It's been nearly 150 years since the first modern boxing rules were drafted under the patronage of the Marquess of Queensberry in 1867. The history of boxing has been recorded by journalists, writers and fans passing down stories to their children.
But in 150 years, over so many weight classes, so many great champions have come and gone, that it is sometimes difficult to keep track of them all. Even though at the time they may have been huge stars, like today's LeBron James, David Beckham or Tiger Woods, if nobody at the time thought to write a novel or film a movie about their lives, their stories are now forgotten, decades later. And even when an author or journalists did decide to record their life story, the memory we have of them today is oftentimes based more on how they were presented in books, articles or movies, rather then what they were like in real life, or even in the ring. Many people know of Jack Dempsey, Henry Armstrong, Jake LaMotta or Willie Pep, but how many of us have actually taken the time to watch grainy footage of dozens of their fights or their interviews to be able to judge on our own what they were really like. The answer unfortunately is that nobody can do that, not for all the great boxers of all the weight classes over all these years.
This is why we rely on books and articles, this is why fighters of old gradually become stories and legends rather than facts. Unfortunately, this is also why some fighters are remembered differently today than they were seen during their primes.
Today's story is about two all-time greats that are remembered today in different ways then what they would have hoped for.
Usually when we talk about the greatest middleweights in history, 4 names always come up: Sugar Ray Robinson, Harry Greb, "Marvelous" Marvin Hagler and Carlos Monzon.
The Argentinian Carlos Monzon was the Undisputed World Middleweight Champion for 7 years, successfully defended his title 14 times (which I believe is still a record for defenses of the Ring / undisputed middleweight championship) and was arguably the greatest fighter of the 1970s alongside Muhammad Ali and Roberto Duran.
His story sounds like one of so many boxers throughout history. Monzon was born in the desolate town of San Javier in the grim frontier province of Santa Fe into a very poor family. He dropped out of 3rd grade and started working through a range of odd jobs such as newspaper delivery boy and milkman but later he found he could also make a little money from his new hobby of boxing. Monzon would earn up to 50 pesos by winning loosely organized backstreet bouts. He slowly worked his way up the amateur ranks and turned professional in 1963 at the age of 20. Over the next 7 years he built a record of 67-3-9 fighting only in South America and gaining some limited exposure on national television. In 1970, undefeated in 6 years and South American champion, he was given a chance in Rome at the world middleweight title held at the time by Italian legend, international star and future Hall Of Famer Nino Benvenuti, holding the linear middleweight title directly descending from Sugar Ray Robinson.
Argentinian veteran journalist Carlos Irusta, a close follower of Monzon's career, remembers:
It was a more romantic time. We [the boxing community] all got together to give Monzón a farewell dinner in Luna Park. There were a lot of us, and nobody except for Brusa [Monzon's trainer], Lectura [Monzon's promoter] and one veteran journalist, Simón Bronenberg believed in Monzón.
The Argentine public at the time were drawn to more charismatic fighters, including Benvenuti himself, a suave boxer-cum-movie star whose face could be seen on giant billboards around Buenos Aires
In a fight that would go down in history, the Ring Magazine Fight Of The Year for 1970, Monzon battered and shocked the champion for 12 frenetic rounds before knocking him out in the 12th with one of the most brutal right hands in boxing history. Monzon became in instant international celebrity. He was welcomed home as a national hero and spent the next decade touring the French and Italian rivieras in expensive cars and expensive suits, dating famous actresses and acting in numerous movies.
"Boxing News" editor Graham Houston remembers his celebrity looks:
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.
Monzon dated Argentina's most famous movie star, Susana Giménez, alongside which he had acted in the movie "La Mary". They were the David and Victoria Beckham of their times, if you will, and paparazzi followed them everywhere.
As a boxer, Monzon was a strange case. He absolutely looked like nothing special in the ring. He was tall, had an upright and calculated style, nothing flashy. He wasn't slick, his technique was awkward at best and he wasn't even a gung-ho smothering brawler. Watching him on film, one can think of numerous strategies to beating him, but in real life, it was pretty much impossible to do. Monzon was a calm, patient destroyer, with an iron chin, unbelievable stamina and with absolute thunder in his fists, which he would use to slowly break down all of his opponents.
California Hall of Fame matchmaker Hap Navarro describes him:
I would parallel Monzon as being a stronger, rangier edition of Roberto Duran, without the overly bellicose attitude that so characterised Roberto.
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.
Between 1970 and 1973, Monzon destroyed and retired Benvenuti in a rematch, knocked out Emile Griffith for the single genuine KO loss of his HOF career, annihilated contenders Denny Moyer, Jean-Claude Bouttier, Tom Boggs and Philadelphia legend Bennie Briscoe. Coming into 1973, Monzon was running out of opposition so a rematch with Griffith was arranged, for his name value more than anything.
The 35 year-old Emile Griffith was at the back end of his already all-time-great career. Griffith was marking his 15th year as a professional prizefighter that very week. He was a former three time welterweight champion and a former two-time middleweight champion. He had famous wins over future Hall Of Famers Luis Manuel Rodriguez, Dick Tiger, Nino Benvenuti. I was about to start listing the contenders he had fought over his great career, but realizing there were so many of them, I came across this little piece of information:
Griffith holds the distinction of fighting more RING-rated fighters than any other boxer in the International Boxing Hall of Fame, according to The Boxing Register, the Hall’s official record book.
Griffith faced 39 top-10 contenders, as recognized by THE RING magazine, many of whom he fought multiple times.
One of the best accounts of his career was given right here on Bad Left Hook by Ryan Bivins. You should definitely check that out.
Griffith in his prime was a wonderful blend of boxer-brawler, able to fight at a distance or inside with equal skill. Outside the ring, he was a wonderfully open and gentle man. Harold Lederman remembers:
He could move, he could box, he could punch, and he was so much fun to be around. Everybody loved Emile. He was a very kind man and he would stop to talk to anyone. He was a terrific person and a great champion.
But the one bout that would mark his entire life was a tragic one. In 1962, He met Cuban great Benny "Kid" Paret in their 3rd bout. Griffith, perhaps incensed by comments made by Paret about his sexuality, administered a vicious beating to Paret, who would die a few days later as a result of injuries suffered in the bout. The weight of killing a man, and the public reaction that followed were a stigma that Griffith would never be able to shake away. 11 years later, a considerably older Griffith was stepping into the ring with the young destroyer, the much larger Carlos Monzon.
The bout took place on June 2nd 1973 in the lavish turqoise-water resort of Monte Carlo, the gambling capital of Europe and a popular destination and meeting place of Europe's old nobility and capitalism's "nouveau riche" of the bustling early 1970s.
Carlos Monzon vs Emile Griffith (02.06.1973) (via Super Boxing)
In the beginning of the bout, Monzon used his big height and reach advantage to jab Griffith repeatedly and add sudden hard combinations in the middle of his jabs. Griffith was at such a size disadvantage, that his only chance to land something was to lunge forward. But Monzon showed superb movement to lean his head back, step away and evade all of Emile's punches. He clearly won the first three rounds on activity, combination punching and elusiveness. Griffith started to work in more body-punching and more counters in the 4th. Because Griffith would always lunge forward with his head down, Monzon began the 5th leading all his combinations with a lead uppercut to catch Griffith coming in trying to counter the Monzon combination. Griffith quickly found a way to exploit this by taking the initial uppercut and timing his countershot with the third shot of every Monzon combination. This worked wonders for him in rounds 6 and 7, as he was able to land huge overhand counters in the middle of Monzon combinations. In the 8th, Monzon adjusted by working the uppercut in the middle of the combination, using it as the third punch, the very punch Griffith would lunge forward on. This was also a successful adjustment.
But all the cute boxing on both sides started to fade away starting with the 9th when Monzon looked really tired, seemed unable to move his feet on defense and elected to stand and trade with Griffith. As had been the case thus far, Monzon was landing more punches in beautiful combinations but was also taking the harder punches. The roles had been reversed: the master boxer, Griffith, was the harder puncher in the bout. Also, using his amazing head movement to evade the punishing Monzon jab, Griffith took most of the middle rounds.
But in the 12th round, with the fight still up for grabs, Monzon found a second wind and a sense of urgency and started to put all of his weight into his punches. He would give up both his movement and his height advantage by planting his feet really widely and putting everything he had into every punch. The last 4 rounds were barnburners as both men gave everything. Monzon hurt Griffith with huge right hands in the 12th, 13th and 14th rounds but everytime Griffith would come back to land something big on Monzon just as the rounds ended, all the while talking to Monzon in the clinches. The 15th round found Griffith back to countering Monzon's every lead shot, but this time doing it in combinations of power punches. When the final bell sounded, both men raised their hands in victory. Griffith had managed to use his experience and his amazing chin to take Monzon into deep waters the way nobody thought he could. Monzon had to rely on every bit of his youth and size advantage in the early rounds and then on his toughness and determination in the last rounds. The scores revealed a close, unanimous decision for Monzon. I scored the bout 145-141 Monzon.
It was the last great night in Griffith's career. He went 9-10-1 over his last 4 years, including losses to future middleweight champions Vito Antuofermo and Alan Minter.
Carlos Monzon continued his middleweight reign destroying, among others, all time great Jose Napoles (who was moving up from welterweight) and finishing his career with great back-to-back classic wins over Rodrigo Valdez, arguably the greatest Colombian fighter of all time and 29th on Ring Magazine's list of 100 greatest punchers of all time. After the second Valdez fight, Monzon retired as undefeated middleweight champion. He finished his career with exactly 100 fights: 87-3-10. All 3 of his losses were when he was a young fighter growing up poor in Argentina and he avenged all 3 of them almost immediately. He also surprisingly avenged his 10 draws as well, also early bouts from Argentina. After maturing as a fighter and moving to the world level, Monzon was unbeaten and retired as such. Interestingly enough, fighting on the same card as Monzon's farewell fight was Emile Griffith, who also retired after that bout, the two great rivals bowing out together in 1977.
But in retirement, Monzon's life changed. Although a beloved celebrity in Europe and especially in his native Argentina, Monzon could never truly get away from the violent side he had grown as a young man on the streets of San Javier. Rumors, often backed up by physical evidence, of abusive behaviour towards the women he was romantically involved with pursued him throughout his life. It all culminated in a Mar del Plata condo in the early hours of the morning on February 14, 1988. Monzon and his former wife, Uruguayan model Alicia Muniz fought and Muniz ended up dead, thrown from the second floor balcony. Monzon was sentenced to 11 years in prison for murder. The events and the trial were a shock for a nation where Monzon was a demi-god.
In 1995, Monzon too was dead. Given a weekend's furlough from prison for good behaviour, Monzon's car spun off the road near his hometown in the province of Santa Fe and he was killed.
Afterwards, Monzon became a painful memory and a difficult subject. Some Argentinians think of him as a murderer, whereas others prefer to think of him as the great world champion. The truth is, he was both. It is up to us, as sports fans, to reconcile and find a way to deal with such contradictions. People are not usually impeccably great or unequivocally evil. The issue of good versus evil is unfortunately not as simple as Batman and the Joker. To deny that some evil men can be great, at least at something, is to blind ourselves into believing evil is easy to isolate and eliminate from our world, which it is not. At the same time, while I can appreciate the talents of a champion like Monzon, I find it difficult to root for him. The issue is very much relevant to the present as well, where we also have a champion with a history of violence towards women. Boxing, it seems, more than any other sport, brings out the darkness in men and forces us to face it.
As for Emile Griffith, he led a simple life after his retirement, was a boxing trainer and teacher for decades and his memory faded from the public eye, as the last years of his life were a quiet struggle with dementia pugilistica. That is, until his passing last year. All of a sudden, the chance for a sensational headline was too much to pass up, not for one, not for 5, but for dozens and dozens of websites and newspapers. For days, the Internet was flooded with "obituaries" of a man very few had ever attempted to write about beforehand. And you know what gets pageviews better than "legendary boxing champion dies"? Here it is: "Here's The Deadly Fight That Haunted Gay Boxer Emile Griffith", "Emile Griffith, who has died aged 75, went down in boxing history as the champion who killed his opponent because he had taunted him as "gay"." If Emile's legacy was ever slowly fading away into obscurity, well it sure as hell got a big public execution by the ignorant press last year, after the man had died. And here we end back at the initial idea of this post. As much as we think fighters of today such as Manny Pacquiao, Floyd Mayweather or Wladimir Klitschko are legendary and could not possibly be forgotten or misremembered many years from now, the sad truth is that what people are remembered for is not written in the present, but will be decided by random "journalists" under God knows what circumstances in the future. If a young boxing fan hears that Emile Griffith was once a significant boxer and he googles Emile Griffith, he will not find a single god damned article on the first 4 pages other than "Boxer killed another boxer because he was struggling with his homosexuality". That is the legacy of Emile Griffith, whether you or I like it or not. Unlike Carlos Monzon, Griffith did not write his own horrible legacy. But fortunately, also unlike Carlos Monzon, he was not alive to see it either.