My friend, Jessie Ortegon

At one time, Jessie Ortegon was the best fighter put out by Joe Alvarado. Although only five foot seven, and 135 pounds, he was all sinew and muscle, and he packed a punch. Jessie had been a fighter all his life. Before taking up karate, Jessie was what was known as a semi-pro boxer, a fancy name for a guy who boxed on call. That is, when a fighter in a pro fight failed to show, Jessie took his place under an assumed name.

My father and my uncle happened to come in when I tested for my first belt. My dad said then of Jessie, “Ese es un gallo de pelear, que bonito tira las patadas, y bueno con las manos!” (“That one is like a fighting rooster. He throws beautiful kicks, and has great hands!”) My father had boxed, but had never seen karate, as it was yet in its infancy. Needless to say, he was very impressed by Jessie. My father knew his roosters too, and for him to compare Jessie Ortegon to a fighting rooster was as fine a compliment as my father could render him as a fighter.

My introduction to Jessie was a rude one, but positive in nature. At least, I feel things generally turn out that way. Mr Alvarado’s first ledger, which I have stored away somewhere, shows that I began my training in April of 1967, but I was there just long enough to learn Shifts 1 and 2. I did not get into sparring. Then I dropped out, coming back about February of 1968.

On March 23, 1968 which was a Saturday, 16 year old Oscar Balboa and 19 year old Valentin Rodriguez, both unarmed, were shot by Austin Police Officers. The 16 year old Balboa died at the scene.  In the merciful providence of the Lord, I was not on duty that night, for which I shall ever be grateful. Understandably, the Latino or East Side community was outraged, for it was an unrighteous killing.

The following Tuesday I went to my workout as usual, but with some trepidation. The Pan Am Center was deep in the East Side. I was worried about where to park my car, as well as walking through the group of young men who hung around the Center to box or loiter. They gave me no problem. It was when I entered the gym that I caught flack. The source was Jessie Ortegon, Mr Alvarado’s senior student. “Que miras, ese?” (“What you looking at?) What you cops did was murder!” He was upset. And then he went overboard, (in Spanish) “You know, you will be sparring soon, and you’ll see. I’ll wipe that silly smile off your face. You’ll see.”

Well, I was anxious to see. I don’t respond well to threats. “Why wait? Let’s do it now! Go tell Mr Alvarado we want to spar!” Mr Alvarado came over immediately to where I was. “Chris, Jessie is good, real good! He’s been at this several years. Are you sure you want to do this?” Yes, I was sure, very sure. I was hot. “Don’t break us! Let us fight!”

I had seen Jessie fight, so I wasn’t going to let him use his legs, and besides I outweighed him by at least ten pounds. I crowded him. It was all fists, and it was a smoker! I came out of it with only a busted lip and some blue under one eye, but he didn’t whip me, and I got in some licks.

Fast forward a year. I was a purple belt and Jessie had made Brown. We went over to Mike Usselton’s place where Allen Steen was giving a seminar. Usselton had four Brown Belts to our one, Jessie. I got worked over by one of those Brown Belts the first round, The next round, I returned the favor. I took him, to Mr Steen’s surprise. But it was Jessie who got to spar the others. And he did well. And then a funny thing happened. Usselton’s number one Brown Belt decided he wanted to spar Jessie, but with hands only! Jessie the boxer took over. (Usselton and Steen didn’t know of Jessie’s boxing background) Jessie gave that Brown Belt a real lesson in boxing. After the match was over, Steen said to Mr Alvarado, “I’d give you that man’s weight in gold to have him in my school!” At the time, Steen was worlds ahead of us. He would have been able to develop Jessie as Joe Alvarado could not then do.

In September of 1971, I believe it was, Jessie tested for his Black Belt, becoming the first of Joe Alvarado’s students to do so. It was a brutal exam, thanks in part to myself and my brother Al. Jessie was doing alright on the one on one, or at least as well as expected. It was when Mr Alvarado had him fight two on one that Jessie’s problems began, and almost did him in.

Mr Alvarado turned to me. “You and Al are going to fight him next.” I protested. “I can handle him by myself! My brother can handle him. You don’t want the two of us on him!” He was adamant, the two of us were going to fight him.

I turned to my brother. “One thing is for sure. We aren’t going to let him make us look bad. So we’re going to have to drop him, and quick.  Are you okay with that?” My brother felt the same way. We put Jessie down quickly, and he was on the floor, writhing in pain. Mr Alvarado was screaming for us to finish him. “No, we’re not going to do that. We won’t hit a man who can’t defend himself.” My brother and I walked away, giving Jessie time to recover. He was able to finish the exam, becoming the first of Joe Alvarado’s Black Belts.

Some time after I made Brown Belt, I opened my school. Jessie did also, taking over Mr Alvarado’s dojo at 104 Bastrop Highway in Montopolis when the latter moved to his South Lamar location. I would then take my students over to Jessie’s and we’d spar. That was always a treat.

We spent a lot of time together in those days. I recall one night we were riding around, and stopped at a restaurant at 19th and Guadalupe. I went in to eat, but he wanted to stay outside. When I returned to the car, Jessie was in an argument with three other men. “What’s happening, Jess?”  I asked. Seeing me, he said to the men, “Okay, now we’re even up. Let’s get it on!”  They backed down. We drove off, and after a bit we realized they were following us. I pulled over and got out. They drove by us slowly. The very next day, I was in on a drug raid. There were three DEA guys involved. I recognized them from the previous night, and they recognized me. We conducted our business without a word between us. Because the four of us had access to weapons the night previous, things could have gotten ugly.

Jessie knew and at one time hung out with some pretty bad characters. Therefore, Jessie’s friendship with me was dangerous. One night he was invited to a meeting. The fellow calling the meeting had just been released from prison, and he was bad, as bad as they come. When Jessie walked through the door, and saw those waiting for him, he knew his life was forfeit. The meeting was about him. Calling him a stool pigeon, the newly released con swung and hit him in the face, knocking him down. Jessie got up, and with as much savoir faire as he could muster said, “Esta de aquella, ese.”  (“Everything’s cool, man.”) And then, just as cooly, he walked out.  He called me, telling me what had happened.  I went looking for the man. Ten days later he was headed back to prison. Jessie always thought I had something to do with that.  If I had got to the man first, he would have gone to the hospital. That is a fact.

Jessie Ortegon and I had a friendship which extended out and away from karate. I know better than most how it is fitting that Jessie Ortegon was Texas Soryu Karate’s first Black Belt. Pound for pound he was one of the best fighters to come out of Soryu Karate. When Mr Alvarado asked me how I wanted my Black Belt exam, I said without hesitation, “Just like Jessie’s. Don’t cut me any slack.”