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Kid Gavilan: the Sparrow HawkBy Enrique Encinosa
Icons and legends are human beings born common and unknown, but molded into greatness by time and historical events.
The legend of whom I write was born in Camaguey -the cattle province of Cuba- on the 6th day of January 1926, being baptized with the name of Gerardo Gonzalez.
As a boy he had little schooling, working since he was very young, shining shoes at a street stand, peddling newspapers on street corners and working at an ice factory. Yet, those were jobs to pay for room and board while learning his craft, for the boy was born to box.
His amateur career began as a ninety-pound flyweight in a cock-fighting ring in the hamlet of Palo Seco, where young Gerardo swarmed over his surprised foe. He won his first one and was back the following week, scoring another win.
By the age of fifteen, Gerardo was one of the most recognized amateur stars in Cuba. He turned pro at seventeen, under the guidance of Fernando Balido, the proprietor of a fruit stand called "El Gavilan" -The Sparrow Hawk- a name borrowed to market Gerardo as Kid Gavilan.
Cuban boxing had a distinguished history before the Sparrow Hawk turned pro. The previous decades had produced world champion Kid Chocolate and top contenders in several weight classes, including Black Bill and Kid Tunero. This history had a price, for Cuban contenders were forged in the heat of battle. Promoters did not offer easy fights and the crowd did not accept them; good young pros were moved quickly against quality fighters in a fast game of survival of the fittest.
Gavilan made a name for himself very quickly. He won four prelims and scored a knockout in his first main event. His sixth fight was against Bombon Oriental, a good headline fighter with years of ring experience and dozens of pro fights. The Kid won with ease and repeated the win in a rematch.
Kid Gavilan was a prodigy inside the ring, an athlete with destiny, a natural at the fight game. He had an iron chin, fast hands, quick legs, good heart, a sense of flash and daring, all wrapped up in an exciting style of fighting in spurts, jabs, hooks and uppercuts swarming around his opponent's guard in blitzkrieg assault.
The Sparrow Hawk also possessed that quality that is described in Spanish speaking pugilism as "to have angel," the charisma that attracted crowds that responded to his showmanship, as he performed for them wearing his trademark snow-white boxing boots and white trunks with black trim.
Gavilan won 29 of 31 battles fought between 1943 and 1946, scoring wins over quality fighters, men such as Santiago Sosa, Hankin Barrows and Miguel Acevedo. He lost and won to tough Mexican brawler Carlos Malacara, who became the first fighter to ever deck the Kid, a rare event, for the Cuban was never stopped in his fifteen- year career.
In 1947, Gavilan was rated seventh among the welter elite; in 1948 he was the top contender for a title shot. It was also the year Gavilan lost a close one to the magnificent Sugar Ray Robinson. The Sugar man and the Hawk tangled twice, the second time for the title, and both were close fights in which Robinson emerged the winner, yet Ray would always claim that the two toughest fights of his career were against the Cuban fighter.
"We were both very fast," Gavilan said in an interview years later, "and we both took turns attacking and countering. Sugar Ray liked to set his tempo to the fight and I gave him trouble when I attacked in spurts. It broke his rhythm."
In New York, Gavilan hooked up with Angel Lopez, a restaurant empresario who had managed some fair talent and the Sparrow Hawk piled up wins and captivated audiences with his trademark "bolo punch," a flashy, wide punch with more charisma than power. The diamond had serious flaws. The talented fighter was also somewhat wild. One of the Beau Jack fights was canceled when Gavilan was hurt in a street fight. Although married, the Hawk liked to party.
"He trained very hard," boxing trainer Luis Sarria once said of the Kid, "and he partied very hard also."
Gavilan also performed to the level of his opposition. When facing a topnotch fighter the Kid performer at his best, but with lower caliber boxers facing him his interest waned, causing him to lose to journeymen like Danny Womber and Sugar Costner.
Gavilan became champion on May 18, 1951, in New York, scoring a disputed victory in fifteen over Johnny Bratton. Although only 25 years old, Gavilan entered the ring against Bratton as a veteran of 87 professional battles, with 72 victories, 12 defeats and 3 draws. His win resume included the prestigious names of Ike Williams, Beau Jack, Billy Graham, Joe Miceli, Gene Hairston and Tony Janiro, all top guns in the fight game.
Gavilan was a very active champion. From May of 1951 to the end of 1953, the bolo- punching Kid defended his title on seven occasions and participated in eighteen non-title bouts. His seven defenses were against Johnny Bratton, Carmen Basilio, Chuck Davey, Gil Turner, Bobby Dykes, and two against Billy Graham. Basilio -one of the toughest men ever to lace on a glove- decked Gavilan, but the Kid managed to survive the round and rally to win. Southpaw Chuck Davey was handed a drubbing, the Hawk winning by TKO in ten.
"Gavilan was a hard guy to fight." Basilio stated in an interview, "He did not hit hard but he was fast and would throw punches in clusters. He took a very good punch but I timed him and clocked him good, dropped him clean. It was a tough fight but I thought I won. That disputed loss and the knockdown got a lot of ink."
At least one of Gavilan's defenses -against Billy Graham- was fixed by the mob. It was a sad moment in the sport when Graham, a good boxer and a decent man, was robbed and denied the crown that he deserved for its effort.
Gavilan was a paradox. He moved his father out of poverty and paid the family bills, but on another occasion left his wife and three children in New York -to depend on public charity- while he partied in other corners of the globe.
The Kid worked hard at squandering his fortune. Restaurant and nightclubs benefited from his patronage, as did chorus girls, bartenders and lawyers. Gavilan accumulated a debt of 68 thousand dollars with the IRS while boasting of having tens of tailor made suits and dozens of expensive shoes.
The Kid also had some splendid moments. He supported relatives, donated to charities, sponsored an amateur baseball team and bought an ambulance for a village clinic that needed a vehicle.
The decline of his career began in 1954, a year in which he fought only four times. After scoring two wins in tune up fights, Gavilan tried to capture middleweight title held by Bobo Olson.
Olson, native of Honolulu, was a hard man that had entered the pro ranks at the early age of fifteen, tattooing his arms to pretend being older. Bobo was a good boxer, a solid puncher and experienced in ring warfare. A solid middleweight, he was too strong for Gavilan, who had already begun to lose the marvelous reflexes that carried him to fame in the ring.
After the Olson defeat, Gavilan returned to the welters, losing his crown to Johnny Saxton, a hungry contender with 44 victories in 48 encounters. Gavilan -with 28 years of hard living and almost 120 fights- was a champion on the decline.
After Saxton, the Kid became an opponent. The chin was still there, but the lightning speed was gone and the timing was no longer razor sharp. From 1955 to 1958 he fought 26 times, winning ten, losing fifteen with a draw, announcing his retirement after losing on points to Yama Bahama, a good middleweight boxer from Bimini.
The record book reads 107-30-6, with 28 KO wins and the claim to fame of not having been stopped in 143 pro fights. The men he faced included Sugar Ray Robinson, Carmen Basilio, Bobo Olson, Johnny Bratton, Johnny Saxton, Miguel Acevedo. Santiago Sosa, Ike Williams, Beau Jack, Rocky Castellani, Gil Turner, Tony Janiro, Paddy Young, Eduardo Lausse, Tony De Marco and Ralph Jones.
Retirement was not easy. Of the almost two million dollars earned, all that remained was a small farm in Bejucal, Cuba, and a closet full of clothes that soon were no longer fashionable.
He tried acting -playing himself in a boxing flick- and did some nightclub shows dancing and joking with the audience, but audiences only paid big bucks to see him perform inside the ring. His acting and dancing career ended in dismal failure.
Sometime in the late fifties or early sixties, the Kid turned to religion, becoming a Jehovah Witness. His timing was poor, for the new power in Cuba -Fidel Castro- did not believe in human or religious rights. The Kid was arrested a few times, interrogated and harassed. His farm was taken over by the revolutionary regime and by 1968 Gavilan arrived in Miami, joining hundreds of thousands of his exiled countrymen in South Florida.
He was broke and almost blind from cataracts in his eyes. The exile community passed the hat and paid for the operation to restore the former champ's eyesight.
Gavilan was offered several jobs and accepted to become part of Muhammad Ali's staff, but the job did not last long, ending with Gavilan threatening a lawsuit. The Ali camp settled for forty thousand dollars and the Kid spent the money as fast as it was paid.
Again insolvent, Gavilan continued his life of indiscipline, being arrested in 1974 for illegal possession of a firearm and causing a disturbance in a dance hall. Friends vouched for him and for a while he trained amateurs for promoter Julio Martinez, but that line of employment ended because of the Kid's excessive drinking.
Gavilan was blessed with a guardian angel named Hank Kaplan, a former boxer and grand guru of boxing historians. Hank took care of Gavilan, being instrumental in setting up personal appearances for the Kid at different banquets and events throughout the United States.
The Kid -by then residing in a nursing home- not only made some pocket change at these events, but also enjoyed the applause, the warmth of the fans and once again being the center of attention. Hank took the Kid on the yearly pilgrimage to Canastota, where Gavilan happily signed hundreds of autographs and spent many happy hours chatting with boxing fans .
Gerardo Gonzalez -better known as Kid Gavilan- died on February 13, 2003, of a heart attack at the Miami nursing home where he resided. The Catholic charities and Maspon Funeral Home picked up most of the tab for a first class funeral -the Kid always liked class -and the few hundred dollars in the leftover expense tab was paid by a couple of ex fighters.
It was a grand wake, not of mourning but a final salute to a legend, a great athlete with great flaws, a historical figure beloved by his nation and by fans from all corners of the planet.
Florentino Fernandez, the left hook artist and former middleweight contender attended the wake, as did Puppy Garcia, the crowd-pleasing featherweight of the fifties, former NABF Junior Lightweight Champion Frankie Otero, one time Cuban national champion Johnny Sarduy, as well as former welterweight Marcelino Gonzalez, ex flyweight scrapper Kiki Casanova and former welterweight Dwayne Simpson.
Boxing historian Hank Kaplan arrived accompanied by Jack Kearns Jr. Boxing trainer Dave Clark, boxing promoter and former mayor of Hialeah Julio Martinez and several young amateurs came to pay their respects to the fallen icon.
The Kid rested in his coffin, dressed in a blue pin stripe suit, a white boxing robe neatly folded across his stomach. The flower arrangements that filled the room included Cuban flag designs and a large arrangement that featured boxing gloves made from red roses.
Reporters and camera crews from three local television channels showed up, interviewing friends and relatives of the Kid. As I watched the TV crews at work, a fellow radio journalist nudged me.
"No one ever stopped him," he said, "that's incredible."
I nodded as I looked at the metal casket where the Kid rested remembering a phrase said by the clever Wilson Mizner when told that middleweight champion Stanley Ketchel had been shot to death.
"Start counting to ten," I said to my fellow journalist, "he'll get up."
Rest in peace, great troubled champion of the white shoes and bolo punch. The fight game tolls ten bells for thee.
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