Kid Chocolate Went The Distance
I was alerted to the possibility that Kid Chocolate might still be alive by Nigel Collins, then editor of The Ring magazine. I was trying to hustle him stories at the time. I was 23. This would probably have been the early part of 1988. I had heard about the Kid Chocolate legend through the Jackie ‘Kid’ Berg story. Berg, a Londoner, had been the first to beat him, in 1930. Previously the dashing Chocolate, whose real name was Eligio Sardinias-Montalbo, had been thought unbeatable. He was also known by American sportswriters as the “Cuban Bon Bon” and the “Kandy Kid.”
Here is a flavour of that time, not admirable, though to be understood in the context of pervading prejudice. It does show, however, the impact that the long-forgotten Chocolate, born in a Havana slum in January 1910, had on American fight circles. It comes from the New York Journal in summer 1930, in the run-up to the Berg fight:
‘There’ll be a hot Chocolate around the old Berg tonight, my lady. I mean the Keed hisself. The sliver of ebony with the ivory smile known in the trade as Kid Chocolate came down from Orangeburg yesterday grinning and chattering away in his hybrid Spanish and ready to fight Jack Berg for who dropped the watermelon. The Keed also has between 100-150 suits depending on the state of his wardrobe at the time of the count; a brown-skinned sweetheart waiting for him beneath the sweltering palms, money in the bank and a good left hand. Practically the world in a paper sack, you might say.”
Ludicrous and hackneyed, maybe, but others in America took more constructive attention. Among them was the adolescent Sugar Ray Robinson, who went on record later as saying that he had never seen anyone box like Kid Chocolate before. It was a slick, moving style backed up by a big right hand and deterrent left hooks when necessary. Not jab-and-move, exactly, but something different. Perhaps like the advent of jazz. Workaday now, but revolutionary then. Robinson began studying the Chocolate style immediately and the two later became firm friends until Fidel Castro’s revolution of 1959, which replaced the despised Battista regime and was soon to leave Cuba cut adrift from professional boxing and boxers – if not, of course, amateur ones – not to mention many other things to this day.
Though Chocolate had a reputation as a dandy womaniser – who was also fond of rum and cigarettes – by all accounts he had a self-deprecating charm and stated that the real pioneer of his style of boxing was his older stablemate, Black Bill (real name Eladio Valdes), a top-notch flyweight who fought and normally beat the best flyweights America had to offer, in perhaps the golden age of that division. Black Bill is said to have been among the first inventors of the art of fighting off the ropes, earning him the sobriquet of “The Man Of Rubber”.
Black Bill was born in 1905, five years before Chocolate. Both were managed by Luis “Pincho” Guttierez and trained by Moe Fleischer for most of their careers. In turn both Black Bill and Chocolate would have been inspired by Kid Charol, a middleweight from Sagna La Grande born in 1901 who fought from 1922-29. The Cuban public had been mesmerized by the spectacle of the Jack Johnson-Jess Willard fight, and in Charol they had their first home-grown hero. His fights were followed feverishly in Cuba, even though Charol based himself mainly in Argentina and would become known as “el gran rey sin corona” – the great king without a crown.
Chocolate turned pro at the tail end of Charol’s career, in December 1927, decisioning the previously unbeaten Johnny Cruz over six rounds in Havana. Black Bill had already established himself in the United States, and after a string of victories, Chocolate followed him over and was an instant sensation. He fought often, sometimes within days. No one could live with him in his natural home of the featherweight division and he was forced to take matches against heavier men. As previously described here, his first defeat was against Berg at the Polo Grounds in Harlem in August 1930 before a sold-out crowd. Berg was 81-4-5 going in, Chocolate an advertised 162-0, although the record books show his unbeaten record to be somewhat less swollen. Berg was a natural light-welter, but had to come down a few pounds to the contracted weight. His trainer, Ray Arcel, attested that Berg had some trouble doing so.
It was a split decision, and there is a photograph of the pair embracing after it was announced. I once asked Berg, who became an improbable friend, what was said. Berg replied: “I went over to him but he couldn’t talk. He was weeping, see. So I just said, ‘Good fight, but unfortunately you got licked’. I wanted to talk to him but I don’t think he liked me much.”
Chocolate won versions of the world featherweight and junior lightweight titles and was generally thought to have been robbed when losing to Battling Battalino for the featherweight crown. He lost to Berg again by split decision in 1932. As with Berg, his nemesis was Tony Canzonieri, who knocked him out in two rounds in 1933, having earlier outpointed him by split decision at Madison Square Garden in an event described in the New York Times as “one of the noisiest and most disorderly demonstrations this arena has ever witnessed, after one of the greatest lightweight championship battles in ring annals.” Again, Chocolate was giving away lumps of natural weight. Even so, the more one pours over the reports, Canzoneri emerges as one of the great pound-for-pound fighters of all time, and clearly a real puncher. No one else did to Berg (whom Canzonieri knocked out in three) or Chocolate what Canzoneri did to them. It is measure of those times that Chocolate boxed again less than two weeks after his knockout defeat by Canzoneri, beating the highly regarded Frankie Klick inside seven rounds in Philadelphia.
Chocolate boxed on until 1938 but did not go down the usual route of decline. Indeed he was unbeaten in his last 30 fights. In his penultimate bout, back in Havana, he eked out all his remaining genius to outpoint Filli Echevarria, a highly talented young Basque fighter whom the Cubans had adopted as their own. It was a fitting homecoming for Chocolate and a huge event in Havana. He finished with an outstanding record of 135 wins (51 inside the distance), 10 losses and 6 draws, most against top opposition.
What is remarkable about the latter stages of Chocolate’s record is that in 1933 he had been diagnosed with syphilis – then an incurable condition that could cause blindness at the least. That he battled on so successfully in the ring suggests – for all the louche baggage – that here was a man for whom the discipline of boxing training was his crucible, a theatre in which he could not let himself down.
Thereafter Chocolate opened a gym at his villa in the exclusive Mirimar district of Havana, playing host to both Robinson and Joe Louis among others. At first – it is often forgotten – Castro’s regime was welcomed by the United States administration. When things changed, why Chocolate did not join the exodus from Cuba, which boxing-wise included Jose Napoles, Luis Rodriguez, Jose Legra et al, is not clear. It was certainly a decision he would live to regret.
Once I reached Havana I seconded two street kids, Emilio and Miguel, to help me in my search among the ruined villas and effluent gutters of this still beautiful but mournful place. One day Miguel, an intentional Eddie Murphy look-alike who had just got out of jail after trying to swim to Florida on an inner tube, said he had found him. When, later, I returned home, London seemed like a metropolis of spoiled children who did not know how lucky they were. I could not get the smell of Havana – rum and effluence – out of my nostrils. I sat down and wrote this account of my meeting with Kid Chocolate. It seems pointless to rewrite something written when memory was still fresh:
‘The house stood at the corner of the square. We approached the square on a wide, rutted avenue which was bordered by large ornate villas like the house. Most of the houses appeared empty and dilapidated, though their grand porches were evidence of a salubrious past. There was a brisk, hot breeze from the coast, and the silent streets now smelled faintly of fish.
The house, its shutters drawn and flaking, also appeared unoccupied, but next door a woman was preparing lunch for her children outside. She said no one had lived in the house for years. She was afraid we’d wasted our journey.
But upon production of Kid Berg’s biography, The Whitechapel Windmill, and a picture of Kid Chocolate, she paused, then ordered us to wait and disappeared into the house. When she returned, she said she was sorry but she had to be careful. His last visitors had come about two years ago, from the government. They were researching a book and took away all his press cuttings. He was very fond of the cuttings. They hadn’t returned them, and he was bitter. But he would see me if I bought him a bottle of rum.
This having been obtained by Emilio, I found myself some 10 minutes later standing before the big wooden door of the house. The lock showed signs of having been forced and the lower part of the door was clearly rotten, but there were signs of activity within, and presently the door inched open to reveal a barefooted, elderly man wearing a torn cotton shirt and a pair of trousers held up by a piece of string. He was so slight in build that at first his form was almost imperceptible in the shadows of the hallway. Behind him were two framed photographs, both nudes, of a beautiful young athlete. They were dated 1931 and signed ‘Kid Chocolate’.
Kid Chocolate took the bottle of rum and gestured to be given a cigarette. Grinning, he took us into a big room furnished only with two chairs. The walls were dotted with boxing mementoes, but some had fallen down and lay on the floor. With the shutters drawn, the light was dim and the air was thick and sour.
Rum was poured and cigarettes issued. Kid Chocolate sat down on one of the chairs and opened his mouth to speak. But rum trickled out instead through his cracked lips stained with tobacco, like lava suddenly spewed from a long extinct volcano. His voice, when it emerged, was a hoarse whisper, each syllable accompanied by the widening of his eyes and a grin, as if greeting each tortured sound like a long-forgotten friend.
But the words did not make sense, even to Emilio. And Kid Chocolate proffered his glass for more rum, groping with his fingers at a cigarette which, an inch past its normal life expectancy, still glowed between his teeth. Taking Berg’s book, he ran his hands across its cover in slow, affectionate strokes. The picture of Berg on the cover seemed to have a soothing effect. Then he turned to the photographs in the book, of the fight at the Polo Grounds, and a fleeting looked of surprising composure and concentration crossed Kid Chocolate’s face, like the shadow of a younger man.
I looked at Kid Chocolate’s hands. Like Jack’s, they bore the legacy of his profession: the knuckles grotesquely callused, the curling fingernails locked in the position of a semi-cocked fist, to the extent that they resembled more the talons of a bird of prey than human possessions.
“Ah…Jack…Kid…Berg,” Kid Chocolate said. “He was the first one to beat me. We fought two times, and the judges gave the decision to him both times.”
“You were unbeaten in 162 fights the first time,” I ventured.
“Three hundred,” Kid Chocolate said. “Fidel LaBarba was the best I fought, but Jack Kid Berg was the bravest.”
“Who was the best boxer who ever lived?” I asked.
“Kid Charol,” he said, without hesitation.
There was more rum and the words began to slur and stick in Kid Chocolate’s throat.
“I had many friends. Pincho, my manager…Jack Kid Berg. He is a good friend. Every year Jack Kid Berg comes on the boat from Miami just to see me…”
Then an extraordinary thing happened. Without warning, Kid Chocolate began to clutch his stomach and howl like a small boy.
“I’m hungry!” he shrieked. “I need my lunch!”
His pleas brought the woman running in from next door, and also a gaunt man in middle age who said he was Kid Chocolate’s son.
“I’m so hungry I could die!” cried Kid Chocolate, convulsing with sobs.
But his son, if such he was, seemed more interested in saving some rum for himself, and the woman, after extracting two cigarettes from Kid Chocolate’s shirt pocket, left with an assurance that she would fetch some food.
“You like the house?” said the son, grinning. “Now he lives here alone, but it used to be a fine house. There was a gymnasium on the first floor, and a ring in the yard.”
As Kid Chocolate sat slumped in his chair, a pool of saliva forming on the cover of Kid Berg’s biography and a huddle of cigarette butts collecting in the folds of his shirt, the son led the way to other rooms: to Kid Chocolate’s bedroom with its urine-stained mattress, half covered by a dirty sheet, and a pile of human faeces on the floor; to the kitchen, where an old fridge stood open and empty, by a table strewn with bones and rusting tins of sardines being picked over by cockroaches; to further rooms, shrouded in cobwebs, which had not been used, perhaps even entered, for years.
From one such room the son emerged, beaming proudly, with a brown bundle under his arm. “Feel it,” he said. “Pure silk.” He unravelled it gingerly, as if in the presence of a religious artefact, and laid it on the floor. It could have been a moth-eaten old dressing-gown, but of course it wasn’t: etched in white letters, transported without blemish, it seemed, across the years, were the words CHOCOLATE KID.
More shrieks came from the front of the house, but by the time we reached him Kid Chocolate had been sedated with more rum and now sat with his head flopped forward, beside the empty bottle and beneath the photographs of himself and Jack Kid Berg, watched by the woman from next door and two youths drawn in from the street by the commotion.
Through this small gathering marched the son, who, gathering Kid Chocolate’s passive body in one arm, began to squeeze it into the old boxing robe with the other. And everyone else in the room suddenly felt the need to avert their eyes, for the impression was that of someone dressing a corpse.’
Now, thinking back to that encounter, I don’t believe Kid Chocolate could have been living like that for very long. I don’t think it would have been humanly possible. He had finally weakened. It was the last waltz. Indeed, some six weeks later, he was dead. He is buried in Havana’s ‘cemetery for significant Cubans’ – somewhat rich, given how insignificant he was deemed during his post-retirement lifetime. Having said that, maybe he was given help, but just drank it away, and there was no more to give.
There is indeed something mournful about Cuba’s obsession with boxing – along with baseball and chess, national pastimes that seem somehow to be disguised expressions of defiance against the straightjacket of dictatorship.
At least Kid Chocolate lived till the age of 78. Kid Charol and Black Bill lived only until 28 and 27 respectively. Kid Charol died of tuberculosis, prompting his manager to kill himself a few months later. A year before Black Bill’s death, Chocolate fought a benefit bout for him at St Nick’s arena. The New York Times reported that it was “for Black Bill, who is now sightless.” Syphilis again. Black Bill had become alcoholic, and took his life by his own hand in a New York tenement.
The national poet of Cuba, Nicolas Guillem, wrote a poem about them all, ‘Ode To a Boxer’:
But above all, I think
About Kid Charol, the great crownless king
And about Kid Chocolate, the great crowned king
And about Black Bill, with his ‘rubber’ nerve
No doubt it reads better in the original Spanish. But “nerve” does seem central for a post-revolutionary Cuban to survive. Upon his retirement from his garlanded career, Kid Chocolate could not have known that his greatest challenge – survival – was still to come. But, as usual, he more than went the distance.