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November 2002
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The Life and Times of an Old Warrior
By Enrique Encinosa

The year is 1927 and the boy is not yet fifteen years of age, weighing in at a hundred and ten pounds after a solid meal.

The boy is worried, but does not show it. He is minutes away from his first fight, the virgin walk to ringside, the strange feeling that one is now the center of attention that this is no sparring session but the real thing, the first fight that one will never forget, regardless of outcome.

It has been a short ride. A few months before, wishing to learn self-defense, he signs up for boxing lessons at the gym in San Sebastian, his hometown in the Basque region of Spain, near the French border.

The gym is crowded with hungry fighters and little attention is paid to the boy, who trains himself, picking up knowledge from watching others, from imitating moves. After a few weeks of training and sparring with other green boys, a promoter offers him a fight and the boy agrees, eagerly wishing to prove himself.

The day before the bout the fourteen-year old boy learns that the match is a main event pro ten rounder against Martinez Segundo, a veteran of eighteen pro fights.

I'm being set up -the boy thinks- I'm expected to be another notch on Martinez' record, an easy knockout to pad his record. I have not even fought as an amateur and my first fight ever is going to be a ten-rounder. It's not fair, but I am not going to back down. I gave my word and I will do my best tonight.

The boy's name is Julian Echevarria, but in the Basque region they call him Fillo -which means child or boy- because of his small size in a land that is producing big men of the ring, like Paolino Uzcudun and Isidoro Gastañaga.

The arena in San Sebastian is packed with men wearing berets and smoking brown cigars. Martinez Segundo -a grown man with a five o'clock shadow and battle scars on his face- is several pounds heavier than the boy.

Martinez comes out confidently, looking to end the fight quickly with a swift blow well delivered against the chin of the inexperienced child. The first hook lands and the boy does not flinch, but counters with awkward punches thrown with wild abandon. Martinez Segundo lands a second hard shot followed by a quick combination and the scrawny kid answers with a volley of his own, rocking the experienced fighter with a roundhouse punch.

The pattern is set in the first round. Martinez is the better boxer but his power does not make a dent on the hard little boy from San Sebastian. Fillo, the raw novice, is tough, hits hard enough to hurt Martinez and is also endowed with an abundance of heart.

Martinez boxes, throws combinations and attempts to side step and confuse the boy. Echevarria attacks, misses two, three, two more, but also connects, raising angry welts on his opponent's flesh. Martinez Segundo backs up, attempts to counter punch. Fillo does not offer the pause, constantly swinging, hooking, swarming, chopping down the seasoned fighter with desperate energy.

Martinez Segundo collapses in the sixth round, the first victim of the boy's raw power and iron will. Fillo Echevarria has won the first fight of his life, becoming a prospect in Spanish boxing circles.

The knockout over Martinez Segundo impresses the Spanish fight crowd so much that flyweights and bantamweights go into hiding. Fillo only fights five more fights over the next couple of years, scoring four knockouts and losing a ten rounder to a good bantamweight prospect named Mariano Arilla.

At seventeen -with six main events and three years of gym work- he has evolved into a real pro fighter, with proper balance, a sense of timing and a style of his own. Although some sportswriters will refer to him in the future as a slugger, Echevarria is more counter puncher than brawler. He attacks in spurts, counterpunches effectively when attacked, fights well inside, punches with decent power and is blessed with a granite chin and the stamina of youth.

Enter Manolo Braña, a Cuban promoter with good contacts in Spain. The Iberian promoters book their top talent in Havana rings including Hilario Martinez -who defeated Jack Britton and Johnny Dundee- welter Ricardo Alis and heavyweight Isidoro Gastañaga, a fair fighter who traded leather with good talent.

Cuba has become a hot bed of boxing activity. Between 1925-1930, the active talent includes future world champion Kid Chocolate, flyweight contender Black Bill, middleweight Kid Charol -who fought a draw with Dave Shade- top welterweight Relampago Saguero, lightweights Cirilin Olano and Armando Santiago, as well as dozens of main event performers and good club fighters.

Braña is looking for a heavyweight but his first choice is the boy from San Sebastian. An offer is made for a trip to Cuba and the chance to fight top talent. Echeverria does not hesitate, being a hungry young fighter with a sense of adventure. How could a boy say no to an opportunity to leave his hometown of San Sebastian in the cold Iberian peninsula and cross the sea, expenses paid to a tropical land of sun baked beaches?

The promoter does not waste time. Echeverria shadowboxes and works out on the deck of the passenger ship headed for Havana. The young pro does not mind working hard. At seventeen he is disciplined, clean living and mature beyond his years.

In 1930, the Cuban economy is fairly stable in comparison to their neighbor to the north, crunched by a stock market crash and a time of soup kitchens and farm foreclosures.

Fillo falls in love with Cuba's tropical beaches, sun bleached avenues, musical tempo and loud, boisterous culture. The Island, in turn, adopts the little Basque fighter. Within months, Echevarria becomes a local hero with a cheering audience of fans that appreciate his hard counterpunching style.

Fillo beats Kid Montana as well as every Cuban flyweight or bantamweight that dares to face him. In 1932, the nineteen-year old fighter faces the biggest test of his career, a ten rounder against former flyweight champion Corporal Izzy Schwartz, a veteran with over 120 pro fights on his record.

The Corporal is ready for retirement and Fillo is the messenger. Echevarria' s persistent slugging wears down the old soldier. The fight is stopped in the fifth round. Havana fight fans mill around Fillo at ringside, shaking his bandaged hands, slapping his sweat drenched back, congratulating him on scoring a crisp win over a former world champion.

The local celebrity status does not overwhelm Fillo. He works in restaurant management, fights often, invests or saves while living an athlete's life. After the Schwartz fight he can no longer make flyweight limit, moving up to the bantamweight class, where he defeats Baby Malpica, Divino Rueda and twice beats Anthony Santana.

Santana is a tough little scrapper who won dozens of fights in various Cuban venues, New York City -where Jimmy De Forrest trained him- as well as in Panama.

Fillo and Santana fight twice. Echevarria wins one on points and scores a TKO victory in the second bout, counterpunching effectively against the Cuban prospect. Soon after the Santana victories, the maturing fighter -no longer a boy- moves up to the featherweight division, where he campaigns for the rest of his ring career.

In 1934, Fillo returns to San Sebastian to visit relatives. In the Basque country he is also a celebrity, as the local papers have been reporting his Cuban victories. He accepts an offer from a local promoter and wins a ten rounder over Spanish featherweight Segundo Barton.

At the age of twenty-two, in 1935, after fighting briefly in the United States, Fillo faces Baby Arizmendi, another former world champion -partial recognition- with a sixty fight record in his young twenty-one years.

It's a war of attrition, an honest brawl where Fillo's raw courage, good counterpunching and top condition earn him a victory in ten stanzas. It is a significant victory for the young featherweight who can boast of an impressive record with two wins over former titleholders. There is serious talk after the Arizmendi victory, of Fillo being in line for a non-title ten rounder with titleholder Freddie Miller.

Waiting for an opportunity to tangle with Miller, Echeverria stays busy winning club fights against Conrado Conde, Baby Face Matheson and other journeymen opponents.

Miller, a 24 year old from Ohio, is a slick southpaw with almost 200 fights on his ledger, including almost a decade as a contender or champion. A supreme globetrotter, he has fought in dozens of American and English fight venues as well as in France, Belgium, Spain, Canada and Mexico.

The Miller-Echeverria fight takes place in Havana in 1936. Fillo fights in top form but his best is not good enough. Miller is faster, too fast for Fillo to counterpunch effectively, too fast to chase. The champion's right jab snaps constantly at Echevarria. Miller moves out of harm's way, winning the ten rounder but Fillo remains a hometown hero in his adopted Havana.

"Miller is one of the greatest featherweights of all time," Fillo says after the match, "Fighting him is an honor. He anticipated my moves and he was hard to corner. Miller is a tricky fighter who has very good aim. He knows how to place his punches."

Less than three weeks after losing to Miller, Fillo returns to the ring, stopping journeyman George Dixon in two. Before 1936 ends he scores a significant win over Filipino fighter Paul Dano, who had beaten him in Los Angeles in 1935.

Echevarria's most important fight takes place in 1938. Kid Chocolate is at the tail end of a brilliant career, his amazing ability dulled by years of whoring, drinking and smoking reefer. Chocolate is only twenty-seven, a couple of years older than Fillo, but the Cuban Bon Bon is a fighter whose talent has eroded.

Although Chocolate is clearly past his peak, he is still a topnotch fighter who has not been defeated in his last thirty-some outings. The Kid is no longer a meteor in the fistic world but he is still a formidable foe. His lightning speed has withered down but he is still fast, fighting in quick spurts; the smooth combinations are still thrown, with less frequency but with pinpoint accuracy. In a recent bout with Young Chappie, the Cuban won with ease but looked bored and sluggish, generating speculation that the former champion was ready to hang up the gloves forever.

The Chocolate-Echevarria match is a Cuban promoter's dream, matching the top ticket sellers in the island: a fading superstar with a younger fringe contender, a master boxer against a good counter puncher, an adopted Spaniard against a homegrown legend.

"Chocolate was my hero," Fillo says years later in an interview, "when I arrived in Cuba as an unknown fighter he was already a star in New York. I admired his skills. Chocolate was a complete fighter and I was in awe of his ability.It's tough to fight your idol."

Fillo and Chocolate are friends. The San Sebastian fighter admires the chocolate man but knows the fight game and understands that pros must fight each other and idols can be dethroned.

Fillo has the confidence of a topnotch fighter. He is an experienced pro with wins over two former champions; he has never been stopped and has done his share of decking other tough guys to the canvas.

Echevarria is offered three thousand dollars to fight Chocolate. It is a large sum of money in 1938, enough to buy a modest house or pay for a year's worth of room and board. Fillo signs the contract and the fight is set.

Echeverria's fans argue that the fight will go the distance, for both men have iron chins, but Fillo's excellent conditioning will wear down the fading former champion.

Chocolate fans point out that their fighter, even at the downhill end of his amazing career, is still an excellent performer, unbeatable at times. If his skills have eroded in half, the other half is still good enough to beat most top featherweights and lightweights. Chocolate -his fans proclaim- has not lost a fight in over two years and Echevarria will not be fast enough to overtake the Kid.

Havana newspapers write reams of copy on the upcoming event, comparing styles, quoting trainers and former fighters, taking polls among fight fans.

Chocolate has never lost on Cuban soil, as an amateur or pro. The Kid realizes that Fillo -the adopted hero- will be a hard foe to beat. The Basque is a good fighter with great condition, abundant heart and a chin made to go the full distance.

Chocolate speaks confidently but is worried, for he is well aware of his vanishing reflexes. The former champion knows that Echevarria is not a journeyman content with coasting to a sparring rhythm but a very tough pro who will fight hard all ten rounds without toppling to the canvas.

The former champion, motivated by pride, decides to train hard once more, to recapture the magic one final night.

Chocolate puts the bottles of champagne aside and trains hard for weeks, sparring dozens of rounds with four different fighters, running uphill for roadwork, abstaining from the night life to try to recapture -for a few fleeting rounds- the lightning moves of his younger days when he packed Madison Square Garden to the rafters.

Fillo works hard as always, doing miles of roadwork, sparring, aiming to be at 124 for the weigh in, ready for battle. Echevarria knows the fight game, understands strategy. The Basque fighter knows he will not win against Chocolate by counterpunching, for the flashy Cuban -even past his peak- is still a fighter with good speed and the moves of a master.

No, Fillo thinks, if I try to counter he will rip me apart with combinations, set the tempo of the fight and make me eat a lot of leather. I must beat him like Battalino and Bernstein did, by attacking him.I have to wear him down with body shots, draining him of stamina, making him fade in the late rounds. I will have to set a fast pace in order to win.

Fillo is no longer the little Basque boy from San Sebastian, but a full-grown featherweight with a fighter's face, cracked nose and thin lines of scar tissue over his eyebrows. He's twenty-four and has over ten years of fighting under his belt; he has confidence in his own ability to adapt, to switch from puncher to counter puncher, to accept or inflict pain, to dig inside for more when there's nothing left to give. He knows it all and so does Chocolate and they pack the Polar Stadium in Havana on a March afternoon.

Chocolate enters the Arena Crystal ring wearing his trademark cocoa brown robe with gold letters. Echevarria and the former champion strip off their robes, each glancing towards the other's corner, inspecting the physical condition of the foe to be faced, measuring strength and power in the other man's body language.

It is four in the afternoon when the fight begins as both men move to center ring, setting the pattern of the fistic journey. Fillo moves forward, cuts the ring, attempts to corner his foe but the Cuban glides and jabs, fights in spurts, the flash combinations impressing the crowd.

Chocolate is in shape, the best he's been in at least two years. His legs are responding well and his speed is still considerable; he times his pace, saving energy for the final stretch as Echevarria chases the cocoa ghost, landing some good shots but always against a moving, slippery target.

Chocolate piles up points, wins some rounds big -with quick moves and flashy combos- and others on strategy. The Kid is a craftsman who measures distance, moves, sidesteps Fillo, jabs once, twice and opens the scar tissue over the Basque's eyebrows.

Fillo bleeds but does not complain, trying hard to slow down Chocolate. Echevarria lands a few good body shots and Chocolate gasps for air in the clinches, then moves out of range once more.

Chocolate knows how to measure distance. As he fights, his inner radar makes him aware of his body's position in relation to his foe. At times, the Kid seems to be within range of Echevarria while actually being an inch outside the danger zone; at other times Chocolate inches forward and strikes, moving towards the target with an undetected slide.

By the end of eight rounds Chocolate is assured a points victory. It is a good fight but the former champion has won most rounds, with a solid performance that flash images of his championship years. Fillo has small cuts over each eyebrow and his nose is bleeding. He knows he is behind but he is aware that Chocolate is tired.

The magnificent one is fading, Fillo thinks, I can feel him weaker in the clinches. I heard him grunt as I hit him a body shot but he has surprised me with his speed and condition. He is even faster than he looks and he knows every trick. Now I have two rounds left and if I win it will have to be by knockout.

Echevarria lands a hard shot in the ninth round, the punch landing flush on the Kid's countenance. Chocolate is hurt but he moves back out of range as Fillo unleashes a barrage of leather.

Chocolate is hit again. His eyes cloud briefly. The Kid's legs feel stiff but his body responds to reflex as he maneuvers for position and is hit once more by the tough Basque fighter. The punches have placed Chocolate in the danger zone of being separated from his senses for a ten count, but the Cuban Bon Bon jabs, clinches, jabs and slips punches and is still on his feet at the end of the round.

The final round is packed with drama. Echevarria seeks a knockout and Chocolate, inspired by the loud Havana fight crowd, decides to spend all his energy reserves on the final three minutes of the match.

The Kid lets it all go. He hits Fillo with quick combinations but the Basque responds with valor. They trade punches and both land but the Kid has the edge on the numbers. At the end the crowd gives both men a standing ovation.

Chocolate wins in what is his last great performance. Nine months later he fights again, barely obtaining a draw in an uninspired performance against Nick Jerome. It is the final curtain for Chocolate, who retires before the year ends.

For Fillo there are other fights down the road but he is also aware that retirement looms near. The wear and tear of over a hundred pro fights is taking a toll. His mind is not damaged and his speech pattern is clear but he is beginning to decline, the reflexes a little slower to respond, the timing a fraction off the usual tempo. Echevarria sees the signs and knows he can still go fifty or sixty more fights but it would be a downhill slide that his self- pride will not allow. Besides, Fillo is in love and his fiancé does not want him bruised and cut; he owns real estate and has money in the bank.

He fights for a little while. After Chocolate he faces Lou Salica, another world champion. Salica is a seasoned fighter with a light wallop who accomplishes the feat of stopping Fillo for the first -and only- time in a career that started in a San Sebastian ring and ended in a Havana fight arena.

After the loss to Salica, Fillo winds down his career, retiring after a spirited performance against Pedro Pablo Mendoza in Havana. Although his official record is incomplete, Fillo is credited, by sportswriters of the time, with an outstanding 97-12-3 record against good competition.

The story does not end yet. Married, with a daughter, Fillo works as a clerk for the Claims Court administration but boxing is in his blood so he stays in the fight game managing a boxing gym and training fighters. For over two decades he handles dozens of amateurs and pros, including world rated flyweight Hiram Bacallao. During this period Fillo also becomes a part-time sportswriter for small newspapers and trade journals.

With the triumph of the Cuban revolution in the sixties, Fillo worries for his safety and the future of his family. Castro bans pro boxing but the pugilistic ban is nothing compared to the turmoil of a country where ten thousand Cubans are executed by firing squads in the first four years of the new system.

Fillo heads for exile in Mexico with his family. He lives there for several years, writing a sports column for a Monterrey newspaper before moving once more, to Miami, where he works for the administration department of a hospital.

The little featherweight retires to enjoy his sunset years, his grandchildren and great-grandchildren. He often attends the Cuban old-timers boxing dinners where he mingles with other gray haired ring veterans who talk of the times when Fillo and Chocolate traded leather at the Polar Stadium in Havana.

Julian Echevarria dies in a Miami hospital -surrounded by his loved ones- on December 31, 1997. In Cuban Miami, where exiles revere the traditions and culture of another era, the Spanish radio stations pay homage to the little warrior who has taken the final count.

So it ends, except for the lines in record books and old clippings of another era and the memories of those who knew him and remember the little old man with a broken nose, a wide smile and a deep love for the fight game.


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