Shotgun Monzon: The greatest middleweight I have seen
17.01.06 - BY MIKE CASEY: Greatness, like fine wine, often requires a good deal of time to be fully appreciated. In boxing, greatness can be subtle or brutal, deceptive or immediately apparent. You see its tantalising flashes, but the picture is never complete until the fighter has sufficiently matured and revealed the full range of his gifts to the sometimes slowly adaptive eye.
Article posted on 17.01.2006
When Carlos Monzon began his steady climb to the ranks of boxing’s finest middleweight champions, I was fifteen years old and still blind to the more obscure and abstract layers of the noble art.
In Monzon’s case, I was also somewhat resentful. He had just won the world championship by knocking out Nino Benvenuti in Rome, and I had wanted Benvenuti to win. Nino was a playboy and an Italian, and how I wanted to hang out in sunny Italy like him and be thrillingly distracted by beautiful women..
In the real world, I was hanging out in the grey and cold of an English winter and wrestling with a homework project on the Second World War, courtesy of my history master. Not a small part of the Second World War, mind you. All of it.
Like many pleasantly deluded teachers, Harry Truman (for that was truly his name) believed that we kids would quickly grow bored with the dark winter nights without the gripping challenge of a mountainous academic assignment. Then Mr Monzon very inconsiderately dropped his bomb on Mr Benvenuti.
However well we think we know people, time inevitably dulls the memory and blurs the images we have imprinted on our brain. Boxers are no exception to this cerebral distortion. Sometimes we remember them for being better than they were and feel that familiar twinge of disappointment when we play back our old videos. Other times, a fighter we thought we knew suddenly seems to be cloaked in a new garb as our memories are refreshed and the scales finally fall from our eyes.
Just recently I replayed some of the films I have of Carlos Monzon and was struck more than ever by the sheer quality of this wonderful fighter.
As I watched him winging his thunderous punches at a succession of reeling opponents, the irresistible force of the man they called Escopeta (Shotgun) seemed even more potent than it did during his long reign as middleweight champion. What a finisher Monzon was. Ruthless and incessant, full of 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 shuddering effect.
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 and super efficient machine that ran and ran.
Monzon’s stamina was probably his most impressive and illogical asset, since he was ever bit as proficient as Stanley Ketchell and Harry Greb at taking the rule book and heartily throwing it out of the window. Ketchell invariably trained by drinking and whoring out on the old Barbary Coast. Greb was a walking encyclopaedia on the best nightclubs 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 round.”
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 wasn’t blessed with the silky skills or the one-punch knockout power of Ray Robinson, but 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 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 irrelevant irritations.
Monzon had his pedestrian nights and close calls like all great champions, 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 battered in fourteen rounds in their first engagement.
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 ill 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 powerhouse.
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 bolo punch and stunned the crowd by his almost nonchalant reaction to it. I remember wondering at the time how that must have shaken Rodrigo’s confidence.
Monzon 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 deficit respectable.
When Carlos was behind, he was no less tenacious and accomplished at turning the fight around and storming over the finishing line. In his coronation war against Benvenuti in the cauldron of Rome, 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.
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 and class.
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 fairly comprehensive points win.
In my view, the two men who would have given Monzon his toughest fights were Stanley Ketchell and Harry Greb. Both men shared Carlos’ incredible stamina and sheer bloody-mindedness. Ketchell, 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 in his 52 wins 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 Ketchell’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 thirty-second round.
Ketchell, 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 to master Harry by keeping him at distance with skill, precision and a cool head.
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 war.
Mickey Walker, the Toy Bulldog, was a tough and gloriously exciting fighter. Strong, powerfully built and a thunderous hitter, 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 would have had the advantage over Mick in height and all-round skill.
Carlos also possessed the sounder defence, although Walker’s ability to absorb punishment was exceptional and often too good for his own good. The likely outcome would have been a punishing but convincing decision for Monzon in a barn burner of a fight.
I had all the time in the world for Marvin Hagler, championing Marvin’s cause in those dark days of the late seventies when he seemed to be the leading contender for an age before getting his shot. He had a great fighting heart and an impressive armoury of all-round ability. But 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 more robotic in this regard and didn’t seem able to fully commit himself to an alternative game plan. My gut instinct just tells me that Monzon’s infernally difficult style and his formidable strength would have forced Hagler to think himself up a blind alley and prevented him from getting sufficiently untracked to save the day.
What of Bernard Hopkins? The long reigning Philadelphian ace continues to divide fans on his all-time worth. What I have always liked about Bernard is his thorough dedication, his fitness and his all round commitment. He is an excellent box fighter, skilful and hard hitting, and a dangerous man up close. The short hook with which he disposed of Oscar De La Hoya was a beauty, although I would still question whether it was as destructive as Oscar made it appear. Bernard is a commanding hitter but not a true knockout puncher.
It is hardly the fault of Hopkins that the only middleweight he faced of comparable talent was Roy Jones, who beat him. But there is the rub, since that is the result on Bernard’s record that still jumps off the page when we come to assess his overall standing. Who, among his many challengers, possessed the class and versatility of Rodrigo Valdez, let alone Monzon?
Hopkins is often referred to as deceptively effective, but how deceptive can he be? Sooner or later, every fighter shows us his full hand, and I believe that we have seen all of Bernard’s cards. It has long been a popular practice of Hollywood publicists to elevate a very good actor to the status of a great actor by selling him as a ‘deceptive’ or ‘subtle’ performer who does a lot more on screen than he appears to do. This is a very clever ploy, since the earnest movie buff who is fearful of being at odds with the in-crowd is hardly likely to suggest that such an actor is actually showing us everything he’s got and everything he is ever likely to have.
Hopkins reminds me in many ways of former light-heavyweight champ, Harold Johnson. At their best, both men were very good fighters and very good world champions. But great? Great in the sense of belonging to the true elite? Not in my opinion.
‘Great’ is a mighty word and must surely mean something that is exceptional, even in an era where just about every other superlative has lost its impact and value. Picturing a Monzon-Hopkins fight in my mind’s eye, I cannot see how Bernard could have got to Carlos in any significant way, never mind got past him. Hopkins certainly couldn’t have bided his time as did so infuriatingly in his fights with Jermain Taylor. Monzon was never more dangerous than when he seized the initiative and would have battered his way to a late stoppage or a wide points win. For the record, I thought Bernard edged Taylor in their return, but there were times in the later rounds when the old pro was lunging and flailing like an amateur in his desperation to close the gap. Monzon would have fed off an aggressive Hopkins with even greater relish.
As the title of this article clearly states, Carlos Monzon was the greatest middleweight I have seen. I haven’t seen them all and nor has anyone else. Was he the greatest middleweight, period?
MIKE CASEY is a boxing journalist and historian, a member of the International Boxing Research Organization and founder and editor of The Grand Slam Premium Boxing Service for boxing historians and fans. (www.grandslampage.net)
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