Boxing was always a very popular sport in Cuba and the country has produced many quality boxers over the years. In the 1920s and 30s, Cuban boxer Eligio Sardiñas Montalvo, better known as Kid Chocolate, became the nation’s first professional World Champion in the lightweight division. But it was in the period from the late 1940s through the fifties when a group of Cuban boxers exploded into the pro-boxing world and made their mark into the next decade. The first of this group of boxers was Gerardo González, better known as Kid Gavilan, who reigned in the welterweight division from 1951 to 1954. He fought against a number of the finest boxers of the era, including Sugar Ray Robinson, Billy Graham, Carmen Basilio, Bobo Olson and Gaspar Ortega. Gavilán (Spanish for hawk) was never knocked out in his career, and popularized his trademark “bolo punch,” a swirling blow that arches up in windmill fashion at the intended recipient’s chin; a sort of roundhouse uppercut. Because of its flamboyant quality, it was later also used by Muhammad Ali and “Sugar” Ray Leonard, both consummate showmen in the ring, as well as great champions.
After Kid Gavilán, came a succession of fighters who also became world champions. Developed in the 1950s, they relocated to the United States, Mexico and Spain after the government that took over the country in 1959 prohibited professional sports, including boxing. One U.S. figure who was instrumental in working with the Cuban expatriate boxers was legendary trainer Angelo Dundee. He had been a regular fixture in Cuban boxing circles and booked a number of U.S. fighters he trained at his Fifth Street Gym in Miami Beach for boxing matches in Havana.
The first of the post-1959 wave of fighters to win a world title was Bernardo “Benny Kid” Paret. Benny Paret won the welterweight title in 1962 and had three epic fights with boxing great Emile Griffith, to whom he lost his title, then regained it in a rematch, and finally lost it again in 1962 in a fight that cost him his life. Paret was knocked out by Griffith on March 29, 1962 and died 10 days later from the blows.
Then came March 21, 1963. The place was Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, California. On that day, two Cuban fighters, both trained by Angelo Dundee, fought for world titles in the same card. First was Ultiminio “Sugar” Ramos, who had relocated to Mexico. He was fighting Davey Moore for the featherweight title. Ramos defeated Moore in another tragic bout, which resulted in a knockout and Moore’s death. Ramos held the crown until 1965. Then followed the welterweight match between champion Emile Griffith, who had taken the crown from Paret in that fatal fight a year earlier, and Luis Manuel Rodríguez, perhaps the best of the Cuban fighters of that era. Rodríguez decisioned Griffith and took back the crown that had been held by his dead compatriot. With the victories by Ramos and Rodríguez, Cuba gained two world boxing champions in one night. Rodriguéz’ reign would be short-lived, as he lost the title to Griffith in a split decision three months later. He never had another shot at the welterweight title, although he fought Italian Nino Benvenuti for the world middleweight championship in 1969, a bout that Rodríguez lost in an 11th round knockout.
The next Cuban fighter to win a world title was José “Mantequilla” Nápoles, relocated to Mexico and trained under Dundee. He won the welterweight title in 1969 and held it for most of the next 7 years, from April of that year to December of 1975. Among the fighters he defeated during his reign was Emile Griffith. The end of the Nápoles era marked the beginning of the “Sugar” Ray Leonard/Tommy Hearns period in the welterweight division.
The final world champion to begin his boxing career during the 1949-59 decade was José Legrá, who relocated to Spain in 1963 and ruled the featherweight division for brief periods between 1968 and 1973.
Aside from those six champions, there were a good number of other fighters of the era who, although they never won a title, were contenders and a testimony to the high quality of the sport in Cuba. Among them were Gerardo “Niño” Valdés, Puppy García, Ciro Moracén, Douglas Vaillant, Isaac Logart and Florentino Fernández.