KID GAVILAN was the darling of the early days of televised boxing and it is no wonder with his flamboyant style, dancing feet, flashing white boots and extravagant “bolo” punch. He made an astonishing 34 television appearances in a golden era when anything up to four boxing shows a week were being shown live on coast-to-coast television. Gavilan made 22 appearances at Madison Square Garden, then the centre of the boxing universe. The colourful “Keed” could also fight a bit and his exotic lifestyle and cheerful happy-go-lucky personality cemented his popularity.
Born Gerardo Gonzalez on January 6 1926 in impoverished Camaguey, Cuba, he was soon being employed in the harsh sugar plantations where, he always insisted, he developed his famous “bolo” punch by swinging the heavy seven pound bolo knife to cut the cane. The punch, a long looping uppercut did little damage but was spectacular and the crowd roared when Gavilan employed it during a fight. At 12 years old he joined the local amateur boxing club. By 1943 he was the veteran of around 60 amateur fights and ready to punch for pay. That meant moving to Havana and acquiring a manager, Fernando Balido. Balido is credited with giving the youngster his ring name. He ran a bar called El Gavilan, which meant “The Hawk.” Gavilan had his first professional fight in 1943 at the age of 16. After fighting for three years in Cuba, Mexico and Puerto Rico he launched his career in America and soon became a top contender for the welterweight title. He lost two decisions to boxing greats Ike Williams and Sugar Ray Robinson but two revenge wins over Williams got him a title chance against the imperious Robinson in Philadelphia. The attendance of 35,000 saw Robinson win comfortably on points, but he was impressed enough with the Cuban to once declare: “Nobody took a punch on the chin like Gavilan.”
Gavilan kept campaigning at the highest level, beating good men like Rocky Castellani, Beau Jack and Laurent Dauthuille but also losing a few to Billy Graham, Robert Villemain and deaf mute Gene Hairston. But a winning sequence of eight got him another title shot in 1951. By this time Robinson had moved up to middleweight leaving the welterweight crown vacant. The sharp shooting Chicago welterweight “Honey Boy” Johnny Bratton held the NBA version of the title and Gavilan challenged him for it in May 1951 in Madison Square Garden. Bratton, a clever, fast moving boxer, had his jaw broken in the early rounds and took a bad beating. Gavilan won a wide unanimous points decision. Unlike modern fighters Gavilan was prepared to step into the ring with anyone and in his first defence he took on his most dangerous rival. He had already split two decisions with New York favourite Billy Graham and this proved to be their most controversial contest. It took place on 29th August 1951 and Gavilan took a razor thin split decision. The Garden was packed with Graham supporters who were not happy with the verdict. Referee Mark Conn was assaulted as he got out of the ring and there was fighting among the fans. At this time many boxing verdicts were influenced by the underworld. It is said that Graham refused to co-operate with the mobsters. They controlled the judges and consequently controlled Graham’s fate. A year later Gavilan atoned for this situation by trouncing Graham in a title defence in his native Cuba. Gavilan himself was the beneficiary of some dubious decisions when defending his title against men like Carmen Basilio and Bobby Dykes but it was a lousy verdict which eventually cost him his title. Fighting the mob-controlled Johnny Saxton in Philadelphia the Cuban boxed with such lethargy that it almost suggested he knew he was going to lose. The fight was dull and uneventful and Saxton duly took the decision although even then he hardly deserved it. After that loss Gavilan’s star faded and he became a trial horse for young, ambitious fighters. He never challenged again for the title and lost 15 of his remaining 26 fights before retiring in 1958. His amazing career had lasted 15 years during which he was never stopped or knocked out and only ever suffered three knockdowns against the cream of the fighters of that golden era.