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Kid Chocolate: Games Revive Sweet Memories

NEWSDAY

It is my all-time favorite sports nickname and it is back in the news in a small fashion at the Pan American Games in Cuba. The boxing bouts there are being held in Kid Chocolate Hall, which is named after Kid Chocolate, the 1932-33 featherweight champion whose real name was Eligio Sardinias.

Watching the Pan Am bouts on the tube, I was pleased to hear the name Kid Chocolate again, and it got me wondering how the name came about. Because so many of the old-time boxing people are not around anymore, it took some tracking down. One call led to another and then Irving Rudd put me on to Steve Farhood of The Ring magazine who checked with publisher Stanley Weston, who came up with the answer.

Damon Runyon, a boxing writer and columnist as well as a short-story writer, was so struck by Sardinias the first time he saw him fight that he said he was “as smooth as melted chocolate” -- and named him Kid Chocolate. A scrumptious name.

There is a Kid Chocolate anecdote I’ve always liked. It concerns Tony Canzoneri, a lightweight champion of the time who once said, “Kid Chocolate was the toughest guy I ever had to fight because he had such a little head, he was hard to hit.” How then did Canzoneri beat him? Canzoneri answered, “I just kept hitting him on that little head.”

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Alex Wallau, who is doing the boxing analysis for ABC and TNT, said on the phone from Havana this week, “The building had been a museum but they renamed it for him. They did it even though he is a remnant of the old capitalistic system down here, a guy with fast cars, the fast life.”

There are many such ironies in Cuba that strike Wallau and many of the people covering the Games. “This is my 11th trip here since 1977,” Wallau said, “because I’ve covered several Cuban-U.S.A. competitions. I’m always astounded that this country is conceived as such an enemy. When you are here and see how poor it is, you see that it is no threat and you wonder about our continuing policy of isolating it in the interests of the few big companies they nationalized even though we have come to terms with China and all its suppression of human rights.”

Wallau, 45, a literate, well-rounded man who has worked for newspapers and worked on political campaigns at the grass-roots level, said, “With communism’s downfall all over the world, you have the feeling that this country will go through an imminent change. But you get no sense of change here. There is less traffic, less food than I’ve seen before, but there doesn’t look like a loss of spirit despite the increase in visa applications to the United States and their fascination with anything American.”

He said, “You have to realize that the majority of people born here were born after the revolution. They don’t know what it was like before. And while communism was imposed on the East European states that have overthrown it, here they fought for it and they are proud of what they did.”

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ABC has done some excellent pieces about Cuba. One in particular by reporter John Quinones was about a human rights activist who has been in and out of jail during the Castro regime. While he continues to speak out against Castro’s policies, he questions the U.S. attitude toward Cuba. “It only stiffens people’s backs when they are treated that way,” he said.

These Games on TV have provided the first view of Castro’s Cuba for most Americans. And probably the most striking image to come out of it all has been Castro getting up and down participating in a wave at the basketball arena.

Wallau said that with one exception he has never experienced any difficulty with Cuban authorities. “That one time was when I arrived with a copy of Penthouse because I was reading an interview with Reggie Jackson. It was confiscated as pornographic material at the airport to my total embarrassment.”

Wallau echoes other visitors’ comments about the warmth and hospitality of the Cuban people. “They could resent us and hate our guts, but they are able to separate our government’s policies against Cuba from individual Americans like us. I wonder how Americans would react if we had done to us what we have done to them.”

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The fights are on almost every night and weekday through the end of the games Sunday. “It makes me cuckoo,” Wallau said, “that on TV you see the empty bank of seats at ringside that face the camera. Only those seats reserved for Castro and his retinue are seen on TV, yet the rest of the arena is packed with people, no admission charge, who make for a great scene. It is a family crowd, some babes in arms, and they are extraordinarily emotional, cheering for good bouts whether or not a Cuban is in it. And when a Cuban is in it, they react in a sophisticated way to good fighting.”


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