- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 20, 2003

The death last week of former welterweight champion Kid Gavilan must have brought a stream of memories for folks old enough to remember Gerardo Gonzalez that was the Kid's square moniker in the ring. I can see him now, dancing his little shuffle in a touch of showmanship that perhaps inspired Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard and a lot of lesser boxers.

Pomaded hair plastered in place, Gavilan would keep hapless opponents off balance with a relentless jab, jab, jab. Then, suddenly, would come his trademark bolo punch, half hook and half uppercut, that seemed to start from nowhere and like to knock somebody's head clean off.

Gavilan always swore he learned the bolo while cutting sugar cane with a machete in his native Cuba, but you were advised not to take everything he said as gospel truth. Like most people in boxing, he didn't mind improvising and embellishing once in a while. Unlike the sport's shadier element, though, he told his little fibs with a smile on his face and in his heart. Heck, nobody made you believe 'em.

The Kid's death at 77 recalled an era when boxing was a real sport. In the '40s and '50s, you had plenty of good fighters who sometimes earned shots at great champions, provided your people knew the right palms to grease.

There was only one champion in each division then none of this alphabet soup stuff and Gavilan was a great one. Though he held the title in the tough welterweight division from only 1951 to 1954, his record of 107-30-6 (with one no-contest) ranks him with the likes of Sugar Ray Robinson, Archie Moore, Rocky Marciano, Gene Fullmer and Carmen Basilio as gate attractions and familiar faces. He averaged nine bouts a year from 1943 to 1958 in an era when even champions had to fight frequently to make any money.

How familiar were these names and faces? If you had a TV set, and nearly everybody did by the mid-'50s, some boxers often seemed like family members. A pretty good pug named Billy Graham was on the tube almost as much as his preaching namesake, except this Graham's God-given mission was to convert opponents to a state of unconsciousness.

In those days, boxing was a network staple, and I don't mean HBO or Showtime. On Monday night, you got the fights from St. Nicholas Arena in Brooklyn on DuMont. Wednesdays brought bouts on CBS with Russ Hodges doing the blow-by-blow and Bill Nimmo handling live commercials for Pabst Blue Ribbon. And on Fridays, fans were treated to the nasal tones of Jimmy Powers, a New York Daily News sports columnist who became much better known because of his TV gig for Gillette's Cavalcade of Sports on NBC.

(Personal note: I always rooted for a quick knockout on Friday nights so NBC would have to fill time with "Greatest Fights of the Century." During the opening credits, Joe Louis would be beating the sauerkraut out of Max Schmeling during Joe's one-round KO of the German in 1938. "Greatest Fights" was a marvelous show featuring marvelous fights going as far back as Jack Johnson's 12th-round KO of Stanley Ketchel in 1909.)

Oh, there were a lot of rotten bouts and rotten fighters then, too a mediocre middleweight from Michigan State named Chuck Davey seemed to be on TV every other week but the point is that boxing was a major sport all the time rather than two or three times a year.

Nowadays, I don't take any of it seriously. How can you when a character like Mike Tyson is getting millions while biting people's ears, assaulting motorists and ducking in and out of scheduled fights? Not that all or even most boxers were necessarily good guys in the old days, but they had to stay out of trouble long enough to fight. After all, that's how they put food on the table if the managers and promoters didn't steal it first.

When Kid Gavilan and others of his era were in their prime, championship fights appeared on home TV. Then somebody got the bright idea of televising them in theaters, By the mid-'60s, just about the only freebies came on ABC's "Wide World of Sports" and you had to put up with Howard Cosell.

When I covered boxing for a Washington newspaper many moons ago, I enjoyed talking with fighters, most of whom were decent sorts who risked scrambled brains and cauliflower ears because they had no economically comparable way to earn a living. I wish I had a sawbuck for every pug who told me, "I don't really like to fight, but …"

The bums around them were something else. Washington's Bobby Foster, who later became light-heavyweight champ, went nowhere in the mid-'60s when he was managed by a hack named Sam "the Mumbler" Sobel. Sam was a character straight out of a Damon Runyon story. He used to call me several times a week and say, "Hellah, I gotta big story, but I can't talk about it."

At least that's what I think he said, because the aptly nicknamed Sam spoke out of the side of his mouth like a guy trying to sell dirty pictures in front of a church. When I began understanding him, I knew I had been writing boxing too long.


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