Once Upon A Time In The West
By Mike Casey
The ‘It’ factor, it is often said, can never be truly defined. We
simply know that some people have it and others don’t. Identifying and
appreciating its components is another matter and can prove a devilishly
At some time or another, we have all seen a fighter whom we know
to be great without initially knowing why. We tend to keep quiet about this, of
course. When you make your living on the boxing beat, it doesn’t do to go around
asking others to enlighten you.
The average fan, by contrast, is a more innocent and admirably
courageous animal. I must admit to having quite a high regard for the fellow who
posted the following question on one of the Internet forums: WHY WAS CARLOS
MONZON SO GREAT?
My admiration for this honest soul might surprise you, since I
happen to be one of Monzon’s greatest boosters. At first glance, the question
might seem akin to asking what Joe Louis ever did that was worth a spit.
But I understood the nature of the query because it took me back
to my teens when I watched Carlos Monzon for the first time. What did I see then
through my youthfully innocent eyes? And what did I fail to appreciate?
Let me say right off the bat that I recognised the tall and
sinewy Monzon as a very strong and tough fighter. Beyond that, I wasn’t sure. I
didn’t see a man who would reign as the middleweight champion for seven years,
make fourteen defences of his crown and methodically pummel a succession of top
quality fighting men to the point of significantly shortening their careers.
There was a deceptive destructiveness to Monzon’s work, a cold
and sometimes cloaked manner to his executions. He would batter technically
superior and more mobile opponents into submission without fuss or frills or any
sense of the melodramatic. You would see the evidence, assimilate it to the best
of your ability and still come away asking yourself how exactly he did it.
Not to put too fine a point on it, there were times when Carlos
Monzon looked downright ordinary when viewed through a strictly technical eye.
Perhaps that is what threw so many people in the early days and what continues
to throw the new generation.
Jim Jeffries and Rocky Marciano, two of history’s other great
indestructibles, were similarly unremarkable in that respect. But the fireworks
from Jim and Rocky were loud and bright and wholly visible.
Monzon’s arsenal of weapons could be as understated and deceiving
as his permanently impassive expression. Fighters got bashed and bludgeoned by
Jeffries and Marciano. Against Monzon, they got coldly hammered. If you can’t
spot the difference, you never will.
Monzon was awkward and ungainly. He was very upright. He wasn’t
fleet of hand or foot and was often very often robotic in his movement. He
didn’t possess the skills of Sugar Ray Robinson, the whirlwind place of Harry
Greb or the explosiveness of Marcel Cerdan. What exactly was it, then, that set
the powerful Argentinian apart from most others?
Historian Ted Spoon makes a very pertinent point when he says,
“Fans are always displeased with fighters who seem so against the grain in
comparison to the ideal pugilistic textbook. We watch a Joe Louis highlight reel
and conclude that the guy did everything by the book, but there have been
numerous ‘authors’ throughout history whose work is yet to be understood. Monzon
is just another.
“Monzon had a great fighting discipline and a unique
deceptiveness. Everything he did was done with purpose, never half-assed, and
the slow and pushy nature of his punches confused until they hit home, hard.
“His rock solid, beanpole body was an impossible obstacle. Monzon
only needed to creak back that 6’ 2” frame in order to evade the most stretched
“A feature synonymous with Monzon was his ability to half-punch.
Sometimes, if a punch was going to fall short, he would leave his arm in its
half recoiled state, only to pump it out when back in range. These subtle
tricks, whether intentional or just bizarre characteristics of his methodical
style, left fighters guessing.
“Carlos was a beast of a fighter, a bit nasty. He was not one who
relied on intimidation, but he was the school bully in there as he swatted his
opponents about until they crumbled.”
A bully boy, yes, but certainly not the stereotype bully who
turned tail when the other fellow hit him back. Monzon was no less tenacious and
implacable in the face of adversity.
Carlos proved repeatedly that he could win his fights in any
fashion. He was a commanding front-runner who couldn’t be shifted or derailed
once he was steaming. There are few things that sap the morale of an opponent
more than knowing from the start that the most he can achieve is to keep the
In his coronation war against Nino Benvenuti in the cauldron of
Rome in 1970, Monzon stuck to his task with the chilling doggedness of a lion
bringing down a zebra. He grew in strength and determination as the rounds wore
on in an engrossing and exciting fight. Nino must have wondered what he had to
do that night to quell his seemingly unbreakable challenger. Sensing his
championship was slipping from his grasp, Benvenuti launched powerful rallies in
the ninth and tenth rounds, in which his vaunted left hook found Monzon’s jaw
repeatedly. I couldn’t believe how little effect those blows had on Monzon. A
year earlier, that same left hook had knocked Luis Rodriquez cold in eleven
rounds. Four years before that, it had wrecked another tough man in Sandro
Mazzinghi, who was put to sleep at the San Siro Stadium in Milan.
Monzon appeared impervious to such punishment as he kept firing
back and finally broke Nino’s resistance in the twelfth round. A terrific right
cross to the jaw was the coup de grace.
California Hall of Fame member, Hap Navarro, matchmaker at the
old Hollywood Legion Stadium between 1953 and 1955, has seen some terrific
fighters in his time. Of Monzon, Hap says, “To me he was like another great
middleweight champion, Freddie Steele, without the footwork. A wiry, somewhat
raw-boned hard puncher who could take it. Not the difference in physique: Cerdan
vs Steele or LaMotta vs Monzon.
“Steele was a gangly sort as a fragile welterweight at the start
of his pro career, long before he hit it big. But he could box with the best and
had a devastating punch. Check out the film of his two-round annihilation of a
rising Gus Lesnevich.
“I would also parallel Monzon as being a stronger, rangier
edition of Roberto Duran, without the overly bellicose attitude that so
“You know the type. Fearless, confident, with a genuine affinity
for confrontation – let the devil take the hindmost.
“Of the two, I would think that Monzon possessed the cooler head
and therefore the better strategy in charting the battle. Duran improvised to
meet the required pacing through the heat of it all.”
Whenever I go back and replay the films I have of Carlos Monzon,
so another hidden jewel is revealed beneath his many layers. He truly was the
laconic gunslinger of the ring, a wonderful fighter.
As I watch him winging his thunderous punches at a succession of
reeling opponents, the irresistible force of the man they called Escopeta
(Shotgun) seems even more potent than it did during his long reign as
What a finisher Monzon was. Ruthless and incessant, full of
controlled fire and ice. He just kept throwing punches when he had his man on
the hook, yet never with reckless rage. The fire was confined to his fists, the
ice controlled his brain. The punches were thrown coldly and deliberately,
immense blows that sometimes missed the target but more often hit home with
At the heart of the killing machine was an extraordinary
self-belief and the perfect balance of arrogance and discipline. It was as if
the gods themselves had told Monzon he could not be beaten, mapped out the
perfect game plan for the chosen one and then flicked the switch that set him in
motion. No showboating, no gimmicks, no peripheral nonsense to clog the wheels
or stall the engine. Just a tireless, ruthless, super efficient machine that ran
One man who got a personal impression of Monzon’s sense of
destiny was the prolific fight writer Graham Houston. When Monzon was the king
of the middleweights, Graham reigned as the editor of the world’s longest
running boxing publication, Boxing News, in London.
The fight game has been in Graham’s blood since I don’t know
when, and he would take a plane, train or automobile to any battle he could get
to during that golden era. He brought his readers vivid, first hand accounts of
the great middleweight talents of the time, including Rodrigo Valdez, Bennie
Briscoe, Tony Mundine, and that wildly exciting banger, Jean Mateo.
But it was Monzon who inevitably stood out in Graham’s mind, as
much for the almost mystical aura that accompanied the iron will and the iron
“Monzon was of course a big, tall middleweight and he controlled
the distance very well, with his long left setting up the heavy right hand. He
was very good at keeping the fight at the range he wanted and he had an
outstanding chin. I recall Gratien Tonna hitting him with a huge left hook in
Paris and Monzon hardly blinked. I think it took all the confidence out of Tonna,
who was a very strong guy. He basically quit in the fifth when Monzon started
opening up on him.
“There was an arrogance, even an insolence about Monzon. He
carried himself like a winner. I was in the office of the promoter, Rodolfo
Sabbatini in Rome with my wife of the time when Monzon strolled in, impeccable
in a white suit, bronzed skin, smoking a cigarette, looking as if he had walked
in off the set of a Federico Fellini film.
“He was a very cool looking guy and obviously a man absolutely
full of confidence. He was one of those boxers who entered the ring as if he
KNEW he was going to win, just a matter of how he did it.
“Although very good at long range, Monzon could bring up shorter
punches. My memory tells me that he really hurt Jose Napoles with a right to the
body in Paris. Although that fight was officially stopped because Napoles was
cut, believe me, Angelo Dundee was glad to get his guy out of there because Jose
was starting to get destroyed.
“Monzon was very good at coming right back when his opponent
seemed to be doing well. It was very hard for a boxer to take charge of the
fight with Carlos. I also recall how cool and collected he was when he was
dropped by Rodrigo Valdez in their rematch, when Monzon was also cut along the
side of the bridge of his nose.
“He never looked particularly flustered or disorientated as I
recall, although he had been hit flush by the guy who had blasted Bennie
“Monzon just carried on fighting and came back to gain control of
the excellent fight, steady and accurate and punishing against a very good and
Monzon’s stamina was probably his most impressive and illogical
asset, since he was ever bit as proficient as Stanley Ketchel and Harry Greb at
taking the rule book and throwing it out of the window. Ketchel invariably
whiled away his leisure time by drinking and whoring out on the old Barbary
Coast. Greb was a walking encyclopaedia on the best nightclubs and pool halls in
any given town.
Monzon kept his body beautiful in trim by resting it horizontally
against any passably attractive woman and by blow-torching his lungs with up to
a hundred cigarettes a day. His nicotine intake would decrease by an impressive
fifty a day when he got down to serious training, including a few smokes on the
run to relieve the tedium of roadwork.
Author George Diaz Smith wrote of Carlos, “A guy like Ricardo
Mayorga would be a novice compared to the likes of the iron lunged Monzon.
Nobody could figure this out. For all of the years that I’d seen him, Monzon
never gasped for air, tired or opened his mouth gagging for oxygen in any
Other rebellious aspects of the younger Monzon’s make-up couldn’t
be left to look after themselves. The miracle of his control and steady
temperament in the ring was that he was an eternally volcanic and volatile man
in the living of everyday life. His handlers could only ever bank the fire in
his soul, which burned from his youth to his premature death at the age of
fifty-two in a car crash.
As a youngster, Monzon served brief jail terms for starting a
soccer riot and brawling on a bus. He was still up to his old tricks in his
early days as a professional boxer when he supplemented his low earnings by
pimping. Carlos never did stop walking on the wild side and certainly never
found the secret to controlling the raging temper that he mastered so well
within the roped square. When that temper finally boiled to overload, he threw
his second wife Alicia Muniz to her death from a balcony.
What is it about boxing that enables a man like Monzon to park
his general indiscipline in the closet and become the ultimate control freak in
a make-or-break situation? Like a junkie jacking up on his favourite brew, the
Argentinian enigma would suddenly become a model of reliability for the duration
of a fight. He wised up to his foolish ways very quickly after a painful lesson
in 1964. His manager, Amilcar Brusa, sent him down to Rio de Janeiro in Brazil
to fight a tough cookie called Felipe Cambeiro. Badly prepared and outside his
native Argentina for the first time, Carlos was decked three times in a humbling
points defeat. He sucked up the harsh lesson and lost only once more in his
remaining 86 fights over the next thirteen years.
Whenever I study and assess the great middleweights, Monzon
stands out as the man who could cope most effectively against all styles of
opponents. He was excellent at maximising his many strengths and masking his
weaknesses to the point where they rarely inconvenienced him. Tall and powerful,
rangy and iron-chinned, Monzon was a destructive and debilitating hitter. The
big blows often looked slow and ponderous, yet the damage they did was to drain
the resistance and virtually terminate the top level careers of so many of his
opponents. His pole-like jab alone must have felt like a concrete post as it
rammed into an opponent’s face.
Carlos was a slow starter but always able to weather early
storms. He was frequently stunned but so infrequently hurt. On the rare
occasions he was floored, he would bounce straight back up like a yo-yo, as if
his computer-like mind was programmed to believe that such incidents were no
more than aberrations.
Like all great champions, Monzon had his pedestrian nights and
close calls, yet always there was that frightening sense of inevitability about
him. Old sage Emile Griffith fiddled Carlos about and almost pipped him in their
second meeting in 1973, after being stopped in the fourteenth round of their
Clever Denny Moyer made Monzon look awkward in carving out an
early lead, but was floored, swollen and all done after five rounds of draining
power and pressure. Jean-Claude Bouttier, the skilful Frenchman, twice attempted
to navigate his way through the Monzon minefield, but was pulverised to defeat
in their first fight and suffered a bruising points loss in their second.
Hard man Bennie Briscoe went iron for iron and will for will
against Carlos and was soundly beaten. The talented but fragile Tony Mundine and
the dangerous but crude Gratien Tonna were meat and drink for the Argentinian
Monzon’s two-fight career finale was almost perfectly scripted,
as he captured thrilling decisions over the greatly talented and hard-hitting
Colombian ace Rodrigo Valdez in Monte Carlo. In their second fight in 1977,
Carlos was decked in the early going by a terrific right, stunning ringsiders by
his almost nonchalant reaction to it. There was a quite audible gasp from the
crowd when he hit the floor, and a similar intake of breath when he immediately
got to his feet. I remember wondering at the time how that must have shaken the
confidence of a man like Valdez, who had shattered the seemingly impregnable
Bennie Briscoe with a single shot. Even under siege, Monzon retained his
impassiveness. One wondered if he had crocodile blood running through his veins.
One would need to write a book in order to do justice to
comparing a fighter of Carlos Monzon’s calibre to his fellow all-time greats. In
being brief, there is always the fear of sounding a little shallow and doing all
fighters concerned a disservice. For one thing, we cannot include them all, so
let us look at the men whose names are mostly mentioned as the top dogs.
I could comfortably go on forever about the multi-talented Sugar
Ray Robinson, but it is important to remember that Ray was already a fading
genius when he stepped up to middleweight. It is a testament to what he had left
that he still won the middleweight championship five times. But he lost it three
times too to Randy Turpin, Gene Fullmer and Carmen Basilio, who were not
comparable to Monzon in overall talent, class and power.
Robinson, like the ageing Ali, increasingly needed to pace
himself and call on his vast box of tricks during his middleweight reign.
Basilio and Fullmer beat him with constant pressure, and neither man hit nearly
as hard or as damagingly as Monzon. Basilio commented that Ray was ‘so damn
tall’ at just under six feet, but Monzon was six two. Carlos wouldn’t have
knocked Ray out, because nobody ever did that. I also think it is quite possible
that Robinson would have surprised Monzon with a flash knockdown in the early
stages, but I believe that Carlos would have pounded out a points win.
In my view, the two men who would have given Monzon his toughest
fights were Stanley Ketchel and Harry Greb. Both men shared Carlos’ incredible
stamina and sheer bloody-mindedness. Both were similar ‘forces of nature’, to
borrow a somewhat over-used term. Ketchel, the great Michigan Assassin, would
have been considered a freakishly hard hitter in any era. His power of punch was
truly exceptional, as he stormed to 49 knockouts before his violent death at the
age of twenty-four. Often dismissed as a crude banger by current critics, Stan
was much more than that. His attacks were woven with tricky body shifts, and
while he preferred to launch his power shots from a distance, he was a demon at
infighting. He simply never stopped punching as he switched his onslaughts from
head to body. Modern technology has proved that Ketchel’s punch rate was
comparable to the fighters of today. He and Joe Thomas maintained a ferocious
pace in their epic encounter in 1907, in which Stan knocked out Joe in the
Ketchel, however, could be quite easily hit and wouldn’t have
found it easy to get inside Monzon. All the time, Carlos would have been
drilling the rushing Assassin with those hard and straight punches. A very
difficult fight to call, and the agreed distance would have been an important
factor. Over the traditionally accepted 15-round distance for all-time fantasy
fights, I would have to give Monzon the edge.
Harry Greb would have been another bundle of trouble for Carlos.
Fast, furious, constantly tossing blows from all angles, the Pittsburgh Windmill
wouldn’t have conceded Monzon much breathing space. Much is made of Greb’s
paltry knockout percentage, but to describe him as a light or fluffy hitter is
to blindly ignore the reams of evidence to the contrary.
There are different ways to skin a cat, which is what Greb very
nearly did to light-heavyweight great Jack Dillon in their Toledo fight of 1918.
Jack came out of that one looking like a man who had been tossed head first into
a threshing machine, his nose barely still attached to his face. To my
knowledge, Dillon didn’t offer the opinion that Greb couldn’t hit.
But we know that Harry could be out-hustled and outboxed. Mike
O’Dowd, the St Paul Cyclone, beat the younger Greb at his own rough game when he
got the better of their no-decision fight. Gene Tunney, after a baptism of fire,
learned how to box Harry by keeping him at distance with skill, precision and a
Monzon, I sense, would have utilised his natural power and canny
boxing brain to survive some intensely uncomfortable moments against Greb and
prevail in what would surely have been a hectic battle.
Mickey Walker, the Toy Bulldog, was a tough and gloriously
exciting fighter, blessed with astonishing durability. A terrific body puncher,
Mick saw off every opponent of equal weight in his prime and was never beaten as
middleweight champion. But surely his only way of defeating Monzon would have
been to knock Carlos out, a feat never achieved. Monzon would have matched
Walker for strength and also possessed the sounder defence. The likely outcome
would have been a punishing but convincing decision for Monzon in a barnburner
of a fight.
I had all the time in the world for Marvin Hagler, having
championed his cause in those dark days of the late seventies when he seemed to
be the leading contender for an age before getting his shot. But I don’t believe
he would have beaten Monzon. Little things stick in your mind about certain
fighters, and I recall how tentative and uncertain Hagler seemed in his cautious
victory over Roberto Duran.
Roberto was very similar to Monzon in his brazen confidence and
fiery attitude. Duran intimidated opponents, and I have always believed that he
and Ray Leonard were the only fighters who were able to plant the seed of doubt
in Marvin’s mind.
Monzon was a very deliberate animal in his nature but he could
always find a Plan B when the need arose. Hagler was less flexible in this
regard and didn’t seem able to fully commit himself to an alternative game plan.
My gut instinct tells me that Monzon would have forced Hagler up a blind alley
and prevented him from getting sufficiently untracked to save the day.
The one man who might have unhinged even Monzon was the
incredible Bob Fitzsimmons, an opinion that might surprise some of our younger
readers. But the ring has probably never produced another man of such scientific
boxing knowledge as Fitz, who possessed the withering power to put his theories
That power didn’t diminish as he moved up the divisions. Fitz was
the Bob Foster of the middleweights, a genuine physical freak and arguably the
hardest one-punch hitter in history. He knocked out the 300lb Ed Dunkhorst with
a single blow to the stomach.
However, let us not get too worked up over such scenarios. The
almost unique subjectivity of boxing means that we will never find the pot of
gold that contains the definitive ranking of the greats.
I would only say that where the middleweights are concerned, I
wouldn’t feel too bad about riding shotgun with the Shotgun himself.
Cue Ennio Morricone music!
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