Los Angeles boxing lost one of its great ambassadors, Johnny Ortiz, who passed away on Saturday after a lengthy battle with cancer. He was in his late 70s.
In the past 50 years few people can be associated with boxing as heavily as Johnny Ortiz, whose entire life was engulfed in the sport, first as an amateur boxer, then as co-manager of the historic Main Street Gym. He was also a Hollywood actor, magazine writer, radio show host for “Ringside L.A. with Johnny Ortiz on ESPN Radio,” and finally authored the book “My Life Among the Icons.”
“I first heard him on the radio. I wanted to know who he is. Someone I know said he wears dark glasses and he is always sharply dressed,” said Joe Miranda, a fight photographer for Fightnews.com “When he started doing his show out of Commerce Casino I would go and watch him do the show live. That’s when I first met him.”
He was a regular figure at each Southern California boxing event with his dark glasses and dark snappy clothes. Everyone knew that square jaw and sincere smile. For decades Ortiz attended prizefights, whether it was the Olympic Auditorium, Inglewood Forum or club shows in Ontario, California. He also ventured to Las Vegas until he got tired of seeing his Las Vegas disappear, no Frank Sinatras and Sammy Davis Juniors, and be replaced with the mega casinos and hotels.
“It’s not the same,” he told me. “Plus, there’s too much walking. It’s not for me.”
Ortiz was content to watch the fights on television and report it on his radio show once the fighting was done. He talked to the young Oscar De La Hoya, Shane Mosley, Fernando Vargas, and James Toney. Berating or criticizing was not his thing. Instead he wanted to talk about their skills and aspirations.
When light heavyweight Julio Cesar Gonzalez (who died in 2012 from a motorcycle accident) became the first of Mexican descent to win the world title in Oct. 18, 2003, it was Ortiz who grabbed him immediately by phone to congratulate him on live radio. Gonzalez had defeated Dariusz Michalczewski in Germany and handed him his first pro defeat. Then he was contacted by Ortiz immediately after the fight and the radio world heard about this great victory. Even Roy Jones Jr. refused to fight Michalczewski in Germany. It was a great coup for both Gonzalez and Ortiz.
Before Toney fought Evander “Real Deal” Holyfield in 2003 at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino in Las Vegas, he was a guest on Ortiz’s radio show and predicted a knockout victory over the great Holyfield. Ortiz didn’t question the prediction but asked why a knockout? Toney answered, “He ain’t never fought me.” Of course Toney was right on the money and stopped Holyfield in round nine. It was only the second knockout loss in Holyfield’s long and magnificent career.
Ortiz was also active with the World Boxing Hall of Fame, which preceded the International Boxing Hall of Fame. He was a guiding force for the organization.
“What I remember of Johnny Ortiz is he was Mr. Personality on World Boxing Hall of Fame. He was a board member. He was a dynamic personality. He was probably the most enthusiastic guy I ever saw in my life when it came to boxing. He lived it,” said Ken Thompson, who is currently a promoter and served as a president on the WBHOF.
As time passed Thompson and Ortiz became good friends and both got to know each other more on a personal basis.
“In the world of boxing in LA, Johnny Ortiz played a big role. He knew just about everyone in boxing,” Thompson said. “His life was blessed from the very first time he was involved in the sport, but his pride and joy was to say he was a part owner of the Main Street Gym.”
The historic gym was located on Main Street near Second Street and had provided a training facility for some of the best pugilists the world had ever seen. From Jack Johnson to Roberto Duran, the second floor gym that had that smell of 90 years of sweat and blood was the center of boxing on the West Coast. When owner Howie Steindler was found dead in a parking lot the responsibility of maintaining the boxing jewel was left to his daughter Carol Steindler. She later asked for Ortiz’ help and he kept things in boxing order.
While Ortiz and Steindler ran the gym, he was approached by Sylvester Stallone to use the gym for a motion picture he was going to film. Ortiz consented and the world received the movie “Rocky,” which proceeded to win the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1976.
Rocky films continued to use the Main Street Gym and later other film producers would follow suit. The film industry would grab Ortiz to play various roles and he eventually became a SAG member. He played a gym owner in the 1999 film “Play It to the Bone” which featured Woody Harrelson, Antonio Banderas and Lolita Davidovich.
Ortiz was very passionate about boxing, especially the older generations. Many boxing veterans took residence in L.A. and would visit the Main Street Gym to get an occasional workout. Sugar Ray Robinson, Muhammad Ali and Henry Armstrong were a few of those who Ortiz graciously welcomed with open arms.
When Armstrong was mugged to death at his home in 1988, it remained a topic that would incite rare anger from the usually amiable Ortiz.
The gym was finally closed in 1994 after the Northridge Earthquake caused inspectors to condemn it to the scrap pile. Many people hoped it was just a temporary closure.
“I met him at the Main Street Gym. Then we both came out in an LA Times article. Then later he said he wanted to come work with Uppercut Magazine,” said Jesus Jimenez, who was the publisher for the bilingual magazine in the 1990s and early 2000s. “He gave us a lot of footage and knowledge of the history of boxing. He had been around.”
“He knew guys like the Golden Boy, Art Aragon, and told me he was good looking. I didn’t know he was good looking. He also said Ring Magazine used to forget there was a lot of boxing in California. To me he was a genuine boxing expert. He was probably with us for seven to eight years,” said Jimenez.
While working with Uppercut he would tell tales of boxing’s past gems and also add some of his Hollywood experiences. The crew of writers and editors were entranced by his adventures of L.A.’s past.
“You got to write a book,” I would tell him. “You really need to let the boxing world know these stories.”
Whenever we would meet I would ask. Finally, in 2009, the book of his past was published. It’s a great painting of Ortiz and his life in Los Angeles.
For more than a year Ortiz couldn’t make any of the fights in Southern California. Friends would ask each other about any Johnny sightings.
“If anybody was the LA boxing scene it was Johnny,” said Jimenez. “He was real low key about it.”
How big was Ortiz to the boxing scene?
“One thing I noticed about Johnny Ortiz, it didn’t matter if it was fighter from the 40s or today everyone knew Johnny Ortiz,” said Thompson.
An era has passed.
To assist Johnny Ortiz’s family with burial expenses go to: http://www.gofundme.com/ctlkz4
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