Miami – One day, two men honored. The fight crowd gathered here earlier this month to remember a pair of boxers who should never be forgotten. One event was a celebration of a life well lived, the other a solemn reminder of a how quickly the glory fades.
At the Our Lady of Mercy Cemetery, we stood under a sporadic drizzle to remember the great Cuban welterweight champion, Kid Gavilan. The reason we came, in effect, was to remind everyone how easily it is to forget. When Gavilan passed away two years ago, he was buried in a common, unmarked grave. The thought of such an indignity gnawed at the collective psyche of Ring 8, the Veteran Boxers Association of New York. The group exists to aide the indigent former professional fighter – living or deceased. One of their brethren had slipped into anonymity, so they raised the money for a headstone befitting a Hall-of-Famer.
Across town, the life of bantamweight Johnny Sarduy was being celebrated with the release of his book “De Tierras Nuevas a la Nueva Tierra” (From Lands that were New to New Lands). Sarduy, also from Cuba, was a bantamweight who would have cracked the Top 10 had his career not reached an abrupt end. Fidel Castro had seized control and turned Sarduy's beloved island into a Communist wasteland. Boxing suddenly was not so important.
Sarduy left Cuba and like most of his compatriots landed in Miami. He gave up boxing but never stopped fighting. He enlisted in “Brigade 2506” and prepared to overthrow Castro during the CIA-sponsored Bay of Pigs invasion.
Sarduy's passion for Cuba remains close to the surface. During one of our conversations – as the memories of Cuba’s glorious beaches rush back to his mind and images of freedom drifted into his consciousness – he quietly began to cry.
Muhammad Ali is considered a hero for standing firm on his religious beliefs and refusing induction into the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War. Okay, then what do we call a man so thoroughly selfless, a man whose courage dwarfs anything we’ve seen inside a boxing ring? What do we call Johnny Sarduy, who sacrificed his boxing career and risked his life in an attempt to liberate 10 million Cubans?
The word “hero” just doesn’t seem strong enough.
Ali, a wartime conscientious objector, said he was ready to “Die for Allah.” Sarduy was ready to die for Cuba. He followed his beliefs, put down his boxing gloves and picked up a weapon.
Enrique Encinosa, a popular radio host in Miami and author of the definitive history on Cuban boxing, was the master of ceremonies at Sarduy’s book party.
“Johnny Sarduy is a well-respected member of the community,” he told me. “He is very popular. Johnny Sarduy has no enemies, except maybe Fidel Castro.”
Today, Sarduy is a millionaire. Although he never mastered the English language, he worked hard and gained the trust and confidence of those with whom he did business. A drywall specialist, Sarduy is one of the most successful contractors in Miami.
“Johnny came from a very, very poor family,” said Encinosa. “He grew up basically in a palm-thatched hut with dirt floors, pressed dirt. He lived in extreme poverty. Yet somehow, when you hear him tell tales of growing up, even though he was poor and he was aware he was poor, he had a happy life. He said he didn't know how to use a fork and knife until he got into boxing and his manager taught him.”
Sarduy was a crowd-pleaser, a popular attraction in the Havana fight clubs of the 1950s. He fought at the Palacio DePortes and Arena Cristal, where the fans gambled in the aisles and sang between bouts and the combatants fought under a haze of Cuban cigar smoke. Sarduy won a national amateur title while weighing 100 pounds. He turned pro as a bantamweight and in 1958 won two straight against Eloy Sanchez, who would later challenge Eder Jofre for the world title. In 1959, Sarduy lost to contender Jose Medel, a title challenger against Jofre and Fighting Harada.
“With all the alphabet organizations around now, I think Johnny Sarduy would have been a world champion today,” said Encinosa. “Then politics changed his career.”
Sarduy won his last fight, a 10-round decision over Hector Rodriguez in February of 1961. He was 24 years old and made a decision that would alter the rest of his life. He landed in the Cuban province of Oriente during at the time of the ill-fated invasion of Bahia de Cochinos (Bay of Pigs) on the south coast of Cuba. Castro’s army triumphed over some 1,300 exiles, 90 of which were killed and the rest taken prisoner. The men of Brigade 2506 were promised air support from the United States, but it never came.
“I heard rumors that [President John F.] Kennedy and the Democrats were afraid because [Russian leader] Nikita Khrushchev was behind Castro,” said Sarduy. “I don't think Kennedy and the American government did enough to help Cuba get free from Castro. I regret what happened. I think if Kennedy sent some planes to help them out in La Playa Giron [the beach where the invasion took place], like they said they would, I think today Cuba would be a free county.”
As he speaks, Sarduy is standing inside one of the rings at the Miami Boxing gym. Like nearly every ex-fighter I’ve interviewed, he remains comfortable inside the ropes. His movements are measured, as he strides across the ring, perhaps the way he once stalked an opponent. He leans comfortably along the ropes, then glides toward a corner. He is at home for the moment, but then the emotions come back and there is a mix of frustration, pride and emptiness when he talks about his real home.
“I'm very nostalgic about Cuba,” he said. “I left Cuba 45 years ago and I miss it very much. I'm very grateful to this country. This is the greatest country in the world. When I was in Cuba, I didn't depend on the money given out by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, I depended on myself. When Castro disappears from Cuba, I will move to Cuba. I won't move my family, because they grew up here. But I would live in the two countries simultaneously. I hope Castro will be gone soon. When Fidel Castro dies, I will definitely go to Cuba. I will help the people there. They are going through a lot of pain. I feel sorry for the Cuban people. There is unemployment, people are starving. It's a sorry state of affairs.”
There is no sense comparing Sarduy and Gavilan. They were beloved by Cubans – and Americans – but for different reasons. Their common thread was boxing. Gavilan was a charismatic fighter, a showman whose flair predated Ali. Gavilan had style in and out of the ring. During his prime he took to the New York City nightlife like the champion he was. He was the City's Guest. Who, after all, could resist buying a drink for “The Keed?”
Some habits die hard. The author Ron Ross befriended Gavilan later in life and he recalled during the ceremony how the Hall-of-Famer still enjoyed some simple pleasures: “cigarettes, a shot of wheeskey and a good bistec [steak].”
There was a time when Gavilan supported the revolution, sending money back home to Castro when his band of soldiers were holed up in the mountains. Gavilan retired to his farm in Cuba, still a hero in the eyes of his people. But he was no longer of value to the regime. They built a highway in the middle of his farm and offered him a pension. It was a pittance of what the champion sent to the revolutionaries. Soon, Gavilan was back in Miami, never to return to Cuba.
At the cemetery, a collection of fighters gathered in his honor. Former world lightweight champion Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini spoke, former world flyweight champ Prudencio Cardona attended, and Joe Miceli, who lost a split decision to Gavilan at the Garden in 1950, made the trip down from New York.
“He was a very classy fighter,” said Miceli. “He had a lot of style. He was showman before there was a Muhammad Ali. Kid Gavilan was a great fighter and I’m sorry that some people forgot him when he died.”
Ring 8 raised $10,000 for the new headstone, half of it coming from a donation by Mike Tyson. The club’s contingent included fighters Billy Tate, Henny Wallitsch and Bobby Bartels, promoters Tony Mazzarella and Bob Duffy, Ross, historian Hank Kaplan, cornerman Charlie Capone and Butch Mazzarella.
Cuban-born former NABF junior lightweight champion Frankie Otero also attended the ceremony. He was a hard-hitter who banged with some of the best fighters of his generation. But beneath it all is a kind man with a wonderful, dry sense of humor. After the ceremony, we spoke at length in the gym. He recalled the time he fought Hall-of-Famer Ken Buchanan and, as the fight wore on and fatigue began to set in, cornerman Dr. Ferdie Pacheco dumped a bucket of ice down the front of his trunks in an attempt to revive him. As he rose from his stool to rejoin the battle, he looked at the Fight Doctor and deadpanned, “Doc, was that entirely necessary?”
The conversation shifted to Cuba and as happens with most who are in exile, the mood turned somber. Otero returned for a visit a few years ago.
“The architecture is phenomenal but they haven't maintained it for 40 years,” he said. “So it's decaying. It's like seeing a beautiful woman at the age of 20 and then again when she is 50 years old. She is older, but you can still see some of the beauty.”
He would also recall speaking with a cousin as they walked near La Playa Giron. “That is where we beat the mercenaries,” the cousin said, pointing to the beach.
“What?” said Otero. The words shook his soul like a Joe Frazier left hook to the ribs. To refer to those who died while trying to free Cuba as mercenaries border on sacrilegious. Later, he would come to realize that such words were borne out of decades of Castro’s propaganda.
Encinosa was a long-time fight manager and booking agent in Miami. He cut his teeth under the tutelage of promoters like Chris Dundee and Tuto Zabala. We are seated for dinner at Sergio’s Cuban restaurant, along with his lovely wife Ilia and historian “Hialeah” Eddie Soler. Enrique recalls the time Dundee phoned him in the middle of the night looking to make a match. The phone rings:
“I need a welterweight to fight in London.”
“Chris, it's three o'clock in the morning.”
“Not in London. It's noon there. Now get me a welterweight.”
Encinosa orders Vaca Frita (fried dry beef) for me, along with the traditional rice and beans and fried plantains. There is a baseball motif to the restaurant, but rather than photos of the Florida Marlins, or even the universally beloved New York Yankees, the walls of Sergio’s feature photographs and equipment from Almendares and Habana, the two great baseball teams from the pre-Castro Cuban League, when major leaguers spent their winters playing on the island.
When Castro pointed boatloads of Cubans toward Miami during the infamous Mariel Boatlift, Encinosa and Ilia found jobs for the fighters who made their way here with the political prisoners, common criminals and other miscreants that Castro let go. Those who couldn't find work, Encinosa simply supported with cash out of his pocket.
In addition to hosting a radio show and writing books, Encinosa has been called a hitman and a terrorist by Castro. The Cuban government put him on a list of suspected terrorists that was sent to the FBI prior to the Pan Am Games.
“Not all of it is true,” he says. “I didn't do all the things they say I did.”
He pauses for a second and, with a nod, says, “Some of it.”
You look at him and you believe him.
The food is fantastic, the conversation even better. The stories about the old Fifth Street Gym and the great Cuban fighters of the 1960s – Luis Rodriguez, Florentino Fernandez, Sugar Ramos, Jose Napoles, Douglas Valliant – keep coming.
As the evening winds down, I ask Enrique if he will return to Cuba once the Castro regime falls.
“I hope to be there when it happens,” he says.
And, again, you look at him and believe him.