Nobody gives Willie Monroe Jr. (19-1, 6 KOs) much of a chance to dethrone WBA middleweight champion Gennady Golovkin (32-0, 29 KOs) when they square off in the HBO-televised main event Saturday night in Inglewood, Calif. Oddsmakers have made Monroe, a slick-boxing southpaw with negligible punching power, anywhere from a 15-1 to 20-1 underdog.
But upsets do happen and, well, there is a member of Monroe’s family who knows what it’s like to beat a supposedly unbeatable foe. If it happened once before, why not again?
“I’m hoping that he wins it, and I believe he’s going to do well,” Monroe’s great-uncle and namesake, former middleweight contender Willie “The Worm” Monroe, said from the Sicklerville, N.J., home he shares with his daughter. “It wouldn’t shock me if he wins the fight.”
“The Worm” knows a thing or two about shocking upsets. He is one of only three fighters to have defeated the great Marvin Hagler, and, in some people’s minds, the only one to do so without any hint of controversy. His 10-round, unanimous decision over Hagler on March 9, 1976, in the Spectrum in Philadelphia, was emphatic enough that even the rising superstar from Brockton, Mass., had to admit he had been bested fair and square.
“I controlled Hagler with the jab,” Monroe said in late March 1987, before Hagler’s final bout, a split-decision loss to Sugar Ray Leonard that Hagler to this day has refused to acknowledge or accept. “Threw the uppercut from time to time. I cut him over the eye. He bled so much that night. I found out later I had busted a blood vessel in his nose. I closed both his eyes. I remember that fight real good.”
So does Monroe’s former promoter, J Russell Peltz, who wishes he had a film of “The Worm’s” finest hour as part of his extensive video library. Then again, no one has any footage of what took place on Monroe’s night of nights. There was a blinding snowstorm that not only limited attendance, but prevented a film crew from even making it to the arena.
“Willie Monroe vs. Marvin Hagler (whose first loss, which was hotly disputed, was to Watts) will go down in history as a much bigger, much more significant fight than Willie Monroe Jr. vs. Triple G ever could,” said Peltz, an unabashedly old-school traditionalist. “You got champions on every street corner now. Guys like Willie Monroe and Boogaloo Watts and Cyclone Hart … I hear people say, `How good could they have been? They never even got a title shot!’ Yeah, but it wasn’t that easy back then to get a title shot. (Carlos) Monzon was the king of the middleweight division then. Maybe for a while (Rodrigo) Valdes had a piece of the title, and he was no walk in the park either. Guys had to wait their turn and try to fight their way up the ladder. Now, you win a tournament on ESPN against a bunch of non-contenders (as Monroe Jr. supposedly did in the Boxcino tourney) and the next thing you know, you’re on HBO.”
Peltz’s assessment might be a bit harsh, but at least the Boxcino tournament was televised. Monroe is all too aware that the absence of a fight film has served to lessen the relevance of his landmark conquest of Hagler. To some, unless they see something on TV or on video, it’s like it never happened.
“All I’ve got is some photos, action photos,” he sighed. “But I tell you what, he had never fought a fighter like me. He didn’t know what to do with me. I must have done him some good, though; he never lost again until Leonard, and I’m not too sure about that one. I like to think I sent him back to school.”
The elder Monroe, who turns 66 on June 5, posted a 39-10-1 record with 26 victories inside the distance in a career that spanned from 1969 to ’81. The Rochester, N.Y., native was one of four Philly-based 160-pounders to be ranked among the world’s top 10 in the 1970s, along with Bennie Briscoe, Watts and Hart. When you consider that heavyweights Joe Frazier and Jimmy Young, light heavyweight Matthew Saad Muhammad and bantamweight Jeff Chandler also were active during that era, it constituted perhaps the most glittering golden age of Philadelphia boxing, one perhaps beyond matching.
It was with the idea of honing and refining his ring skills that Monroe, then 23, came to Philly in the mid-1960s. It was a fortuitous move; he soon was under the tutelage of Yank Durham, who took Frazier to the heavyweight championship, and, after Durham passed away, another master of the corner, Eddie Futch. During that halcyon period, Monroe became a marquee attraction in his adopted hometown, regularly fighting his fellow middleweight headliners before large, enthusiastic crowds in the Spectrum.
And when it was finally over – on a fourth-round knockout loss to Willie Edwards on Oct. 24, 1981 – Monroe remained in the area, which explains in part why he has such a lack of familiarity with that part of his family that remained in Rochester, including grand-nephew Willie Monroe Jr.
“I hardly know my nephew, to be honest with you,” Monroe said. “I never really had the chance to get to know him. It’s just one of those things. I came to Philadelphia before he was even born. The same thing goes with his father (Willie Lee Monroe, a super middleweight who posted a 24-4-2 record), who I never got a chance to know either. They were there and I was here, either fighting or traveling. I fought a lot in Europe, too.”
It would have made for an interesting slant on Golovkin-Monroe Jr. had “The Worm’s” 28-year-old relative requested some tips on how to take down “Triple G,” as his great-uncle had taken down Hagler. But that call never was made, from either direction. Time and distance have served to chill whatever relationship they might have had.
“At the end of the day, it’s about what I do,” stressed Monroe Jr., who listed his pugilistic role models as Roy Jones Jr., Sugar Ray Leonard, Pernell Whitaker and Hector “Macho” Camacho. “It doesn’t matter the pedigree or where you come from or what your name is. I really try not to live off what my dad and my uncle did. I’m creating my own legacy. I’ve made it further than both of them already.”
Maybe, and maybe not. Willie the Worm was much more of a puncher than Willie Jr., whose nickname is “The Mongoose,” which might or might not be a nod toward the legendary Archie Moore, minus the original’s high volume of knockouts. But while the elder Monroe says he’ll be rooting for his namesake – “Of course I will; regardless of whatever the situation is, that’s still my blood. Family counts” – he isn’t prepared to fully commit to the notion that his grand-nephew will do unto Golovkin what he did to Hagler.
“I saw his last fight (a 10-round unanimous decision over Brian Vera in the final of the Boxcino tournament) on television,” Monroe said. “He did what he had to and he won. He really wasn’t that impressive, but he won and winning is the main thing.”
Interestingly, Monroe has a much more cordial and warm relationship with Hagler, with whom he swapped punches three times, than with his Rochester relations. They stand as irrefutable proof that friendships sometimes can be forged in the crucible of competition.
“I spent time with Marvin after all three of our fights,” Monroe said. “I even spent time with him in Italy, where he lives now. I fought over there, back in the day. We talked at his hotel and had a great time. There wasn’t any problem. Him and me, we have a lot of respect for each other.”
So, did Monroe realize, after their first bout, that Hagler would eventually become one of the most feared and revered middleweight champions of all time?
“I knew he was going to be good because he was very determined,” Monroe recalled. “He had a great attitude to be in the game. I noticed that. I realized he had the potential to be great.”
If Monroe Jr. has any chance against Golovkin, who comes in with a streak of 19 consecutive knockout victories, it might be if “Triple G” makes the mistake of being overconfident. He is, after all, in prime position for high-visibility, big-money unification bouts with fellow middleweight champs Miguel Cotto and Andy Lee, and maybe a megafight with former WBC/WBA super welterweight titlist Canelo Alvarez, whenever he decides to move up. Also on Golovkin’s wish list — at the top of it, actually — is Floyd Mayweather Jr. Who could blame “Triple G” for viewing Monroe as just another step in his relentless march toward Hagler-like prominence?
“I think this fight will truly be won by ring intelligence,” said Willie Jr.’s trainer, Tony Morgan. “I think that Golovkin makes a lot of mistakes. I think he’s beatable. I think any guy’s beatable if you bring the right plan to the table.
“And I think what we bring to the table is something Gennady’s never seen and realistically can’t prepare for. There’s really only one Willie Monroe.”
That’s probably true. But until further notice, the still-reigning ruler of fighting Willie Monroes is a “Worm” who wriggled on the hook one snowy night in 1976 and got Marvin Hagler to take the bait.