A Reed Reaches Toward the Sun: Cocoa Kid

By Springs Toledo on June 17, 2012
A Reed Reaches Toward the Sun: Cocoa Kid
Cocoa Kid may be the name of the greatest fighter of Puerto Rican descent who ever lived.

It has been said that the ring is the loneliest place in the world. It was lonelier still for Cocoa Kid, and it took more from him than anyone ever knew…

New York, 1959. He wasn’t sure of his name anymore, this tattered figure wandering Times Square. “Heriberto Harwitz” was as close as he could get. He’d shuffle over to the general delivery window at 33rd and 8th and mumble to the clerk. His V.A. benefit check was his only income, but he’d often lose his service papers and had to find his way to the local veterans office and fill out an application for copies. Staff had a fine time trying to sort through the misinformation he provided—he forgot where and when he was born. “Jan. 9, 1916” in “Mexico” he guessed on one application. He was actually born on May 2, 1914 in Puerto Rico.

His legal name was Herbert Lewis Hardwick. He was the son of an African-American seaman and a Puerto Rican of Spanish descent named Myrtice Arroyo. Soon after his birth, the seaman brought him and his mother from Mayaguez to Atlanta, Georgia, where they made a home. In 1918, the seaman disappeared along with his ship in the Bermuda Triangle. It wasn’t long before his mother died and “Lewis,” as the boy would be called, was left an orphan.

The boy sprouted into adolescence like a reed reaching toward the sun. He turned fifteen in 1929 and was already fighting as a professional featherweight in segregated boxing clubs in a segregated city. His arms were like whips. Battles royal were on the undercards. At seventeen, he earned fifty-cent purses in West Palm Beach, Florida. He owned one shirt and wore his boxing shoes on the street when he was discovered by Harry Durant, a state senator from Connecticut. Durant brought him north where the real action was.

“Cocoa Kid” was born at the New Haven Gym on Meadow Street. Durant tapped trainers Al Blondi and Charley Brown and under their watchful eye, the kid developed into an extraordinary stylist with a feared right hand. His lightening jab made headlines.

It was in New Haven that Lewis began to call himself Luis. Reporters couldn’t get two syllables out of him, though when given the opportunity to speak on his own terms in radio interviews or from the ring, blacks and whites in the audience raised an eyebrow; he would speak Spanish, as if trying to connect with those he identified with, as if trying to win their affection.

He craved recognition and fought over 250 times to get it. For eighty-one months between 1933 and 1947, he was a serious contender in the lightweight, welterweight, and middleweight divisions, a reed reaching number one but never quite touching the sun. No champion dared face him—not Barney Ross, not Henry Armstrong. Long after his skills had declined with age, a prime Sugar Ray Robinson ran out on a contract to fight him—twice. Even so, legendary names of Hall of Famers sparkle on his record. Among them is Holman Williams, a ring general many insiders then and now believe is the most skilled boxer in history. Eight times Williams watched the referee raise the glove of this golden-hued phenomenon, this scion of two worlds.

It has been said that the ring is the loneliest place in the world. It was lonelier still for Cocoa Kid, and it took more from him than anyone ever knew.

In 1944 he was discharged early from military service after a board of medical survey diagnosed him with Dementia Pugilistica—punch-drunk syndrome. He was tight-lipped and fought on. The beatings he took during the last phase of his career were horrific, though every now and then he’d laugh at the odds and thrash a young prospect or wink at history and give Holman Williams more hell.

The last phase of his life saw no heroics. The homeless man wandering Times Square was in Chicago State Hospital by the end of 1959. He was a mystery patient. Staff sent his fingerprints to the Naval Record Management Center in St. Louis to identify him.

He died on December 27, 1966. 

New York, 2012. There’s a new plaque hanging on the museum wall at the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota. Cocoa Kid was finally enshrined this week, but he wasn’t remembered. Few ever heard of the name engraved beneath an image of the tattered fighter.

It sparkles anyway.

It just may be the name of the greatest fighter of Puerto Rican descent who ever lived.


(Springs Toledo is the author of “Just Watch Mah Smoke”: The Secret Journeys of Cocoa Kid, which was instrumental in Cocoa Kid’s induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame. He can be contacted at scalinatella@hotmail.com.)

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  1. The Thresher 03:49pm, 06/18/2012

    3-8-2

  2. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo 03:04pm, 06/18/2012

    If according to Springs Toledo, Cocoa Kid beat Holman eight times…a reasonable person just might come to the conclusion that he was superior to “the most skilled boxer in history”.

  3. The Thresher 11:53am, 06/18/2012

    The guys on Murderer’s Row were interchangeable when it came to who was the best. They were all great.

  4. Matt McGrain 06:17am, 06/18/2012

    Thanks for the clarification Mike.

  5. mikecasey 06:08am, 06/18/2012

    Still have my BWAA honary members card from about five years ago, Robert. I haven’t heard from them since and can’t seem to find out whether I’m still there or not. Can’t say it’s interrupting my sleep too much.

  6. mikecasey 06:05am, 06/18/2012

    Matt, mate, you’re quite correct. Apologies for being vague. I was simply referring to the ‘official’ tally between them, which, as we know, often didn’t count for anything in that era. Have never forgotten how astounded Archie Moore was at where Burley could hit you from. He would seem way out of distance and then deck you with a sudden crack.

  7. Robert Ecksel 06:04am, 06/18/2012

    Springs Toledo is a great writer, no doubt about it, but the BWAA doesn’t make it so. On the contrary, when only a small percentage of boxing writers join its august ranks, either through choice or because they’ve been rejected, we’re getting a biased appraisal of the best of the best. As usual, many words would suffice, but the word tomfoolery best describes what goes down.

  8. McGrain 06:00am, 06/18/2012

    Mike - i’m going to go ahead and dispute that Holman Williams got the better of Burley.  Firstly, Burley owns the only stoppage win in their first fight of 1942.  Secondly, the scant reports i’ve read have Burley getting the better of their 1943 NC before it was questionably tossed by the ref.  Thirdly, the only decision with a hint of a bad decision is Holman’s 1942 win.  Finally, he was kicking Williams all over the ring (including three counts)  in their 1939 fight before throwing his shoulder in the ninth winning only one round thereafter.  In short, although the official record has them 3-3-0-1 i’d always considered that if there was an edge it belonged to Burley…i’m curious as to your thinking otherwise?

  9. mikecasey 05:39am, 06/18/2012

    Holman got the better of Burley in their meetings, Ted, but never quite seems to get talked about the way Charley does.

  10. The Thresher 05:37am, 06/18/2012

    Holman did beat The Kid a few times and they had one or two dras.

  11. mikecasey 04:39am, 06/18/2012

    Never tell a Texan that Alaska is bigger than Texas, Irish. I made that mistake only once. By the time my Texan pal had finished his lecture, I had grown a rather nice beard.

  12. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo 04:29am, 06/18/2012

    Springs Toledo-Here’s an assignment for you….why not check out the “in your face” skullduggery that goes on in Texas? It won’t have to be a sweeping investigation…..just take a look at the most recent clusterfuk in El Paso…..where a previous offender cruiserweight very likely cut weight using banned substances so he could beat the hell out of a smaller fighter then skipped out on a urinalysis that could have shown him dirty once again…..all with with a nod and a wink from Dickie Cole (is this character a lifetime appointee or what?). There’s only one thing dirtier than Washington politics and that’s Texas boxing politics!

  13. TEX HASSLER 10:21pm, 06/17/2012

    Anyone who searches the boxing records of past days will run across the name Cocoa Kid. Beating Holman Williams even once tells of his greatness not to mention beating Holman a number of times. Cocoa Kid was a fighter who was avoided by many top contenders and champions. I am truly thankful for this excellent, informative article and glad the Kid is being remembered. There were many truly great fighters who are unknown today and who never got to fight for a title.

  14. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo 06:17pm, 06/17/2012

    This article made me sad today…..but eight times!.....he must have had Holman Williams number to say the least!

  15. Adam Berlin 03:53pm, 06/17/2012

    To piggy-back on Mike Casey’s comment, Springs Toledo is the real deal.  Just this year he deservedly won first place honors for Investigative Journalism in the BWAA writing competition.

  16. The Thresher 03:05pm, 06/17/2012

    We need to pass on to the younger generations of fans the history of men like this. Of men like Burley, Satterfield, Holman Williams, etc. They are benchmarks against which modern greats can be compared.

  17. The Thresher 02:52pm, 06/17/2012

    The reason he wasn’t remembered has a lot to do with the average age of Boxing Writers these days and their inability or lack of incentive to do decent research. Articles like this are the result of of knowing your subject. Something rare in today’s world of “Boxing Journalism”

  18. McGrain 08:04am, 06/17/2012

    Boom!

  19. mikecasey 07:38am, 06/17/2012

    For those of you who don’t know Springs Toledo, he can write like an angel.

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