I like the fellow
who in the heat of battle
was able to plant our flag
in the toughest terrain.
Champion in his game,
confident in his ability,
he saw the vultures grouping,
chased them with his hat
and seared them with his poncho.
If you go forward tenaciously
you'll struggle through with your message,
even though your wagon gets stuck
and the cattle crush you.
There's nothing wrong with the man
who wears out his knife
defending his honor.
The coward hands it over to the police
without ever taking it out of its sheath.
Here's to you, Carlos Monzon.
one hundred percent Santafesino.
the new world champion.
Strength, fists and heart.
From this old tree,
for you a prize of honey
and a laurel wreath.
From your tent a cry of victory,
a woman's hand in yours,
and a carnation pinned to your lapel.
—JILIO MIGNO, translated by L. Tarabein
It had been raining off and on for a month in parts of the Argentine pampas. Rivers were out of their banks surrounding the city of Santa Fe, 240 miles northwest of Buenos Aires. A cold wind blew across brown ponds that now stood in the grasslands. In the basement gym at the Club Atlético Unión in Santa Fe, the floor was laid over with a scum of gray mud. At five o'clock on a Tuesday afternoon, Carlos Monzon came down the concrete steps into the small, damp room where a couple of dozen boxers were shuffling in the slime, pounding leather bags with their fists, snorting and dodging and throwing straight right hands in imitation of the style that had turned Monzon from a shoeshine boy into the middleweight champion of the world.
October 30, 1972
That afternoon Monzon had been at a school where he posed for photographs with a lot of screaming children. He had left the school and driven his lilac-colored Fiat to the club. Inside the high brick walls of the club grounds are rugby and soccer fields, and a swimming pool filled with oily water and so much rubbish that Monzon could almost have walked over it to the gym. Monzon had been up all night drinking Scotch and playing the guitar and singing with friends, and he looked like a man who had just swallowed a cockroach. His title light with Benny Briscoe of Philadelphia, now scheduled for Nov. 11 in Buenos Aires, had been postponed for the third time in a week. His mood was sullen and edgy.
"Don't mind it if Monzon doesn't seem to like you," a friend of his said while the champion was changing clothes in a corner. "He's that way with nearly everybody. The way he grew up as a poor kid on the streets, he never needed to know much about manners, and he doesn't trust many people."
The young boxers in the gym wore an assortment of costumes—Bermuda shorts, bathing trunks, polo shirts. Some were barefoot. Monzon put on a classy blue training outfit and climbed between tattered ropes into the gym's only ring. He began skipping rope, his feet hammering on the wooden floor. If you got knocked down in that ring, they could pick a box of toothpicks out of your back.
"People say Monzon doesn't have any right to make so much money these days just for hitting people a few times and knocking them cold," his friend said. "But they don't know how many hours he has spent down here in this basement, getting hit. He's worked hard to be the champion. Now he can do what he pleases."
The champion kept missing beats with his rope. Finally he scowled and tossed the rope to his manager. Amilcar Brusa, a big man with a flattened nose. Brusa looks very much like Roscoe Sweeney of the comic strip. Thirteen years ago when Monzon wandered into the Club Atlético Unión, it was Brusa who kept him from going back to the streets. Brusa got a doctor to feed him meat and vitamins. Brusa taught him to box, straightening out the powerful right-hand punch that has knocked out 54 of Monzon's 90 opponents. Monzon has won 70 fights without a loss in the last eight years. Since he knocked out Nino Benvenuti for the title in Rome in November of 1970, he has defended his championship live times and has won all five by knockouts.
"It's that right hand," his friend said. "The strong right hand is the Brusa trademark. See? All the kids down here are trying to do it. They all want to be like Monzon."
Santa Fe, with a population of 250,000, sits in a bowl between three rivers, including the huge Paranà, and it manages to be both dusty and humid at the same time. Across the river is the more elegant town of Paranà, which has white villas on hillsides and a gambling casino, but Santa Fe is old and flat and dirty. Monzon was born 30 years ago into a family of 12 in the village of San Javier, 85 miles away in the rice country, and he came to Santa Fe as a kid. From the age of six he sold papers, shined shoes, delivered milk and fought in the streets. If he went to school for more than three or four years, his friends don't seem to remember it. Monzon prefers not to talk about the old days, except to point out that he can write his name on a contract.
With his 25% of the roughly $800,000 Monzon has earned in the ring in the past two years, Brusa is putting up a building in Santa Fe that will have shops and offices on the lower floors and a health club and solarium on the top. No more of that mud in the basement of the Club Atlético Unión, where Brusa worked with hundreds of young boxers before Monzon came along. Now when he is in Santa Fe, Brusa goes every day to inspect his building. He wears a suit and tie, carries a briefcase, slicks back his hair, and he can't seem to keep from smiling as he looks at all that rising concrete and hears those hammers pounding.
It didn't bother Brusa that Monzon had been up all night. "We don't need to start training hard for a while yet," the manager said, sipping coffee in a cafe around the corner from his building. "I believe when he's not in hard training, let him do what he wants. A human being is not made to be in training all the time. I can't take him away from beer, Scotch and friends. In the United States they train harder. They hurt themselves more with sparring partners. I don't believe in that system where you can leave your light in the gym. The day Monzon fought Briscoe in Buenos Aires live years ago [it was a draw; under the new Argentine scoring system Monzon would have won, but barely], Briscoe was running on the day of the light. A human is destroyed by too much work."
What Brusa first saw in Monzon was a skinny kid with a great hunger. "He was blind, had no style, but his mind was at work all the time," Brusa said. "He knew exactly his next move, and he could hit with both hands, but he was too weak from malnutrition to knock people out the way he does today. I took him to a doctor. Now he has two doctors and a biochemist who check him all the time. You couldn't say he's not healthy now, huh?"
For the first few years Brusa was awakened by phone calls to get Monzon out of jail. There would have been a fight in a saloon, and some furniture smashed. "You know how it is," a friend of Monzon's said. "You go to a bar. Someone insults you. You have to defend your honor." Brusa wouldn't talk about it. "My pupils are my friends, even after they quit," he said.
Brusa worked out the Monzon style, which is that of a punching machine. "A manager must find a style for a boxer according to what the boxer can do best," he said. "Each man is an individual. You have to hide his bad points and bring out his good ones. Monzon should be a little faster, but his good point is he hits hard and doesn't gel hit hard. Watch the look on the face of his rival and you can tell how hard he hits. Another good point of Monzon's is that he listens to his corner. He hasn't been hurt, has never taken a bad beating. He can fight easily for five more years. Some people say I'm pushing him too hard, too many lights, but he's getting richer, isn't he?"
Monzon owns a ranch of 1,750 acres and a few cattle and sheep and some fine horses in San Javier. He calls the ranch La Esperanza (The Hope). He has bought houses in Santa Fe for his parents and the parents of his wife, Mercedes Garcia (when they were married as teen-agers, his father-in-law had given him a bed and it was their only furniture). Monzon owns eight apartments in Buenos Aires and four in Santa Fe. Besides the Fiat 128, he owns a yellow and black Lutterall, a custom-made Argentine car, with a klaxon horn. He is building a large house in Santa Fe with two garages and several more apartments, but now he lives in a four-room house with his wife, daughter Silvia, nine, son Abel, five, a newly adopted one-month-old baby boy, and a kitchen full of relatives.
Arriving home one day recently, Monzon parked the Fiat behind the Lutterall across the street from his house while the neighbors watched. He crossed the street with the graceful, slightly swaggering walk of a man who likes his body. In 1960 the famous Argentine heavyweight, Luis Angel Firpo, said, "Someday in my country a boy of dark skin and jet-black hair will appear with an inexpressive face and a complete lack of emotion in the ring. His fists will remind the world where the Argentine Republic is located." Firpo died before he could see Monzon, but it is not all that bad a description. Monzon has high cheekbones and light copper skin, and he wears his black hair long in a sort of Italian movie-star cut that many of the young men of Santa Fe are copying. He has a brooding, sensual, vaguely dangerous look that will arouse rape fantasies all over the world when he begins appearing in movies next year. He says the only emotion he shows in the ring is hate. As he sat in his living room, his expression seldom changed, except when he threw a quick smile at Abel. "Monzon loves movies, hunting, fishing and Abel more than anything else," a friend had said.
Abel is a bright little boy who should never have to shine a shoe in his life. He invents broadcasts of Monzon fights on his tape recorder. When he is mad at his father, he makes up new endings in which Monzon is knocked out. Sometimes he goes to the gym with Monzon and cuts up with the fighters. Abel is the kind of kid who talks to waiters and will always have more girl friends than he needs.
Santa Fe is famous for its beer. From his couch, Monzon dispatched his wife and daughter to bring in a few bottles from the kitchen where the relatives were talking, and Abel climbed into his lap. On the walls and shelves were trophies Monzon has won in the ring. The one he got for knocking out Benvenuti has ribbons on it.
"Benvenuti had the glamour," Monzon said. "His picture was everywhere. But I knew from the minute we signed the contract I would beat him. I have no fear in the ring. For me, getting into the ring is like coming home and drinking my yerba mate [a South American tea of greenish tint that is drunk through a silver pipe from a decorated gourd]."
Mercedes Garcia and Silvia brought in the beer and sat down primly and silently while Monzon poured. Monzon's wife once caused a lot of talk by being seen on television in hot pants after one of her husband's fights. Monzon waited for the visitors to agree that the Santa Fe beer was excellent, and someone asked if he would be nervous about working in front of movie cameras for an Italian director next spring. "Those lights won't hurt my eyes anymore," he said.
Monzon said he remembers Briscoe very well. "Briscoe is tough," he said. "He makes you work. Fighters in the United States like to get in close. I'd rather stay off and punch because I have long arms. The toughest man I ever fought was Emile Griffith [he knocked out Griffith in his second title defense]. He knows all the tricks and can make you do things you don't want to do."
Abel was riding his father's knee. Monzon almost canceled his last fight, against Tom Bogs in Copenhagen in August, and came home because Mercedes García had phoned and said Abel had a sore throat and fever. Brusa got a doctor to persuade Monzon that Abel was not dying. Monzon waited long enough to knock out Bogs before hurrying back to Santa Fe. The punch that did it was not a trademark Brusa right because, according to Monzon, there is no such thing. "It is the way I hit naturally," Monzon said.
He looked across the coffee table at his visitors. "They tell me Cassius Clay hates white people. Is that true?" The visitors said they didn't think so. "Well, that's what they tell me," said Monzon.
Are seven championship fights in two years too many? "No," Monzon said. "I think I'll have two or three more, and then maybe that will be enough and I'll give my title away. But while you're the champion, you've got to make the juice." He smiled and lifted his beer glass. He was wearing two gold rings, a gold bracelet and a gold watch.
If you can imagine New York City with no traffic laws and everybody half an hour late to get to the reading of his rich uncle's will, you can begin to picture Buenos Aires traffic. Argentina, which won Olympic medals in the event, should have produced all the world's triple-jump champions of the past century. An Argentine pedestrian can leap eight feet sideways in an instant without even looking around. It appears to be considered unmanly for a driver to slow down. Some say it is the influence of Juan Fangio, the former world champion race driver from Argentina. But put one of Fangio's big machines in the control of a Buenos Aires cabdriver and you would scare half the Grand Prix drivers right off the track.
Argentina has at least a dozen different identifiable groups of rebels. Some of them practice bombing, shooting, bank robbery and kidnapping, and there may be 14 or more candidates for president in March if the country holds its first election since 1963, three years before the army took over the country again. In the last 30 years Argentina has had 12 presidents, and eight of them were generals. Argentina's most famous citizen has long been rumored to be Hitler, but a cabdriver recently said this story is untrue—Hitler went to Paraguay. The Buenos Aires police can make a person disappear into a dungeon without food, water or access to a telephone anytime they wish and for about as long as they care. There is a joke that a man was passing in front of a police station and got splattered with mud from a pothole. "What a lousy country," he said, and was arrested by a cop in the doorway. In the commissioner's office the man identified himself as a general and was released with apologies. He asked to speak to the cop who had grabbed him. They took the general to the cell where the cop had been looked up for his error. The general looked into the peephole and said, "See?"
"The country doesn't work, but the people do," said an Argentine businessman at lunch one Sunday at a yacht club on the River Plate. There are dozens of parks and sporting clubs in Buenos Aires and many soccer stadiums and polo fields. The people in the streets look prosperous, but prices have doubled in a year and the peso is so weak foreign banks won't touch it (Monzon has a bank account in New York). The country is allowed to eat beef only every other week. Yet there is hardly a good fish restaurant in Buenos Aires. "An Argentine isn't interested in fish, he wants to eat meat." said the businessman.
Buenos Aires is bigger than Paris or Berlin, both of which it somewhat resembles. Playboy magazine is banned. When a dress-shop owner recently celebrated the arrival of spring—which comes to Argentina in September—by decorating an otherwise nude mannequin with nothing but flowers, government officials pasted paper strips labeled CENSORED over the dummy. If an Argentine from the provinces achieves some sort of fame, it is usually followed by a move to Buenos Aires. Not Monzon. "They rush around too much there. I prefer the country life," he said.
Luna Park is the Madison Square Garden of Argentina. The building covers a city block of Buenos Aires near the waterfront. Inside, an iron fence with prongs like pitchforks keeps the people in the cheap seats away from swells in the good seats on fight night. The only Monzon bout that has ever tilled Luna Park was the title fight with Griffith. Monzon beat the popular Argentine middleweight champion Jorge Fernandez twice in Luna Park and got whistled at by the crowd. The Briscoe fight will be the fourth time Monzon has appeared in Luna Park as the world champion. Briscoe wanted the fight in the United States, where Monzon has never fought. Briscoe was quoted in an Argentine magazine as saying the gate would be twice as big in New York and that Monzon insisted on Luna Park because the judges would be inclined to be more friendly. In fact, Monzon says he wanted the fight in Rome. Brusa chose Luna Park because of a tax arrangement with the arena owner. He says he will not allow Monzon to fight in the United States because taxes are too high there. "And if I knocked out Briscoe in the U.S., they would probably claim it was a low punch," Monzon said.
On this day Monzon was laughing and in an amiable humor even though he had just moved into one of his Buenos Aires apartments and gone into hard training in the Luna Park gym. He does not care for training because he says it makes him feel like a hired killer. "When I feel my best is in the ring on the night of a fight," he said. "I feel mean but good. But all this training, it's the worst part, you start to have doubts."
Monzon had risen at 6:30 to run on the waterfront. For a month before a fight Monzon runs 45 minutes every morning, then has a breakfast of grapefruit juice, two soft-boiled eggs, coffee, jam, bread and butter. At noon he eats fruit. In the afternoon he spends an hour and a half at the gym and works up to boxing nine rounds a day before he begins easing off. At dinner Monzon has steak, salad, vegetables, fruit and a dessert called dulce y queso—cheese with a slab of jellied sweet potato or quince. Then he watches television or goes to a movie. He seldom goes anywhere else in Buenos Aires.
Abel had come to the gym with him and was dancing around in the ring while his father got his hands taped. "Look at that kid," said Monzon. "He can be a fighter if he wants to, but I'd just as soon he grew up and learned how to handle the investments." Not long before, at La Esperanza, a steer was to be barbecued. As the landowner, Monzon was handed the knife. He looked at the steer for a while and then handed the knife back to a gaucho, who plunged it into the steer's throat. Monzon turned his back and hid Abel's face from the spurting blood.
A friend walked up to Monzon in the gym and said, "Hey, Negro [a fairly common Argentine nickname, along with Gordo (fat) and Flaco (skinny)], I can't make it to the end of the month. Lend me 10,000 pesos." Monzon reached for his pants, and the friend said, "No, no, it's a joke." For some reason everybody thought it was funny. Except Monzon. Friends say he has no sense of humor, but it very well could be the other way around.
On a Saturday night after Monzon had moved to Buenos Aires to train for Briscoe, Brusa brought down another protégé from Santa Fe—an unbeaten junior welterweight named Daniel Gonzalez—for a light in Luna Park with an ex-Argentine champion. Brusa says Gonzalez will be the next star of his stable of 35 amateurs and 10 pros. "Pro fighters are knocking on my door all the time," he said, "wanting me to take them over. But I deal only with those who started with me as kids."
Monzon was at ringside with one of his doctors, one of his lawyers, a dozen friends and Abel. Before the fight Monzon was not introduced to the crowd, dozens of whom peered like prisoners through the cheap seat bars. But a lot of people recognized him and kept watching for his reactions. Monzon clapped for Gonzalez but could not yell much because he had a sore throat, which his doctor says always happens to him for a while when he quits smoking.
Gonzalez won an easy decision in a fight that drew choruses of whistles, and his left eyebrow was cut open. Monzon consoled him while Gonzalez was being sewn up and Brusa was collecting his share of the gate—$340. Then Monzon led a group that had grown to nearly two dozen across the street from Luna Park to an Italian restaurant called Napoli. Watching the champion walk through the door, the doctor said, "You know, people keep talking about his right, but it's his left that really gets them. He sets them up with it-knock, knock, knock, one after the other. Then he puts them cold with his right."
The waiters pulled together enough tables to spread the crowd the width of the room, laid out several kinds of wine (good Argentine wine is less than $1 a bottle) and began serving salads, chickens, hams, bread and pasta. They also found a few pieces of beef from somewhere although it was a beefless week. It was already after I a.m., but Abel sat beside his father. "Abel goes everywhere I go," Monzon said laughing. "The only place he won't go with me is to do my running in the morning."
"I don't like it," Abel said.
Monzon laughed again. Brusa and the doctor watched as he drank a glass of wine and poured another. Sitting alone at a separate table was a young Santa Fe amateur, Norberto Cabrera, who became a piece of Argentine boxing lore by knocking out his own teammate in a dormitory fight at the Munich Olympics. The teammate was hurt badly enough that doctors barred him from fighting further in the Olympics. Cabrera sat as if in exile, but Monzon saw him, called him over to the table and had a waiter bring him a chair. "See," a friend of Monzon's whispered, "Monzon is not a monster. He's only a little distrustful of people at first."
His eye bandaged, Gonzalez went to Monzon and asked what he should eat. "You eat the white meat. Nothing else," Monzon said, adding a little soda to Gonzalez' wine. Gonzalez returned to his seat and kept looking at a platter of fried potatoes in front of him. Finally he put some on his plate and poured a glass of wine.
Monzon was saying he did not blame Luna Park fans for not supporting him in the past. "It was because my opponents were inferior," he said. That could be said fairly well about the opponents Monzon will be offered should he beat Briscoe. If there is a young middleweight of championship class coming up anywhere soon, he is in hiding. By beating Briscoe, Monzon should be able to hold on to the title for a few years without much trouble. But Briscoe is what is known as a Philadelphia fighter—tough, hostile, aggressive. A lot of boxers have stayed out of his way.
Monzon had not tried to find out if Briscoe had changed any since 1967. "I don't care what my opponent has been doing," Monzon said. "I don't look at films of them in the ring, and I don't read stories about them. When the time comes, Brusa will tell me how to fight them. That's what he gets his 25% for. Until then, I don't think about them."
It was after 3 a.m. by now. More people had joined the table. Monzon laughed loudly when he saw someone drinking a glass of milk. He jumped up and grabbed a camera to take a picture of this singular event. Not even Abel was drinking milk. The champion sat back down and looked at the people around him with a grin. A question was asked: Did Monzon consider himself to be one of the great middleweight champions of history?
Monzon's gold bracelet dangled as he sipped from the wineglass. "Sugar Ray Robinson never did what I've done—winning six straight championship fights by knockouts," he said. "I guess that means I'm pretty good, huh?"