It's 1938. On a remote sugar cane plantation in Cuba, a scraggly twelve-year-old named Gerardo Gonzalez chops down sugar cane under the unforgiving Caribbean sun.
Gonzalez recently dropped out of school and picked up a job on a sugarcane plantation so he could help feed his family.
The young Cuban takes a break from the chopping and sips water from his canteen.
The water has been baking in the hot Cuban sun and does nothing to quench his thirst. After a few sips of water, Gerado puts the cap on his canteen, wipes the sweat off his brow, and thinks, “there has got to be more to life than this.”
Shaking off the moment of self-pity, the boy picks up his bolo knife and resumes the mindless incessant chopping of sugarcanes. Little did Gonzalez know that the brain-numbing chopping motion would transcend far from that sugarcane field into a boxing ring.
In the years to follow, Gerardo Gonzalez would take on the name “Kid Gavilan.”
With his signature “bolo punch,” he would chop down opponents en route to becoming one of the greatest welterweight champions ever.
The Beginning For Kid Gavilan
Kid Gavilan was born Gerardo Maras on January 6th, 1926, on a small sugar plantation in the Cuban province of Camaguey.
Gerardo will later take on the surname Gonzalez after his stepfather.
The Gonzalez family was impoverished and parents struggled to put food on the table.
When he was 12, Gerardo felt obligated to drop out of school and work at the sugarcane plantation. He would work on this plantation for three years, wielding a seven-pound bolo knife to cut through the thick sugarcane.
Gerardo joined a local boxing gym in his mid-teens and started training as a boxer. To the Cuban teen, training as a boxer seemed effortless compared to the harsh conditions of the sugarcane fields, and he excelled immediately.
As a young boxer, he was quick, smooth, and ferocious. Gerardo developed a flashy style of boxing and entertained fans with an awkward punch that was a mixture of an uppercut and a hook.
This punch would be known the world over as the “bolo punch,” a homage of sorts to the machete he wielded and the chopping motion he used while working at the sugarcane plantation.
As an amateur, Gonzalez fought sixty times and won numerous Cuban national tournaments.
Professional Career of Kid Gavilan
In 1943, Gonzalez, now 17 years old, made his professional debut in Havana, Cuba, where he defeated Antonio Diaz in four rounds.
Growing in popularity, Gonzalez caught the eye of a local café owner named Defrancisco Bolito. Bolito became Gonzalez's manager and renamed the flashy pugilist “Kid Gavilan” to promote his cafe, “El Gavilan,” which meant the hawk in Spanish.
Now known as Kid Gavilan, the Cuban would win 23 of his next 25 bouts in Cuba before moving to the United States in 1946.
Situated in New York, Gavilan’s flashy and menacing style of boxing emulated the glitz and grime of the famed city, making him a favorite with the local boxing fans.
During this time, he split his fights between New York and Cuba.
On U.S. soil, Kid Gavilan would compile an impressive record of 15 wins, 3 losses, and 2 draws against opponents with a combined record of 792 wins, including a loss in a non-title match to the great Sugar Ray Robinson.
After the loss to Robinson, Gavilan went on a seven-fight win streak earning a second fight with Sugar Ray Robinson —this time for a shot at Robinson's welterweight title.
The fight occurred at the Municipal Stadium of Philadelphia with an attendance of 27,805 fans and a gate that exceeded $175,754, the equivalent of $2,267,270.91 today.
According to reporters, Kid Gavilan gave a better showing of himself in this fight as opposed to his first outing against Robinson. However, it wasn't enough, and he lost his first title shot by unanimous decision.
Here are some excerpts from the fight report in the September 1949 issue of The Ring magazine describing Gavilan’s performance.
“Kid Gavilan proved himself a fearless, two-fisted, determined battler, who, regardless of the blows landed on him, kept coming in at all times, ready to mix it when the opportunity presented itself.”
“Despite the one-sided scoring of the officials and many of the scribes, the contest was a most interesting and satisfying one. Gavilan’s performance was such as to make Ray admit that he feared to take chances.”
First Title Win For The Kid
After the loss to Robinson, Kid Gavilan fought twenty-five times, suffering eight losses and two draws. Boxing pundits often criticized Gavilan for his lackluster performances.
According to boxing writers, Gavilan would coast in the early minutes of his bouts and then unleash a barrage of punches in the closing minute, hoping to steal the round.
It was a technique that the judges didn't always appreciate, they often caught Gavilan looking up at the official fight clock to see how much time remained in the round.
Gavilan's style was perceived to be inconsistent and somewhat lazy.
Others believed the city's thriving club scene enamored Gavilan and his love for the nightlife drained the Cuban's gas tank before matches. However, one must recognize that the welterweight division housed talented and tough fighters during this era.
During these twenty-five fights, Kid Gavilan fought some of the division’s most formidable fighters, which included losses to Robert Villemain, George Costner, and Gene Harriston, with wins over Beau Jack, Joe Miceli, and splitting matches with Billy Graham.
Despite his underwhelming performance, Gavilan would challenge for the vacant world welterweight title against Johnny Bratton. Kid Gavilan broke Bratton’s jaw within the first five rounds and battered Bratton for the remainder of the fight to win a unanimous decision and his first world title.
Three months later, Gavilan defended his title for the first time in a rubber match against Billy Graham. Gavilan won a split decision in another humdrum performance and retained his title.
Over the next two years, The “Cuban Hawk” fought twenty-five times and defended his title successfully against Bobby Dykes, Gil Turner, Billy Graham, Chuck Davey, Carmen Basilio, and Johnny Bratton.
Having cleaned out the welterweight division, Gavilan moved up in weight and fought two fights before challenging Carl “Bobo” Olson for the world middleweight title in 1954. The fight was close, but Olson was too strong at middleweight for the smaller Gavilan. Olson won a majority decision and retained his title.
Seven months later, “The Kid” defended his welterweight title against Johnny Saxton. In a controversial decision, Gavilan lost his welterweight title to Saxton.
The decision was shrouded with controversy. Mobster Frank “Blinky” Palermo controlled Saxton, fueling speculations that the fight was fixed in Saxton's favor.
After the devastating loss to Saxton, Gavilan fought for four more years. With his best years behind him, the “Cuban Hawk’s” career wouldn't soar to what it once was. Gavilan's flashy fighting style dimmed, and his signature “bolo punch” went dull.
In his last twenty-six fights, Gavilan’s record was 10 wins, 15 losses, and 1 draw, and he never fought for a world title again.
Life After Boxing:
After boxing, Kid Gavilan returned to Cuba and began his new life as a Jehovah's Witness preacher. The Cuba he left in 1943 wasn't the same Cuba he returned to. Fidel Castro was in power, and the former champion was arrested numerous times for preaching in the streets.
The Cuban government confiscated Gavilan's ranch, cars, and most of the money he earned as a boxer. Penniless, the former champion returned to the United States, working low-paying jobs cleaning public parks, working security, and making sausage to make ends meet.
Soon, Gavilan's health would diminish, and the former champion suffered from memory loss, disorientation, and lost his eyesight.
Gerardo “Kid Gavilan” Gonzalez died of a heart attack on February 13th, 2003, in Hialeah, Florida, at 77 years old.
The former champion who dazzled boxing fans with his swift feet, quick counterpunching, and infamous ” bolo-punch” died penniless and alone. A meager ten-inch plaque marked his gravesite.
Career Stats For Kid Gavilan:
Kid Gavilan finished his boxing career with 108 wins, 30 losses, and 5 draws. Gavilan was never knocked out and held the welterweight title for three years while making seven successful defenses.
He fought numerous champions, including Hall of Famers Sugar Ray Robinson, Beau Jack, Carmen Basilio, Billy Graham, Carl “Bobo” Olson, and Ike Williams. Kid Gavilan was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990.
In 2005, former boxing champions including Mike Tyson, Roberto Duran, Leon Spinks, Buddy McGirt, Emile Griffith, and legendary trainer Angelo Dundee contributed money to have Gavilan's remains exhumed and placed in another part of the cemetery with a headstone that reads “Kid Gavilan welterweight champion.”
Kid Gavilan’s life embodied the quintessential boxing story that has been told repeatedly in books and movies.
From a poor sugarcane worker to one of boxing's greatest champions, Gavilan’s story is about experiencing life's exhilarating highs and grim lows.
Kid Gavilan soared as the Cuban Hawk only to have his wings clipped by the Cuban government.
However, through it all, Gerado “Kid Gavilan” Gonzalez never wavered and lived his life the same way he had since he was twelve years old at the sugarcane plantation, with one swift swing at a time.