Fight nights were always special, combining a certain Elizabethan tawdriness with café society taking a breather between nightclubs; that seemed to be the air of the old Madison Square Garden. Now, since moving into that sterile box above Amtrak's rachitic trains, the Garden has become a blend of Latin hysteria, strayed "look-alikes" out of Vogue and Gentlemen's Quarterly and that fading handful of loyalists who think Jimmy Walker is still Mayor of New York, remembering a time when the beer was zestier, the women prettier and the fights better.
Wheezing and tired, rapidly losing its preeminence as a world ring center, Garden Boxing—co-promoters with Don King Productions—beckoned the fancy once more last week with a card that whetted the curiosity more than the appetite. Here was Argentinian Carlos Monzon, the middleweight king since 1970, making his first appearance in the U.S., against Tony Licata of Tampa, for the World Boxing Association title; Argentinian Victor Galindez against Argentinian Jorge Ahumada for the WBA light heavyweight title; and, by closed-circuit satellite, Muhammad Ali in defense of the heavyweight crown against England's Joe Bugner in exotic Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Drawing a crowd of 13,496, the evening left one with several conclusions that persisted even after a calming night's sleep. 1) Galindez should make a quite respectable champion. 2) The once proud and brutally rugged middleweight division is as arid and desolate as an atomic testing site. 3) The travelogue before Ali's fight might not have been bad if it had been audible.
The evening opened with Galindez vs. Ahumada. "It's not possible for me to lose," Galindez said beforehand of the former dishwasher he had knocked out twice previously. "He is just a good boxer, that's all." Galindez seemed more taken by the thought of what it all meant: "A chance to become popular all over the world," he said. The more immediate prospect had made Ahumada nervous, and the tension would break upon him like an undammed river. Galindez, a dour young man, went about the destruction of Ahumada with the solemnity and certainty of an Italian bricklayer working on a chapel. He is built close to the ground, box-shaped, and when one is around him, there is always a sense of high explosives being nearby. In the third round he caught Ahumada with a left, dropping him and causing Trainer Gil Clancy to complain about the punch being behind the bell. Snorting, hooking and using a right hand that had the authority of a slaughterhouse hammer, Galindez made the complaint irrelevant as he got Ahumada into serious trouble three more times. No boxer, certainly not one of Ahumada's caliber, was going to handle Galindez' strength and combinations on this night, and the decision was perfunctory.
While the look of Galindez may not be the stuff of Homer and Virgil, there is a beautiful rage in him. The same cannot be said of Carlos Monzon, who is a perfectly shaped middleweight, tall with long arms and with style running through every sinew up to his dramatic Belmondo face. At 32 he was making his American debut with a truly brilliant dossier: in his last 78 bouts—11 years' worth—he had not been beaten. His hardest fights seem to have been with his wife, who allegedly winged him once in self-defense with a .22, and with his own persona, which is often bitter, suspicious and generally confused.
"He's an angry, nasty guy," says the long-faded Emile Griffith, who lost to Monzon twice during the fading. "He'd spit in your eye. We are friendly now, but he can be evil."
Evil was hardly the word for Monzon against Licata, a busy but ineffectual fighter whose strategy was simple enough: move away from Monzon's "great" right hand, distract him with the left hand, then volley with authority. All this turned out to be mere drawing-room conversation; like John Steinbeck's Lenny, fighters love to be told how things are going to be. They listen well but translate badly.
Licata won the first round, which anyone could have done against Monzon's imitation of a cigar-store Indian. Monzon became slightly more animated as the fight went on, and Licata became hyperactive—to his detriment. It was obvious that Licata likes to hear a crowd respond, likes to please it, and that by nature he is a fighter with more heart than his style can bear. Along the way he apparently became convinced that he could hurt Monzon, an astounding example of self-hypnosis. The consequence was that Licata was knocked down three times, the last coming at 17 seconds before the end of the 10th round, when the bout was stopped.
What to say of Monzon, except that for once the old reactionaries who grouse over the present and slog sentimentally through the past are correct? Carlos Monzon came to New York as a legend, "pound for pound better than Sugar Ray Robinson" as the old wheeze goes. Sugar should sue for slander; not only is Monzon not a legend, he is a mere footnote, the product of Latin generosity and emotion.
"He would have given Robinson a hard night," said Gil Clancy later. Granted, the air in New York does funny things to one's eyes, but that can hardly be the excuse for such a misreading as Clancy's; it must be hoped that he is not suddenly bereft of good sense but merely oiling a machine for future use. For Monzon is heavy on the eyes. He is sloppy. He is slew. He has no leverage nor the slightest notion of how to achieve it. His lack of velocity is stupefying and, on the evidence of this fight, the next combination he throws will be his first.
The Argentinian celebration later was of higher merit. It was held at the consulate and attended by millionaire ranchers and others who did everything but drop palm leaves in front of Monzon as he entered. Then they went at the buffet with vigor, tearing chunks out of turkeys, hams and beeves while listening to a mariachi band. They ate as if they were out on the Pampas, and it was refreshing to see the infectious enthusiasm, people who knew what they were doing. Toward the end, the tables would be nothing but bones, a fitting symbol for the ghastly shape of the middleweight division.
The heavyweight ranks are not yet that thin, mostly because of Joe Frazier, Ken Norton and Muhammad Ali. After them, well, it's hard to say, but the immediate future is definitely not suspect. Ali saw to that by easily strolling 15 rounds against Joe Bugner, nearly pitching a shutout in Kuala Lumpur. This was Bugner's second try at Ali. Having been an abomination the first time in Las Vegas (at least he bled then, and that always moves the English to sonnets of courage), he seemed intent on proving that he could be doubly rank. He was—with brilliance. To be that bad is not easy.
Bugner blamed the searing Malaysian sun and the awful hour of 10 a.m. for his defeat, his perfect reticence in the ring. Ali had no such complaints and seemed in excellent shape, working briskly through each round, always on the attack, however unrewarding that was against the stolid hulk on the ropes. Tired of all that guff about the sun having set on the Empire, British critics were unreserved in their remarks. Said one, "Bugner is capable of sending my irritable, teething 15-month-old daughter into a peaceful slumber." Said another, "He has always performed under strict orders laid down by the Queen's regulations. One feels he is frightened of being put on charge if he fails to salute or come to attention at just the right moment."
Back in the hotel Ali loosed his usual stream of double-talk. "I need to fight the best in the world," he said, "not the rubbish I have been fed with. I am no longer interested in second-raters." Then, being almost as silly as Gil Clancy, he called Bugner the "toughest challenger" he ever faced, and advised him to stay around because he had "the complexion, connection and the will and skill to win the title."
Soon Ali got down to real business, announcing a title defense against Joe Frazier on Oct. 1 in Manila. Frazier is a crusty barnacle that has stuck to him throughout his postexile career, the one man who can bring real drama back to the heavyweight division. Up to now the public faith has been severely used by Ali, by his manager Herbert Muhammad and by his promoter Don King. Before the sun set in steamy Malaysia, Ali was at work on Joe Frazier.
"You had to go nine rounds with Jimmy Ellis," said Ali. "That's all the work you got."
"I took pity on Ellis because he's a family man."
"I been fightin' regular."
"Yeah, but who?" asked Frazier.
"I'm gonna make you more ugly than you is," Ali said loudly.
"And I'm gonna whip you like you stole somethin'," said Frazier.
"Oh yeah...it's gonna be a thrilla in Manila," said Ali.