The phone rang in my hotel
room. The familiar voice of Mario Rivera, the famous boxing writer, was on the other end.
"I spoke to Monon and told him there is a
boxing writer who wants to interview him, from his old gym in New York back in the 1970s.
As you told me, I didn't mention your name, but he said to give that writer his number. He
said that he was working all day on the other side of the island, and he's too tired to
come over to your hotel, so why don't you give him a call at home to do the interview on
the phone and see what happens. Here's his number, Ron, and good luck."
I sat back on the bed somewhat disappointed at
not being able to see him in person, and I thought about the man I was about to call. It
was December 3, 1994; I had only one more day before my flight left Puerto Rico for New
York, and I had a great curiosity to see him again. The great Jose Monon Gonzalez. I'd
seen most all of his big fights in person, and I thought about him often. The fearless
Puerto Rican middleweight who gave the appearance he was virtually carved out of stone.
My thoughts drifted back to April 1963 in New
York. I was 17, he was 23, and we both were in the Solar Gym, at the 28th Street Gym and
Bathhouse in Manhattan.
I remember the first
time I laid eyes on him up close in the gym. I was a kid with one dream. I wanted to be
not only the strongest puncher at my weight of 147 pounds, but I also wanted to be the
strongest-looking. I was powerful and ripped and was trying everything to learn to become
even more powerful as a fighter but avoid looking like a stiff bodybuilder. I had spent a
lot of time pursuing this goal with the muscular punching middleweight Rubin "Hurricane"
Carter in various gyms and in his training camp, called Ehsan's, in Chatham, New Jersey.
Coincidently Jose Monon Gonzalez had recently won a TKO over Carter via a cut-eye stoppage
in the old Garden, and Rubin was temporarily healing up. I had become good friends with
some of the Top-10 middleweights of that era -- fighters like Skeeter McClure, Emile
Griffith, Rubin Carter, Holly Mims, Joey Giardello, and Dick Tiger -- and even though
these middleweights fought each other as rivals for the one middleweight championship
crown that existed in 1963, there was still that friendship and respect between the
fighters when the battle was over.
Yet I had never met Jose Monon Gonzalez in person, up close. At this time he was
rated No. 5 in the world and had beaten Joey Archer, Rubin Carter, and Rocky Rivero. He
was also training in the Solar Gym that day. The Solar Gym was like a fight fan's
paradise. In one corner was the great Gil Clancy yelling at Emile Griffith to get to work
and to get rid of the three giant white dogs he walked into the gym with, all tied up on
one leash. Later, while Griffith did sit-ups, his wide shoulders and 27-inch washboard
waist twisting and turning as he struggled through his abdominal routine, Clancy kept
yelling at him that he still wasn't in shape, his lower back was "too tight."
Listening to Clancy, who Griffith called his "favorite Irishman," I was now starting to
learn what being in fighting trim really meant here, as opposed to just being in shape.
I turned to my left, and big Johnny Persol was
dancing around a heavy bag throwing lightning-fast combinations, getting ready to fight
some top light-heavyweight. Johnny would go on to beat Bobo Olsen, Harold Johnson, and
heavyweight James J. Woody. To my right was Tom "the Bomb" Bethea, a dangerous
middleweight, hard at work with sweat popping off him, trying to get a rhythm going while
shadowboxing in another corner. He would later go on to TKO Nino Benvenuti, the
middleweight champion. I got done wrapping my hands, and as I looked up toward the ring I
That moment I shall never
forget. Nothing that I had experienced in boxing or bodybuilding up to that time prepared
me for what I saw. I had previously never seen anyone more powerful looking at 160 pounds
than Rubin Carter, Emile Griffith, or Dick Tiger. Carter had those phenomenal arms and
back, and he could strike out with short, fast punches like the black jaguars we wore on
our robes. Griffith had yard-wide shoulders and great symmetry; he was fleet of foot with
a great determination to win and a colorful, fiery temper. Tiger had the granite legs, a
crunching left hook, and an iron constitution.
But this was different. Never was there a more striking total appearance that God
had blessed a fighter with than what was given to this young man. His face was a ruggedly
handsome mask of controlled ferocity with high prominent cheekbones; his taunt skin the
color of coffee, rippled with muscle like a big hunting cat as he warmed up in the ring.
His thighs and calves, front and back, were developed into the shape and hardness of
diamonds. But his eyes, even when not focused on an opponent, burned like two obsidian
stones set into his skull.
His shoulders were
packed with the thick, gnarled rope of usable fighter's muscle that belongs only to a
seasoned professional, but the most amazing things were his forearms and his neck. Never
was a bodybuilder of any weight blessed with the shape, thickness, and vascularity of this
man's forearms and neck. This was not a slow, lumbering, pumped up bodybuilder who had
ventured into the world of boxing, but a skilled professional prize fighter I had seen
destroy the great fighters in his division in one fearless swap session after another.
At 5-foot-8 (his walking-around weight must
have been about 172 pounds at the time), he was a big, solid middleweight who would trim
down to 160 pounds before each fight. He wore white boxing trunks and black boxing shoes
with a cut-down gray sweatshirt.
He saw me looking up at him and waved as he winked at me. At that time I had a
colorful tattoo of a big black panther on my upper right arm, and a black-panther emblem
on my trunks. It was always my good-luck sign. He called out to me: "Hey, pantera
negra," and smiled. He came over and we talked about some of his fights and his
training methods. All I wanted to know was how he developed those amazing forearms. He
laughed and said he got them from his father, who had worked hard all his life. As the
months went by, we became friends, as I trained in that gym for about a year. After that,
I saw him at some of his major fights, and then before I knew it, almost 30 years had gone
by since I'd seen him last.
I smiled to myself
as I looked in the mirror at the older version of myself, who looked back at me. I threw a
couple of hooks off the jab and made a mental note to get back into fighting shape again,
just one more time.
dialed the number Mario Rivera had given me, and I heard the voice of Jose Monon Gonzalez
on the other end. I would've recognized it anywhere. I didn't identify myself right away,
but simply said, "Jose, I'm the boxing writer Mario mentioned to you, do you think you can
come over to the hotel to see me?" He said, "I'm really tired, man; can we talk on the
phone?" I said, "You wouldn't even come over here for an old gym buddy from the Solar gym.
I'm telling Emile, Johnny Persol, Tom "the Bomb," and your best buddy, the black panther.
He paused and broke out laughing with delight; I could feel him searching his memory.
"Pantera negra, my buddy who wanted to be even stronger. I'm coming right over, you
come home with me, wait for me there." He hung up and I got ready to meet him in the
It was pouring
rain as he drove over to the El San Juan Hotel from Trujillo Alto. He pulled up in a white
car and got out. I could not believe my eyes, I truly could not. He had a full head of
black hair streaked with gray, still handsome and rugged like he was 30 years ago. Those
powerful forearms were still there, and his short-sleeve shirt and white pants showed that
he was still in tip-top condition. He laughed and gave me a powerful hug, and I truly saw
that God had blessed this man over the years with good health and a wonderful sense of
As we drove to his
home, he explained that he works for the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority Company. He
is happy with his job, which keeps him in shape and working outside. He lives in a
beautiful home with his wife, Zaida, and his stepdaughter, Ichy.
He asked about Emile Griffith, and I promised I would give Emile
his regards, which I later did when I returned to New York. I told him I had tried to look
up Florentine Fernandez when I spent some time with Dr. Ferdie Pecheco in Miami last
January. I told him Floro still looks like a 20-year-old, just like him. He was touched
deeply to hear that his old opponents were well. His fierce battles with Fernandez (whom
he beat), Teddy Wright, Carter, and Rocky Rivero were middleweight classics. Jose fought
them all: Jose "Chegui" Torres, Bill "Dynamite" Douglas, Luis Rodriguez, Don Fullmer,
Emile Griffith, Bobby Cassidy, Vicente Rondon, Dick Tiger, and many
I told Jose that
when we reached his house I wanted to really talk about boxing for this article. A sad
look came over his chiseled features as he stared straight ahead at the road. "I'm
divorced from boxing, Ron. It's like a woman who I loved...then I got divorced from her,
and once you do that, you never go back. I never watch the fights anymore."
We drove in silence
for a little while; I had seen that look before. It reminded me of the great lightweight
champion Carlos Ortiz, my dear friend who gave me work as his sparring partner in 1965.
Coincidently, Jose Monon Gonzalez used to do roadwork with Carlos in New York, running at
a hard pace for 40 minutes to an hour at a clip with his buddy Carlos for major fights.
Carlos once said, "I never
like to watch the fights anymore, because I wish it was me up there." I had told
Ortiz that I wished it were him up there also, but the boxing world is glad he is back as
an experienced trainer of fighters, passing on his great knowledge.
I told this to Monon as we drove past a small
grocery store. He parked the car as at least 15 people called out his name and ran over to
greet him. He leaned over in the car and whispered to me: "There are a lot of dangerous
drug dealers in this area. You have to be careful around here -- I can still fight, but
they'll shoot you. I hate drugs, I've always hated what it has done to my people. I always
tried to stay in shape to be an example to the kids, but these guys here are good people."
He rolled down the windows
to greet them as they stepped back to let him out. Several young men ran over to him from
a block away, the immediate impression was that of an "Ali effect" on people as they
swarmed to him calling his name and throwing playful punches at him.
He gave some money to a few poor souls and hugged them, his strong
face showing their pain and his love for his people. He went inside to buy some beer and
to hug an old man who was inside the store. He cheerfully and savagely said goodbye to
some of the younger ones, making them laugh at his rough humor.
As we pulled out, he yelled to a large woman
he knew, telling her not to hurt his car by bunking into it. She laughed and we drove
onward. When we finally got to the street where he lived, he turned onto it and proceeded
toward his home.
least four blocks, the children yelled and waved to him, calling his name as he honked
back at them. We pulled into his driveway and he left his front door open, as we went
inside to sit down, have a beer, and talk fights. The neighborhood children mischievously
peeked in as we walked into his living room.
The only fight mementoes I saw were a few plaques on the wall and
a magnificent 8-by-10 portrait of a 19-year-old Jose Monon Gonzalez on the wall. He
admitted to having a fight tape of his bout for the Puerto Rican middleweight title with
Jose Torres on January 3, 1964. Monon lost a close 10-round decision, which he still feels
he won, but he was adamant about reminding me that he still has great affection for Torres
to this day, as he does for all his former foes.
Jose turned pro in 1959 at the age of 19, starting out as a
welterweight. He fought 27 bouts through 1961, beating tough Ted Wright in a 10-round
decision. Wright would later lose a 15 rounder with Emile Griffith for the
junior-middleweight title, Jose Monon Gonzalez beat tough Issac Logart in 10, he knocked
out Victor Zalazar, and lost a close 10 round decision to the great Chico Vejar. He then
beat Charley Scott in 10, and in his 28th fight, he became the first man to beat the
clever middleweight spoiler of the 1960s, Joey Archer. Jose had lost a shocker in 1961 to
Luis Rodriguez in Miami but went on to beat Luis in 1970 in a 10-round decision win.
Jose is still a little bitter about that
rematch with Archer, in which he dropped a 10-round decision. Jose had Gil Clancy in his
corner that night, and Monon felt he beat Archer hands-down. Most of the time he had
Victor Valle, Sid Martin, and Harold Weston Sr. in his corner.
As we sat in his living room, his wife, Zaida,
and his stepdaughter, Ichy, came home. I was invited to dinner with Jose's family, and as
they busied themselves in the kitchen, I fired away with some of the boxing questions I'd
always wanted to ask him. I wanted to know how he'd managed to stay so strong and trim to
this day. He told me that he eats only chicken and fish, no red meat, and very little
dairy. When asked about his toughest fight, without hesitation, he said, "my father."
Then, smiling with a boyish gleam in his eyes, he admitted his toughest fight was with
Teddy Wright, a nonstop, slam-bang affair in which Jose got the decision win on October
17, 1960 in New York. He got up from the couch and demonstrated some of the moments from
the bout, while ripping sharp hooks through the air, punctuating his points.
His most enjoyable victory was over the
thunderous-punching Florentine Fernandez, because, "Everyone thought he was going to knock
me out." Jose stopped Fernandez in eight rounds in May 1964 and repeated with a decision
win in Puerto Rico in September 1965. Fernandez had gone 15 rounds with Gene Fullmer and
lost a split decision for the middleweight title. Fernandez is the only man to stop Jose
In response to the question of hardest
punchers he'd ever faced, he replied: "Number one was Billy 'Dynamite' Douglas, number two
was Florentine Fernandez, number three was 'Hurricane' Carter, and number four was Charlie
Scott." I told him I thought it would have been Carter and Dick Tiger, to which he
admitted that Carter had hit him a right hand in the shoulder that caused him pain that
lasted for three months afterward. "You know, that Carter fight was just like Florentine
Fernandez, because everyone thought he would beat me. Everywhere I walked in my
neighborhood, people would say, 'You better watch out for this guy, he KO'd Griffith so
easily.' But I knew I would win, I'm not intimidated by any man."
The official record shows that Carter was ahead on the scorecards,
but due to a cut eye, the bout was stopped in the sixth round. Carter claims to this day
that the cut was caused by a clash of heads, and by today's rules, they would go to the
scorecards. Jose emphatically denies ever deliberately butting another fighter, even
though that has been a claim against him for years. "Ron, I give you my word," he says
sincerely and believably, "I never intentionally butted another human being. I would never
want to hurt another man like that; I only tried to fight by the rules, and get inside to
go to the body. In all my fights I never talked trash to anyone or did anyone ever curse
me out in the ring or before a fight. I was strictly a professional."
As for his fight with the great champion Emile Griffith, to whom
Jose lost a close 10-round decision in October 1963 in San Juan, "We knew each other's
styles so well from boxing together in the gym, so it wasn't the most exciting fight, but
it was close." Jose beat Don Fullmer for the WBA American middleweight title in 12 rounds
in March 1966, and he went on to defend that title against tough Ferd Hernandez in 12
rounds four months later.
Jose's other big wins were against the formidable Juan "Rocky" Rivero, who he
beat in 10 rounds in San Juan in March 1967, the same Rocky Rivero who beat Rubin Carter
and fought two wars with Joey Giardello. Jose KO'd future light-heavyweight champion
Vicente Rondon in eight rounds in April 1968 and stopped tough Eddie "Red Top" Owens, the
policeman of the light-heavyweight division.
Jose also holds a win over the dangerous, hard-punching southpaw
Bobby Cassidy via an eighth-round TKO in New York in May 1972. There were men like Benny
Briscoe who won a decision over Jose and later TKO'd him, but Jose almost always made it a
point to fight a man twice, as if you had to prove it to him again and again who the
better man was in the ring.
As far as Jose's loss to Tiger in July 1964 (which I saw in
person), Jose had been on even terms until he walked into a right-hand, left-hook combo
that dropped him to one knee. He rose to fight on, but the referee stopped it despite his
feels the best boxers he ever faced were Chico Vejar, Luis Rodriquez, and Harold
Richardson. He also wanted to publicly thank Teddy Brenner for giving him the opportunity
to fight Fernandez and all the other great bouts in the old Madison Square Garden. He also
wanted to send a special, affectionate hello to Gil Clancy.
When the interview was over, we took some
wonderful films and photographs together. We then drove back to my hotel while it was
still raining. He parked the car in front and got out of the vehicle and walked around to
me. I reached out to shake his hand and he said, "Ron, I haven't had a chance to speak
English for about 10 years. You've given me some good practice today, but it's been even
longer since I've talked about boxing. I'm still divorced from it." I brushed his hand
aside and gave him a hug, "Thanks for being there 30 years ago champ, stay well, I won't
forget you." A big smile lit up his face like a Christmas tree, "I won't forget you
either, my buddy."
into his car and drove away waving to me out the window, as I thought to myself, "Monon, you might be divorced from boxing, but as
long as your fans are alive, you'll never be forgotten."