Who is the Cocoa Kid?


Whilst conducting research for my book on the life and career of Charley Burley I discovered a great deal about some of the better fighters that Burley crossed gloves with. Fighters such as Holman Williams, Lloyd Marshall, Eddie Booker and Jack Chase had good careers, were well-known in their day and had a life and career arc that can readily be followed. However, another of this group of highly talented black fighters is something of an enigma.

According to the record books, Cocoa Kid, (aka Louis Hardwick), was born in January 1913 in Puerto Rico. He fought (depending on who you believe), between 1929 or 1930 to 1948 and took part in some 240-odd bouts. Among the fighters he met were most of the above mentioned ‘Black Murderers’ Row’ along with talented contenders Archie Moore, Lou Ambers and Georgie Abrams. Whilst the names of Moore, Ambers and Abrams may be well-known to most boxing buffs, the rest of the Kids record reads like a who’s-who of 1930s and 40s boxing talent: Jimmy Leto, Eddie Dolan, Kid Azteca, Andre Jessurun, Saverio Turiello, Izzy Jannazzo, Joe Carter, Bert Lytell and Earl Turner are just a few of the many ranked fighters he met.

What is puzzling about the Cocoa Kid is less to do with his record and undoubted skills and talent and more about who he was, where he really came from and where he went. Fight manager and Ring magazine columnist Jersey Jones claimed that Cocoa Kid travelled from Cuba with Kid Chocolate in 1928 to get fights in the United States. A study of Kid Chocolate's fights in the USA at that time reveals that at least two other Cuban fighters were on the undercards; they were Juan Cepero and Baby Face Quintera. Kid Chocolate was eventually deported to Cuba for failure to renew his visitor status and was active there before returning to America at a later date. Baby Face Quintera also returned to Cuba (evidenced by recorded fights there in the early 1930s), but - as yet - there is no trace of Cepero in Cuba after 1929.

 The notion that Cepero changed his name to Louis Hardwick and claimed Puerto Rican nationality is given further weight by the fact that Cepero boxed in December 1929 (in New York), then apparently disappeared, while Hardwick (as Cocoa Kid), has his first fight in January 1930. Early photos of Cocoa Kid also show a similarity in personal style and appearance to the Cuban Bon-Bon. Was Cocoa Kid sufficiently influenced by Kid Chocolate to take his name as well as his look? Hardwick is an unusual name for a Puerto Rican national, although the area he claimed to be from, Mayaguez, is predominantly white. Press reports from the New York Times in December 1929 describe Cepero as being similar in build to Panama Al Brown. The reporter could well be describing Cocoa Kid who was also tall and rangy for a lightweight (though he would mature into the heavier classes as he aged).

It is an interesting theory that is supported by a number of boxing historians and it does hold some water. However, eminent boxing historian Luckett V. Davis insists that, while the confusion is understandable, there is no truth to the rumour that Juan Cepero and Cocoa Kid are the same person. Davis insists that Louis Hardwick is Cocoa Kid and that he fought prior to 1930 as Lou Hardwick. However, the only Lou Hardwick of the time was a black fighter from the south who was described in one report as 'the Atlanta Negro' and in another as favouring a slugging style. Further speculation is caused by the fact that Cocoa Kid referred to himself as either Louis Hardwick, Louis Arroyo or Louis Humberto depending on which newspaper reporter he was speaking to. If he were a legitimate Puerto Rican immigrant to the United States, why the different names? Former lightweight con tender Wesley Ramey defeated Cocoa Kid in 1933 and often used him as a sparring partner. His son - Wesley Ramey Jnr. – remembers that, to the best of his knowledge, Cocoa Kid was a Cuban fighter. Many newspaper reports from early in Cocoa Kid’s career also refer to him as Cuban.

Whatever his origin, Louis Hardwick was based in Hartford, Connecticut and, as Cocoa Kid, was high-class operator. He had beaten Jack Portney, Werther Arcelli, Pancho Villa, Andre Jessurun and Teddy Loder. He had also met Lou Ambers, losing over ten rounds and had a loss and a draw versus Kid Azteca. Amongst his more widely known opponents was the slick-boxing Holman Williams, against whom Cocoa Kid engaged in thirteen contests; winning eight, losing three and drawing in two. In their 4th meeting in New Orleans (12th March, 1937), Cocoa Kid won over 15 rounds and claimed the Colored Welterweight Championship of the World and the belt that went with it. After a further ten wins and five defeats in around 18 months, the Kid lost the ‘championship’ to the fast-rising Charley Burley of Pittsburgh (Burley would lose the title – but, strangely, not the belt – back to Holman Williams just over a year later.

 A more meaningful title opportunity came the Kids way in October, 1940 when he opposed Izzy Jannazo for the welterweight championship (Maryland version). He lost via a split decision over 15 rounds and – like many of his contemporaries - was never provided the chance again. The remainder of the 1940s was largely about eking out a living fighting the rest of the contenders for middleweight honours whilst the title was frozen for the duration of the war. Whilst he may have had a few miles on the clock at 30 years of age, 14 years as a pro and roughly 180 fights under his belt, the Kid still had plenty left. After his second bout with Charley Burley (a draw in 1943), Cocoa Kid had enough to beat Holman Williams (again), Jack Chase, Joe Carter, Cecil Hudson and Gene Buffalo (who was himself a veteran by that point). Other top-flight opposition in his waning years included ‘Oakland’ Billy Smith, Archie Moore and Bert Lytell. Cocoa Kid called it a day in 1948 after losing to Bobby Mann in Trenton, New Jersey.

Although his competitive years were apparently behind him, he was often hired as a sparring partner and on one occasion was brought in to help Sugar Ray Robinson to prepare for a fight with Steve Belloise in 1949. Robinson learned that you couldn’t afford to take liberties with a fighter of the Kid’s calibre when an overhand right dropped him in one of their sessions.

Of the many talented black fighters that inhabited the same time and space as Charley Burley, Cocoa Kid is the only one to get a shot at a world championship. The fact that he got a shot at a ‘title’ didn’t elevate Cocoa Kid’s status, reputation or place in boxing history. It apparently did little of anything for this most talented of welterweights as he reportedly spent his later years ghosting around the seedy shadows of New York’s Times Square begging for money to feed his drug habit.

So what really became of Louis Hardwick, Louis Humberto, Louis Arroyo (or Juan Cepero), AKA ‘The Cocoa Kid’? He was reported as speaking several languages and claimed to have a daughter who was in college and two sons whom he hoped wouldn’t go into the ring. In a 1948 interview for the Chicago Tribune he told reporter Robert Cromie:

“If I had to do it over again, I’d still be a fighter. I had a good time about it and I still have my health. If the worst comes to the worst I can still work. I have nothing to be ashamed of. I’m not robbing or sticking people up”.

 

This doesn’t sound like the kind of man to end up on the streets, dependant upon dope and I for one hope it is not true. Perhaps we will never know.

© (Harry Otty)