Great in the ring, brutal out of it
By John J. Raspanti
I remember the first time I saw him fight.
It was almost fifty years ago. I was in my room watching on my black and white television. There was something dark and sinister about the guy.
He was from South America and somewhat of an unknown. Unknown because he had never fought in the United States. His record was a gaudy 67 wins, three loses, and nine draws.
Nine draws? The talk was his record was padded.
His opponent was Nino Benvenuti, the reigning middleweight champion of the world. Benvenuti had won 82 of 86 fights, including two of three over former champion, Emile Griffith.
The popular Benvenuti, who had parlayed his ring success into a movie career, didn’t punch very hard, but the thinking was he could outbox his slightly taller adversary.
The fight would be held at the Palazzetto Dello in Italy. Thousands of Benvenuti’s countrymen would be cheering his every move. Benvenuti had fought 31 times in his home country – and never (loss) lost.
This bout was set to be a perfect homecoming for the champion.
Until it wasn’t.
A minute into the fight, it was obvious the challenger was hungry. He fired wicked punches that landed with a thud. He boxed better than advertised. He was mean and dirty. The champion looked confused, as if he couldn’t handle the pressure. He glanced to the referee for help.
Benvenuti punched back, rarely landing a blow, and when he does, they have no effect. He’s being walked down and beat up. The champion is buzzed by a wicked right hand in round seven.
It foreshadowed what was to come.
Benvenuti fought on guts, but guts can take you only so far. In the 12th round, he landed a solid left hook to the jaw. His crowd cheered, but the challenger didn’t bat an eye.
A right hand sent Benvenuti to the ropes. Seconds later, another one, wicked and brutal, landed on the point of his chin. The champion collapsed to his knees, his head resting on his left glove as if in silent prayer.
It won’t help.
He somehow got up, waved at whomever, perhaps at the victor, and staggered to his corner.
Little known Carlos Monzon was the new middleweight champion of the world.
It took Monzon 80 fights to get a shot at a world title. His path to the top had been fraught with poverty and long odds. Born into a family of 12, Monzon quit school in the third grade, fought for pesos in the streets of Santa Fe, Argentina, shined shoes, and sold papers. After a solid amateur career, Monzon turned pro in 1963 – fighting 22 times in 19 months. After dropping a decision to Alberto Massi a year later, Monzon would never lose again.
From 1970 to 1977, he dominated the middleweight division. I would admittingly tune into his fights hoping he’d lose, but knowing he wouldn’t.
Tall, lean and strong, the sullen Monzon was multi-talented, born with skill and power.
He defeated all the top contenders, including personal favorites, Emile Griffith (twice) Bennie Briscoe, Benvenuti in a rematch, and Tony Mundine. He beat the stuffing out of welterweight champion Jose Napoles, and won two decisions over Rodrigo Valdez.
“Monzon destroyed you little by little,” Hall of Fame trainer, Angelo Dundee, told writer Steve Bounce a number of years ago. “I studied him before the fight and was confident my guy was slick enough – I was wrong. Monzon did a job.”
His guy was “Manteguilla” Naploes, a great fighter in his own right.
I grew to admire Monzon’s talent - recognizing him as one of the greatest middleweight champions ever.
A darker side of Monzon, apparently lurking even before he captured the title, showed itself in the 70’s. His temper was explosive, easily erupting in violence. He was known to physically abuse women. He beat the crap out of the paparazzi. His outbursts could be unpredictable.
His second wife shot him twice, once in the arm and shoulder - though he recovered to continue his boxing career. After retiring from boxing in 1977, the beatings continued. He became something of an international jet setter. He was protected and treated like god in his home country, until 1988.
Monzon was arrested for murdering his estranged wife, Alica. The incident was brutal. After a vicious argument, loaded with booze and rage, Monzon was accused of strangling Alicia and throwing her off a second-floor balcony. He joined her seconds later, injuring his shoulder. His trial created a media frenzy. Think O. J. Simpson. Monzon was convicted of murder and sentenced to 11 years in prison.
The hero of Argentina was now a convict.
In 1995, shortly before his release from prison, Monzon, on a weekend furlough, lost control of his car. He, along with a passenger, were killed. Monzon was 52. The accident occurred near his home in Santa Fe.
His life, filled with incredible highs, and disastrous lows, had come full circle.
Remembering him is complicated.
Inside the ring, he controlled the action with skill and power. Outside of it, his inner rage and darkness could explode any minute, destroying others, including himself.
To the people of Argentina, he’s still a hero, worshiped for his ring exploits. To others he’s a monster who could fight.
We’ll leave it at that.