“JUST WATCH MAH SMOKE,”
The Secret Journeys Of Cocoa Kid
Cocoa Kid was only eighteen years old when he signed to meet Connecticut’s Louis Kaplan, a former world featherweight champion with 160 professional fights. Most believed that the teenager was in too deep, too soon. Kaplan was not only a veteran -he was as relentless as nature in a news clip. He’d rush in hurling both fists at an opponent like “breakers against storm swept rocks” until a bloody towel was thrown in from the opposite corner. That’s what happened on the night he took the title and the gym rats believed it was going to happen again. Kaplan, they said, had “too many guns” for this gangly newcomer with premature aspirations.
“Lawd, the way some people talk you’d think I needed sympathy,” Cocoa Kid told reporters, “It’s Kaplan who needs it. He was good once and he still may be good. But ah intend to prove ah’m bettah. Just watch mah smoke.”
Early on the morning of February 21st 1933, headlines in the nom de guerre announced the shocking results of the main event: “Cocoa Kid Gives Louis Kid Kaplan Severe Beating in New Haven Arena Bout.” The future Hall of Famer and 7-5 favorite spent ten rounds on the receiving end of long jabs and right crosses. Whenever he mustered up that old grit to charge in, Cocoa Kid tied him up or “threw his speed in reverse” and then sprang forward with a scorching attack. The referee didn’t give Kaplan one round.
Three days later Kaplan retired. “Nothing can make me change my mind,” he said.
Chances are slim that there is anyone left who saw that young fighter’s first taste of glory. Even the site is gone; the New Haven Arena was replaced by the Coliseum in 1972, which was itself demolished in 2007. But for a moment in time, the golden-hued frame of Cocoa Kid stood glistening under the lights, his eyes burning with pride. For a moment in time, the future was his.
Eight decades have come and gone since then, flitting by like signposts along Interstate 95. He’s hard to see in the rearview mirror where the past disappears in the distance.
He was hard to see anyway. He competed in a sport of many shadows where sharkskin suits pulled strings and made damn sure no one talked. Those shadows have lengthened with time.
The case of Cocoa Kid is a cold one. It’s a strange one too, rife as it is with false leads and contradictions. Few sports fans knew his real name even while he was campaigning. He was referred to by his nom de guerre, most often “Cocoa Kid” or “Kid Cocoa” by New England newspapers in the early 1930s, then “Louis ‘Kid’ Cocoa” in the mid 1930s. A proper name began to appear in print as his career progressed, though it seemed to be a fluid concept. “Louis Hardwick,” “Luis Harwick,” and “Luis Aroya” are only a few of the variations. Cocoa Kid himself was behind these variations, prompting some boxing historians to theorize that he was purposefully trying to conceal his identity. It is just as likely that he himself wasn’t exactly sure what his name was. His ethnicity is also uncertain. He was called a Cuban and (more often) a “Porto Rican” at different times during his career. In 1961, a former manager confused things further when he told the Baltimore Sun that he had everyone convinced that Cocoa Kid was “Puerto Rican and couldn’t speak a word of English” though in actuality, he said with a laugh, “he was as much an American Negro as Joe Louis.”
What we know is that he had over 240 professional bouts in a career that spanned the toughest three decades of the modern era. We know that he was ranked in the top ten by The Ring as a lightweight, welterweight, and middleweight for eighty-one months between August 1933 and February 1947 -and yet was never granted a shot at a world title. We know that he was good enough to not only defeat, but downright embarrass a few of the greatest fighters that ever climbed through the ropes.
He was better than we know.
Sixteen years after upsetting Louis “Kid” Kaplan, he was hired as a sparring partner at Sugar Ray Robinson’s training camp in Pompton Lakes, New Jersey. Robinson was at his peak. In the second round of one session, Cocoa Kid landed a short right to the chin and down went the welterweight king. Robinson scrambled to his feet and finished the round but that shot had a message in it, and the message was clear.
“Watch mah smoke,” he told the boxing world a long time ago. The boxing world still strains to see him –still asks a question that has echoed down generations: Who was Cocoa Kid?
Read the entirety of this award-winning series, starting with part one here.
The photograph is from the New Bedford Standard-Times, February 2nd 1939. Information from this essay not otherwise referenced is from the Hartford Courant, Meriden Daily Journal, Holyoke Daily Transcript and Telegram, the Baltimore Sun, and the Chicago Daily Tribune.
Springs Toledo can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.