When 17-year-old Domenico Monaco arrived in New York from his native Italy in 1969, he was filled with the wide-eyed wonderment of youth—but not much else. Unsure what he or his family would do in their new homeland, Monaco is the first to admit that he was terribly frightened.
An uncle who had lived here for several years soon introduced his athletically inclined nephew to boxing at the West Side YMCA in Manhattan. Training alongside future middleweight champion Vito Antuofermo, another recently arrived Italian émigré, Monaco took to boxing like a fish takes to water.
Although he had never laced on a glove prior to his arrival in New York, Monaco, who lived in South Brooklyn, won the 1971 Golden Gloves sub-novice lightweight title. He had been training for just over a year.
“It was the greatest, the absolute greatest feeling in the world,” said Monaco, now 54, in his thickly accented but articulate English. “I knew that boxing was what I wanted to do for a living. There was nothing I wanted to do more.”
The following year Monaco began what would become a legendary Golden Gloves rivalry with “Irish” Johnny Turner, another rough and ready brawler from a different section of Brooklyn.
Turner beat Monaco in the 1972 quarterfinals, but lost to him in the finals the following year. The 1973 bout was hailed as the Fight of the Night by the newspaper that sponsored the tournament. One writer who remembers the rivalry well is transplanted New Yorker Joe Rein, a columnist for TheSweetScience.com.
“When Monaco and Turner met for the finals, you’d have thought it was Louis-Schmeling II,” he said.
Turning professional in early 1973, Monaco quickly became a fan favorite at Madison Square Garden’s Felt Forum. At one point of his career he was 13-1 (8 KOs), with most of his wins coming at the Forum.
“Seeing him bouncing up and down in his dark robe on the way to the ring is as vivid now as it was then,” said Rein. “He bristled with energy—very quick hands and feet—in and out with combinations. He was tireless and raged back three to one when he got hit. The Garden crowds loved him.”
Fighting on until 1978, Monaco competed throughout the United States, as well as several times in Italy. Although he beat legitimate contenders like Gaetan Hart and Johnny Summerhays, he inexplicably called it quits after he and his wife Dulce began studying religion and were ordained into the United Kingdom of Jehovah Witnesses.
“I loved boxing for the sport of it, not for the ability to hurt people,” said Monaco. “Every time someone got hurt, it disturbed me a lot. I was always in conflict with boxing and my God. I loved boxing, but knew that Jehovah didn’t approve of it.”
At the age of 36, in 1987, Monaco embarked on a comeback that would put him at odds with his God, but also make him more money than he ever earned before and take him to places he could only have imagined.
“At the time I was not very active in the Jehovah Witnesses, and I started boxing again,” said the perpetually happy and eternally optimistic Monaco. “I had other personal problems and needed [an outlet]. I was involved in court [civil litigation], and needed an escape. I chose boxing over God.”
Monaco became a well-traveled lovable loser, lacing up the gloves against hot local prospects in places like Madrid, Belgium, Mexico, Switzerland, Russia and Kazakhstan.
“I was fighting more for the travel than anything else,” said Monaco who fought, among others, such championship caliber opponents as Leavander Johnson and Jorge Paez during that period. “I would arrive in a new country, rent a car, travel the countryside, fight, collect my check, and go home. It was wonderful.”
Finally, Bruce Silverglade, the owner of Gleason’s Gym, where Monaco still trains, put the word out to worldwide promoters that Monaco could no longer be used. “I’d been trying to get Dominick to quit for years, but he wouldn’t give it up,” said Silverglade. “He’s in the gym everyday working out, so he’s always in superb shape. I think he fooled himself into thinking he could still fight like a young man, but that was just not the case.”
Monaco finally retired after being stopped in three rounds by Daniel Attah in Washington, D.C. in November 1999. His final ring ledger is 29-37-2 (17 KOs).
Looking back on Monaco’s career, it is hard to imagine just how much he has seen and done. He has known Zab Judah since before the undisputed welterweight champion could even walk, and has assisted the likes of Junior Jones, Kevin Kelley and Riddick Bowe when they were still teenagers. Barely a day has gone by that he has not been at Gleason’s, and it’s hard to imagine he’ll miss any days in the future.
“I love the sport of boxing, but don’t love the business of boxing,” said Monaco. “I wish I could teach kids how to box, but then they wouldn’t want to box [competitively]. Having seen so much, it is hard for me to encourage young people to get involved. It is so serious, and there is so much danger.”
When reminded that he ignored the dangers, even after seeing his good friend and gym mate, junior middleweight Stephan Johnson, killed during a match with Paul Vaden, Monaco didn’t run from the ambiguity of his inane argument.
“I’m not saying I should be the model,” said Monaco. “I’m just hoping that others learn from my mistakes. Boxing was good to me. It kept me in good physical condition, took me to a lot of places, and brought me a lot of knowledge. I don’t recommend it to others, but I still enjoy the spectacle of it.”
Moreover, he adds, “Nobody’s perfect. Right now I’m trying live better with my God. I don’t think God is angry with me. He’s a merciful God. If I try to do the right thing, he’ll extend mercy in the right way.”
When told that he is known as a patient, kind and generous man by all who know him, he quickly interjects. “That is not enough,” he proclaims. “Being nice and helping people is not enough. That’s who I am by nature. I’m generous and I’m happy. I try to share that with others.”
Squaring things with Jehovah, he explains, requires a much deeper spiritual commitment, one that Monaco thinks he is finally ready to give. He says that, contrary to what others might think, boxing was not the best thing that ever happened to him. Being introduced to Jehovah was. What appealed to him most was the promise of eternal life and happiness.
“I enjoy life so much here on Earth, and have such positive energy, it would be great to have that forever,” said Monaco. “That’s what Jehovah promises, if you are willing to commit. I’ve always loved boxing, but found it difficult to be a boxer and a Jehovah Witness. Jehovah says you can’t purposely hurt people. In my heart, I know I can never hurt anyone. But boxing is dangerous and accidents happen. That’s where the conflict comes from.”