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No Rest Until Kid Gavilan Has Peace
NEW YORK, NY—Kid Gavilan, boxing royalty, is buried in a pauper’s grave. A welterweight champion of the early 1950′s, he made his way out of sugar cane fields to become perhaps Cuba’s greatest fighter. That he lies in such obscurity has moved his fellow boxers to restore a measure of respect.
Gavilan, who captured the world welterweight title in a 15-round decision over Johnny Bratton in 1951, was penniless when he was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990.
When he died of a heart attack at the age of 77 in February 2003, he was not at home or with loved ones. He was in an assisted living facility in Hialeah, Fla., where he had spent the last eight years of his life in deteriorating health. Though he had married several times and had a son and a daughter, Gavilan was estranged from his family.
“I went down there once to meet him, and it was sad, because you could see he had fallen on hard times,” the former lightweight champion Ray Mancini said. “I put some money in his pocket out of respect, gave him a hug and told him I’d stay in touch.”
Gavilan was a flashy fighter, and his bolo punch – a half-hook, half-uppercut – later became part of Sugar Ray Leonard’s repertory.
But in Miami, the American city with the biggest Cuban population, passersby step over and around his grave at Our Lady of Mercy Cemetery. The grave is marked by only a bronze plaque, 10 inches in circumference, embedded in the earth. It bears Gavilan’s real name, Gerardo Gonzalez. When the palm leaves fall and cover the plaque, what little is left to remind us of Gavilan’s legacy seems to disappear.
“No one there realizes that this was one of the greatest fighters of all time,” Mancini said. “The Kid and other fighters of his era did not make the big money, but they paved the way for guys like me to do just that.”
In a tribute, Mancini and other former boxing champions – including Mike Tyson, Roberto Duran, Leon Spinks, Buddy McGirt and Emile Griffith, as well as Muhammad Ali’s former trainer, Angelo Dundee – have paid to have Gavilan’s remains exhumed and placed in another part of the cemetery.
A memorial headstone, inscribed with a few words of appreciation for Gavilan’s contributions to the sport, will be placed there.
“He is currently in an area of the cemetery that does not allow for stone monuments, only flat, level markers,” said Hank Kaplan, a boxing historian who lives in Miami. Kaplan was one of the few friends to visit Gavilan in his last years, and he took him to boxing promotional events around the country.
“It’s a travesty that such a great champion, and a legend in the Cuban community, could be buried this way,” Kaplan said. “He deserves a better showing of his true standing in the sports world.”
On April 2, Mancini and the others – with the exception of Tyson, who is still in training – will gather at the new gravesite and take a moment to send their prayers and thank-yous to Gavilan, who helped set in motion boxing’s big paydays.
Gavilan’s title defense against Gil Turner in 1952 in Philadelphia drew a gate of $269,667, a welterweight record at the time.
The exhumation is being coordinated by the Ring 8 Veterans Association, a 50-year-old nonprofit boxing organization based in Long Island City, Queens. The group was started by Jack Dempsey and Sugar Ray Robinson to help aging fighters with financial and physical problems.
Robinson’s move to the middleweight division – his storied bouts with Jake LaMotta followed – opened the welterweight door for Gavilan. While Robinson was welterweight champion, he defeated Gavilan twice. When Gavilan defeated Bratton, he took the crown that Robinson had vacated.
Using the bolo punch, which Gavilan said he had developed through years of cutting sugar cane with a machete, the man also known as the Cuban Hawk successfully defended his title seven times. He finishing a career that began in 1943 and spanned 15 years and 143 bouts with 107 victories, 30 losses and 6 draws.
On a Philadelphia day in October 1954, Gavilan lost his welterweight crown to Johnny Saxton in a unanimous decision. The result of that fight, which 19 of the 21 reporters at ringside awarded to Gavilan, is still regarded as one of boxing’s most controversial.
Saxton is in failing health, Kaplan said, and is in an assisted living facility in Palm Beach, Fla.
“A few years ago, I brought Johnny over to see the Kid,” Kaplan said. “Before Johnny steps in the house, he asks, ‘Is Gavilan still mad at me?’ “
Ring 8 officials confirmed that the biggest contribution among the fighters supporting Gavilan was made by Tyson, who, despite declaring bankruptcy, wrote a check for $5,000 to cover the cost of the headstone. The other boxers combined to pay the $10,000 for the exhumation.
“We felt bad that someone who had done so much for his sport had been so overlooked,” Shelly Finkel, Tyson’s manager, said. “It is the least we could do.”
Tyson, Ring 8 officials said, wrote the check on one condition: When he dies, he wants the organization to remember him as well.
“It’s a wonderful gesture on Mike’s behalf,” Mancini said. “I guess what Mike is really trying to say is that in the end, all any of us want is to die a dignified death.”