all time, has died aged 85. The greatest Puerto Rican fighter of all time, the two-time unified world champ at 135lbs AND 140lbs. Just look at him in full flow. pic.twitter.com/Y69a66YdLj
— Combat Chronicles (@C0mbatChr) June 14, 2022