Rodolfo Sabatini, a former boxing writer for a Communist daily in Rome, paused one day last week to speculate about his latest adventure in free enterprise. "This one," he said of the fifth world championship fight that he was staging in Monte Carlo, that glittering citadel of Capitalism-by-the-Sea, "will be very special. Very close. Very artistic in a violent sort of way."
Though boxing promoters are not above trading prophecy for profit, there was no reason to doubt Signor Sabatini. Not even when he boasted that the match between Argentina's Carlos Monzon and Colombia's Rodrigo Valdes would be the richest and most historic middleweight bout ever held on the Continent.
By any measure the encounter between Monzon and Valdes was the rarest of events, a fistic spectacular that lived up to its billing. The combat sensationnel was perhaps best dramatized by Le Figaro, a Paris newspaper that foresaw the fight as a showdown between two legendary gun-slingers. So it seemed, if only because Monzon in action bears a startling resemblance—high cheekbones, long spiky hair and a chilling, stoical gaze—to Charles Bronson, the perennial Hollywood hit man. And while Valdes practiced his scatter-gun attack, Monzon, whom Sabatini calls a "potential killer," was as selective as a sniper waiting to squeeze off his deadliest shot. When it came, rattling out of nowhere in the 14th round, it felled Valdes for a few reeling moments and ruined his bid to salvage the fight. The unanimous decision in Monzon's favor was that close.
Few of the ringsiders who paid 1,000 francs ($212) for a seat, a record high for a non-heavyweight bout, felt that a pair of heavy hitters like Monzon and Valdes would go the distance. In fact, both combatants predicted a knockout within 10 rounds. Monzon said, "I'm going to send Valdes back to Colombia looking like he was run over by a locomotive." Valdes, alluding to Carlos' budding career as a leading man in Argentine movies, promised, "I'm going to bash in his pretty actor's face." On second thought, Monzon replied, "I think I'm going to let Valdes last 15 rounds. That way I can watch him bleed slowly until the end."
July 4, 1976
So went the hype. As for comic relief, that was provided by a pair of rival governing bodies that periodically do their imitation of JoJo the Two-Headed Pig. In 1974 the World Boxing Council stripped Monzon of its version of the middleweight title for allegedly ignoring its dictates and subsequently crowned Valdes. That left Monzon the King of the World Boxing Association, Valdes the Monarch of the WBC—and Sabatini the guest Wizard of Monaco, a nation half the size of New York's Central Park.
Not that anyone really cared about the titles. What mattered was that Monzon, 33, had not lost a fight in nearly a dozen years, an amazing 80 straight victories in all. For Valdes, 29, the record was 26 consecutive wins over the last six years. Clearly, this was a match that was almost preordained—and the alphabet bureaucracy be damned.
But red tape is easier spun than undone, a messy chore that consumed Sabatini for more than a year. "Usually," he said on the eve of the fight, "we hold our title matches in Monte Carlo the week of the Grand Prix, but now we don't need their help at the gate. Car people, Les Hippies. They are, you know, strange."
If so, then Sabatini's operation might best be described as quaint. Holding forth in a great rumbling wheeze, he ran the "Super Middleweight Championship of the World" from an open phone booth in the dim lobby of a tiny hotel far from the distracting sounds of sea and slot machine. Gesturing effusively with a bandaged hand that he had injured in a wee-hour fall, Sabatini himself might have passed as some kind of one-armed bandit gathering in the day's take. Informed one morning that Monzon had called Valdes "a paper fighter, a poor little Negro who won't last even eight rounds," Sabatini roared, "Ha, Carlos is not exactly the Great White Champion. He's an Indian."
And then he ordered two more rows added to the sold-out ringside section.
"I could promote this match in, say, Paris," Sabatini said, "and draw 40,000 people instead of 10,000, but in Paris they have taxes and here they do not. When you are paid 1,000 francs for a ticket in Monte Carlo, you get 1,000 francs."
What Monte Carlo gets in return is an invasion by an international fight crowd that, pound for rippling pound, cigar for fuchsia hot pants and bent nose for pinkie ring, will upstage those Grand Prix dudes every time.
Even so, in a setting where incongruities abound, half a world champion is a sight for jaded eyes. There was no missing, for instance, the grand arrival of Monzon. When his caravan arrived at the Hermitage Hotel, he spilled out in a radiant white ensemble with blonde actress Susanna Gimenez, his co-star in the Argentine film La Mary, and 48 pieces of luggage in tow. Then the one-time shoe-shine boy from the Pampas swept through the Belle Epoque Rotunda, where W. Somerset Maugham once took his tea, and disappeared in a swirl of handlers and photographers.
Over at the new Loews Monte Carlo, a kind of seaside Caesars Palace, Valdes strolled the lobby in his blue sweat suit, jerked the slot machines and mixed with some of the folks from Mack Trucks, Inc., who were in town for a conference entitled "Meeting the Parts and Service Challenge." But Valdes had his own challenge to meet and, resting on his bed one day, munching on a piece of pineapple, he talked about his childhood in Cartagena. Not only did he fish the Caribbean with dynamite depth charges, grabbing up as many fish as he could carry before the police arrived, but he often had to fight off sharks; one claimed a friend of his. At 16, after months of boxing bare-knuckled on the beach, Valdes accepted a challenge to fight in a carnival for seven pesos. He won a three-round decision and has not stopped swinging. "Today," he concluded proudly, "I don't care what anybody says. I am the champion of the world."
Monzon thought differently. Stripping off his rubber sweat suit in the locker room one afternoon, he said, "For me, Valdes is just another challenger. So far he has only fought second-class boxers. There is only one Monzon. Valdes never had to fight a Monzon."
Nor did Valdes ever have to cope with such untimely tragedy. Just four days before the fight he received word that his younger brother had been killed in a fight in Colombia. "It was a knife in the heart," said Sabatini. Grief stricken, Rodrigo wept and mourned for two days. "Now," said his manager, Gil Clancy, on the eve of the fight, "he's in great shape physically, but psychologically he's hurt."
As for Monzon, his handlers were worried that he was feeling too good. Susanna Gimenez, they said, was enough to distract any man. Claiming that Monzon was "putting his love life ahead of everything else," the fighter's advisers asked the actress to relocate herself in another hotel. "I'd say Carlos is not 70% of what he should be physically," said one of his handlers. "I'd say his chances of winning are 60-40."
When the two warriors finally entered the outdoor ring at the Louis II Soccer Stadium, Valdes exchanged a victory salute with his friend Omar Sharif while Monzon kept his attention focused on Susanna, who swiveled to ringside in a shimmer of gold lamé. Whatever his inspiration, Monzon quickly established the pattern that was to thwart Valdes for most of the evening. A sinewy 5'11", Monzon snapped his strangely awkward but jolting left jabs off Valdes' head so often that it looked as if he was working on a speed bag. And when his stockier opponent came powering inside, Monzon either tied him up or fell against the loose ropes and bent his back √† la Ali. Either way, Monzon, a controlled come-to-me fighter with a wonderfully sneaky right hand, showed why his face is virtually unmarked. And, more amazing, why he has never been knocked down.
The first six rounds were clearly, if not easily, Monzon's. A notoriously slow starter, Valdes was just warming up. "When Rodrigo first turned pro," explains Clancy, "I had to warn the ref not to disqualify him in the first round for not mixing it up. That's just the way he is." True to form, Valdes came on stronger with each succeeding round. With Clancy crying "Bang it, bang it," Valdes started to pry open Monzon's clamshell defense. Trailing badly at the midway point, Valdes caught the backpedaling Argentine with an overhand right and a pair of looping left hooks that abruptly shifted the momentum in favor of the Colombian. But Monzon is tough, as well as clever, and he never let the fight get out of his control.
In the 14th, aware that only a strong finish—probably only a knockout—could win for him, Valdes began throwing roundhouse punches that also left him dangerously open. "Directo, directo," (straight) cautioned Clancy from the corner, but it was too late. Stepping neatly inside a Valdes lunge, Monzon hit him with a jolting right and then stepped aside like a matador as his opponent fell into the ropes.
Up almost immediately, Valdes fought on courageously, winning the 15th round with one final but, alas, futile assault. After several near-riots in and around the ring, the announcer declared, "Le champion du monde, Carlos Monzon."
And off went Carlos and Susanna to star in yet another Sabatini production, this one a new movie to be made in Italy. The subject: the life and hard times of a retired boxer.