Boxing Legends Remember Three Big Nights at Shea
By Rob Tierney, (Oct 1, 2008) Doghouse Boxing
By the late 1960’s, Yankee Stadium was no longer playing host to the sporting world’s largest attractions. The New York Yankees, a clubhouse that dominated America’s pastime in previous decades, were competing significantly below media expectations as their stadium and surrounding neighborhood became burdened with decay. Yet, as the “House that Ruth Built” continued to collapse into its temporary demise, a new stage was set across town in Queens. For it was in the late 1960’s that Shea Stadium began playing host to the best in baseball, football and championship boxing.

Up until the 1960’s, big time boxing in New York City was showcased at either Madison Square Garden or Yankee Stadium. By 1964 however, there was a new venue in town with a new ball club and professional football team to go with it. Throughout the latter half of the 1960’s, Shea Stadium took over the spotlight of the New York metropolitan media with the help of Tom Seaver’s Mets and Joe Namath’s Jets. The introduction of two new franchises filled a void throughout the City left not only by the decline of the city’s beloved Yankees, but also by the departure of the New York Baseball Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers both of whom disappeared from the Big Apple’s sports scene in the 1950’s. Therefore, it only made sense to capitalize on the growing sports tradition at the new venue by bringing big time boxing to Shea Stadium.

Bringing big time boxing to Shea Stadium however would not be easy. By 1965, the stadium was warranting so much attention that even The Beatles had performed on its soil during the height of Beatle mania. The fight game was going to need something big.

By 1966, Muhammad Ali, the fight game’s biggest attraction, was unavailable to Shea as he was in the middle of an overseas title defense series against foreign competition. Therefore, fight promoters were forced to look outside of the Heavyweight division. As a result, three future Hall of Famers named Jose Torres, Carlos Ortiz and Emile Griffith would have a chance to showcase their talent on what would end up being three legendary nights of boxing at Shea Stadium.

Earlier this summer, I had a chance to catch up with each of the former champions to reminisce on their legendary performances in addition to hearing their thoughts on what will be the permanent closing of the stadium at the end of this season.

On May 21st, 1965, much of the sports world was focusing its attention on Muhammad Ali as he was bloodying Sir Henry Cooper’s mug for the second time in London for the Heavyweight Championship of the World. However, on that same night in the states, another champion, Puerto Rican light heavyweight Jose Torres, was headlining in what would be the first of only three big nights of boxing at Shea Stadium. At the International Boxing Hall of Fame festivities earlier this summer, I had a chance to sit down with Jose Torres on Friday, June 6th of this year to discuss his 15 round unanimous decision victory over Wayne Thornton in 1965. Here is what he had to say.

Rob Tierney: Jose, what do you remember about the crowd at Shea Stadium the night you fought Wayne Thornton? Would you say that they were in your favor or your opponent, Wayne Thornton’s?

Jose Torres:
It was a very big crowd! Very exciting! I would say 95% of the crowd was for me.

RT: Did you feel an increased adrenalin rush at Shea Stadium? I mean you had Thornton on the floor twice in the first round. I can only assume that you were highly motivated for this fight.

I hit him in the body. That hurts! The head doesn’t hurt but the body does. I wanted to establish power and make him feel pain. I wanted to disadvantage him right from the beginning.

RT: Looking back, how does it make you feel when you consider that you headlined one of only three boxing cards at a major venue such as Shea Stadium, especially in an era when Shea was a very significant venue to be fighting? I mean, the Beatles performed there six months prior to your bout.

Terrific! That was terrific!

RT: What about one year later? How did it make you feel when Carlos Ortiz, a fighter who also hails from your native homeland of Ponce in Puerto Rico, was able to win another championship fight for Ponce at Shea Stadium?

I admire Carlos Ortiz. When I found out he was from Ponce, I loved him. I knew that since he came from the same hometown as me that he would understand what it takes to become a champion.

Jose Torres’s win over Thornton was not only a classic performance but a crucial stepping stone to what would later become the 1966 Ring Magazine Fight of the Year against Eddie Cotton. Without the win over Thornton at Shea, Torres would have most definitely missed out on what would prove to be the highlight of his career.

Jose’s enthusiasm grew so increasingly as a result of our discussion on his fight with Wayne Thornton that he put me in touch with Carlos Ortiz. Shockingly, Carlos would have a chance to give Ponce boxing fans something to cheer for, at the same venue, just one year later in the summer of 67’. When I spoke to Carlos over the phone a week and a half after my interview with Carlos, he shared Torres’s excitement with his own memories from Shea.

Carlos Ortiz fought many of his foes more than once. Panamanian Ismael Laguna was one of them. Going into to his rubber match with Laguna on August 18th, 1967, Carlos was looking to go two out of three against the former champion. However, unlike the first fight which was in Panama and the second which was in Puerto Rico, this fight was on neutral turf. Here is what Carlos Ortiz had to say about his rubber match with Ismael Laguna at Shea Stadium when I spoke to him over the phone on June 17th.

Rob Tierney: Carlos, you were never afraid to mix it up with the same fighter on multiple occasions. You fought Flash Elorde, Sugar Ramos and Duloi Loi numerous times each. What made you get in the ring with Laguna for a third time considering that you already defeated him in a rematch?

Carlos Ortiz:
To me, professional boxing was about money. The first two fights with Laguna were impressive to people both in Panama and Puerto Rico. I was a pro. I knew I couldn’t get that kind of money again without fighting Laguna. So I fought him.

RT: Do you remember how the fight ended up at Shea?

People in both Panama and Puerto Rico wanted the fight. I fought him first in Panama and then we fought in Puerto Rico. The third fight was at Shea. Every fight for a title is important. Once you are a champion you want to stay champion. Laguna was a great fighter. I wanted to keep the title for as long as I could.

RT: By defeating Laguna at Shea, you joined your countryman Jose Torres as the second headliner to win a title fight at Shea Stadium. You were from the same country!

In all honesty, I wasn’t even thinking about that. Knowing that now, I think it’s great. A lot of fighters fight for their homeland. However, I fought because I loved to fight and I loved to make money for myself and my family. I didn’t fight for my country. I fought for myself. The more money I could make, the better. There was a lot of money to be made fighting at Shea.

During the introductions of the third Ortiz-Laguna fight, referee Arthur Mercante told both fighters that they were participating in “the most important event of their lives.” Considering that Carlos would lose his title in his next defense and never regain it, Mercante’s statement seems all the more convincing.

Although Carlos admitted that he loved to fight for money, he did not joke around about any comebacks or potential paydays fighting at the New Citi Field. However, the same can not be said for the man who headlined the third and final fight attraction at Shea Stadium just one month after Ortiz fought Laguna.

Like Carlos Ortiz, Emile Griffith fought many of the same fighters on multiple occasions. Benny Paret, Joey Archer and Carlos Monzon are a few that top the list. Still, perhaps Griffith’s most rewarding experience may have been defeating Italian Nino Benvenutti in a rematch for the coveted World Middleweight Title at Shea. I had a chance to sit down with Emile and his son Luis on June 5th of this year. Here are some of Emile’s thoughts on his return bout with Benvenutti at Shea in September of 1967.

Rob Tierney: Emile, what are your thoughts on the closing of Shea Stadium and the birth of the Mets new stadium, Citi Field?

Emile Griffith:
I hope it goes well so I can get another fight.

With Emile’s response, Luis Griffith and I break into laughter.

RT: Really? Is that so? Who would you like to fight?

Whoever gives me the most money!

RT: All kidding aside, do you remember how the fight ended up at Shea?

No kidding aside! I want the one who pays me the most.

RT: Fair enough!

Just kidding! Fighting at Shea meant a lot to my career. Fighting Nino Benvenutti meant a lot as well.

RT: The second fight with Benvenutti hits the ESPN Classic reel all the time. Do you ever watch it when it’s on? If so, what goes through your mind when you see it?

I have not seen the fight in a while. Still, when I do see it, it brings me joy. He was a great fighter and now I am glad the fight is over.

RT: Thanks Emile!

Emile’s win over Nino Benvenutti is the only victory over the Italian in their three affairs as Benvenutti would be victorious in the first and third encounter both of which were at Madison Square Garden. Still, it was Griffith’s victory at Shea that many consider his greatest achievement in the ring as he put Benvenutti on the canvass in the 14th round enroute to a 15 round unanimous decision victory. With the win, Griffith captured the Middleweight Championship of the World for the second time.

Just as was the case with Carlos Ortiz before him, Griffith’s win at Shea would prove to be the fighter’s last great winning performance. Griffith would lose the title to Benvenutti in the rubber match and never see the Middleweight Championship again. However, it is what he accomplished against Benvenutti at Shea that many experts feel is the highlight of his career.

By the late 1970’s, championship baseball and boxing returned home to Yankee Stadium. A renewed Yankee dynasty led by Reggie Jackson in the world of baseball and a Muhammad Ali returned from exile in the world of boxing filled the venue to peak capacity for championship performances. Much has been made about big time boxing memories at Yankee Stadium, but not much has been mentioned about Shea Stadium which, like its neighbor across town, will also see its fate this season.

For Jose Torres, Carlos Ortiz and Emile Griffith, the path to stardom led through Shea Stadium just as it did for Seaver and Namath in their respective sports. It was the place that they each performed their craft during the finest peaks of their careers. Therefore, it only makes sense that these legends of sport who reigned in their own era of the 1960’s receive their commemorative tribute. Hopefully, we gave it to them.

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