Eligio Sardiñas: 1910-1988: Boxer Biography
Cuban boxer Eligio "Kid Chocolate" Sardiñas was the first Cuban world champion in the history of boxing. From the late 1920s to the late 1930s, he was one of the most popular fighters in New York. He was noted for his speed and his fast punches.
Sardiñas was born in Havana, Cuba, on January 6, 1910, and first began fighting as a boy, when he worked as a newspaper seller and had to defend his sales turf from other boys. After winning an amateur boxing tournament that was sponsored by the newspaper La Noche, the newspaper's sports editor, Luis Gutierrez, became his manager. Gutierrez was not well-versed in boxing, so he and Sardiñas studied the sport by watching films of famous fighters. In the Encyclopedia of World Boxing Champions, Gutierrez commented, "When the Keed first came to me, neither he nor myself knew anything much about boxing. We figured the best thing to do was study the methods of the masters."
The first fight they studied was the Gans-Nelson fight; while the film was playing in Havana movie houses, they viewed it every day, noting how Gans used his left hand. After watching it, they went to the gym, where Sardiñas practiced left-handed techniques. For the next eight years, Sardiñas continued to study films, learning from the masters.
As an amateur featherweight, Sardiñas won 100 consecutive fights in the Cuban Leagues; among these were 86 knockouts. He became a professional in 1928, winning another 28 consecutive knockouts. In August of that year, he moved to the United States. There Sardiñas extended his winning streak by 13, including eight knockouts, giving him a total of 141 consecutive wins and 122 knockouts. His fights moved from small clubs to huge venues, including Madison Square Garden. By 1929, he was ranked the top featherweight fighter by The Ring, a boxing publication.
In 1930 Sardiñas fought hall-of-fame boxer Jackie "Kid" Berg at the Polo Grounds, in front of a crowd of 40,000. Although Berg weighed almost ten pounds more than Sardiñas, Sardiñas kept pounding, slamming uppercuts into Berg's head. Eventually Sardiñas tired, and Berg won by a narrow margin. It was Sardiñas's first defeat.
On July 15, 1931, in Philadelphia, Sardiñas fought Benny Bass, knocking out Bass in the seventh round to win the junior lightweight title. At the time, he weighed 126 pounds and was five feet, six inches tall. In 1932 Sardiñas lost a rematch with Berg, but came back to challenge Fidel LaBarba for the world featherweight title.
Sardiñas and LaBarba fought three times; Sardiñas won two of these fights. Of the two wins, the most important occurred in New York City on December 9, 1932. Because Sardiñas had beaten the standing champion, on that date he was crowned world featherweight champion by the New York Boxing Commission. He thus became the first Cuban in boxing history to hold the world championship title. Sardiñas kept the title for a year and 17 days, beating seven challengers and ultimately losing to Frankie Klick. On December 26, 1933, Klick knocked him out in the seventh round in Philadelphia, taking the title. Klick remained the champion until 1949.
Although Sardiñas never took the championship title again, he continued fighting, mostly against second-rate competitors, until he retired in 1938. In his decade-long career in the United States, he won 145 of 161 fights with 64 knockouts, one of the best records in featherweight history. He was counted out only twice in 161 fights.
Sardiñas was famous in his day, but like many boxers of that era, he was cheated by dishonest managers, and he also spent a great deal of his money on night life and good times. After retiring, he moved to Cuba, where he ran a gym. As he grew older and his money ran out, he suffered from poverty and alcoholism, troubles common to out-of-work boxers of his time. In the New York Times, Ira Berkow reported that he lived quietly, out of the public view, and subsisted on a pension provided by the Cuban government. Berkow quoted boxing expert Nat Fleischer, who said, "He was sickly, bent over and he walked with a cane. It's like he disappeared when [Cuban dictator Fidel] Castro came."
As a Cuban, Sardiñas was revered by the New York Hispanic community, and he also won the admiration of boxing fans throughout the United States. In A Pictorial History of Boxing, Nat Fleischer wrote, "Kid Chocolate, the Cuban bonbon, was a truly finished ringman. He was an excellent boxer, with an abundance of ring skill and a good puncher."
Sardiñas's career also provided inspiration for boxers who came after him, including famed fighter Joe Louis. Before he became a boxer, Louis was considering a musical career as a violinist, but when a friend told him how much Sardiñas made from one fight, he put his violin aside and took up boxing. Sugar Ray Robinson was also a fan of Sardiñas. On the International Boxing Hall of Fame website, Robert Cassidy quoted Cuban journalist Fausto Miranda, who said, "Sugar Ray Robinson was a great admirer of Kid Chocolate. No other man, no other Cuban, did in the ring what Chocolate did. For style, he was the best. Fancy, fancy, fancy."
Boxer Archie Moore, like Louis, was inspired by the amount of money Sardiñas made by fighting. Dave Kindred reported in the Sporting News that Moore once said, "I suppose I liked him because his name sounded so sweet. Most of all, the money intrigued me." Moore also noted that Sardiñas once made $2,500 for one fight, a very large amount for the time.
Sardiñas died in Cuba in 1988. According to Berkow, his death was announced on Cuban state radio, but no details were provided regarding the cause of his death or whether or not he had any survivors. He was buried in a cemetery designated for significant Cubans, and a boxing stadium in Havana was named in his honor. In 1994, in recognition of his achievements, Sardiñas was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.
Dictionary of Hispanic Biography, Gale Research, 1996.
Fleischer, Nat, A Pictorial History of Boxing, rev. by Sam Andre and Nat Loubet, Citadel Press, 1975.
McCallum, John D., The Encyclopedia of World Boxing Champions, Chilton, 1975.
New York Times, August 21, 1988, p. S5.
Sporting News, December 21, 1998.
"Enshrinees," International Boxing Hall of Fame, www.ibhof.com/chocolate.htm (May 7, 2003).
"The Last Generation of Pro Fighters," International Boxing Hall of Fame, www.ibhof.com/ibhfcuba 1.htm (May 7, 2003).
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