Connecticut Hall of Fame inducts Vejar, Ortega

By Kirk Lang


Connecticut Hall of Fame inducts Vejar, Ortega

Gaspar "Indio" Ortega and Chico Vejar, two popular fighters who plied their trade during the 1950s, when boxing was coming of age as a television sport, were recently inducted into the Connecticut Boxing Hall of Fame. The Hall’s second annual awards ceremony and dinner took place at Foxwoods Resort Casino. Ortega and Vejar never won a world title but they were television favorites who were seen by boxing fans more often than most of the champions of their day. Ortega fought on national television more than 40 times before hanging up his gloves in 1965 and close to 30 of Vejar’s fights were broadcast across the country. They were stars during an age when boxing ranked right up there in popularity with America’s National Pastime, baseball. They were TV idols when boxing still had a prominent place in the sports section of the major papers. 

Ortega boxed, among others, Emile Griffith, Carmen Basilio and Nino Benvenuti and notched wins over Kid Gavilan, Benny "Kid" Paret and Tony DeMarco. He told the crowd of approximately 500 at the induction ceremony - which took place at Grand Pequot Ballroom at Foxwoods Resort Casino - that boxing way his ticket out of the barrio. Ortega grew up on the streets of Tijuana, Mexico.

The sport of boxing also had a positive impact on a young Vejar, who grew up in the City of Stamford. "Boxing did an awful lot for me," said Vejar. "At the age of 16, I was having a little trouble with my conduct and I became a fighter. It took me out of the gutters, away from the street corners and away from the gangs. I went back to school. I was a sophomore when I should have been a senior. It was so humiliating to me but teachers and friends and my parents guided me. Three years later, I graduated from Stamford High School."  It was during those high school years that Vejar turned professional while still a teenager and became a successful fighter in the New York City area.

"My life had meaning," said Vejar, who had made such a complete
turnaround that he was even accepted at New York University. Born in Stamford, Vejar, who competed at middleweight, never ducked anyone. His ledger includes bouts against Gavilan and former middleweight champions Joey Giardello and Gene Fullmer. As strong as Fullmer was, he couldn’t knock Vejar out in their September 1957 bout. Vejar, who retired with a record of 92-20-4 (43), took Giardello the full distance on two occasions. One of Vejar’s former opponents - DeMarco - was in attendance at the induction ceremony. A big-punching welterweight, DeMarco did in 1955 what Giardello and Fullmer couldn’t do a few years later - get rid of Vejar before the final bell. Vejar visited the canvas twice before suffering a first-round TKO.

Vejar wasn’t the only boxer at the Connecticut Hall of Fame ceremony who had a former opponent in the room. Griffith, a former welterweight and middleweight champion, made the trip up from New York City for Ortega’s induction. Ortega’s lone title shot - for the welterweight championship - came against Griffith in June 1961. Ortega lost by twelfth round TKO. It was the only time - in Ortega’s career of more than 175 bouts - that an opponent’s punches forced a bout to be stopped by the referee. His only other stoppage loss came late in his career (1964), one year before he retired, when he failed to come out for the seventh round against Sandro Mazzinghi in Rome.

Ortega, 131-39-6 (69), was a durable contender who always made for good fights. In fact, the first time he fought Griffith, who is considered an all-time great at welterweight, he gave a much
better account of himself. It was Feb. 12, 1960, at Madison Square Garden, a year before Griffith would become welterweight champion. When the ten-round affair came to an end, Griffith was announced the winner by a split decision.

Griffith laughed when Ortega’s son - Michael Ortega, a top boxing
referee - told a story about his dad hiding his foray into boxing
from his grandmother (Gaspar’s mother). Gaspar Ortega began boxing at the age of 14 after forging his mother’s signature in order to enter a Golden Gloves tournament in Mexico. His mother had said, "No way. None of my kids are going to be fighters. Forget about it." 

Gaspar Ortega was born Gaspar Benitez but he put his mother’s maiden name - Ortega - on the application. Ortega won the tournament and ended up turning professional at 15.  "Well, as a pro, he started winning," said Michael Ortega. "He was getting very popular and the name stuck, hence Ortega. Well my
grandmother finally found out a couple of years later [that my father was boxing] on the way home from the market one day. She bumps into a neighbor who says, ‘Tell Gaspar good luck tonight in his fight.’ My mom is like, ‘What are you talking about?’ The neighbor says, ‘He’s got a big fight at the arena tonight. He’s the main event fighter.’  My mom says, ‘No, you must be talking about someone else. None of my boys fight.’ So she says, ‘Hang on one second.’ She runs in, she gets the sports page, brings it out and shows my grandmother his picture in a boxing pose and reads the article. Well, my mom said, ‘Thank you very much.’ She went home and a little while later, my dad comes strolling through the door. He caught the beating of his life. Up to that point, that was the worst beating he had gotten, in or out of the ring."

Eventually, a big time manager from New York went down to Tijuana, discovered an 18-year-old Gaspar Ortega and brought him "up here to the big city," said Michael Ortega. Retired since 1965, Gaspar currently lives in East Haven, CT.

Boxing fans at the induction ceremony were thrilled to have Ortega, Vejar, Griffith and DeMarco all under one roof. Glenn Feldman, a professional boxing judge and also the president of the Connecticut Boxing Hall of Fame, said, "It was just great to have all these wonderful fighters from the past there." Feldman added that he was especially pleased to see Griffith, who doesn’t make his way up to the Connecticut casinos all that often. "That was one of my highlights, when I found out he was coming," he

This was only the second annual induction ceremony for the
Connecticut Boxing Hall of Fame. The living inductees of the previous year included boxing legend and former featherweight champion Willie Pep, former welterweight champion Marlon Starling and Hartford area trainer Johnny Duke, whose Bellevue Square Boys Club offered an alternative to the street life for countless inner-city youth for decades. Duke was Starling’s first amateur trainer. However, between the two induction ceremonies, both Duke and Pep passed away. Pep died one week prior to the 2006 event. A 10 count was tolled in remembrance of Pep and Duke.

Starling, who was unable to make it to his induction at the Hall’s
first ceremony, belatedly accepted his plaque at the second annual dinner. "I heard a lot about this Hall of Fame," said Starling. "It took me years and years . I had a good trainer in Johnny Duke. God rest his soul. And Willie Pep. When I first started out Willie Pep was the first one to always say, ‘Look at that kid. That kid’s good. That kid will win a world championship.’ God bless you (as Starling raises toward the sky)."

Starling was appreciative of having been inducted and thanked "each and every one of my New England fans and friends." He noted that the climb to the top of the boxing world is a tough one, but once you become a world champion "forever they’ll call you champ."

Feldman could tell the crowd was glad to see Starling.  "He couldn’t walk across the room without running into someone who wanted his autograph. Let’s face it. He’s one of the greatest
fighters of all-time from this state. He deserves the recognition."
In addition to Ortega and Vejar, the other 2006 living inductees were John Burns and Manny Leibert. Burns was the state director of boxing from 1987 to 2000 and was also an advisor to the boxing commissions of Foxwoods Resort Casino and Mohegan Sun Casino.

Referee John Callas, who introduced Burns, said there are a number of words that come to mind "when we think of John Burns" and how he was respected by his colleagues on the Association of Boxing Commissioners Council.  "Uncompromising, hard-nosed, unwavering, committed to upholding the integrity of boxing at all costs," said Callas. Burns, 70, was a supervisor to the boxing program at the Hartford Police Athletic League back in 1955 and got amateur boxing shows televised on Channel
30 every Saturday morning. Thus began Burns’ 50-year association with boxing. In the mid-1980s, Burns became the eastern director for the Association of Boxing Commissioners and in 1991 he voluntarily became a chief advisor to the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation Athletic Commission (Foxwoods) and later did the same for the Mohegan Tribe Department of Athletic Regulation, according to Callas.

He added, "What many people don’t realize is that between
Connecticut, the Mohegan commission and the Mashantucket commission, he truly established three boxing regulatory bodies that were as good as any others in the entire business, and that would be New York, New Jersey and Nevada. Someone up here earlier said once a champion always a champion. Well once you’re named a commissioner you’re always a commissioner in boxing." Burns - who wasn’t afraid to tell fighters they couldn’t be on a show, and wouldn’t hesitate to cancel a show if promoters, managers and trainers weren’t playing by the rules - is now enjoying retirement. However, he remains a member of the Connecticut Boxing Hall of Fame board of directors. 

Leibert, 93, a boxing promoter for 50 years, told the packed ballroom crowd during his induction speech that he "never would have quit promoting if I could have gotten as many people to one of my shows as there are here tonight." Although Leibert isn’t as well known as two of his fellow inductees (Ortega and Vejar), Feldman said Leibert was "the star of the show, undoubtedly." Known to crack up a room with a joke, Feldman said Leibert "performed as expected."

When Leibert took to the microphone, he said: "I am 93 years of age and everybody thinks I’m 92 and I’ve been around for many, many years. People say when David fought Goliath I was in the second row. It wasn’t me. I was at home."  There were approximately 150 people who bought tickets to the induction ceremony just to pay tribute to Leibert, according to Feldman. It was during the Great Depression that Leibert first became involved in boxing. It was 1929 and Leibert figured one way to keep people from lamenting the crash of the stock market was to keep them entertained. He subsequently become a boxing manager. He often worked the corner as a second and learned how to promote professional and amateur shows, according to his biography in the Hall of Fame program. He was a quick study and did not retire from promoting until 1986. Leibert founded the Connecticut Boxing Guild in 1948, an organization that lasted until 2004. It was then that Leibert joined the board of directors for the Connecticut Hall of Fame. Leibert, a member of the state boxing commission, is also credited as a driving force behind boxing’s revival in Connecticut in 1973 after the sport had been banned in the state for eight years.

"I love people and I love fighters because they’re special people,"
said Leibert. "Mano a Mano (hand to hand). That takes a lot of
bravery." He noted that in boxing, like checkers, there are moves and counter moves. "No teams. Just you and the other guy and the referee. It’s a wonderful sport," said Leibert. "I didn’t care about making money but I did want to be a manager of a world champion. There’s something about being the manager of a world champion. New York sportswriters used to interview the managers more than the fighters."  Managing a world champion was one of the few goals that Leibert was unable to achieve. "I’m still looking for a world champion," joked Leibert. "And right now in my pocket I’ve got a contract ready to be signed, in case I run into a guy that can be a champion."

Former heavyweight title challenger Nathan Mann, born in New Haven, and Lou Bogash, who fought to a draw in 1920 against reigning welterweight champion Jack Britton, were inducted posthumously. Unfortunately for Mann, his title shot came against a prime Joe Louis. Louis stopped Mann in the third round at Madison Square Garden. Mann won the New England heavyweight title in 1940 and held the belt for nearly eight years. Bogash, who fought seven world champions and defeated a number of them, including Tommy Loughran (in Loughran’s hometown of Philadelphia), who went on to become light heavyweight champion a year after losing to Bogash; Mickey Walker, who became welterweight and middleweight champion; and Tiger Flowers, whom Bogash defeated before and after Flowers won the middleweight title by beating Harry Greb. Bogash lost a decision to middleweight king Harry Greb in 1923 in a non-title match but the New York Times reported that Bogash deserved the victory.
Referee Ken Ezzo, who presented Bogash’s son, Lou Jr., with his
father’s induction plaque, noted that the elder Bogash, who made
Bridgeport his hometown when his family relocated from Italy to
America, briefly held the middleweight title.

"Johnny Wilson was the middleweight champ but Wilson was stripped of his title by the New York State Boxing Commission," said Ezzo. On January 9, 1923, Bogash was matched against Charley Nashert Fitzsimmons for the vacant title. He knocked Fitzsimmons out in the 11th round. Ezzo added, "As stranger things have happened in boxing. ‘Tex’ Rickard was the manager of Johnny Wilson and he went to the New York commission complaining that his fighter never should have been stripped. Well, he got his wish, because later that year, they took the title away from Lou and gave it back to Johnny Wilson."

In addition to those that were inducted into the Connecticut Hall of
Fame, light heavyweight Chad Dawson, of New Haven, was honored as the 2006 Professional Boxer of the Year; Melissa Roberts, a two-time national Golden Gloves champion, winner of the 2006 Ringside national tournament and the number one ranked female boxer in the United States at 125 pounds, was honored as Amateur Boxer of the Year. Dawson earned Professional Boxer of the Year honors by beating Eric Harding back in June 2006. Harding, of West Hartford, was the Hall of Fame’s Professional Boxer of the Year honoree in 2005.
Feldman, during an interview, jokingly said: "So does this mean next year’s fighter of the year has to beat this year’s fighter of the year?" Dawson has since defeated Tomasz Adamek to capture the WBC light heavyweight championship and defended the title once against Jesus Ruiz.

Roberts, who planned to fight for the United States Marine Corps
boxing team this year, noted that she is not solely responsible for
the success she has had.

"A lot of people see the boxers in the ring and they see the hard
work through the skill that we have but what they don’t see is the
people behind the scenes, the ones who get us where we are," said Roberts. "There’s many people who dedicated their lives and they took a lot of time out for us when they didn’t have to...I wouldn’t be where I am and I wouldn’t be excelling as far as I am if it wasn’t for them and I just want to take the time out to thank them because they really are the true champs even though you see us (the boxers) in the ring."

Official of the Year honors went to professional boxing judge George W. Smith and ESPN, based out of Bristol, CT, was honored with the Hall of Fame’s Achievement Award. ESPN’s boxing history dates back to April 10, 1980 with its Top Rank boxing program featuring Frank "The Animal" Fletcher versus Ben Serrano, according to Feldman. ESPN2 Friday Night Fights blow-by-blow broadcaster Joe Tessitore served as Master of Ceremonies for the Connecticut Hall of Fame’s second annual
induction ceremony. Early in the night, he said: "Boxing people to me, are people that are alive. They are lovers of life. They are realists. They appreciate pain. They appreciate gain. They appreciate joy. They understand and have an appreciation and respect for heartache and they know that you play baseball, you play basketball but you do not play boxing. This is not a game. It is the only true sport. Boxing is raw. It is pure. It is a reflection of life. In my eyes, it is not always fair. It’s not always pretty but it is real life." 


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