By Ray Schultz
Havana, an old-world city known in folklore for its vice and political turmoil, was the dateline for at least two big stories in 1952. In March, the 1930s strong man Fulgencio Batista returned to power in a coup. In December, Kid Gavilan of Camaguey defended his world welterweight title against Billy Graham at the Gran Stadium. “The weather was hot—and Gavilan’s attack was as torrid,” the New York Times said. And nestled in the crowd was a 15 year-old amateur boxer named Angel Fortez Garcia.
One of several Cuban fighters starting out in the ‘50s, Garcia was a future friend and peer of Sugar Ramos, Jose Napoles, Luis Rodriguez, Benny Kid Paret, Jose Legra, Florentino Fernandez, Doug Vaillant and many more. Two things set Garcia apart from most of them, though. One was his background. Paret fought to escape the Santa Clara sugar cane fields, Ramos, from Matanzas, because his father promised him extra food. Garcia was the son of an Army officer. He grew up in “a nice place in a well-kept suburb of Havana, a good neighborhood,” Chino Govin said. “There were six kids, a happy family.”
What had attracted him to boxing? “Some fights I saw on TV,” Garcia told me, and that was no doubt true. But I suspect he was also drawn to the money and the good times.
The other difference was his ring name. While Garcia admired Gavilan, the first Cuban champ since Kid Chocolate in the 1930s, he was more influenced by the man who had twice beaten Gavilan: Sugar Ray Robinson. Yet instead of calling himself Sugar (as Ramos did), Garcia or someone around him came up with a variation that fit better with his name: He would be Angel Robinson Garcia.
Having won all his amateur fights, Garcia turned pro in July 1955, kayoing Roberto Garcia in a one-round featherweight bout in Havana, and he won four more before losing to Renaldo Marquez in Santa Clara. He was then 18 years old. “At the preliminary stage, he only lost one fight,” Chino Govin said. “The decision was a robbery. He fought the same guy three more times.”
The next year was even better. Garcia scored 17 straight wins, many in distant towns, and topped it off by beating Trini Ruiz in ten rounds in Havana. He was fighting main events within 18 months of turning pro, and that meant something in Havana, that “hot and radiant” city, as Carlos Eire described it, where an upcoming pugilist was a celebrity. “But Havana was not in the United States,” Eire continued. “That was the beauty of it, and the horror. So much freedom, so little freedom. Freedom to be reckless, but no genuine freedom from woe. Plenty of thrills, and an overabundance of risks, large and small. But so little margin for error, and so few safety nets.”
Not that Garcia felt he needed a safety net. Ever the tough guy, he fought Chico Morales in Santiago de Cuba after sleeping all night in a theater and then on a park bench. Exhausted from that, and from a 14-hour bus ride, he went to the weigh-in, made the weight, then chowed down on “eggs, bacon, sausages and a little cheese, cold milk and lots of coffee” in a pub, the Italian writer Dario Torromeo reported. And he won the fight, although it is not listed on his record, Torromeo added.
In May 1957, age 20, Garcia faced Orlando (Baby) Echevarria, a rugged southpaw, for the Cuban junior lightweight crown. He was inspired because Sugar Ray Robinson, at age 35, had just kayoed Gene Fullmer with a perfect left hook to win the world middleweight title for the fourth time.
“The sensational victory in the rematch against Gene Fullmer has enthused the manner of Angel ‘Robinson’ Garcia, who talked of emulating his great idol in his combat on Saturday,” Diario De La Marina noted.
“‘I have prepared myself to make an intelligent fight and gain a rapid victory like my great idol Sugar Ray Robinson,’ Garcia said. ‘I have decided to demonstrate to the fanatics who have seen my last encounters and think I committed many errors. The opportunity has come to my door.’”
Garcia failed to kayo Echevarria, but he outpointed him in 12 rounds, and in his next bout that October beat Guillermo Medina with “a lot of left jabbing and moves,” Chino Govin said. Kid Gavilan’s legendary trainer, Yamil Chade, was impressed with Garcia, and at some point became his manager.
Batista, meanwhile, was working with the gangster Meyer Lansky to build casinos and collect a “personal share of the gaming industry’s profits,” historians Dick Cluster and Rafael Hernandez wrote. One obstacle in his path was the 26th of July movement led by Castro. These rebels had stormed the Moncada army base on July 26, 1953, and were now fighting the regime from the Sierra Maestra mountains. There were frequent explosions and blackouts in Havana.
In February 1958, Batista opened a City of Sports, the centerpiece of which was a $2 million indoor arena adorned with pink marble from the province of Pinar del Rio. The inaugural week was to start with the annual Gran Premio automobile race and end with an all-star boxing card. This would feature world lightweight champ Joe (Old Bones) Brown vs. the light-skinned Baby Echevarria, Garcia’s recent foe, in a non-title bout that would be broadcast to the States.
Batista should have thought it through a little better. The previous year’s Gran Premio winner, Juan Manuel Fangio of Argentina, was standing in his hotel lobby the day before the meet when he felt a gun in his back, Sports Illustrated reported. Moments later, reporters received this call: “This is the 26th of July speaking. We kidnapped Fangio.”
The race went on anyway, and what happened next had nothing to do with Castro. A race car skidded on an oil slick on the Malecon, Havana’s oceanfront highway, and hurtled into the unprotected crowd at 100 mph. Seven people were killed, their empty shoes “a stark indictment of heedless and irresponsible men,” a reporter wrote. Fangio watched it on TV with his captors, who released him after the race.
Another politician might have cancelled the boxing program. Not Batista. It went on under armed guard, and 12,000 people, everyone from Joe Louis to the cowboy star Gene Autry, were there to see Cuba humiliated. Two Cubans, Oscar Suarez and Jose Ramon Flores, lost to Mexicans, Flores sustaining a cerebral hemorrhage. Then Echeverria got in the ring with Joe Brown. He landed the first punch, but Brown floored him with a right and finished him when he got up—Old Bones did not want to prolong this. “My easiest fight,” Brown said. “He’s very strong, but not too smart.”
If there was any consolation for Cubans, it was in a bout for the Latin American junior lightweight title: Angel Robinson Garcia versus Panama’s Isidro Martinez. Outboxed at first, Garcia cut Martinez in the 7th, decked him in the 8th and finished him in the 9th when he could no longer move his left leg. “Angel Robinson Garcia, who has a striking resemblance to Sugar Ray, pounded out a 2-fisted attack in the 9th round to halt Isidro Martinez of Panama for the Jr. Lightweight crown,” Nat Fleischer, the dean of boxing writers, wrote in The Ring. Nineteen years and hundreds of fights later, Garcia recalled that he was the only Cuban to win that night. “I win for Cuba,” he said.