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Gavilan, Kid

Gavilan, Kid

(b. 6 January 1926 in Palo Seco, Cuba; d. 13 February 2003 in Miami, Florida), welterweight boxing champion from 1951 to 1954, Cuban world champion, and a member of the Boxing Hall of Fame.

Born Gerardo Mavras, Gavilan was the second of three children of Candido Mavras, a Cuban plantation worker, and his wife Marianna (Hernandez) Gavilan, a cook. Gavilan’s father abandoned the family after an incident in which he was responsible for an accidental fire that destroyed much of his employer’s plantation. Gavilan’s mother then married a railroad section gang worker named Gonzalez Gavilan, and Gavilan adopted his stepfather’s surname.

As a youth Gavilan worked in sugarcane fields and then as a janitor and gardener in the home of a wealthy family. He became obsessed with boxing at an early age, earning small sums of money in street fights against other boys. In 1936 Gavilan’s family moved to the city of Camaguey, Cuba, where Gavilan often skipped his chores and schoolwork to sneak into a local boxing gym. At the age of twelve Gavilan dropped out of school and began his amateur boxing career. For several years he traveled throughout Cuba with carnival attractions, fighting and receiving a few dollars per bout. Gavilan turned professional in 1943 at the age of seventeen. His first manager, Fernando Balido, owned a cafe known as El Gavilan, or “the hawk.” A patron gave Gavilan the nickname Kid Gavilan, by which he would be known throughout his career.

By November 1946 Gavilan had won twenty-five of his first twenty-eight professional bouts when he first fought in the United States, in New York City. At five feet, ten inches tall and weighing 135 to 147 pounds, Gavilan was a flashy, crafty, crowd-pleasing fighter. He was a skillful counter-puncher and was able to take a punch. Gavilan often fought in spurts, lying in wait then swarming his opponent with a flurry of punches in the final minute of each round to impress the judges and referee. Gavilan’s signature boxing move was the bolo punch, a looping, sweeping uppercut he claimed he developed from the motion used to cut sugarcane with a machete. Through the efforts of several well-connected New York fight figures, including his coman-ager, the night club owner Angel Lopez (reputedly linked to the mobster Paul John (“Frankie”) Carbo, who controlled much of boxing in the late 1940s and 1950s), Gavilan quickly obtained lucrative bouts. He ascended the ranks of the welterweight division before losing decisions to the welterweight champion Sugar Ray Robinson in 1948 and 1949, the latter for the championship. After Robinson relinquished the title to defeat middleweight champion Jake LaMotta for the championship in February 1951, Gavilan won the vacant welterweight title by defeating Johnny Bratton in a fifteen-round decision on 18 May 1951.

Gavilan defended his title seven times between 1951 and 1954 before losing the crown to Johnny Saxton in a controversial and unpopular decision on 20 October 1954. Gavilan fought twenty-eight bouts without a loss from 17 November 1950 to 2 May 1953. On 11 February 1953 Gavilan stopped challenger Chuck Davey in ten rounds. The bout was viewed by more than 65 percent of the television audience at a time when, through the existence of this relatively new medium, boxing was at the height of its popularity in the United States. In 1954 Gavilan unsuccessfully challenged middleweight champion Bobo Olson. After losing the title to Saxton, Gavilan never had the chance to recover it. He retired in September 1958 with a record of 107 wins, thirty losses, and six draws, having never been knocked out.

Gavilan’s ring triumphs made him a wealthy man and the pride of his Cuban countrymen, but he squandered his wealth with free spending, shattered his marriage with womanizing, alienated his family, and ran afoul of Fidel Castro’s regime in Cuba after Castro came to power on 1 January 1959. Gavilan married Leonore Fajardo on 26 December 1950, and the couple had three children. They separated in 1955 and later divorced. After a second marriage and divorce, Gavilan married Olga Martinez in the 1960s. After living apart for many years, the couple divorced in the 1980s.

During his boxing career Gavilan acquired several Cuban properties, including houses, apartments, and a thirty-six-acre fruit farm outside Havana. A talented dancer and amateur musician, he entertained on The Ed Sullivan Show (1948–1971, known as Toast of the Town until 1955) in the 1950s and envisioned a show business career that failed to materialize. Gavilan returned to Cuba after retiring from boxing but grew disenchanted with Castro. After much effort Gavilan was permitted to depart Cuba for Florida on 16 September 1968, handing over his Cuban properties and leaving his wife behind. Nearly penniless when he arrived in the United States, Gavilan lived for a time in Tampa, Florida, before moving to Miami. He worked as a youth club boxing instructor, trained amateur fighters, and was a street vendor. Gavilan was employed for a time as a trainer by the heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali and later by Trevor Berbick, another heavyweight champion. In 1990 Gavilan was elected to the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

Because of his many health problems, Gavilan received financial and employment assistance from members of South Florida’s Cuban-American community. By the early 1990s, however, he was living with a daughter in dire circumstances in a public housing project in northwest Miami. In 1991 a Miami physician found that Gavilan had symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. In his final years Gavilan lived in an assisted living facility in Hialeah, Florida. After years of failing health Gavilan died of a heart attack on 13 February 2003 in Miami. He is buried in Our Lady of Mercy Cemetery, Miami. In April 2005 members of the Ring 8 Veterans Association paid $10,000 to have Gavilan’s remains moved from a section of the cemetery that allows only flat, simple plaques to one with a headstone inscribed in remembrance of Gavilan’s contributions to boxing.

Kid Gavilan was one of the finest boxers of his time and ranks among the greatest in his weight classification. A multifaceted ring craftsman, Gavilan dominated the welterweight division during the early 1950s, fought every leading contender, and was a fan favorite, appearing in thirty-four televised bouts. A colorful, fun-loving man, Gavilan enjoyed his celebrity status, spending freely, lavishing gifts and attention on friends and admirers, singing, dancing, and playing the conga drums while relishing the nightlife. Although he sometimes gave mediocre performances against second-rate foes, Gavilan was always at his best against topflight opponents. Gavilan’s life after boxing was a struggle that included poverty, ill health, and emotional instability and in which Gavilan was his own worst enemy.

Basic biographical information and career details on Gavilan are in James R. Roberts and Alexander G. Skutt, The Boxing Register: International Boxing Hall of Fame Official Record Book (2002). Books on the history of Cuban boxing that devote passages to Gavilan are Jorge Alfonso, Punos Dorados (1988); John Duncan, In the Red Corner: A Journey into Cuban Boxing (2001); and Enrique Encinosa, Azucar y Chocolate: Historia del Boxeo Cubano (2003). Three of the most informative articles written about Gavilan during his career are Lester Bromberg, “Kid Gavilan the Cuban Hawk,” Sport (Aug. 1951); Barney Nagler, “The Kid from Camaguey,” Sport (Sept. 1953); and John Lardner, “The Champ They Love to Hate,” Saturday Evening Post (20 Mar. 1954). Two articles with different perspectives on Gavilan’s years after boxing are Jack Welsh, “Kid Gavilan: Cuban Hawk Still Flying High,” Ring (June 1986); and S. L. Price, “Struggles Nearly KO Boxing Hero,” Chicago Tribune (11 Feb. 1993). Obituaries are in the Miami Herald (14 Feb. 2003) and New York Times (15 Feb. 2003).

Edward J. Tassinari

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