By the late 1940s and early 50s, Cuba’s first world champion, Kid Chocolate, was long gone from boxing. So was Kid Charol, who Chocolate revered even while rotting away in a dilapidated house in Havana. Their memories lived on, but their was a new “keed” in town named Gerardo Gonzalez who went by the fighting name Kid Gavilan.
It didn’t take long for boxing to establish roots in Cuba. After the sport was brought to the island by American servicemen in the late 1800s, it was quickly embraced. Charol and Chocolate were hailed as heroes when they managed to have success in professional boxing, and Gavilan would have no choice but to endure comparisons for years.
As many East Coast fighters hoping to make a name for themselves did, Gavilan headed for New York City while still green. He fought at Madison Square Garden and St. Nicholas Arena, the latter of which often featured up-and-comers. 1949 was his breakout year, as wins over lightweight greats Ike Williams and Beau Jack boosted his credibility in short order, while a second loss to “Sugar” Ray Robinson was nothing to be ashamed of.
But Gavilan could be sucked into a fight rather easily, and when he traded with opponents his technique suffered. The wily technician became a sloppy, entertaining brawler that could be out-worked or out-maneuvered. When he got his second crack at the welterweight title in 1951, he carried 12 defeats into the ring with him, and about half of them were either disputed or preventable. Years into his career an Associated Press reporter would call him, “a specialist in split-decision rhubarbs.”
After defeating Gavilan for a second time, Robinson would make only one more defense of the welterweight title, against Charley Fusari, before moving up to become a legendary middleweight champion. The vacant title Robinson left behind was put up for grabs in a clash between Fusari and a flashy, brash young fighter based out of Chicago named Johnny Bratton.
Fusari hit the deck early in the fight and Bratton, described by a Chicago sportswriter as “a showboat resented by fans,” inherited the welterweight title. Finally Bratton had a title — the substance to match his style. Now he had a chauffeur for his black Cadillac and a full-fledged championship posse for his white one. But Kid Gavilan, “The Cuban Hawk,” swooped in and snatched the rug out from under Bratton in his first defense.
Gavilan busted Bratton’s jaw sometime in the first handful of rounds and “Honey Boy” never fully got back into the fight. Exactly 20 years after Kid Chocolate became Cuba’s first champion, a unanimous decision over Bratton made Gavilan its second.
In the nine months that followed, Gavilan fought six times, including a return bout with Bratton that ended in a draw. But the only fight he bothered to make weight for to defend the title was against old nemesis Billy Graham, and the fight ended so controversially in favor of Gavilan that referee Mark Conn had to be escorted from Madison Square Garden by police.
The public wasn’t fascinated by Gavilan the way they were by Kid Chocolate. Perhaps the cruel novelty had worn off, but Gavilan wasn’t expected by American fans to have a firm hold on the crown. He was willing to fight anyone who stepped in front of him, though, and that couldn’t be argued.
A lanky welterweight with a stiff punch named Bobby Dykes had been making noise around Miami for a few years, but especially since Gavilan became champion. Dykes was a transplant from San Antonio with wins over Chuck Taylor and Frankie Abrams, and in late 1951 a win over future middleweight champion Joey Giardello got some notice. But at the time Dykes was likely best known for giving a good account of himself in losing to Ray Robinson in the latter’s national television debut.
Most concerning was the fact that Dykes was overwhelmed and halted in less than a round by Bratton in early 1951. Nevertheless Dykes strung together 15 wins following the disastrous loss to Bratton and his connection to the Miami boxing scene made him a natural opponent for Gavilan. It would also be the first ever mixed-race championship bout held in Florida.
Gavilan arrived in Miami in January, a few weeks before the fight. While training at the then-new 5th St. Gym in Miami, Gavilan told a reporter, “Ray [Robinson], he looked plenty worried sometimes [against Dykes]. When Robinson looks worried the other guy’s got to be good.”
Meanwhile Dykes — an underdog to the tune of 4-to-1, according to some betting lines — apparently still had the loss to Bratton on his mind. He told AP reporters, “I don’t think Gavilan can knock me out, but that’s what I thought about Johnny Bratton. Gavilan may get to me or I may get to him.”
Dykes was correct to fret, however, as rumors swirled that the Ku Klux Klan would be sending representatives to hide out among the nearly 12,000 spectators who showed up. “I got a few death threats,” Dykes said years later. “They told me, ‘Bobby, you’re giving up your heritage fighting a black.'”
Luckily there were no incidents and the two men were allowed to settle up between the ropes.
As he often did, Gavilan charged at his opponent early on and made a fight out of it. Dykes’ right eye began to redden and swell in the early rounds as Gavilan used his left hand to steady his attack. Perhaps feeling pressure to get something done, Dykes reached with his right hand and was caught with a combination punctuated by a right hand that sent him floundering to the canvas. The young Texan rose and survived, but just barely.
It appeared that Gavilan was pulling away with the fight as rounds ticked by. Dykes just couldn’t get a handle on the Keed’s frenetic movement and unorthodox punches, and he fell well behind.
In round 5 Dykes’ jab worked well for him, but even so Gavilan returned fire anytime he was hit. It wasn’t until round 7 that a right hand broke through for Dykes at long last, forcing Gavilan to flash an awkward smile that advertised his peril. Suddenly Gavilan went into a low crouch to avoid Dykes’ whipping hooks and wound up moving directly into them, allowing the Texan to even the fight out a bit.
After the 12th round Dykes’ corner started telling their charge that he had the fight in the bag, but Dykes still rallied in the 13th and 14th. In the final round, however, Gavilan made a desperate attempt to hang on to his title.
“Gavilan… stormed out against the slender and composed Texan in the final round,” wrote United Press reporter Oscar Fraley. The action had the segregated audience — which included about 5,000 Cubans there to support Gavilan — cheering wildly, but in the end Gavilan’s effort convinced two of three judges to have him retain the title.
The policemen stationed at each corner of the ring watched as Gavilan thanked the Miami audience and called them “kind and gentlemanly.”
For his part, Dykes sounded disappointed in his corner. “Gee, I wish I could have won,” said Dykes afterward. “They were telling me in the corner I was ahead from the 12th on.” A one-point card had swung the fight Gavilan’s way. Had Dykes been able to find more success in the final round, he may have been the welterweight champion.
Boxing is ever-consuming. For one fighter’s legend to grow, another fighter’s must be snuffed out. Gavilan’s legend still had wiggle room to develop, and it did, but he had to get through Dykes. And in doing so, he helped break down a color barrier that still clouded the boxing scene.