Thursday, September 24, 2009
The Power and the Passion of Dwight Hawkins (PART 1)
In the early sixties boxing was on the ropes and reeling from the exposure of mob corruption. Names such as Frankie Carbo, Blinky Palermo and Jim Norris became the targets of eager politicians seeking to advance their careers. Their goal was the abolition of the sport that people love to hate. In 1965, Sonny Liston's questionable one round loss to Muhammad Ali in Lewiston, Maine did nothing to help matters.
However, like the cock roach, boxing proved itself to be the ultimate survivor. The sweet science suddenly began to flourish with a brash young heavyweight champ and the re-emergence of local clubs that began to produce some solid talent. It was about this time that I was given the chance to realize my goal of becoming a boxer. At the time, I doubt that a 12-year-old kid could have had a better opportunity to do so.
In the mid sixties, boxing in Los Angeles experienced a sudden rebirth thanks to the efforts of promoter Aileen Eaton. Mrs. Eaton turned the legendary Olympic Auditorium into the most successful weekly boxing promotion on the planet. With televised weekly cards every Thursday night, fifty weeks out of the year, the Olympic showcased some of the best talent in boxing.
In recent months, I've written about many of the young boxers that came out of the Olympic Auditorium promotions. However, there were also veteran contenders that filled the 18th & Grand arena and waged great wars as the young crop developed. One of the veterans was somebody whom I had the luck to meet and get to know very well. I am speaking of former bantamweight and featherweight contender Dwight "The Hawk" Hawkins.
Before I chronicle the life and career of Dwight Hawkins, I'd like for you to imagine this: In California, you must be eighteen-years-old to qualify for a professional boxing license. However, through creative management (AKA: a phony birth certificate) you are able to get a boxing license at fifteen. At age seventeen, after only a dozen pro fights, you are matched with a brilliant 22-year-old from Mexico. The Mexican was rated number one in the world and would become an all-time great champion in the bantamweight division. The future world champ had more than fifty pro fights and you are only a senior in high school. You are listed as a 10-to-1 underdog and considered an easy tune-up for the next boxer in line to fight for the title. Before a capacity crowd, attending a title fight in the main event, you shock the world by knocking out the number one contender, knocking him out cold.
Impossible? Not if you're Dwight Hawkins. That's exactly what "The Hawk" did on November 6, 1957. The 17-year-old Manual Arts High School senior knocked out future champ Jose Beccera in the fourth round. It was the biggest upset in world class professional boxing that year.
Let me start from the beginning and introduce you to one of the most brutal punching boxers to ever step into the ring. However, if you think a 17-year-old knocking out the great Jose Becerra was amazing, wait until you hear the whole story. I was lucky to be a part of the last five years of Hawkins career, and even luckier to have this man help train me early in my pro career.
In the late 1940's Dwight Hawkins was a small, athletic kid who loved sports. At the age of seven, Hawkins' mother, grandmother and uncle packed up the family car and left the South and headed West. Young Dwight's family sought a better life in California.
On their journey West the family drove through Texas late one night. As Dwight slept in the back seat of the car, he was suddenly awakened. The car had been forced off the road by another driver and Hawkins uncle, who was driving, lost control of the vehicle. The car went off the road and flipped over. Somehow everybody escaped serious injury except Dwight, whose left leg was trapped underneath the wreckage. It was hours before another car passed by and when a Texas Ranger finally stopped to see what had happened he found the young boy in agony.
The cop called for help over his radio and nearly an hour later an ambulance arrived. It took Dwight's uncle, the Texas Ranger and the two ambulance attendants nearly an hour to free the kid's leg from under the car. It took another 45 minutes to get the boy to a hospital. By the time they reached the emergency room it was doubtful that Dwight's leg could be saved. However, if this wasn't enough, there was another problem. This was post World War II Texas and Hawkins was black.
When the ambulance arrived at the hospital the head nurse in charge told the driver that the facility did not take black patients. She told him the boy would have to be transferred to another hospital nearly an hour away. "But the kid is going to lose his leg!" the driver protested. The nurse said she did not make the rules and the boy would have to be taken elsewhere.
About this time a doctor walks into the emergency receiving area to see what all the commotion was about. He took one look at the boy's leg and ordered the nurse, "Get him into an operating room NOW"! The nurse answered, "But doctor, we don't . . ." The doctor turned to the nurse and said, "Did you hear me? I said get that kid into an operating room or you won't have a job tomorrow"!
Had it not been for the human decency of the doctor, a seven-year-old would have lost his leg and very possibly his life early that morning in 1947. As it was, it would be touch and go regarding saving the leg and the doctor told Dwight's mother that the boy would spend the rest of his life on crutches.
When the family arrived in California they settled in East Los Angeles, a predominately Mexican-American community, but at the time, still had an ethnic mix including blacks, whites and Asians. Dwight's mother immediately found a job across town in a hospital. To get back and forth from work she'd have to ride the bus for more than three hours everyday.
Dwight was left in the care of his grandmother while his mother worked. After school, the boy would sit on the curb with his leg in a brace watching the neighborhood kids play baseball, football or what ever other sports they were involved with. This would be tough on any kid, but for one as athletic as young Dwight had been, it was heartbreaking.
Dwight would toss his crutches aside and try to play anyway. Hawkins could still run but it was painful to do so. However, it beat sitting on the sidelines and watching the other kids have all the fun. If his mother had found out about this he'd have been in big trouble. But sometimes a kid just has to do what he has to do, regardless of the risk.
One day, Dwight's friend Armando told him that a boxing ring and punching bags had been set up in the basement of a local church and that boxing lesson's were going to be offered to neighborhood kids. "Why don't you come down and watch us box"? the boy offered.
Dwight's mind began to race and it occurred to him that boxing didn't require kicking and he believed that he might be able to give it a try. However, he knew that nobody was going to let a crippled kid try out for boxing. One afternoon, Hawkins followed Armando and the others boys to the basement gym. Before entering Dwight tossed his crutches under a bush and pulled his pant leg down to make sure his brace was covered. He made the other boys swear not to tell the coach about his leg and the boys agreed to keep their friend's secret.
Hawkins found the boxing coach to be a tall, well built former boxer who'd spent twenty years as a Sargent in the Marine Corps. The man was stern but fair and took a liking to Dwight. Hawkins was smaller than the other kids and worked twice as hard as the rest. He also proved himself to have a natural talent and in no time was outfighting the other boys, even the bigger ones. Dwight was able to hide the leg from the coach until it was time for the boys to compete in a kids boxing program. The boy's on the church team would all have to wear boxing trunks.
To keep his secret from the coach, Hawkins removed the brace and tossed it under the bush with his crutches. He then took an elastic band and wrapped it around his knee for extra support. The coach was no fool and noticed the boy did not move with the same balance as the others. When the boys left the gym the coach quietly watched Hawkins walk down the street and saw the boy retrieve the brace and crutches.
The next day the coach called his tough little protege aside and looked him in the eyes. "Son, do you have something to tell me"? Dwight looked up and knew immediately that coach was on to him. The boy stammered, "Uh . . ". The coach had become like a father to Hawkins and Dwight idolized the man. The kid also loved boxing, a sport that he had found a way to excel in despite his injury. Suddenly, it hit the boy that what had become so important to him was about to evaporate. Tears filled Dwight's eyes and the big man kneeled down and put his arms around gutty little kid. "Why don't you just tell me about it and we'll see what we can do".
Dwight poured out his heart and the coach understood how important it was to the boy to be a part of the boxing team. He also understood how a mother would fear for the safety of the boys leg. The coach met with Dwight's mother and together he and Dwight told her about her son's secret after school activity. Dwight was a good student in school and had never caused his mother a days worry. Dwight's mother reluctantly agreed to let her son box and the coach promised her that he would not allow the boy to continue if the activity was hurting the leg.
With both his mother and Coach supporting his boxing, Dwight Hawkins felt as if the weight of the world had been lifted from his shoulders. Almost immediately, young Dwight not only became the best junior amateur boxer on his team, but one of the best in the City of Los Angeles.
A couple of years later, Mrs. Hawkins decided that it would be best to move across town closer to the hospital where she worked. The long bus rides were not only difficult but prevented her from spending time with her son. The Hawkins family left East L.A. and moved into the Imperial Courts Housing Project in Watts. Imperial Courts was, and is today, one of the most violent and dangerous projects in the country.
It was lucky for Dwight that he had established himself in amateur boxing at the time because it gave him the strength and reputation necessary to withstand pressure from the other kids in the project to join their gang. It wasn't easy, but nothing in the life of Dwight Hawkins was easy. If it was easy then anybody could do it. And "The Hawk" isn't just anybody.
It was at Imperial Courts that Hawkins learned first hand the problems of inner city youth, he lived it. At night, he would lay in his bed and hear the sound of gunshot's ringing through Imperial Courts. He saw countless neighbor's harassed by police or sent to jail for behavior that he knew was senseless. Violent death was also a way of life in the projects.
By the age fifteen, Hawkins had another problem. He was just too good for amateur boxers and nobody wanted to fight him. His coach, the big Marine who had been like a father to him knew that his protege was good enough to beat professional boxers because Dwight was doing it every day in the gym. Another problem was money, Dwight wanted to contribute financially so as his mother would not have to work so hard. He wanted to make it possible for his family to move out of the projects and professional boxing might be the answer.
It was at this point that Hawkins' coach contacted Johnny Flores. Flores was known as "Mr. Golden Gloves" in Los Angeles for his work with amateur boxers and was also a manager & trainer for some successful professionals. Flores knew all about Hawkins and believed that the fifteen-year-old was already good enough to fight in the pros. Along with Hawkins' amateur coach, Flores and his partner Hal Benson helped Hawkins secure a phony birth certificate which enabled him to get a professional boxing license.
Dwight Hawkins was only fifteen and a sophomore at Manual Arts High School in South Central L.A. when he made his professional boxing debut. Flores and Benson chose to take Hawkins out of Los Angeles for his first pro fight. They wanted their young fighter to have a little experience before he was seen in a fight Mecca such as L.A.
Johnny Flores took Hawkins to San Diego for his pro debut on May 14, 1956. In his first pro bout, Dwight Hawkins knocked out Rudy Cisneros in the first round. Two weeks later he returned to San Diego where he KO'ed Chuck Palomeros in two. It was now time to unveil the "The Hawk" in his hometown, the City of Angels.
The problem was that most of the prelim bantamweights in L.A. knew all about Hawkins. Dwight was a devastating body puncher with an awkward style and he'd already hurt a number of local fighters in the gym. In order to get a match Flores had to agree to let Hawkins face Tom Turner, and experienced veteran. Hawkins KO'ed Turner in four rounds. A month later, Dwight was matched with winning main eventer named Al Wilcher and this was a dangerous match because Wilcher had beaten the best of local talent and was not to be taken lightly. The bout was scheduled for ten rounds at the Olympic Auditorium. In the sixth round, Hawkins caught Wilcher with a brutal left hook to the liver, sending the veteran to the canvas where he was counted out. The Olympic crowd included several of Dwight's teachers at Manual Arts High as well as a couple of dozen of his classmates.
There were no local boxers willing to take on the hard punching teenager so Flores took "The Hawk" down to Tijuana, Mexico. Before a sell out crowd he scored a unanimous ten round decision over Joel Sanchez in the Tijuana bull ring. Dwight was 5-0 (4 KO's) when he began his junior year in high school.
Hawkins returned to L.A. and took on a tough veteran named Babe Antunez at the Hollywood Legion Stadium. Antunez was awarded a highly disputed decision over Hawkins and the fans demanded a rematch. Exactly one week later, Hawkins beat Antunez by decision in the same ring.
It was becoming becoming more difficult to find established main eventers willing to fight Hawkins. Flores agreed to match Hawkins with Fuji Rodriguez, a tough Japanese-Mexican fighter whom had been rated among the top ten bantamweights in the world. Hawkins dropped Rodriguez early in the fight but was cut by a head butt in the fourth round. After six rounds the referee was forced to stop the fight due to the cut.
Two months later, Hawkins returned with a first round KO over Leo Carter at the Olympic. A couple of weeks after KOing Carter, Hawkins was matched with world rated Herman Duncan at the Olympic. The scar tissue from the cut suffered in the Rodriguez fight two months earlier was still fresh and ripped open from a grazing left hook in the opening round. After six rounds referee Tommy Hart was forced to stop the bout. Despite Hawkins leading on all score cards, "The Hawk" suffered the second loss of his young career.
After winning his next three fights, two by knockout, Hawkins fought top rated Kid Irapuato in the Tijuana Bull ring. Hawkins beat Irapuato badly in a one-sided match, but after ten rounds the hometown judges awarded the fight to the Mexican . The loss was discouraging to Hawkins who had just turned seventeen and was proving himself as good as the top bantamweights in the world. He knew that winning wasn't enough, he'd have take the decision out of the judges hands or he was never going to make it. On November 6, 1957, that's exactly what Dwight Hawkins would do.
Alphonse Halimi was the Bantamweight Champion of the World and would defend his title against Raul "Raton" Macias at the Los Angeles Sports Arena. Mexico's Jose Becerra, the number one contender, would be next in line for a shot at the title.
It was decided that Becerra should be featured on the undercard of the title match to build interest in his impending shot at the crown. Becerra was an exceptional fighter and considered by many to be the best 118 pounder on the planet. The 22-year-old from Guadalajara, Mexico had been fighting professionally for nearly five years and had a record of 48-3-1 (24 KO's). He had beaten Jose Medel twice, KO'ed Kid Irapuato as well as Manuel Armenteros, all world class bantams.
It would be impossible to overmatch Becerra, but finding anybody willing to take on the future world champ on the Halimi-Macias undercard was not easy. Former champ Mario D'Agata pulled out at the last minute, as well as two other substitutes. Just two days before the fight the frantic matchmaker came up with an opponent. Dwight "The Hawk" Hawkins would take the fight. Hawkins wasn't world rated but he'd done well in matches with Herman Duncan and Kid Irapuato and the Los Angeles fans loved "The Hawk".
As mentioned earlier in this story, Dwight Hawkins shocked the world by upsetting Becerra. Jose Becerra was knocked unconscious in the fourth round by the 17-year-old Manuel Arts High School senior with only a dozen pro fights under his belt.. This ruined Becerra's chance to challenge Halimi, the winner over Macias, in his next title defense. It would be more than a year later before he'd finally face the champ from Algeria in the ring and win the title.
Suddenly Hawkins name became well known among the world's best bantamweights. However, it was also a name to be feared. "What benefit is there to fighting Dwight Hawkins?", was the question concerned managers asked themselves. "Hell, even if you find a way to beat the guy what does your fighter gain? Broken ribs? A victory over a teenager"? Hawkins was one to avoid, boxing is tough enough without throwing the name Dwight Hawkins into the equation.
Three weeks after defeating Becerra, Hawkins went to Mexicali where he faced Felix Cervantes, whom he'd knocked out two months previous in Tijuana. Hawkins had his way with Cervantes but this time the bout went the distance. When Hawkins failed to KO the Mexican he feared he'd have little chance of winning a decision below the border. He was right, The Mexicali judges awarded the match to Cervantes despite the fighter being dropped three times during the fight. Less than two weeks later he took on Kid Anahuac, who was a top ten rated featherweight. After ten bloody rounds the larger Mexican fighter was awarded a close split-decision over Hawkins.
Three months after the loss to Anahuac, Hawkins & Flores traveled back down below the border to Guadalajara to face Jose Becerra in a rematch. Becerra's loss to Hawkins had cost him a title shot with Halimi and it was important that he avenge the loss. To insure this, the match would be held in Mexico. Why Flores' agreed to let Hawkins fight Becerra in Guadalajara (Becerra's hometown) defies common sense. While training in Guadalajara Flores paid a Mexican assistant to bring bottled water to Hawkins to assure the fighter not be poisoned by the Mexican tap water. One day after drinking the water Hawkins became violently ill. Flores called for the assistant to get more water and then followed the man after he left the room. Flores witnessed the Mexican taking the bottle and filling it with water directly from the tap. It was now understood what was wrong with Hawkins. He had Montezuma's revenge. He had been poisoned by the water.
The following day Hawkins, still ailing, entered the ring against Becerra and was stopped in the ninth round.
A few weeks after losing to Becerra Hawkins was matched against another talented L.A. contender named Auburn Copeland. Copeland was the California Bantam king and agreed to fight Hawkins in a ten rounder, but would not risk his state title. Hawkins easily beat Copeland over ten rounds. The following month, he took on another top Mexican bantam Nacho Escalante in San Bernardino and won a unanimous decision.
Nine days after Hawkins beat Escalante, he fought one of the best bantamweights to never win a world title, Jose Medel. The fight was held in Mexico City and Medel stopped the seventeen-year-old two weeks after his high school graduation. Hawkins was disappointed but not discouraged and within a month was back in the ring against world rated Herman Marques at the Olympic. After a ten round war the bout was declared a draw.
Hawkins would win his next seven, four by KO, with victories over world rated featherweight Danny Valdez, Noel Humphries and a KO over Nacho Escalante in a rematch.
It was about this time that an 18-year-old Dwight Hawkins would meet and befriend somebody that would become a very important influence in his life. His name was Davey Moore.
Davey Moore was 25-years-old when he came to Los Angeles to challenge Hogan "Kid" Bassey for the World Featherweight championship in 1959. Style-wise, Moore and Bassey were similar in the ring. Both were strong, punishing fighters with knockout power in both hands. Moore needed sparring partners who would fight him hard in the gym, just as Bassey would fight defending his title. Veteran trainer & gym owner Jake Shagrue told Moore's manager Willie Ketchum that there was only one fighter in Los Angeles capable of filling the bill and that was Dwight Hawkins.
Hawkins was hired as a sparring partner for Moore and the two immediately became friends. Hawkins thought the world of the number one contender from Springfield, Ohio and the two would spend hours talking after finishing their workouts at Moore's training camp in Hemet, California. Moore was like an older brother to Hawkins and would warn the young fighter about the pitfalls of professional boxing. However, by the age of eighteen, Hawkins had already experienced the worst boxing could offer.
One of things that Moore stressed to Hawkins was the importance of family. Davey had six children back home in Springfield and every night would call his wife to check on her and tell her how things were going.
A few weeks later, Davey Moore would knock out Hogan "Kid" Bassey and win the world featherweight title. During the next four years that Moore would hold the title he and Hawkins would remain close.
After Moore won the title Hawkins found it impossible to get fights in Los Angeles and would have to move up to the featherweight division in order to get any fights at all. Many of Hawkins recent fights had already been against featherweights despite Dwight barely tipping the beam at 120 pounds.
In his next fight he would fly to Glasgow, Scotland and lose a disputed decision to Billy Rafferty. Six months later he took on top rated Nelson Estrada in the fighter's hometown of Caracas, Venezuela. Another close fight and another loss to a hometown hero. It was 1960 and 19-yearold Dwight Hawkins was tired of fighting his heart out and not getting any closer to a shot at the title. He announced his retirement from boxing and focused his energy on his true passion, working with kids.
For the next two years Hawkins became involved with the youth of South Central Los Angeles. He organized boxing programs at Imperial Courts as an alternative to gang involvement and the kids loved Hawkins. "The Hawk" spoke their language and had risen of above the desperation of the housing project and made a name for himself. Hawkins drove a nice car, wore nice clothes and spoke about how it WAS possible to make it out of the ghetto and make a difference in the world. Hawkins programs were quite successful and he was making an impression on the youth of Imperial Courts. Violent crimes committed by gang members in the project dropped to an all-time low and Hawkins influence was credited with the change.
The faculty of Manual Arts High School, Hawkins' alma mater, were well aware of Hawkins' program and the good he was doing at Imperial Courts. The High School principal set up a meeting with L.A. City School officials and Hawkins was invited to share his knowledge of Inner-city problems and make suggestions. So impressed were the board members that they hired Hawkins to work for the Los Angeles City School System as a "trouble shooter". Hawkins' new role would be to act as a liaison between gangs and the school system. They could not have made a better choice. It would be a position that Hawkins would fill right up to present day.
After two years away from boxing, Hawkins felt as if he still had something to do in the ring. After a couple of years the younger kids were no longer aware of who Hawkins was and he realized that the exposure afforded him during his boxing career was the foundation of his success in working with kids. Only 22-years-old and anxious to take care of unfinished business, Dwight Hawkins returned to boxing on October 15, 1962.
The Hollywood Legion Stadium was packed for Hawkins return and "The Hawk" scored a fourth round knockout over Manny Linson. After scoring two more victories Dwight would join his pal Davey Moore who was training for an upcoming title defense against Cuban Sugar Ramos. Hawkins would once again be Moore's chief sparring partner for the Ramos match.
While training for the Ramos fight, Moore and Hawkins would rise early in the morning and run the hills near the Moore's training camp in Hemet. On the final day of road work, Moore and Hawkins raced to the top of a mountain and after reaching the top sat together and talked while catching their breath. Hawkins idolized the featherweight champ and Moore was in a reflective mood. Moore told Hawkins about his childhood in Springfield Ohio and how happy he was that he could provide for a better life for his family than what he had as a child. He told Dwight that he would fight about another year or so and then retire. "Too much time away from the family" Moore said.
On March 21, 1963 Dwight Hawkins was at Dodger Stadium to watch his friend defend the featherweight title. That night Moore would not only lose his title to Ramos, but he would also lose his life. When Ramos knocked out Moore, Davey hit the back of his head on the lower strand of the ring ropes. Moore passed into a coma in the dressing room following the match and a couple of days later died in the hospital having never regained consciousness. Hawkins was devastated.
The loss of Davey Moore hurt Dwight Hawkins and took his mind off his own career. A few weeks later Hawkins would head back down to Mexico where he would take on another unbeaten future champ in Vicente Saldivar. Hawkins was stopped by the brilliant southpaw in the fifth round.
The loss of Moore and losing to Saldivar would prove a turning point in the life and career of Dwight Hawkins.
About a year later I would meet Dwight. "The Hawk" would rise above the pain once again and I would witness first hand one of the most amazing fighters to ever step into the ring.
(End- Part 1)