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“JUST WATCH MAH SMOKE ” Part 2: My Ship Is Coming In

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Part 2: My Ship Is Coming InS.S. Ponce entering New York Harbor“JUST WATCH MAH SMOKE,”
Part 2: My Ship Is Coming In

Harry Durant was an expert angler, a playwright, lawyer, judge, and state legislator in New Haven, Connecticut. He was also a New England snowbird wealthy enough to flee to Florida in wintertime. Snowbirds typically pass their days amid the sun and the green of golf courses. Harry preferred leather and stink.

He would take jaunts to the boxing gyms of West Palm Beach with eyes peeled for talent. One afternoon in 1932 he found it. An underfed teenager was beating the begeezuz out of professionals. It was Lewis Hardwick, trying to make a dollar out of fifty cents. Fifty cents -that’s what sparring partners earned in an afternoon. Durant was impressed enough to take Lewis aside and bend his ear. It wouldn’t take much to persuade him to relocate north to New Haven that spring.

Like Lewis, New Haven had its own connections to the sea. The city was built out from a natural harbor and the young boxer need only walk down to the wharves to gaze at schooners and hear the sound of buoy bells and waves lapping the shore. Most new citizens in the area during this time were, fittingly enough, African-American and Puerto Rican. Lewis probably felt right at home. His new sponsor set him up, became his temporary guardian, and brought in seasoned trainers Charley Brown and Al Blondi to continue his education in the fistic arts. They had him sparring with the best around; including future featherweight champion Petey Sarron.

It was around this time, April 1932, that newspapers began calling him “Cocoa Kid.” Lewis said that he chose the nickname as a tribute to the Cuban “Kid Chocolate” –the Jr. lightweight king then taking the northeast by storm. Durant, who also happened to be a manager of stage stars, was probably behind it.

Back in Atlanta, Lewis fought as if he was in a battle royal. He had a crowd-pleasing style that saw him flailing from all sides to force a knockout. Brown and Blondi calmed him down. They taught him to use his nearly six foot frame to control range behind a jab and set up what was becoming a destructive right cross. His combinations became less about nerves and more about placement. They made his mobility more efficient by adding angles and showing him how to maintain distance between himself and his opponent. His defense was also improved; with two lashing long arms and height enough to look down on just about everyone else in his division, there were plenty of good reasons to deliver punches and not one to accept them.

Lewis was an attentive student –too advanced for Rene Peloquin to make the grade. In the summer of 1932, Peloquin went down five times and ended the fourth round draped over the second rope. Three weeks later “Kid Cocoa” showcased a set of skills that was “a revelation to fans” and a curse on Baby Jack Renault. Renault tried to send over a haymaker for ten rounds, missed, and lost all of them. Cocoa Kid’s Boston debut in July saw jabs and right hands send Pete Herman floundering around the ring like an old salty on a raft.

The new arrival became one of the busier boxers in the racket. Between April and December 1932 he had 17 fights, 21 in 1933, and 24 in 1934.

It was the height of the Depression. Boxers had to accept smaller checks but few talents were standing in bread lines. If attendance levels at events during those years are any indication, America needed her fighters. Martial societies always have. The attraction isn’t mere escapism; at times it’s cathartic and often patriotic. It’s a visual reminder of cultural virility that has persisted on either side of the Roman timeline.

Boxing, like the Roman Empire, like mayhem for that matter, is multi-cultural. After retiring Louis “Kid” Kaplan (a Russian Jew), Cocoa Kid (“that New Haven smoke,” according to the Holyoke Daily Transcript and Telegram) faced Irish-American Frankie Carlton in May 1933. He entered the ring a 7-5 underdog. Once he started throwing away Carlton’s signature left hook like yesterday’s news, it became a brutal clinic. In the second round, Cocoa Kid landed a jab that blinded Carlton for a second. The local newspaper puts us at ringside for what happened next:

And then, pivoting rapidly and sharply he snapped his right hand out and it crashed Carlton just below the left ear… Carlton’s head jerked back, his mouth fell open and the rubber protector for his teeth flashed out and bounded across the ring… A glaze came over Carlton’s eyes but he shook his head and turned to renew hostilities instinctively… the Kid stepped back and then flashed rapidly in with a left and right to the chin… Carlton shook to his heels, halted in his tracks, then slowly crumbled and spread-eagled the canvas… he lay there while the referee counted and until with the assistance of the Kid… his seconds carried him to his corner, where he flopped about lifelessly as they attempted to seat him in his chair.

Carlton was out, the report continued, “like many of our bankers.”

Cocoa Kid was on a train to Atlanta the next day to bring Aunt Antonia and his younger brother with him back north. He sought the company of familiar faces like anyone else. He was like anyone else in another way too –he could be thwarted. Harry Emond proved it when he sent him sailing unconscious through the ropes.

Emond, a southpaw out of Taunton, Massachusetts, got lucky. Four sons of Rome didn’t need luck.

Mike Frattini, Luigi Giuseppe d’Ambrosio (that is, Lou Ambers), Battling Battalino, and Saverio Turiello had his number. He fought them a total of seven times and lost six. Before a rematch against Frattini, reporters framed the bout as Cocoa Kid’s attempt to break the “Italian jinx.” When he lost, they said that “this race of boxers” put a hex on him. It was no such thing. These contubernales shared a common complaint –the sidewalk was built too close to their shoulders. They shared a common style too –they were crowding, aggressive men who slipped jabs and attacked sternums and flanks.

Seasoned trainers know that tall fighters should fight tall. They should keep a shorter opponent at the end of a jab, a bit like holding a wolf by the ears. Short fighters might wear lifts outside the ring but inside they want to create the opposite illusion; they want to look smaller. The smart ones will crouch down and shoot inside long arms to leverage shots into protruding ribs. To the short and ferocious, ribs become ringing chimes.

This is precisely what Frattini was –short enough to get under shots and ferocious enough to “set up a steady bombardment” to his body. At the end of the rematch, Cocoa Kid was a bit mangled but on his feet. When Turiello went underneath Cocoa Kid’s lightning left, the Baltimore Sun said he was “practically on the floor” but he “dodged and ducked and fell in close to deliver plenty of body punishment.” The chunky Ambers, an all-time great who would go on to become the lightweight champion of the world, moved ever-forward and hurt the teenager several times. According to the Providence Journal, he met a long jab with short jolting ones. By combining aggression with a versatile attack, Ambers put him down three times in the seventh round. Cocoa Kid’s gallant exertions did not win him the decision. In 1934, Battalino bobbed and weaved around the ring, got close and attacked a weight-drained body. When Cocoa Kid lowered his guard to protect his ribs, Battalino landed four rights to the head and his knees sagged. In the sixth round, a “distressed look” was observed on Cocoa Kid’s face when he was corralled into a corner. After the round he “slumped on his stool” and his chief second signaled the referee to end the fight.

Not all of his losses were so clear. Some had more shadows than a film noir:

When he lost a decision to Frankie Carlton’s brother Harry in 1933, the crowd booed itself hoarse. When Mike Kaplan was awarded a split decision over him in Boston, the Globe reported that the pro-Kaplan crowd was “amazed at the verdict for its favorite.” A decision loss in Stamford, Connecticut to Billy Bridges was roundly booed. The matchmaker took a look at the referee’s card and found that scores for two rounds had been altered in favor of Bridges. He was robbed of a victory in New Orleans when his bout against Harvey Massey was scored a draw. The dismayed announcer looked at the tally several times before reading the decision and when he did, the uproar lasted twenty minutes with fans throwing whatever wasn’t nailed down into the ring. The sports department of the Times-Picayune took a survey and couldn’t find anyone “who didn’t think Cocoa won as far as you can throw a rock.”

Cocoa Kid fought on. His ship was coming in, but there was fog in the harbor and uncharted dangers ahead.

CHECK BACK SOON FOR PART 3 OF 8.

Milton James Burns’s “S.S. Ponce Entering New York Harbor” opens this essay.

The following periodicals were used in researching this essay: the Palm Beach Post, Meriden Daily Journal, Harford Courant, North Adams Transcript, Boston Globe, Holyoke Daily Transcript and Telegram, The Sun, Providence Journal, and the New Orleans Times-Picayune.

Springs Toledo can be contacted at scalinatella@hotmail.com.

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2015 Fight of the Year – Francisco Vargas vs Takashi Miura

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The WBC World Super Featherweight title bout between Francisco Vargas and Takashi Miura came on one of the biggest boxing stages of 2015, as the bout served as the HBO pay-per-view’s co-main event on November 21st, in support of Miguel Cotto vs Saul Alvarez.

Miura entered the fight with a (29-2-2) record and he was making the fifth defense of his world title, while Vargas entered the fight with an undefeated mark of (22-0-1) in what was his first world title fight. Both men had a reputation for all-out fighting, with Miura especially earning high praise for his title defense in Mexico where he defeated Sergio Thompson in a fiercely contested battle.

The fight started out hotly contested, and the intensity never let up. Vargas seemed to win the first two rounds, but by the fourth round, Miura seemed to pull ahead, scoring a knock-down and fighting with a lot of confidence. After brawling the first four rounds, Miura appeared to settle into a more technical approach. Rounds 5 and 6 saw the pendulum swing back towards Vargas, as he withstood Miura’s rush to open the fifth round and the sixth round saw both men exchanging hard punches.

The big swinging continued, and though Vargas likely edged Miura in rounds 5 and 6, Vargas’ face was cut in at least two spots and Miura started to assert himself again in rounds 7 and 8. Miura was beginning to grow in confidence while it appeared that Vargas was beginning to slow down, and Miura appeared to hurt Vargas at the end of the 8th round.

Vargas turned the tide again at the start of the ninth round, scoring a knock down with an uppercut and a straight right hand that took Miura’s legs and sent him to the canvas. Purely on instinct, Miura got back up and continued to fight, but Vargas was landing frequently and with force. Referee Tony Weeks stepped in to stop the fight at the halfway point of round 9 as Miura was sustaining a barrage of punches.

Miura still had a minute and a half to survive if he was going to get out of the round, and it was clear that he was not going to stop fighting.

A back and forth battle of wills between two world championship level fighters, Takashi Miura versus “El Bandido” Vargas wins the 2015 Fight of the Year.

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Jan 9 in Germany – Feigenbutz and De Carolis To Settle Score

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This coming Saturday, January 9th, the stage is set at the Baden Arena in Offenburg, Germany for a re-match between Vincent Feigenbutz and Giovanni De Carolis. The highly anticipated re-match is set to air on SAT.1 in Germany, and Feigenbutz will once again be defending his GBU and interim WBA World titles at Super Middleweight.

The first meeting between the two was less than three months ago, on October 17th and that meeting saw Feigenbutz controversially edge De Carolis on the judge’s cards by scores of (115-113, 114-113 and 115-113). De Carolis scored a flash knock down in the opening round, and he appeared to outbox Feigenbutz in the early going, but the 20 year old German champion came on in the later rounds.

The first bout is described as one of the most crowd-pleasing bouts of the year in Germany, and De Carolis and many observers felt that the Italian had done enough to win.

De Carolis told German language website RAN.DE that he was more prepared for the re-match, and that due to the arrogance Feigenbutz displayed in the aftermath of the first fight, he was confident that he had won over some of the audience. Though De Carolis fell short of predicting victory, he promised a re-vamped strategy tailored to what he has learned about Feigenbutz, whom he termed immature and inexperienced.

The stage is set for Feigenbutz vs De Carolis 2, this Saturday January 9th in Offenburg, Germany. If you can get to the live event do it, if not you have SAT.1 in Germany airing the fights, and The Boxing Channel right back here for full results.

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2015 Knock Out of the Year – Saul Alvarez KO’s James Kirkland

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On May 9th of 2015, Saul “Canelo” Alvarez delivered a resonant knock-out of James Kirkland on HBO that wins the 2015 KO of the Year.

The knock-out itself came in the third round, after slightly more than two minutes of action. The end came when Alvarez delivered a single, big right hand that caught Kirkland on the jaw and left him flat on his back after spinning to the canvas.Alvarez was clearly the big star heading into the fight. The fight was telecast by HBO for free just one week after the controversial and disappointing Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao fight, and Alvarez was under pressure to deliver the type of finish that people were going to talk about. Kirkland was happy to oblige Alvarez, taking it right to Alvarez from the start. Kirkland’s aggression saw him appear to land blows that troubled the young Mexican in the early going. Alvarez played good defense, and he floored Kirkland in the first round, displaying his power and his technique in knocking down an aggressive opponent.

However, Kirkland kept coming at Alvarez and the fight entered the third round with both men working hard and the feeling that the fight would not go the distance. Kirkland continued to move forward, keeping “Canelo” against the ropes and scoring points with a barrage of punches while looking for an opening.

At around the two minute mark, Alvarez landed an uppercut that sent Kirkland to the canvas again. Kirkland got up, but it was clear that he did not have his legs under him. Kirkland was going to try to survive the round, but Alvarez had an opportunity to close out the fight. The question was would he take it?

Alvarez closed in on Kirkland, putting his opponent’s back to the ropes. Kirkland was hurt, but he was still dangerous, pawing with punches and loading up for one big shot.

But it was the big shot “Canelo” threw that ended the night. Kirkland never saw it coming, as he was loading up with a huge right hand of his own. The right Alvarez threw cracked Kirkland in the jaw, and his eyes went blank. His big right hand whizzed harmlessly over the head of a ducking Alvarez, providing the momentum for the spin that left Kirkland prone on the canvas.

Saul “Canelo” Alvarez went on to defeat Miguel Cotto in his second fight of 2015 and he is clearly one of boxing’s biggest stars heading into 2016. On May 9th Alvarez added another reel to his highlight film when he knocked out James Kirkland with the 2015 “Knock Out of the Year”.

Photo by naoki fukuda

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