Not all welterweight kings can make the jump up to middleweight to defrock the bigger king. Not every fighter can do what the two Sugars, Robinson and Leonard, managed (the former, and for so many the only real Sugar, beating Jake Lamotta to become 160-pound ruler, the latter, who might have been as fast as his ring idol, upsetting Marvelous Marvin Hagler in a fight that so many people still get mighty upset about; its decision, at least).
And so it was on this day, 50 years ago, when the great Jose Napoles, who had fully cemented his reputation as one of the finest, most naturally skilled 147-pounders in history (wins over Curtis Cokes, Emile Griffith, Billy Backus, Hedgemon Lewis), made the ‘dare to be great’ move up to middleweight. Awaiting him was the fierce, the huge for the weight, Carlos Monzon. Now, some experts and fans say Monzon ranks as THE greatest middleweight ever. Maybe.
“Escopeta” was certainly a middleweight who seemed to have been carved from rock, while the Argentine hero (hero until his mighty and ghastly, bloody fall from grace saw millions turn their backs on him, this as the former champ who never lost his title in the ring spent the remainder of his days behind bars a convicted murderer) also had underrated skills and a fine ring IQ.
But Monzon, at age 31, had seemed to struggle with another welterweight master in Emile Griffith in his last but one fight prior to the meeting with Cuba’s Napoles. While in his fight after that one, Monzon was again taken the full 15 rounds, this by Jean-Claude Bouttier. Fans crammed into the arena in Puteaux, Hauts-de-Seine in Paris to see if “Mantequilla” could use his speed, his savvy, his brilliance to unseat Monzon.
And for a few rounds, the old adage, ‘a good big man beats a good little man’ was chewed up. The smaller man used his speed as he got inside, with him peppering Monzon, he of the enormous reach, with shots as he got close. Napoles even forced Monzon to the ropes. But the sheer difference in power was also evident early, this as Monzon unleashed a big right that sent his challenger reeling. Still, Napoles, a joy to watch, remained busy with his slipping and his counter-punching. Monzon could have been excused for feeling a bit frustrated.
Instead, the always-cool (in the ring) Monzon knew he would get to Napoles eventually. And this Monzon did, in the fifth. Monzon inflicted damage to Napoles’s eye, and the defending middleweight boss seemed close to a stoppage win. But Napoles, along with his fine skill, had a ton of heart, and he dug in and somehow made it out of the fifth, and then the equally punishing sixth. But after barely making it back to his stool, 34-year-old Napoles was wisely pulled out by Angelo Dundee, and he was not allowed out for the inevitable fate that would have hurt him, badly perhaps, in the 7th.
Monzon had registered his ninth title defense, and he would go on to retain his crown five more times before he retired as the unbeaten (some say unbeatable) middleweight king, this in 1977.
Napoles dropped back down to welterweight, where he registered four more title retentions before retiring after a stoppage loss to John H. Stracey, this in 1975.
On this day half a century ago, two greats collided, but size, strength and power ultimately won the day.