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The Monzon Legacy

Carlos Monzon
Jack Hirsch investigates the career and tragic demise of Carlos Monzon, a convicted murderer, who died as violently as he lived, to pinpoint his place in history

WHEN Bernard Hopkins ruled the middleweight roost he was asked to compare himself to former champions in the division. When Carlos Monzon’s name came up, Hopkins who never likes to give an inch modestly conceded “that is a fight I could see myself losing.” Such is the respect Monzon holds for his exploits inside the ring. But outside of it there was a dark side to him which only the cruelest human beings could envy. The recent 13-part series appearing on Netflix, appropriately named Monzon, filmed in Argentina and with English subtitles, reveals that. Monzon never fully comprehended his behaviour, nor we him. Until the Netflix series the mention of Monzon’s name conjured up memories of his extraordinary legacy inside the ring. Suppressed in the thoughts of many is that Monzon was a convicted murderer, who died as violently as he lived.

The story of Monzon was similar to that of National Football league Hall of Fame running back OJ Simpson. Both were involved in sensational murder trials that gripped their countries. First there was disbelief that they could be involved in such a gruesome crime. When the shock wore off anger set in, transforming them from national heroes into disgraced ones.

Carlos Monzon

In the court of law, Simpson was acquitted of the murder charge. To a disbelieving public in the United States, Simpson would always be branded regardless of the official verdict. His life forever altered for the worse. A sympathetic figure he was not. After retiring Simpson had been a football analyst and endorser of various products. The Juice’s good guy image had him doing commercials with the likes of Arnold Palmer. But that all evaporated as the trial developed. Simpson walked out of court as a free man, but at the price of losing everything, being relieved of all the duties that had made him wildly popular and wealthy. There would be no comebacks for Simpson.

Ironically, 13 years to the day that Simpson was acquitted of the murder charge, he was convicted of robbery and sentenced to 33 years in prison. He would be paroled after nine. Simpson had been trying to retrieve memorabilia he claimed was his. The sentence was far harsher than the specific crime merited, but what was left unsaid and what everyone knew was that it was related to the prior case.

Although Simpson was exonerated of criminal charges, he later lost a civil suit to the family of Ron Goldman, one of the murder victims. Simpson 72, lives a quiet existence these days. OJ always maintained his innocence, but as great of a pitchman as he was could never sell it to the public.

Monzon’s case set off the same emotions within Argentina as Simpson’s did in the United States. The two victims in the Simpson trial died as a result of a knife attack. Monzon’s victim Alicea Muniz fell to her death from a balcony.

The jury did not believe Monzon’s story that it was all an accident. The country he had once made so proud was not supportive. In 1989, Monzon was sentenced to 11 years in prison. He never did get to serve out his full term, being killed in an automobile accident in 1995, while out on furlough for the weekend. That Monzon did not receive a harsher sentence from Argentina’s criminal justice system had some wondering whether there was a double standard for the rich and famous?

Argentinian journalist Diego Morilla shared his thoughts on the matter. Said Morilla, “The leniency used in Monzon’s sentencing was obviously influenced by his status as one of Argentina’s most revered figures. He embodied the uppity macho image that many of his Argentine fans loved and wanted for themselves: a winner in the ring, a womanizer outside the ring, a guiltless, untouchable playboy.

“But there was also the fact that there were several mitigating factors that caused the homicide case to be treated almost as a case of accidental manslaughter. There was the argument of a “crime of passion” committed during a domestic dispute that got out of hand. The presence of alcohol in both of their blood samples was another mitigating factor, as well as the technicality that Muniz was still alive when she was presumably hurled from the balcony by Monzon, who thus killed her in a frightened attempt to cover up the beating he gave her moments earlier, rather than simply killing her during a fit of rage. The fact that Muniz started the dispute by berating Monzon about an alimony debt was also exploited cunningly by Monzon’s lawyers.

“There’s enough material to fill two books on the trial itself [there were more than two books written on the subject, since the Monzon case received as much attention as the OJ Simpson case did in the States], but that’s the main storyline. Plus, the only direct witness [Baez, the homeless guy who just happened to be passing by and watched the whole thing] offered a very shaky testimony that changed dramatically almost every day, suggesting that he really had no clear idea of what he saw. Another mitigating factor was the fact that they were not married [this was a requisite in the pre – domestic violence legislation era for a gender crime to be considered as such].

“The case would serve later as the basis for a massive update of the domestic violence and gender crime laws in Argentina.

“Furloughs are not rare in Argentina [especially in cases where the criminal is well known to the public] as a rather questionable solution for overcrowded prisons and other things,” continued Morilla. “Fortunately, the amount and ‘quality’ of our criminality is nowhere near countries such as Brazil, or Venezuela, or Colombia, so random violent crime is not as big here as one may imagine. We expect more danger from the folks that we elect for office than from those who are out there looking for a pocket to pick.”

Monzon was married twice and had five children. The murder conviction withstanding, we can only speculate on the level of hostility that Monzon displayed to all of the women he had relationships with.

Monzon was one of 12 children and grew up in poverty. He had a hard life. Boxing gave him the chance to transition into a productive member of society but, despite the riches it provided, Monzon remained unchanged.

Watching the Monzon series on Netflix conjured up memories of Jake LaMotta who was so poignantly portrayed in the movie Raging Bull. But as harsh as LaMotta’s behaviour was, unlike Monzon he did not cross the ultimate line and commit a murder.

With LaMotta there were no airs about him, what you saw was what you got. There was no sense of entitlement. Conversely, Monzon left more to the imagination. We knew the fighter, but had no idea about the man. A handsome individual, Monzon strutted around in sunglasses with his girlfriend the actress Susana Jimenez hanging on his arm. The Blonde Bombshell and Monzon appeared in movies and were Argentina’s hottest couple. They did great business for the tabloids. Sometimes Monzon did not like what was written and vented his anger toward the paparazzi by doing more than just mouthing off.

Monzon had a drinking problem which probably contributed to his violent behaviour. Perhaps had Monzon gone to rehab things might have turned out differently. But usually alcoholics have to hit rock bottom before seeking help. By the time Monzon did he was sitting in a jail cell awaiting trial.

Had Monzon served out his sentence and returned to society there is no telling how his life would have then played out. What we do know is that his legacy inside the ring was not affected by the gruesome crime he was convicted of outside it. It has been close to 25 years since Monzon departed. But the mention of his name no longer stirs up debate as to the crime, but where Monzon rates among the greatest middleweight champions in history.

There was an eloquence to the way Monzon boxed. He was rough, but at the same time stylistic. Long and lanky, Monzon masterfully controlled his opponents at long range, methodically breaking them down before deciding to ramp up his attack and close the show.

***

On the morning of November 7, 1970 only the most hardened boxing fans outside of Argentina were familiar with Monzon as he got ready to challenge the popular world middleweight champion Nino Benvenuti in Monaco. In fact, ABC’s World Wide of Sports in the United States, which had telecast a good number of Benvenuti’s prior championship contests elected to skip this one so unknown was Monzon.

There was disbelief when the result came in, but to those in attendance there was no doubt about what they had witnessed. Monzon established himself immediately, controlling Benvenuti from the outside. By the middle rounds the Italian was desperate. Nino rallied to take a couple of them as he drove Monzon back, but was not hurting him. Monzon had never been 15 rounds before whereas Benvenuti had on several occasions. But Monzon was not tiring, merely pacing himself for the championship rounds. Perhaps fearing he could not win a decision in Italy, Monzon attacked ferociously from the 10th round on. Benvenuti showed the heart of a champion, but Monzon overwhelmed him. In the 12th round Benvenuti was forced into a corner, hit with a right to the chin, toppled, and was counted out. Argentina went wild. Monzon returned home a rock star.

The result outside of Argentina was less about Monzon winning than Benvenuti losing.

“Nino Benvenuti lost his title earlier today, isn’t that wild?” said a talk show host who gave the result to his listeners in New York, without mentioning Monzon by name.

The Monzon era was underway. There would be 14 successful title defenses before he retired in 1977 at age 35.

In examining the Monzon legacy the amount of title defences should not be the predominant factor in determining his greatness. Hopkins eclipsed Monzon’s mark with 20 successful defenses, yet you only rarely hear his name mentioned when people debate who was the greatest middleweight champion in history. Monzon is right beside Harry Greb, Sugar Ray Robinson, and Marvin Hagler when we debate who was the best.

***

The nine draws on Monzon’s record might stand out on the surface, but are largely insignificant. They occurred in the early part of his career when he was in the developmental stage. Still, Gil Clancy who worked in the corner opposite Monzon on several occasions felt the draws probably meant Carlos lost the fights being that they were held in Argentina. That point is probably irrelevant being that most of the opponents were fellow Argentinians. In 1967, Philadelphian Bennie Briscoe was brought in to test Monzon. Reports had it as being a close tactical contest. For years foreign fighters could not win in Argentina, but there is no evidence that Monzon ever caught a break from the judges.

If the draws reveal anything about Monzon it is that he was a work in progress when they occurred, not anywhere near the fighting machine he would later become.

During Monzon’s championship reign he also engaged in five non-title fights, winning all without a fuss. But it was with the championship on the line that Monzon shined.

King Carlos stopped Benvenuti in three in the rematch when the former champion’s corner controversially threw in the towel. Yes, it was stopped too early, but Benvenuti after a promising opening round was dropped late in the second, then again early in the third when the towel came flying in. He promptly kicked it out of the ring, but by then the fight had been stopped. “Sometimes love can kill you,” he said afterward. Benvenuti never fought again.

Photo by El Grafico/Getty Images

That result withstanding, Monzon sometimes struggled in rematches. Magnificent while stopping Emile Griffith in 14 rounds of a 1971 defence, yet he was given a tough time in the sequel when winning a close decision over 15. Bennie Briscoe, who like Griffith was fading by the time he got his return, also fared better against Monzon second time round. Though the champion won a lopsided decision, he had to overcome a real scare in the ninth round.

Time has forgotten Rodrigo Valdez the brilliant Colombian, who held the WBC middleweight title that had been stripped from Monzon. To date, he has not been elected into the Hall of Fame which some, like promoter Russell Peltz, describe as a grave injustice. It was Valdez’s misfortune to have the biggest fights of his career against Monzon.

Monzon’s first fight with Valdez to unify the title was eagerly anticipated and one many thought he could lose. Valdez had won 27 straight which included the knockout over Briscoe for the vacant WBC strap.

Valdez’s performance in their first fight in June, 1976, was remarkable when you consider that he was carrying the mental burden of his brother being killed five days before. He and Monzon engaged in a very tactical nip and tuck battle virtually the whole way. Monzon dropped an incoming Valdez in the 14th round. That proved to be his margin of victory as he unified the title on the cards.

The rematch took place a year later. Monzon had no fights in the interim largely because he had lost his zest for fighting. Word leaked out that it would be his last contest. Monzon regularly drank and smoked between contests, but always trained hard otherwise and entered the ring in top physical condition. He needed to be because it was the only fight of his championship tenure where Monzon was forced to come from behind. Valdez was fired up and came out strongly dropping Monzon for the first time in his career in the second round.

Valdez looked well on his way to victory after eight rounds, but then Monzon staged a furious rally, cutting the Colombian badly and dominating the rest of the way to win a unanimous decision by three points on two cards and two on the other.

After the fight Monzon made it official. “I think I showed I’m one of the great ones but it’s over now,” he said while announcing his retirement.

Monzon successfully defended his title against Hall of Famers Benvenuti, Griffith, Jose Napoles, and Valdez – who should arguably be one. But his championship reign was filled with very worthy contenders as well. There was Denny Moyer who was a former 154lb champion. Tony Licata had lost only one of his 53 bouts before facing Monzon, Tom Bogs just four of 68, Jean Claude Bouttier four of 67, Tony Mundine only three of 51.

Credit to Monzon for knowing his interest was waning and retiring on top. In a sport where fighters routinely have one or more fights too many, Monzon knew where to draw the line.

Great fighters are not necessarily great people. Monzon doubtless fit the mold. It’s a tragedy that he was not able to control his emotions outside of the ring as well as he did in it. But the legacy Monzon left is undeniable which makes how he lived his life all the more tragic.

COMPARING THE GREATS

MONZON VS GREB
Greb’s activity level is incomparable, but in his time (1913-1926), fighters had the opportunity to box much more often than they did in succeeding eras. 298 bouts in 13 years, averages out close to a fight every other week over the course of Greb’s career. Obviously there were some easy matches, maybe even fixed ones, but Greb also boxed the best of his era. 48 of his fights were against 16 men who would later be inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame. And against those immortals Greb’s record was 33-9-6. In 1919 alone, Greb boxed an astonishing 45 times. Greb’s official record was 107-8-3 (48), the rest of the matches being deemed newspaper decisions which were common at the time, but are not official results. Greb’s accomplishments dwarf that of any other middleweight and he should be rated accordingly. He was the only man to ever beat Gene Tunney and reportedly got the better of Jack Dempsey in sparring.

One of the great tragedies in boxing history is that there are no known fight films on Greb. If there were we might get a better read on how he would have done against Monzon.

Despite Greb’s accomplishments he did have his share of off nights and was not a particularly concussive puncher. By most accounts, he would not hesitate resorting to foul tactics to intimidate an opponent. Greb had a greater career than Monzon, but his championship reign was not as good. The guess here is that Monzon would have controlled Greb from the outside and won widely on points.

harry greb

MONZON VS ROBINSON

Monzon would get irritated when he heard that Robinson was better because he was a five-time world champion, whereas Carlos only held it once. “That is because unlike Robinson I never lost it,” he lamented. And who can argue? Both faced strong opposition at middleweight. Robinson would lose on occasion, Monzon never did while champion. If we are talking pound for pound by also taking Robinson’s sensational run as a welterweight into consideration then he certainly should be rated ahead of Monzon. But to judge their work strictly at middleweight, Monzon’s was a little better.

Who would have won had they met at middleweight is hard to say. It is easy to envision either coming out on top, but Monzon by a close decision would have been a reasonable expectation.

Jake LaMotta

MONZON VS HAGLER

The Monzon-Robinson debate might have passed the test of time if not for Marvin Hagler who enjoyed a reign of 12 title defences. As Hagler’s stature grew, comparisons with Monzon became inevitable. Even though it has been 33 years since Hagler last boxed the debate rages on who would have won had they squared off in their respective primes? The question itself casts light on one of boxing’s silent problems, comparing fighters to the other based on one fight. In team sports they play continuously. An occasional loss is not only acceptable, but is to be expected. However, if one boxer loses to another we sometimes unfairly judge their career based on that.

Hagler and Monzon were so evenly matched that any result outside of a close decision for either would have been a shock. Personally I lean toward Hagler, but with that said Monzon gets my nod as the greater middleweight in large part due to his consistency. Unlike Monzon, who won the title by knockout on his first try, Hagler had to wait until his second, being held to a draw by then champion Vito Antuofermo. Some have labelled it a robbery, but Hagler later admitted in a television interview it was a close fight even though he had no doubts he won it. And unlike Monzon who retired in a blaze of glory after defeating Valdez, Hagler lost the title in his last fight by split decision to Sugar Ray Leonard.

Hagler V Leonard boxing

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