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The One and Only Nino Valdez
By Enrique Encinosa

The old black man died alone in a shabby rented room with peeling plaster walls on the night of June 3, 2001. The following afternoon Gerardo Ponciano Ramos Valdez was cremated in New York, one more among thousands of citizens who die weekly in the five buroughs that make up the world's best known city.

There's more to it, for the old black man who died alone in poverty was once an icon in his Caribbean island nation, leaving the palm trees and white sands to travel the world. He was famous and made some money, earning his living trading blows with champions and contenders before dying in the squalor of a New York tenement.

The first time I saw Nino Valdez was in the mid-fifties, when as a child I spent summers with my family at a beach cottage in Guanabo, a few miles from Havana, snorkling in the emerald green Cuban waters and watching grown-ups play dominoes..

I saw Nino Valdez leaning against the counter of an open-air beach café. From my perspective -all four-feet-something and some seventy pounds- the man standing in front of me looked as big as a boulder, with hands like like ham hocks and arms the length of telephone poles. In reality, he was a muscular man, six feet three and 215 pounds with a gentle face and a warm smile. He spoke slowly, with a thick voice that was misleading, sometimes giving the impression that Valdez was slow witted, yet although he had an obvious lack of schooling, the big Cuban was street smart, possesed an abundance of warmth, a fine sense of humor and an engaging personality.

As a boy he learned his craft in a Havana gym while working an assortment of jobs that included pin setting in a bowling alley, delivering blocks of ice to cafeterias, shining shoes and working in construction, digging ditches and hauling concrete bags on his young shoulders. Nino was a hungry teenager with big dreams when he turned pro in Havana at the tail end of 1941, knocking out Basilio Ayestaran in three rounds. Cuba was a boxing hotbed, but only for featherweights, lightweights and welters. Heavyweights were few and even fewer ones wanted to fight the young black slugger with solid power in either hand.

So Nino Valdez worked as a longshoreman and construction laborer while fighting only a dozen fights in four years, winning ten, all by knockout. In 1945 Valdez was matched with the only other Cuban heavyweight everyone avoided, a muscular fighter named Federico Malibran.

The two men went at each other with gusto. Malibran was a quality fighter, a main event performer who used a bag of tricks on his opponent, stopping the still inexperienced Valdez in the fourth round, chopping him down with combinations. Instead of moping around, Valdez asked for a rematch and stopped Malibran in eight.

"The fights with Malibran were wars," he told me, years later. "He was strong, young and fast and so was I. The first fight I was nervous and he was a seasoned fighter and I lost. I wore him down in the second fight, pounding him and he took a good shot.Those fights made me feel good. People knew who I was and I became aware that I could go far in boxing, trade with the best."

Five more years went by and not much happened. Valdez fought a few fights in Cuba and some in the United States. He fought only nine times in those five years, losing only to Archie McBride, a likeable, talented fighter managed by best selling author Budd Schulberg.

One of the big thrills of Nino's life was having boxed three exhibitions with Joe Louis in 1949 and 1950. Valdez always spoke about the Brown Bomber with reverence.

"It was solemn," he said,"like being with royalty."

In spite of the three glorious exhibitions with Louis and a string of wins over club fighters, Valdez grew discouraged. He was by then a fully matured fighter in his late twenties with an 18-4-1 record with 15 knockouts and empty pockets. He quit boxing for a year, working at the docks.

Then came a comeback, which started with a trip to New York and a management contract with Bobby Gleason, the picturesque gym owner and booking agent. Gleason loved Valdez, for the big Cuban was a seasoned, experienced fighter with rocks in his hands.

Gleason matched him against good talent and Nino performed well. He lost on points to the legendary Archie Moore, to Harold Johnson and Bob Baker, but lasted the distance with all and showed he could crack the upper echelon of the division. Critics pointed out that Nino was a good boxer and hard slugger but complained he lacked killer instinct.

Caron Gonzalez, a well-known Cuban trainer remarked in an interview about Valdez: "Some said he lacked heart but he had plenty of heart. His problem was that he was a very gentle guy and it wasn't his nature to put the hurt on someone who was hurting. If you traded with him he would trade with you like he did with Malibran in those two wars and if he hit you right it was like brass knuckles, but he was slow on the final blow sometimes, like he hoped the referee would stop it. People use that expression about gentle giants. That's what he was."

After the loss to Baker, Valdez turned his career around, beating Omelio Agramonte for the Cuban Heavyweight Title and scoring a huge upset over former champion Ezzard Charles.

The newspapers hyped up stories that Valdez had used a hypnotist to help him prepare for the Charles fight, convincing him that he could not be beaten. When I asked Nino about it years later, the big man smiled.

"When I fought Agramonte in Havana I stopped him in ten," he said, "and Omelio had gone ten rounds twice with Joe Louis and it gave me confidence when I stopped him. I was in very good shape for Omelio and I was not hurt when we fought. Then the offer came for a fight with Charles in Miami Beach in less than a month and I did not stop training. Hipnosis had nothing to do with that win. I was in the best shape of my life that night -sharp as a razor- and I felt so strong and so fast that I believed no one could beat me. That night I felt like fighting."

Valdez used his size and weight to neutralize Charles, mauling the former champion, scoring solid punches, winning on points. It was the greatest victory of Nino's career. He returned to Havana as a national icon.

"Charles was a very dangerous fighter," Nino reflected years later, "but I surprised him. I moved very agressively on him and used my weight and size and I broke his rhythm and confused him. He hit me a few good shots and I hit him back with a few good ones too. I beat him but Ezzard Charles was something special."

The win over Charles was followed by eight victories, five of them by the quick route. Nino scored knockouts over the excentric Tommy Jackson and Heinz Neuhaus and won on points over old foe Archie McBride.

At this time Valdez was one of the top heavyweight contenders bidding for a title shot at the crown held by the invincible Rocky Marciano, but an agreement was never reached and Nino did not receive a title shot.

Old Cuban sportswriters often proclaim -in their emotional passion- that Valdez was denied a title shot because the Marciano camp was afraid of the Cuban giant. Not so, although it is true that Valdez would have been a younger and much taller foe for Marciano than most of Rocky's opponents. It would have been an interesting match between hard punchers with Marciano having a marked edge based on his unbeaten record and crushing power.

Valdez was so popular in Cuba that he was offered endorsements as though he was a world titleholder. Nino filmed television commercials advertising Malta Hatuey, a popular soft drink. A meat company paid him for an endorsement, distributing photos of Nino polishing off huge steaks. Department stores and retail outlets paid Valdez for promotional appearances, while a topnotch tailor traded a half dozen suits for the right to use Nino's name and modeling photo in his magazine ads.

For the next six years Valdez moved in an out of the ratings as he won and lost to some top talent. He lost once more to Archie Moore, twice on points to top contender Eddie Machen and one each to Zora Folley and Bob Satterfield. He also won his share, twice on points over Mike De John, a one round knockout over Pat McMurtry and wins over Johnny Holman, Wayne Bethea and Johnny Summerlin.

Valdez harvested his best victories in Europe where Nino decimated the British Empire. Don Cockell fell in three, Dick Richarson in eight, Joe Erskine in one and Brian London in seven.

There were attempts to match Nino with Floyd Patterson but Cus D'Amato did not want his champion giving up twenty or so pounds and three inches in height to a rated contender with a solid punch. Although rated for several years, Valdez was never able to challenge for the world crown.

By 1959, after eighteen years as a pro he was defeated by Sonny Liston, who had won 24 fights and lost only once. Liston and Valdez fought on even terms for two rounds, each man landing some clean shots until a right hand in the third dropped the veteran Cuban to the canvas. His last fight was a satisfying win over Brian London on the first day of December 1959.

"Being hit by Liston," Valdez observed, "was like being kicked by a mule. By the time I fought Liston I was over the hill. I hit him a couple of solid shots and he did not buckle. Sonny was the strongest man I ever fought and he was very tough. When I fought him I still could hit very hard but my reflexes were not there anymore."

The record book states that Nino Valdez fought 69 pro fights in his carreer, compiling a 49-18-2 record with 36 KO wins and 5 KO defeats. He fought four world champions -Archie Moore, Harold Johnson, Ezzard Charles and Sonny Liston -as well as a score of top contenders

Nino returned to Cuba where he had planned to become a boxing trainer, but the country was in turmoil. Fidel Castro had seized power and the revolution had carried out over nine hundred executions by firing squads -some even televised- in its first year in power.

For a while he attempted living in Cuba, but Valdez soon returned to New York, broke and too old to fight. He earned his living as a bouncer at the 500 Club, a small bar on a side street by Times Square. I visited him there a few times, striking up conversations about his days of glory and Nino, cleanly attired in a turtleneck with a sports coat ensemble, would sit at the bar, drink some juice and talk in that slow, warm voice that was distinct from all others.

Before I moved to Miami in seventy-nine I dropped by to see Nino. A boxing magazine on the bar countertop showed a cover photo of Teofilo Stevenson.

"How would you have done against him?"

He thought about it, sipped some juice and nodded solemly.

"He is an amateur," he answered, "and I was a pro so it is not fair to compare. Even today, old and overweight, you put me in a telephone booth with Stevenson and I'll be the one walking out of that booth on my feet."

Ten bells toll for thee, Nino.


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