Twice in the last couple of months Carlos Monzon, middleweight boxing champion of the world, has made pilgrimages to shrines in his native Argentina. First he drove from his hometown of Santa Fe, 240 miles north of Buenos Aires, far to the west into the rough, hilly country of the province of San Juan. Arriving at the village of Difunta Correa after 11 hours of traveling at maniacal speed over bad roads, Monzon laid the trunks he had worn while knocking out Tom Bogs in Copenhagen in August among the orthopedic devices and wedding dresses at the shrine of Correa, a local religious hero famed for her miraculous cures.
Last month Monzon drove for 10 hours south from Santa Fe down into the province of Rio Negro. This time he was headed for the shrine of Ceferino Namuncura, who is called "The Lily of Patagonia." Cabdrivers carry pictures of Namuncura in their wallets, and maids have him above their beds. The son of an Indian, Namuncura was educated by priests and died young and pure. At his shrine Monzon left the shoes he had worn while knocking out Jean-Claude Bouttier last June in Paris.
Monzon wants to keep his championship for at least two or three more fights while he shoves as much money into the bank as he can put his hands on. But his hands have been threatening him. Not only has Monzon developed a form of arthritis in his right hand, but last week he had to defend the title against one of the toughest middleweights ever, Bennie Briscoe of Philadelphia, a man who behaves as though a fist in his face is a draught of oxygen.
Monzon's right hand is the instrument that had knocked out six consecutive championship opponents. Before the 30-year-old Monzon's second fight with Nino Benvenuti, a year and a half ago in Monte Carlo, the hand was hurting enough to require an injection of novocain. Benvenuti was finished on his knees in the third round, but Monzon's hand became infected from a dirty needle. With more novocain, he knocked out Emile Griffith in September and then presented the right hand to Dr. Juan Carlos Abraham, a specialist in Santa Fe, who cleaned out a deep abscess. Still, Monzon was in pain and wore heavy bandages on the hand when he trained. He had fought Briscoe to a draw five years ago and knew the Philadelphian's uncanny resource for taking a punch and coming right on in.
Briscoe is so well regarded as a fighter that for all but three of his last 12 bouts he has had to accept the short end of the purse, and he won 11 of those by knockouts. The other he lost in a split decision to Luis Vinales in Scranton, Pa. When that happened, people around him knew there was something wrong. "It's like you're a big ape fighting in the jungle and all of a sudden a little ape beats you," says Arnold Weiss, a certified public accountant who is Briscoe's co-manager. "You want to know why. Briscoe don't know from taking it easy, but his arms were dead. We had a fight on Monday but took him to a doctor on Saturday and found out he had hepatitis. April to August Bennie was sick. Two months in the hospital. Got out and fought Vinales again in October and knocked him out."
While in the hospital the 5-foot 8-inch Briscoe grew in the wrong places. A 195-pound middleweight is in trouble. So Briscoe went on a diet of high-protein foods, downed a lot of wheat germ oil and ran six miles a day. By the time he was sitting on the bed in his hotel room in Buenos Aires, he was a solid 154. The hotel was a long way, except in distance, from the best in town (Briscoe's side stood to make $15,000 from the gate. while the Monzon people would collect more than $100,000). Briscoe was watching Argentine television. Did he understand Spanish? "No, man," he said, "but I've already seen most of these shows at home and I know what the cats are doing."
The Muzak was also playing. Briscoe loves music. At his house in North Philadelphia he has a stereo and listens, his handlers say, to classical music much of the time. He is a strong and complex man. He has a full-time job with the city of Philadelphia in road maintenance and the arrangement is that Weiss, the CPA, puts all of Briscoe's boxing income into the bank or in investments. Much of the Argentine press had pictured Briscoe as fierce and unspeaking—his shaven head and scowling face appeared on the cover of a leading magazine, accompanied by menacing statements—but he is about as amiable as anybody could expect a championship-class lighter to be, without being dishonest.
"What Bennie's got to do is jump right in Monzon's chest," said his trainer. Quenzell McCall. "You know, we offered Monzon $100,000 plus a TV deal to fight us in Philadelphia, and he wouldn't do it. That's because Monzon is taken care of so well down here. Bennie's got to knock him out or beat him up real bad to win this fight." Briscoe nodded. "It's like if you come in my backyard to wage war, I got my brothers and sisters handy if it starts looking risky," he said.
A little later, at the gym in Luna Park—the Argentine Madison Square Garden—Briscoe was crouched in the corner of a dressing room that would not accommodate a somersault by a dwarf but was nevertheless nicer than the place where he trains in Philadelphia. "Listen, Bennie, I'm 5 feet 6 and I don't touch the ceiling. You stand up," said McCall. Briscoe stood and barely brushed the ceiling. "You're taller than they say, man, don't worry about it," said McCall, referring to Monzon's advantage of nearly five inches in height and three in reach.
Somehow Monzon has never become the hero in Buenos Aires that he is in the provinces. (The crowd for the fight was about 7,000 less than the 22,000 capacity.) But Monzon is doubtless a name in Europe, where he won his championship, and the Briscoe fight was shown on Eurovision, causing it to begin in Argentina at the unusual hour of 6:15 p.m. Briscoe was the one who seemed to attract fans in Buenos Aires. When about 200 of them mobbed his car, J. Russell Peltz, his other co-owner, offered to calm them by handing out wallet-size photos of their favorite. "They nearly tore me apart," said Peltz. "I finally threw the cards on the ground and ran."
Monzon had spent the week before the fight in a fairly dodgy humor. He told a Buenos Aires magazine three of the things he hated worst were reporters, photographers and questions about his hand. "If the press complains about me, they ought to be in my shoes so they know what hell is like," he said later. Monzon's entourage had moved into three suites at the Sheraton Hotel, where they passed the evenings playing cards and one thing and another. Other than his hand and the specter of Briscoe, Monzon was worried about a court case charging him with assault on a free-lance photographer. It happened five years ago in Santa Fe. Monzon appealed but was found guilty, and under Argentine law could be stuck in jail while the court decides his sentence.
On the day and night before the weigh-in, Monzon dropped from 161 pounds to 157½ by not eating or drinking, but when he came into the ring he was grinning and blowing kisses, in contrast to Briscoe. Before the fight Briscoe had been saying, "I been fighting this out in my bed every night. It's never out of my mind, who'll celebrate Saturday. Gotta be me, Lawdy, gotta be me." Briscoe's gleaming head tossed off sweat like a garden sprinkler as he bounded in his corner. It has been shaved that way since he was 16, as were the heads of his nine brothers.
The fight began with the styles that had been expected. Although Briscoe had said, "Any plan blows up in your face, man. You got to go out there and do it," there was only one thing he could do—attempt to get inside Monzon's superior reach. He had to accept two or three punches to the head to plant one on Monzon's kidneys. In the second round Briscoe was warned twice about low punches by Referee Victor Avendano, a 1928 Olympic boxing gold medalist who works mostly for Luna Park Owner Juan Carlos Lectoure. But Briscoe continued to attack Monzon's kidneys while Monzon would vary his retreating, counterpunching technique by standing occasionally like a sharpshooter and firing at Briscoe's head.
By the ninth round Monzon was well ahead on points but had not been able to slow down Briscoe, who never once sat between rounds and never swallowed a drink of water. In the ninth Briscoe hit Monzon a right to the jaw that made the champion hold on and cast a desperate eye at the clock. Briscoe tried to push Monzon off him to get room to swing some more, but the referee moved in quickly and parted the fighters widely. With that help, Monzon made it through the final 20 seconds.
In the 10th Monzon opened a cut in Briscoe's right eyelid and hit him with enough punches to have floored everybody in Dottie's Truck Stop, but Briscoe kept moving in. After the round Milton Bailey, Briscoe's cut man, was busy trying to retrieve his cut medicine, which had been snatched away by some ring official. It was several rounds before Bailey recovered the medicine. Now Briscoe was sometimes backed off by Monzon. But Briscoe always returned, and in the 14th round he staggered Monzon again with a right.
Then Monzon did a great thing. Instead of laying back in the final round to protect his lead, he went at Briscoe as if it were Monzon who needed the late knockout to win. When the last bell rang, they were still trying to lay each other out, and nobody was sure that one of them might not do it.
The true difference between the two fighters was Monzon's longer arms. Briscoe could never stay inside long enough to accomplish his mischief. It was a courageous fight by Briscoe, but Monzon clearly won. Briscoe did not feel embarrassed. "I came out of the ring with the proper sense I went in with, so I feel good. Monzon is no bum," he said.
Later at dinner in their hotel, Quenzell McCall said he figured Briscoe must be pretty tough. "When I told him it was the 15th round coming up, he could hardly believe me. No telling how long Bennie could have fought." Seated calmly across the table after what had seemed a terrible pounding, Briscoe appeared to have no mark other than a tiny bandage on his right eyelid. He must have had a headache, but he did not show it. "I'm not proud of myself that I lost, but I'm proud that he didn't put me down like he did those other guys. And I fought for the world championship. Now that's something not everybody can do, and I might do it again," he said.
Monzon had left Luna Park and gone with his usual tribe of dozens to a bright, loud Italian restaurant. His wife Mercedes said she had never suffered so much at a light, and Monzon agreed that he had been very close to falling in the ninth round. "What saved me first was I was against the ropes and couldn't go down," he said. "My body was just about out of control, but my mind was O.K. I looked up at the clock, watching the seconds and telling myself, boy, this is going to be terrible."
There was a slight swelling over Monzon's right eye, and his right hand was very swollen, especially the little finger. "My arms were so tired," he said. "I had to keep moving back and moving my arms all night. It was the hardest light I ever had."
Afterward Monzon got a telephone call from General Lanusse, president of Argentina, and was hugged by the governor of Santa Fe Province, which would not seem to hurt his chances in court. J. Russell Peltz stopped by to offer Monzon $150,000, plus South American television rights, to fight Briscoe in Philadelphia. "But that's crazy," said Amilcar Brusa, Monzon's manager. "Taxes in the United States, they cut your throat." He had also just been offered $100,000, tax-free, by Teddy Brenner to tight Rodrigo Valdes in Madison Square Garden, but Brusa is not eager to bring Monzon to the United States.
For the 29-year-old Briscoe, however, it's back to work at the city of Philadelphia, and back to looking for fights with people who would just as soon avoid him. "If we could get a shot at Monzon in the United States, I know I could beat him," Briscoe said. "But I don't think he'll want to risk it."