Olympic Memories – Sitting in his living room Armando Muniz watches the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro and vividly remembers that day he stepped into the boxing ring to represent the USA.
“My very first fight was against Marian Kasprzyk from Poland. He had won gold in the 64 Olympic Games in Tokyo. I came to win. We went at it.”
Muniz (pictured with Sugar Ray Leonard) won his first Olympic fight.
But getting to the Olympics was no easy task for Muniz. It was 1968 and the Viet Nam War was in full swing. The Southern Californian was drafted by the US military while attending Cal State Los Angeles University. No matter, he was going to be inducted.
Luckily, he told an old boxing coach that a stint in Viet Nam was facing him dead in the face. Muniz had been busy in the amateur boxing world while attending college. That coach made a phone call and the next thing that happened was Muniz was headed to Fort Campbell, Kentucky to join the Army boxing team.
It was a relief, but Muniz was not out of danger.
“I represented the Army at regionals. I represented the west coast and I had to win or I was going to Viet Nam,” said Muniz, adding that he ran mile after mile in preparation as others wondered if he were a madman for running so much. “I won the regional.”
Muniz would eventually make the U.S. Olympic squad that also featured two others from the military and a big youngster from Houston, Texas named George Foreman. The host of the Olympics in 1968 was Mexico City. It was a turbulent time in both Mexico and the rest of the world.
During the Olympic Games in Mexico City large protests were taking place. After a short time, the military was sent in to quell the demonstration. Hundreds were killed and allegedly buried in a large ditch. To this day no one knows the exact count of the dead who were shot by the Mexican military.
“It was in the thousands not the hundreds,” said Ignacio Miramontes who took part in the demonstrations but escaped unharmed. “It was horrible. I hid for weeks.”
While the mass demonstrations and killings were going on a few miles from the Olympic Games, those involved in the tournament were unaware.
“I didn’t see anything actually happen while I was there. I heard of some hassles of people being shot and killed but it wasn’t near Olympic village. It was about three miles from us,” said Muniz, who was born in Mexico but became an American citizen before going to the Olympic Games. “The students were beginning to do a protest. The Mexican government said you’re the poor the hell with you guys.”
A few in Mexico and in the USA took offense that Muniz participated on behalf of the USA.
“First of all I had just become an American citizen in March. I was in the US since I was 6. I was more Americanized than I was Mexican,” Muniz said. “Being a Mexican born in Mexico I didn’t feel odd.”
Protests were everywhere including on track and field events. American runners John Carlos and Tommy Smith had approached boxer Foreman about participating in their Black power salute.
“We were going to the gym and I look over to George Foreman and see these guys ask him what did he decide? He said I came here to win a gold medal and nothing else. They wanted him to raise his hand in a Black salute,” Muniz recalls.
Later, Smith and Carlos would be vilified by the media for their silent protest after winning medals and standing on the podium with their black gloved fists in the air. These were controversial times in America and the world. It was a changing world.
Foreman would go on to win gold and inside the boxing ring he would carry a small American flag. Muniz would win a total of three fights but lose to the eventual bronze medal winner.
“I fought Mario Guilloti from Argentina. We were built the same way and fought the same way. I guess that day the judges saw it differently. Mine was a close fight but I thought I won,” said Muniz. “But I was the only welterweight for this country. I felt proud of myself.”
After serving his time in the US Military, the Southern Californian was not finished with boxing by a long shot.
Olympic Memories – From Olympic Games to Olympic Auditorium
Muniz made his pro debut at the historic Olympic Auditorium on July 16, 1970. In one month span he fought four different opponents and won by knockout in each fight. It wasn’t until he encountered Philadelphia’s Bobby “Boogaloo” Watts that someone went the distance with the hard-charging Muniz. Six years later Watts would give Marvin Hagler his first loss as a pro. Muniz never fought less than six rounds as a pro.
Promoter Aileen Eaton knew how to build a fighter and had matchmakers who could arrange the perfect showdowns to draw a large crowd. On many a night Muniz fought in front of boxing hungry fans who were eager to see his crowd-pleasing aggressive style.
In his first year as a pro he fought a 10-rounder against Crispen Benitez in a super welterweight clash at the Olympic in November. He won by knockout in 1:22 of the second round. Less than four weeks later he fought in another 10-round bout and won by knockout against Jose Carreon in 2:36 of the first round. Muniz would engage in 14 pro fights in less than a year.
A new boxing star was born.
Olympic Memories – Old Master
Aside from being a box office star Muniz was winning inside the prize ring too. He won 17 consecutive fights in less than two years and then was matched with the great old master Emile Griffith who had 83 fights under his belt including welterweight and middleweight world titles.
Muniz lost that day to Griffith in the Anaheim Convention Center. He had just defeated Clyde Gray for the NABF welterweight title when he met the 33-year-old Griffith who passed away three years ago at age 75.
All was not lost. Muniz continued to draw crowds and an eventual showdown with fellow welterweight contender Hedgemon Lewis was held at the Inglewood Forum on December 3, 1974. A large crowd saw Muniz defeat the talented Lewis by unanimous decision after 10 furious rounds. The win set up a match against welterweight world champion Jose “Mantequilla” Napoles.
Cuba’s Napoles had been adopted by Mexico and the slick fighting champion had taken a stranglehold on the welterweight world title since 1969 when he stopped Curtis Cokes in the 10th round. From there on he cleaned out the 147-pound division and had already defeated Hedgeman Lewis twice. Now it was Muniz’s turn.
The native born Mexican Muniz was returning to his roots but was not the fan favorite when he met Napoles in Acapulco in March 1975. That night, the Californian was in a zone and battered Napoles around the ring until the fight was stopped in the 12 round with the Cuban bleeding profusely. Instead of a knockout win for Muniz, it was decided that the cuts were inflicted by head butts and a technical decision was rendered. It was somehow ruled a draw. Many thought Muniz defeated Napoles handily.
Uncrowned but unbowed Muniz and Napoles fought again but this time Napoles won by decision after 15 rounds. The title fight was held in Mexico City where Muniz fought in the Olympics.
Muniz would only get two more title bids but would fall just short against Carlos Palomino. Both welterweight clashes were incredible displays of grit and courage that took place in the Olympic Auditorium in 1977 and 1978. The former Olympian would enter the boxing ring one last time. That would come against another Olympian Sugar Ray Leonard just two years removed from the Montreal Olympics. An injury to Muniz shortened the fight that ended in the sixth round.
After boxing Muniz, who had graduated from Cal State L.A., eventually turned to teaching and spent 23 years at Rubidoux High School in Riverside. He still lives in Riverside, California.
Watching the Olympics has rekindled those memories of 48 years ago.
“I’ll never forget the opening ceremonies,” said Muniz. “It really inspired me and made me feel more American. It was really something.”