Kid Gavilan, aka “The Cuban Hawk,” had been a top ranked boxer for years before he won the world welterweight title, having bested such rough customers as Tommy Bell, George Costner, Ike Williams, Tony Janiro and Beau Jack before becoming champion. In fact, his first chance for a world title was against Sugar Ray Robinson, a rematch after their somewhat controversial non-title clash in 1948. On that occasion, the crowd in Yankee Stadium went berserk when Robinson was awarded a unanimous points win. While most at ringside felt the judges got it right, the fans were won over by Gavilan’s aggressive surge in the late going.
Their showdown for the championship a year later in Philadelphia was more decisive. Everyone knew Robinson had an extremely difficult time making 147 pounds, so Gavilan tried to take advantage, setting a fast pace and sweeping the first four rounds. But after that, the champion asserted himself and dominated the Cuban in the latter stages of the bout. If Sugar Ray didn’t look like an all-time great in his first battle with “The Keed,” he certainly did in the second.
But then Robinson moved up to middleweight, eventually winning his second divisional crown when he stopped Jake LaMotta in the famous “St. Valentine’s Day Massacre” in 1951, while Gavilan defeated Johnny “Honey Boy” Bratton to become the new king at 147. For the next few years “The Hawk” maintained a busy schedule, mixing in a good number of non-title wins with championship defenses against Billy Graham, Gil Turner, Chuck Davey and Carmen Basilio.
By 1954, he had pretty much cleaned out the division, so naturally Gavilan’s sights turned to the middleweights; after all, Robinson had retired, hanging up the gloves after his traumatic defeat to Joey Maxim in June of 1952. Ray would return in 1955, but in the meantime Carl “Bobo” Olson had secured the vacant 160 pound title with his win over Randy Turpin. Like Gavilan, Olson’s record also featured a pair of losses to Robinson. In 1950 he was knocked out in twelve rounds and in ’52 he surprised some by giving Ray a bit of trouble before the champion rallied to secure a unanimous decision. But since then Olson had put together a twelve fight win streak; he was a clear favorite to retain his title against Gavilan.
The two champions were a study in contrasts in the days leading up to the match. The smile never seemed to leave Gavilan’s face, while a perpetual grimace never left Olson’s. The press loved the good-natured Gavilan and the papers were filled with photos of the happy Cuban’s pearly-white grin.
“I feel better for this fight than ever before,” said the popular battler with the famous “Bolo Punch.” “In the past I have been troubled by weight. Now I can eat and drink anything I want. People believe Olson’s weight advantage will be too much. It won’t mean a thing. I will beat Olson on speed and ability. ”
Meanwhile “Bobo,” aka “The Kalihi Kid,” wasn’t talking much to reporters and his handlers admitted he was more irritable than usual. “That’s a real good sign,” said his manager, Syd Flaherty. “When he gets crabby, I know he’s in the mood to do some real tough fighting.”
As soon as the match was signed, Olson vs Gavilan was a hot ticket. After all, back then there were only eight weight divisions in pro boxing and each one had a single champion. Weird, eh? So a match between a pair of legit world champs was automatically a major attraction. A crowd of some twenty thousand filled Chicago Stadium for a showdown between two boxing kings and none left disappointed. Gavilan and Olson both set a fast pace and gave fight fans a tightly-contested and highly entertaining battle.
Every round was close, but the difference was Olson’s natural edge in strength as he applied steady pressure and consistently backed up the smaller man. The fighters took turns landing flurries of heavy blows and in round nine Gavilan suffered a cut over his right eye. In the following round they engaged in a prolonged toe-to-toe exchange described by The New York Times as “one of the most furious and grueling in ring history.”
The vicious pace of round ten may have sapped the challenger’s energy as he coasted in the next three stanzas and so Olson seized the initiative, driving home thudding left hooks to body and head. Gavilan fought back with his famous flurries but it was the champion doing the more meaningful work. The challenger made a gallant stand in the final round, stunning Olson with his own left hooks, but it was too little, too late. The referee and one judge gave it to Olson by six and eight points, while the third official called it a draw. There were some who later swore they actually saw “Bobo” smile when the decision was announced.
Afterwards, it was no surprise to hear Kid Gavilan claim that he thought he had won the fight, but some were startled when the Cuban and his manager claimed that “The Keed” had competed with an injured right hand. He asserted that he had damaged it in his tune-up match the month before and it had bothered him throughout training camp. When asked about that, Olson scowled some more and pointed out that the challenger had passed his required medicals with no difficulty.
Gavilan lost his welterweight title to Johnny Saxton the following October in a highly controversial bout, it being well known that Saxton was controlled by Blinky Palermo and the Philadelphia mob. Bookies suspended betting on that match weeks before it happened. The incredibly tough Cuban continued boxing for another four years, but never again fought for a world title.
In June of 1955 Olson took a cue from Gavilan and tried to move up in weight; light heavyweight champion Archie Moore accommodated him and knocked him out in three. And by the end of that year he was back in the ring with a resurgent Sugar Ray Robinson, who relieved Olson of his middleweight title, scoring a clean KO over “Bobo” in the second round. Gavilan and Olson soon faded away, but the Sugarman journeyed on. — Michael Carbert