Dr. Troy Rondinone, a professor of history at Southern Connecticut State University, stumbled into one of the greats of televised boxing history in a small, rundown basement in Hamden, Connecticut. Bored by his regular workout, he found the name of a random boxing gym online. There, he met Gaspar Ortega, a man who was once a household name. Gaspar was born in Tijuana to a poor family and grew up to be one of the most televised fighters of the 1950s. “I was like a prospector who had just stumbled upon an untouched treasure trove,” says Dr. Rondinone. In his book, Friday Night Fighter: Gaspar “Indio” Ortega and the Golden Age of Television Boxing,Rondinone reveals the massive impact and popularity the sport enjoyed during those early days of television.
It’s hard to imagine the kind the popularity boxing programs enjoyed in the early post-war era. In the late 1940s, almost 50% of all television programming was boxing. Boxing helped sell American consumers on TVs, and many bought one just to watch the fights. At one point in the 1950s, 20% of Americans (and not just those with television) were regularly watching the sport. Boxing’s grip on the public weakened by 1960, and soon it disappeared from TV schedules as tastes changed and American culture became youth-obsessed.
Troy believes that boxing held a special appeal for Americans in the 1950s. The overwhelming majority of men with families were veterans, many of whom had difficulty adjusting back to civilian life. “If you were a man born in America in the 1920s, you had an 80% chance of having been in the military,” says Dr. Rondinone. Men returning from WWII found themselves in a strange new world filled with never before seen levels of affluence, rapid technological advancement, and the growing terror of the Cold War. During this period, two-thirds of Americans believed that the world would end in nuclear holocaust within five years. Boxing, with its violence and simplicity, had a massive appeal in a society of anxiety, change, and repression. Boxing was more brutal in the 1950s than it is today. There was less protection and occasional on-air fatalities, which were not only played, but also replayed on TV. “Within these beautiful suburban houses, there were people watching real violence on TV,” said Dr. Rondinone.
Boxing was a source of bonding between men of the Greatest Generation and their Baby Boomer sons. “I connect it to Cold War masculinity. You taught your son to be a man by watching combat. My grandpa would point things out to my dad, like ‘look at the guy’s head snap back, that’s how you know he got punched,’” Dr. Rondinone says. Whole families would gather around to watch men inflict pain on each other.
Televised boxing was also one of the few places people of color were seen on television in the 1950s. Gaspar Ortega, who is half Zapotecan, fought alongside other famous people of color like Emile Griffith, Sugar Ray Robinson, and Sonny Liston. For some, it was an amazing experience to see faces like their own on television. Dr. Rondinone interviewed guitar legend Carlos Santana, who said when he saw Gaspar Ortega he couldn’t believe he was seeing a Mexican kid like himself on TV. However, this multiplicity of faces came did not come from a desire for racial equality. Interracial fights were often set up on purpose for ratings as they riled up white audiences, who would often hurl racial epithets at the darker-skinned fighter. “It’s a story mixed with ambiguous parts,” says Dr. Rondinone.
Carnal violence made boxing popular, but it also ultimately doomed it. Televised boxing was on the outs at the opening of 1960s and it would soon vanish entirely off the air. The Baby Boomers had no taste for its brutality like their fathers, and technological advancement put other sports like football on the air. But Friday Night Fighter brings us back to a moment when the ringside is still crowded, the cameras are still rolling, and families gather around to cheer for the fighters of the Golden Age of televised boxing.
“Friday Night Fighter” is available on Amazon