Commentary

More to legendary Cuban than just the bolo punch

Yuriorkis Gamboa follows in a long line of Cuban fighters who plied their trade in the boxing ring. One of the most celebrated and most successful was Kid Gavilan.

Originally Published: May 16, 2008
By William Dettloff | Special to ESPN.com

Kid GavilanAP Photo/Sam MyersAre you sure this man's human? Johnny Saxton looks on as Kid Gavilan gets a physical exam in 1954.
For very sound reasons, junior lightweight prospect Yuriorkis Gamboa, who meets Darling Jimenez on Saturday in Primm, Nev., is the most earnestly heralded of the recent crop of Cuban boxers who defected to pursue professional careers.

To the eyes of most reasoned observers, he is a remarkable talent who would not surprise by eventually matching the considerable accomplishments of his compatriot, world lightweight champion Joel Casamayor.

Neither Gamboa nor Casamayor, however, are likely to out-perform Kid Gavilan, who, if not the most accomplished professional fighter Cuba has ever produced -- that would likely be the wonderful welterweight Jose Napoles  runs a close second.

Gavilan, who was born Gerardo Gonzalez in Camaguey (the third largest city in Cuba) in January 1926, was the world welterweight champion from 1951 to '54 and made seven title defenses against high-quality challengers Billy Graham, Gil Turner, Chuck Davey, Carmen Basilio and Johnny Bratton.

[+] EnlargeKid Gavilan
AP Photo/Matty ZimmermanFrom 1951 to '54, Gavlin made seven defenses of his welterweight title.
He was one of the most popular fighters of the era -- a full 34 of his fights were televised -- and not because of his long-armed, awkward attack, or his seemingly bottomless well of endurance, or because of the chin that entertained not a single knockout loss in a 15-year, 143-bout career.

It was largely because taken all together, his presence in the ring combined the true ruggedness of a real, honest-to-goodness prizefighter with the freewheeling spirit of a circus performer.

Gavilan bolo-punched before Muhammad Ali or Ray Leonard had ever heard the term. (He claimed to have perfected the motion cutting sugar cane in the fields of Cuba and brought it into the ring with him, but that's probably marketing fluff.)

Gavilan shuffled. He bore in. He jumped out. He retreated. He attacked. He was a confounding nightmare to opponents, but to the fans and fight media he was not like any other fighter of the day and that made him something special.

Gavilan will let go with a furious flurry, almost like a madman gone berserk.

-- Arthur Daley, The New York Times, 1954

"Gavilan will let go with a furious flurry, almost like a madman gone berserk," The New York Times' Arthur Daley wrote in 1954. "Then he'll coast. Then, with a quick peek at the clock, he'll time his closing sprint just before the end of each round with the hope of convincing the ring officials that he's delivered that identical kind of fisticuffing for the entire three minutes. Even the least gullible of them sometimes find it difficult to disregard the psychological seed he's planted, especially in a close round."

Gavilan started boxing as an amateur at around the age of 12. After he and his family moved to Havana, he was discovered by manager Fernando Balido, who gave him the name Kid Gavilan after a café Balido owned. He turned pro in 1943, at the age of 16, after about 60 amateur fights.

Four years later, he was a top welterweight contender.

Gavilan's ascent was not without the occasional snag; he lost to lightweight champion Ike Williams (he later beat Williams twice) and also to Sugar Ray Robinson over 10 rounds. But he beat Tommy Bell and a slew of other good guys before challenging Robinson for the title. He rocked Robinson in the eighth but faded over the bout's second half and lost by scores (in rounds) of 12-3 and 9-6 (twice). But he had held his own with the best welterweight ever born.

When Robinson moved to middleweight, Gavilan and Bratton met for the vacant welterweight title in Madison Square Garden. Gavilan won by scores of 8-5-2 and 11-4 (twice), thus inaugurating one of the more entertaining and colorful title reigns of the era.

In 1952, "The Cuban Hawk" (or "The Kid," whichever nickname you preferred), defended the title against Bobby Dykes in the first racially mixed bout in Florida. Better than 17,000 fans crowded Miami Stadium to watch Gavilan take a close decision.

Five months later, in front of 39,025 in Municipal Stadium in Philadelphia, Gavilan stopped the undefeated Turner in 13 rounds. The following February in Chicago Stadium, Gavilan, by now one of the most popular fighters in the game, stopped Davey in Round 10.

"I lick all welterweights," Gavilan said afterward. "I mush'em like spaghetti mush."

[+] EnlargeKid Gavilan and Billy Graham
AP PhotoGavilan's points win over Billy Graham, right, in 1951 is recalled as one of the worst decisions of the era.
It wasn't all roses, though. Gavilan's decision win over Basilio was considered controversial at the time, though it did take place in Syracuse, New York -- Basilio's backyard. His points win over Billy Graham in 1951 is recalled as one of the worst decisions of the era and fueled speculation by many that Gavilan was controlled by the mob, whose influence during that era was pronounced.

Nevertheless, after a defense against Bratton, Gavilan, having cleaned out the division, jumped up in weight to challenge middleweight king Bobo Olson in Chicago Stadium. His alleged mob ties didn't help him; Olson won by scores of 147-141, 147-139 and 144-144.

Gavilan acquitted himself well -- "Olson, the plodder, was the perfect foil for Gavilan, the flashy, attractive spray-puncher," The Times reported -- but he returned to welterweight to defend the title against Johnny Saxton in Philadelphia.

Saxton's manager was known gangster Blinky Palermo and rumors circulated before the fight that Gavilan would need a knockout to win.

They were right; though 20 of 22 ringside writers thought Gavilan had done enough to win, the decision and the title went to Saxton.

Gavilan sobbed in his dressing room afterward, telling the press, "'I don't want nothing that I don't deserve, but I [won] at least nine rounds."

Gavilan never fought for the title again, and lost 15 of his last 26 fights, ending his career with a record of 107-30-6 (28 KOs). He retired in 1958 after dropping a 10-round decision to Yama Bahama in Miami Beach.

Like they do for most fighters, things went badly for Gavilan in retirement. He returned to Cuba and lived there, unhappily, for the most part of 10 years before resettling in the United States in Florida in 1968. By the 1980s, he was selling sausages in Miami.

Gavilan was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990 and died of heart failure in February 1993 at 77, after having spent the final eight years of his life in an assisted-living facility in Hialeah, Fla. He was buried in a pauper's grave in Our Lady of Mercy Cemetery in Miami.

The story doesn't end there.

In 2005, The Ring 8 Veterans Association and a group that included Ray Mancini, Mike Tyson, Roberto Duran, Leon Spinks, Buddy McGirt, Emile Griffith and Angelo Dundee paid to have Gavilan's body exhumed and moved to another section of the cemetery and to have a memorial headstone erected to honor his contributions to the fight game.

"No one there realizes that this was one of the greatest fighters of all time," Mancini said at the time. "The Kid and other fighters of his era did not make the big money, but they paved the way for guys like me to do just that."

One hopes Gamboa, who isn't making the big money yet but will be soon, takes note.

The Ring's senior writer William Dettloff co-wrote the book "Box Like The Pros" with Joe Frazier.