A Crown For Cocoa Kid

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, Ga., 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.

Cocoa-air_forceThe boy sprouted into adolescence like a reed reaching toward the sun. He turned 15 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 17, he earned fifty-cent purses in West Palm Beach, Fla. 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 lightning 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 81 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.

(Special to The Queensberry Rules)

Photograph courtesy of Harry Otty. Boxing historian and writer for thesweetscience.com 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.

About Tim Starks

Tim is the founder of The Queensberry Rules and co-founder of The Transnational Boxing Rankings Board (http://www.tbrb.org). He lives in Washington, D.C. He has written for the Guardian, Economist, New Republic, Chicago Tribune and more.