Kid Gavilan and the Welter Whirlpool

By Mike Casey on July 13, 2013
Kid Gavilan and the Welter Whirlpool
It was Johnny Saxton who toppled the Keed by unanimous decision in Philadelphia in 1954.

It was an era of thunder and lightning when these quality men were fighting each other and jostling for position in Kid Gavilan’s rear view mirror…

It was business as usual for the welterweight division when Sugar Ray Robinson vacated the world crown and graduated to the middleweights. Very exciting business and very busy business. One of the most talent-rich of boxing’s weight divisions was enjoying a particularly purple patch. The welterweights were a whirlpool of constant action.

They had a new flamboyant champion in Kid Gavilan, the swashbuckling Cuban Hawk, and a top ten list of contenders that resonated with quality. Here is how they lined up in the summer of 1952:

Champion: Kid Gavilan (Cuba)
1 Billy Graham (USA)
2 Gil Turner (USA)
3 Bobby Dykes (USA)
4 Johnny Saxton (USA)
5 Johnny Bratton (USA)

6 Chuck Davey (USA)
7 Wally Thom (England)
8 Pierre Langlois (France)
9 Danny Womber (USA)
10 Luther Rawlings (USA)

When one considers the exceptional act that Kid Gavilan had to follow (Robinson being a ridiculously harsh yardstick), “The Keed” did a good job in keeping the gate and maintaining interest. Gavilan was always a big hit at the box office with his exciting, fluid style and that trademark bolo punch that he would whip home with such effect.

Gavilan would successfully defend his title against four of the men on our list here: Billy Graham (twice), Gil Turner, Chuck Davey and Johnny Bratton. The Gavilan-Bratton fight drew $275,454 at the gate, which would be around $1,760,000 today. The Gavilan-Turner match raked in $269,000. Gavilan would also turn back the challenge of the fast rising future champion, Carmen Basilio.

Sugar Ray would certainly have admired The Keed’s social habits. Gavilan loved to dress in flashy clothes, buy the best cars, go to the race track and frequent the coolest night clubs. Nobody could say he hadn’t earned the right to live life to the full.

A poor, skinny kid who toiled for little money in the Cuban sugar cane fields, Gavilan set his mind on escaping to a better life. He would quite literally fight his way out of poverty. Right from the start he had the magic touch and a steely determination. These were the days before the Castro revolution when professional boxing still flourished in Cuba. Gavilan served his amateur apprenticeship, winning two championships and giving ample proof of his gritty determination to reach the top whatever the personal sacrifice.

For his third amateur bout, Gavilan trudged seven miles to the arena where he was fighting, carrying the ring ropes with him and getting by on just one sandwich. He personally set up the ring before winning the main event.

Gavilan was a bantamweight when he turned professional in 1943, but quickly put on the pounds as he campaigned busily in Havana and made four trips to Mexico. By the time of his winning American debut against Johnny Ryan at Madison Square Garden in November, 1946, the Keed had matured from a 122-pound novice into a 146-pound man of action who would go on to become one of American boxing’s most vibrant and productive engines.

Gavilan scored valuable wins over Tommy Bell and Ike Williams before putting up a spirited challenge against the great Robinson at the Municipal Stadium in Philadelphia in 1949. Gavilan lost a unanimous decision, but Ray would admit that he didn’t like to take unnecessary chances against his fiery challenger.

The Keed pressed on, fighting frequently as he won and lost against Billy Graham and notched quality wins over Rocky Castellani, Beau Jack, Tony Janiro, Joe Miceli and Gene Hairston. With Robinson out of the way and hunting new game in the middleweight division, the Gavilan era began when he outpointed Johnny Bratton to win the NBA welterweight championship in May, 1951.

The Keed proved himself a worthy successor to the Sugar Baby as an exciting champion who could pull in the big crowds. Gavilan would make a total of 22 Madison Square Garden appearances and take part in a record-breaking 46 national televised matches. It seemed that he was always on TV, even in the land of make-believe. In the spine-chilling 1987 movie, Angel Heart, Mickey Rourke walks into a bar in fifties New York where a Gavilan fight is playing on the tube.

Then the Keed suddenly blew out, like the hurricanes that lashed his homeland. An unsuccessful middleweight title tilt against Carl (Bobo) Olson in 1954 drew $334,000 in gate receipts (well over $2 million in today’s money), but proved to be the catalyst of Gavilan’s slide. In his next bout, he lost his welterweight crown on a unanimous decision to Johnny Saxton. It was a dull fight and there was little of the old Gavilan flair.

The genie had escaped the bottle and the great Cuban lost four of his next eight fights. Thereafter the defeats heavily outweighed the victories until he retired in 1958 after losing a unanimous decision to Yama Bahama.

The Field

You can see for yourself here the field in which Gavilan competed. It was loaded with mines in the form of tremendous talent, with five particularly outstanding contenders leading the way. New York’s Billy Graham, a classic boxer of the old school, knew all about Gavilan and the memories weren’t too sweet. Tough and skillful Billy, who was never knocked out and lost just 15 of his 126 fights, was the nearly man of the division who perhaps deserved to win the first of his two title fights with Gavilan.

Billy and the Keed were about as evenly matched as two fighters could be over their four fights spanning 50 rounds. In their first match, before Gavilan’s coronation, Graham surprised the crowd by taking the fight to his opponent and winning a split decision that seemed to flatter Billy. Most observers at ringside sided with Gavilan. The Keed won a majority decision over Graham in their return go nine months later, but it was the third fight for Gavilan’s championship in August 1951 that caused a stir.

Billy thought he’d won. Of course he did. So did many others. But opinions and protests couldn’t extinguish the feeling that the talented Graham was just a tad short of the right stuff, a little lacking in the necessary urgency when it came to the fights that really mattered. Judge Arthur Schwartz saw the fight 9-6 for Gavilan, while referee Mark Conn and judge Frank Forbes tabbed the bout a 7-7-1 draw. The decision went to supplementary scoring and the Keed got the nod.

Billy rallied with six wins and two draws in his next eight fights, then lost a split decision to Joey Giardello before outscoring Carmen Basilio at the Chicago Stadium. Graham put on a masterclass against the still rising Basilio, cutting Carmen’s face with precise jabs and stinging rights. The win earned Billy a second shot at Gavilan’s title in Havana, but the champion won a unanimous decision.

Graham kept moving along, but suddenly the wins were harder to get. He won and lost in two more fights with Giardello, outpointed Art Aragon, lost to Basilio in a return match and then fought a draw with Carmen a month later. Billy hung up his gloves in 1955 after a pair of points losses to Chico Vejar.

Should Graham, with all his wonderful boxing intelligence, have gone all the way to world championship glory? Arguably so. But it just doesn’t happen for some guys and perhaps even they cannot tell us why.

No less of a mystery was Chicago’s Johnny Bratton, known as “Honey Boy,” who looked exquisite when he put it all together. Even the erudite Ted Carroll, a peach of a writer of the era, couldn’t get his wise head around the Bratton conundrum. Wrote Carroll: “Bratton is a real puzzle. He is not only the flashiest boxer in the class, he is the best puncher by far.

“With all this wealth of talent, something always seems to happen to the good looking Chicagoan. He is often referred to as a former welterweight champion because of the NBA designation as such after he defeated Charley Fusari in Chicago on May 14, 1951 for the NBA version of the title. For years, ‘broken jaws’ alibied his disappointing efforts. This condition has been remedied, but Bratton seldom seems up to expectations for all of his extraordinary gifts. At times some of his boxing tricks are like magic and he can take anyone out of there with a punch if he lands properly. Ability such as his must be respected.”

In a fine 13-year career, Johnny Bratton won 60, lost 24 and drew three of his 87 professional fights. Although he couldn’t beat Gavilan for the title, he drew with the Keed in a later meeting. Johnny’s enviable hit list included the names of Danny Womber, Joe Miceli, Laurent Dauthuille, Del Flanagan, Pierre Langlois, Gene Hairston, Joe Brown, Willie Joyce, Freddie Dawson and Bobby Dykes.

Skinny

Bobby Dykes was a skinny fellow out of Miami who offered plenty of substance in a 151-fight career that he crammed into 11 years between 1946 and 1957. That gave Bobby a batting average of nearly 14 fights a year. He didn’t mess around beating too many soft touches either. Six feet tall and often compared to bantamweight legend Panama Al Brown for the nature of his almost painfully extruded physique, Dykes had a sound set of fistic tools and a relaxed and almost nonchalant air in the way he jabbed, moved and slipped punches. He also possessed a fast, slamming right hand.

It was said of the dangerous Dykes that he suffered from a New York jinx and was never too hot whenever he fought anywhere above the Mason-Dixon line. This was true to some extent, but a little exaggerated. The thing we need to remember about men of such talent is that they were capable of taking each other out at any time and very suddenly. Most of them carried a destructive wallop and knew that their opponents were similarly equipped. That is why defensive skill was so vitally important in the Gavilan era.

A classic example of this is the first round TKO suffered by Bobby Dykes at the hands of Johnny Bratton at the Chicago Stadium in January, 1951. Before Bobby knew it, he had been decked three times and stopped. Dykes’ reaction to that shock—which would surely be described as a career-wrecking disaster by some of today’s media drama queens—was to win 15 straight over the next 11 months, including victories over Billy Kilgore, Sonny Horne, Ernie Durando and Joey Giardello. Dykes then challenged Kid Gavilan for the crown at the Miami Stadium in February, 1952, and took the world champion to a split decision. The Keed had to rally hard over the last three rounds to secure the verdict.

Also adorning the impressive Dykes ledger was a later points win over Gavilan, a majority decision loss to Ray Robinson and wins over Joe Miceli, Joey Giambra, California Jackie Wilson, Jean Walzack and Lester Felton.

Bobby also split a couple of decisions with the formidable Gil Turner of Philadelphia. In their first fight at Madison Square Garden in September, 1952, Dykes was knocked out of the ring in the fifth round, but stormed back with a late charge to win a split verdict.

Gil Turner was a match for any man, a fighter of the very top drawer, who, much like his contemporary, Del Flanagan, was capable of upsetting anyone’s applecart. Gil was a terrific box office attraction and it was easy to see why. Blessed with great stamina, the Philadelphian was a prolific pitcher of punches, on a par with Henry Armstrong as a perpetual motion man.

Gil got his big chance at the championship in his hometown of Philly in July, 1952, but was stopped in the eleventh round by a big Gavilan onslaught. Three years later, Turner threw a spanner into Gene Fullmer’s nicely purring machine when he inflicted Gene’s first professional defeat, knocking the Utah tough man through the ropes with a left hook in the sixth round for a nine count. Fullmer learned his lesson well. Less than two years later he won the middleweight championship from Ray Robinson.

In a sparkling professional career of just eight years, Gil Turner compiled a 56-19-2 record and claimed the prized scalps of Beau Jack, Charley Fusari, Ike Williams, Bernard Docusen, Del Flanagan, Chico Vejar, Joe Miceli, Pierre Langlois, Al Andrews, Yama Bahama, Virgil Akins and Johnny Saxton.

Friends

New Jersey’s Johnny Saxton might have got by with a little help from his friends, but for all his dubious connections Johnny was a top class act who fought his way through a top class field. Other men had their big chance against Gavilan, but it was Saxton who took his and toppled the Keed by unanimous decision at the Convention Hall in Philadelphia in October, 1954.

Saxton was managed by Frank (Blinky) Palermo, who was well connected to mobster Frankie Carbo. “It was the only way in the fifties that you could get ahead,” explained boxing historian, Bert Sugar. “I think Saxton had several fights under Palermo where he got no money – not even a token to get home on the subway.

“Johnny was one of the golden age of sports’ good fighters. He sort of tiptoed on the edge of greatness. He is to be remembered as a welterweight champion who fought the best of them and beat some of them, by whatever means. It’s not his fault the judges were in someone’s pocket.”

I tend to agree with Bert Sugar’s assessment. Purely for my own amusement and interest, I maintain lists of ‘quality’ all time ratings in each weight class, where the biggest points are awarded for the quality of the top dozen opponents defeated by each fighter. I was quite astonished when Saxton rated 13th among the welterweights. For what it’s worth, the 12 men ahead of him are Henry Armstrong, Ray Robinson, Jimmy McLarnin, Mickey Walker, Barney Ross, Carmen Basilio,  Ray Leonard, Young Corbett III, Jose Napoles, Jackie Fields, Kid Gavilan and Emile Griffith.

Saxton lost the welterweight championship to Tony DeMarco, regained it from Carmen Basilio and lost it back to Carmen on a ninth round TKO in Syracuse. Basilio was red hot in their deciding match at the Cleveland Arena in 1957, battering Saxton to defeat in two rounds. That defeat was more or less the end of the line for Johnny. He lost three of his next four bouts and hung up his gloves in 1958.

Saxton was unbeaten in 40 fights when he dropped his first decision to Gil Turner in 1953. Never a heavy hitter, Johnny had a fast pair of hands and good all round talent. Among the other men he defeated were Joe Miceli, Charley Salas, Lester Felton, Luther Rawlings, Virgil Akins, Ralph (Tiger) Jones, Danny Womber, Freddie Dawson, Joey Giardello and Johnny Bratton.

Those who feared that Ray Robinson’s move up to the middleweight division would deprive the magical welterweights of their golden glitter shouldn’t have worried. The golden age was still in full swing and fresh blood kept pumping into the game. Let us remind ourselves one more time of those magical names that lit up the fight game and filled the greatest boxing stadiums: Kid Gavilan, Billy Graham, Gil Turner, Bobby Dykes, Johnny Saxton and Johnny Bratton.

It was an era of thunder and lightning when these quality men were fighting each other and jostling for position in Kid Gavilan’s rear view mirror. As writer Ted Carroll would say: “Few champs in recent years have been menaced by so many formidable challengers.”


Mike Casey is a Boxing.com writer and Founder & Editor of ALL TIME BOXING at https://sites.google.com/site/alltimeboxingrankings. He is a freelance journalist and boxing historian and a member of the International Boxing Research Organization (IBRO).

Follow us on Twitter@boxing_com to continue the discussion

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  1. bikermike 12:57pm, 04/10/2015

    thank you Mr Casey.

  2. bikermike 12:51pm, 04/10/2015

    not much said about Bobby Dykes….tuff fker…in a tuff time…with tuff fighters… To my knowledge….he had no connections…..other than blows landed

  3. bikermike 12:42pm, 04/10/2015

    Hey Tex Hassler….got some neighborhoods in Winnipeg..and Regina…you don;‘t waana fuk with either…

  4. bikermike 12:21pm, 04/10/2015

    ...nobody….but nobody has captured the ‘time capsules’ of Professional Boxing….as has MIKE CASEY


    If it says Mike Casey…...then read it…!!

    Mr Casey…i’ve presented this to you before…...could you give a similar ‘touch’ of research and observation…..about MICHAEL SPINKS….
    so far as I know…his only sin was to continue to try and bail out his older brother Leon…
    ..guy was a proven warrior…faced ‘em all…

    He went against an unpopular (with the back room folks) Champion…Larry Holmes…
    ...that the match occurred at all was the thing…........and at the end..points to SPINKS….Ditto next time….smelled like three day old visitors…...time to fk off

  5. bikermike 12:11pm, 04/10/2015

    .....you know….in my time and my environments…..being considered one who must be given respect ..is everything.
    Without respect..you don’t get perfect information…

    A professional fighter actually knows when he should leave…with dignity…but pro boxing ...being the pillar of professional ethics…...has artificially extended some ‘CHAMPION’S careers…by ‘match making’

  6. bikermike 12:02pm, 04/10/2015

    ....and all the Billy Graham fans ...have kept alive the name and legacy of ‘The Cuban Hawk’.......cuz they hate that man ..!!

    Me….I guess I’ll always keep leonard alive…cuz I fkn well know he didn’t win his match against Hagler !!...

    says it all

  7. bikermike 11:47am, 04/10/2015

    always like to watch that CHUCK DAVEY thing.  A built up , white guy…got stick handled into a match with the best ....

    Big mistake..

    KEED was plenty tough…and very dangerous…ask Chuck

  8. bikermike 11:43am, 04/10/2015

    ....‘deserves the credit for coming up with the bolo punch’....now that is an interesting question….

    “who deserves the the credit for showing the bolo punch to the public ?’...now that would be the ‘Keed’

  9. Jim Crue 05:07am, 04/09/2015

    Johnny Bratton stayed in Chicago until he died. Writer John Shulian wrote a good piece on him years ago. My dad was a plumber in Chicago and in the 1960’s or early 70’s he was working at the Illinois State Mental Hospital then called Dunning Hospital. Johnny stayed there for years and my dad would see him walking the grounds shadow boxing. When he was released he lived on the south side of Chicago and every day rain or shine he took the bus to the near north side know as the Gold Coast and begged on the street. A sad ending to a great, courageous fighter.

  10. goutom aa 03:36am, 04/08/2015

    This match are very interasting.

  11. bikermike 04:34am, 04/07/2015

    ‘KID’ Gavilan….(the keed)..was truly a star of his time !
    Even today….many recognize his name and his legacy in the ring.

    I remember..when Cassius Clay was ‘banging the drums’ to draw attention to one of his upcoming fights…..in the television early sixties….and he brought in Kid Gavilan ...as ‘a consultant’

    Gavilan could still pack ‘em in…..just to see him…..he was that good in his prime..

  12. Mike Casey 05:48am, 07/22/2013

    Thanks for your input, Steven. Yes, that’s good enough for me too!

  13. Clarence George 05:59pm, 07/21/2013

    Impressive testimony, Steven.

  14. Steven Canton 01:12pm, 07/21/2013

    Kid Gavilan himself told me that he loved the way Ceferino Garcia threw the bolo punch and he copied it from him. Hank Kaplan verified that to me also. According to them, Garcia did “invent” the punch, so I’ll accept that as gospel.

  15. Tex Hassler 05:37pm, 07/18/2013

    Cuba has produced some tremendous fighters. If you have ever spent time in Cuba as I have you will know it is a tough place to live. It is no wonder Cuba produced fighters like Gavilan and many others. Billy Graham should have won the decision over Gavilan when he fought him for the title but Billy was robbed. This may have been one of the worst decisions ever.

  16. Mike Casey 12:16am, 07/15/2013

    Great memories, Beau - thank you.

  17. beaujack 08:12pm, 07/14/2013

    Without a doubt Ceferino Garcia was renowned for his use of the “bolo” punch in the mid 1930s, a decade before Kid Gavilan was fighting main events…
    Mike great piece on Kid Gavilan and his times. I also have fond memory’s of Billy Graham, when my dad took me to St. Nicholas Arena, and waiting to give the ticket taker our ticket, a young fellow carrying a gym bag went through the turnstyle before us without showing a ticket. Surprised, I soon found out this fellow was fighting a 4 round prelim bout under the name of Billy Graham…Saw him many times after at Stillman’s gym where he was trained by Whitey Bimstein, who also trained Rocky Graziano.

  18. Mike Casey 03:27am, 07/14/2013

    Too true, Mike! Thank you

  19. Mike Silver 11:53pm, 07/13/2013

    Thank you Mike for resurrecting these wonderful names from boxing’s fabulous fifties. What marvelous talent and variety of styles they represent.

  20. Clarence George 05:43am, 07/13/2013

    Thanks, Mike.  Frankly, I don’t know why so many insist it was Gavilan.  After all, Garcia preceded him by a considerable margin and was renowned for the punch.  The reason I “lean” toward Garcia is because Macario Flores is also sometimes credited as the originator.  But I’m a fan of the somewhat underappreciated Garcia, and I’m happy to give him the nod.

  21. Mike Casey 05:31am, 07/13/2013

    To the best of my knowledge, Clarence, it was Garcia.

  22. Clarence George 05:12am, 07/13/2013

    Outstanding, of course (despite your erroneous opinion of “Angel Heart”).

    I’ll take this opportunity to pick your brains, Mike:  Who deserves credit for coming up with the bolo punch, Kid Gavilan or Ceferino Garcia?  I lean toward Garcia, but I’d like to know your opinion.  Yes, yes, you’ll get your check.  Jeez!

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