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A tribute to Willie Monroe

Willie Monroe
Willie Monroe, the Philly fighter who defeated Marvin Hagler

SHOULD you go to YouTube and type in ‘Willie Monroe vs Marvin Hagler’ you will find footage of their last two fights, that conclude with Monroe on his back, but not the first, which finished with his arms in the air. It seems somewhat cruel that when Monroe outscored the future middleweight king in March 1976, a snowstorm prevented the film crew from getting to the Spectrum in Philadelphia.

Monroe, considered the only fighter to beat Hagler without controversy, died last week at the age of 73. More than 3,000 fans braved the weather to pack into Philly’s famous fight venue and watch Monroe and Hagler engage over 10 rounds before Willie “The Worm” was adjudged the unanimous victor.

“In the second round, Hagler suffered a nosebleed from a short left hook and a straight right hand,” wrote the United Press reporter who had made it to ringside. “In the fifth, Monroe came out with three consecutive uppercuts and Hagler lost his mouthpiece and his nose started to bleed profusely. Hagler tried desperately to battle back and returned with a series of body punches. Monroe picked his opponent apart in the seventh with the jabs and the nose continued to bleed… In the 10th, Monroe took command and put too much pressure on Hagler.”

Promoter Russell J Peltz would later say that Monroe won at least seven of the 10 rounds while Hagler, with a suspected broken nose, complained of not being able to breathe for much of the bout. But he did not grumble about the decision. “I learned a lot from Monroe and I’m still young,” he said afterwards. Hagler – who stopped Monroe in 12 rounds in their rematch and just two in their third fight – would not lose again for 11 years, when Sugar Ray Leonard won a contentious decision after 12 rounds to end one of the greatest reigns in middleweight history.

Monroe never really came close to winning the world title and, following the Hagler triumph, he would lose seven of his final 14 fights to finish his career in 1981 with a record of 39-10-1 (26).

One of 16 children, Monroe was born in Florida on June 5, 1948, before his family moved to Rochester in New York. That was where young Willie caught the boxing bug after watching the sport on the television. Before long he was in the gym and, according to early reports, he was bewitching all-comers with a style that reminded onlookers of Cassius Clay, as Monroe leant out of danger before pouncing with punches from both sides.

At the age of 19, Monroe made his way to Philadelphia where he was introduced to top trainer Yank Durham by welterweight contender, Gypsy Joe Harris. Durham, both perplexed and impressed, watched Monroe go about his business and would unwittingly birth Willie’s famous nickname when he said, “Why just look at that boy out there, he’s actin’ just like a worm.”

Monroe would have significant success as an amateur and, by his own reckoning, amass a record of 43-0 (37). Reports claim a bug prevented him from fighting for a place in the 1968 Olympic Games so he turned professional the following year. His turnover came without great fanfare, though, and he was forced to retain his job as a truck driver with Clarkie’s Inc, a building maintenance firm, as he made his way in the pro ranks. By 1971 his record stood at an impressive 15-0 (14) and he caught the eye of former BN contributor Jack Obermayer, who was then writing for Boxing Illustrated.

“He has the physical attributes to mold himself into a great fighter,” wrote Obermayer. “At six feet even, he is tall for his 158lbs and he uses his long reach advantage that he uses to the fullest. He has blinding speed of both hand and foot and when he stops to punch, he does more than just sting, he bangs.”

A stablemate of Joe Frazier, Monroe would later be trained by Eddie Futch and then George Benton following Durham’s death in 1973. The following year, Monroe – on the right-hand side of the poster – would show off his considerable skills to defeat feared Philly rival Eugene “Cyclone” Hart over 10 rounds. Other noteworthy victims included Billy Douglas, Stanley Hayward, Carlos Marks, Jose Gonzalez and Don Cobbs. But Monroe would frequently fight with indecision, lost between two styles – the boxer and the puncher and, aside from Hagler, was defeated by Bobby Watts, David Love, Curtis Parker (in a wild affair) and Dwight Davison. In retirement Monroe, who truly adored boxing, worked as a referee and trained young fighters. His nephew, of the same name, is a current middleweight contender who vowed to win the world title in his uncle’s honour when he heard of his death.

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  • The Sugar Ray Leonard win over Hagler wasn’t contentious to those who can score a fight properly. The same person was responsible for Hagler’s defeats to Monroe and Leonard and that was Marvellous Marvin Hagler himself. Hagler’s fans are loooong overdue accepting this truth and would rather blame anyone but Hagler himself for those loses.

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