In the ring his calling card was a left hook potent enough to almost get him fired from the training camp of heavyweight title challenger Roy Harris in 1958.
Today it’s a small rectangle of white cardboard that introduces Monroe Ratliff as onetime California state champion (light heavyweight) and proclaims in Second-coming type: “I WHIPPED ROLAND LASTARZA.”
If his skills had been as robust and shining as his personality, Ratliff would need a card bigger than a billboard to list the highlights of his nine-year boxing career. But that’s not important to him. “There’s a lot of heartbreak in there,” he says about the 15-22-4 ring record he compiled between 1955-’63, “but a lot of good memories, too. I had more fun than anything.”
And it all started with a simple question from his older brother, Cleo. The natives of Lexington, Mississippi had moved to California, and were watching fights on TV one night when all of a sudden Cleo turned to Monroe and said, “How’d you like to be a fighter?”
“I’d love it,” answered Monroe as promptly and enthusiastically as if his brother had offered him a cheese puff.
After a short amateur stint, Ratliff turned pro against Sammy Seals on July 12, 1955. They fought a four-round draw at the Ocean Park Arena. Over the next two years, Ratliff batted .500 in the ring, winning seven, losing seven and fighting three more draws, all in preliminary bouts. On September 10, 1957, he jumped into boxing’s deep end, traveling to Phoenix, Arizona, for a 10-round main event against top-ranked heavyweight contender Zora Folley. Ratliff lost the decision but says it was questionable, unlike their return match two years later. “I got hit on the chin, and that was it,” says Ratliff cheerfully about his two-round exit then.
He was durable, though, and that left hook gave the much more experienced Frankie Daniels problems in successive 10-rounders Ratliff dropped by decision. By then, Ratliff was headquartered in San Diego, and after he ended the career of 10-2 Bob Parish with a four round KO in mid-1958, Ratliff was invited to serve as a sparring partner of challenger Roy Harris as Harris prepared to go after Floyd Patterson’s heavyweight crown on August 18, 1958.
The Harris camp was at the Arrowhead Springs Hotel in Big Bear, in the San Bernardino Mountains. In their inaugural sparring session, Ratliff put pressure on Harris and scored often with the hook. Too often, in the view of Henry Harris, the father of the challenger from Cut ‘N’ Shoot, Texas. After two rounds, the elder Harris ended the sparring session, and when Ratliff was in the locker room the man known as “Big Henry” came in and suggested that Ratliff keep the left hook mostly holstered for the duration of camp.
In his classic book “Once They Heard The Cheers,” W.C. Heinz wrote about his first meeting with the father of Roy Harris: “Big Henry was six-feet-two-and-a-half inches handsome, and at age 47 weighed 237 pounds. He said that when he was in his twenties he weighed 210, and had a 33-inch waist, a 17 1/2-inch neck, and 16-inch biceps, and I used to imagine him –– rather than his six-foot, 190-pound second son –– fighting Floyd Patterson.”
So when Big Henry suggested keeping the left hook under wraps, Monroe replied “I’d love it,” or some polite variation thereof. He and Big Henry got along just fine after that, even after Monroe took $20 off him by climbing a nearby mountain that Harris figured was insurmountable. He offered the money to anybody in camp who could prove him wrong, and Ratliff told him, “I can climb that mountain in 10 minutes.”
He did it, too. But then, recalls Monroe with a laugh, “I couldn’t work out for three days, I was so tired. I was sore all over, and couldn’t do nothing.”
Maybe Big Henry ought to have let Roy learn how to cope with those left hooks. Patterson knocked Harris down with several of his own in their title bout at Wrigley Field, and stopped him in 12 rounds. On the undercard, Ratliff won a six-round decision over Obie “Dusty” Rhodes.
In his next fight, Ratliff stopped highly-regarded Reuben Vargas in six rounds, and then kayoed Tony Emanuel and onetime heavyweight contender Tommy Harrison, for five wins in a row.
Ratliff’s manager induced him to go on a starvation diet to get down to 175-pounds and go after the California light heavyweight title owned by Sixto Rodriquez, who’d lost just once in 22 bouts. The night before the January 30, 1959 fight, Ratliff watched movies in an all-night theater to keep his mind off food. He made the weight and then upset the heavily-favored Rodriquez to take the Golden State belt on a 12-round decision.
Less than two weeks later, he was in the ring at Madison Square Garden in New York City. But Ratliff needed his mother’s help to get there. The day of his fight with heavyweight Larry Zernitz it was discovered that Monroe’s 21st birthday wasn’t until the day after the February 13 bout. The rule was that a fighter had to be 21 years old to box a Garden main event, so they ended up contacting Elvira Ratliff in Mississippi, who gave her permission for her son to box. But there were other problems not even his mother could solve. Zernitz had a 20-pound weight advantage over the California fighter. Plus, Ratliff’s right hand had been badly bruised in the Rodriquez fight, and was too painful for him to use. But for all that, the biggest advantage for Zernitz turned out to be the calendar. When the opening bell rang, says Monroe, “All I could think of was that it was Friday the 13th, and believe you me, I’m superstitious.” Zernitz won on points.
Ratliff returned to San Diego and defended his California title by knocking out Willie Gilbert in two rounds. On June 12, 1959, Sixto Rodriquez took the belt back on a 12-round decision.
Of his last 11 fights, Ratliff won only the one against LaStarza. It was almost eight years since Roland had fought so valiantly against Rocky Marciano for the world heavyweight title, and according to his agent LaStarza’s boxing comeback was designed to boost his stock as a budding actor, not as a fighter. “Roland is colorful and has lots of personality,” Jerry Rosen told Harvey Rockwell of the San Francisco News-Call Bulletin. “He would do well as an entertainer, but for prestige purposes he must win a few fights first.”
Not this one. The decision for Ratliff in the fight at Kezar Pavilion was unanimous.
“I’d heard so much about LaStarza and Marciano, I was scared,” Monroe says. “I trained hard and I prayed, ‘God, whatever you do, let me win this fight.’ For the first five rounds, I like to get killed. For the last five rounds, I like to kill him.”
(LaStarza never fought again, but he did go on to co-star in the TV series “The Gallant Men,” a World War II drama whose 33 episodes aired on ABC in 1962-’63.)
After he knocked out Zora Folley in 1961, Argentina’s Alejandro Lavorante was widely regarded as a lock to become heavyweight champion of the world. The third-ranked Lavorante knocked Ratliff down in the fifth round of their May 8, 1961 bout in San Francisco, and once again Monroe appealed to a higher power for direction.
“Well, Lord, I’m down,” he said. “I know he’s gonna knock me out, but I’ll put everything I have in the next few rounds.”
In its report of the fight, The Ring magazine said, “Ratliff surprised by lasting the limit and gave [Lavorante] some rough moments in the late rounds.” The News-Call Bulletin’s Al Corona said Ratliff did even better than that. “Monroe came storming back to make the fight an interesting one,” he wrote, “copping four of the last five rounds and also bloodying Lavorante’s nose in the process.”
When a young Cassius Clay came west to fight Archie Moore in 1962, Ratliff was a sparring partner for the future Muhammad Ali, and proved himself as adept a prognosticator as Clay himself, who correctly forecast that “Moore will fall in four.” “This will be another Sullivan-Corbett match,” Monroe assured Clay beforehand. “You is Corbett and Archie is Sullivan. Moore will run out of gas.”
Since his retirement from boxing, Ratliff has tried his hand at numerous creative undertakings. He’s written poetry and designed display tables honoring Sugar Ray Robinson, Dr. Martin Luther King and Elvis Presley. (There was also a table immortalizing O.J. Simpson’s pursuit in the White Bronco by three squad cars on the LA freeway.) He’s made and distributed bumper stickers with a cartoon likeness of himself squaring off against a huge likeness of Lavorante, and proclaiming, “Taking drugs is like taking on a fight where you know you’re overmatched!”
What he enjoys most now, in his late 60s, is getting in touch with the men he fought in the ring. “Everybody I fought, I love ‘em,” says Monroe, and to prove it he spends hundreds of dollars each month calling them up all over the country. He always reminds them, and everybody else with whom he talks, to “Keep your hands up!”
Recently he got hold of Roy Harris in Texas. It was the first time they’d spoken since that Big Bear training camp 48 years ago. When Ratliff asked Harris if he remembered him, the former heavyweight title challenger said without hesitation, “Hell yeah … the mountain climber!”
Maybe the peaks he scaled in boxing weren’t so towering, but when it comes to attitude and heart, Sir Edmund Hillary doesn’t have anything on the man who whipped Roland LaStarza.