Domenico Monaco: The ambiguity of the argument

By Robert Mladinich on March 6, 2019
Domenico Monaco: The ambiguity of the argument
“In my heart, I know I can never hurt anyone. But boxing is dangerous.” (Robert Mladinich)

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—and not much else…

When 17-year-old Domenico Monaco (pictured on the left with boxer turned writer Peter Wood) arrived in New York from his native Italy in 1969, he was filled with the wide-eyed wonderment of youth—and 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 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 proved to be a very adept student.

Although he had never laced up a glove prior to his arrival in New York, Monaco, who lived in 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 67, 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 Daily News, the newspaper that sponsored the tournament. One longtime writer who remembered the rivalry well was the late, great Joe Rein, who passed away in 2013.

“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.”

Monaco competed throughout the United States, as well as several times in Italy. Among the notables he fought were 1976 Olympic gold medalists Howard Davis Jr. and Leo Randolph.

Although he beat legitimate contenders Gaetan Hart and Johnny Summerhays, Monaco called it quits in 1978 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 I knew that Jehovah didn’t approve of it.”

In 1987, at the age of 36, 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 places he had dreamed about.

“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 went on the road, lacing up the gloves against local prospects in cities and countries such as Madrid, Belgium, Mexico, Switzerland, Russia, and Kazakhstan.

“I was fighting more for the travel than anything else,” said Monaco who squared off during that period against such top-tier opponents as Leavander Johnson and Jorge Paez.

(Johnson died from injuries he received in a 2005 bout with Jesus Chavez).

“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 works out and helps youngsters, put the word out to worldwide promoters that Monaco could no longer be used.

“I’d been trying to get Dominic to quit for years, but he wouldn’t give it up,” said Silverglade. “He was in the gym every day working out, so he was 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 for good after being stopped in three rounds by Daniel Attah in Washington, D.C. in November 1999. His final ring ledger was a deceptive 29-37-2 (17 KOs).

Looking back on Monaco’s life and career, it is hard to imagine just how much he has seen and done. He has known Zab Judah since before the former champion could even walk, and he 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 I 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, Stephan Johnson die from injuries sustained in a junior middleweight bout with Paul Vaden in November 1999, Monaco addressed the ambiguity of the argument head-on.

“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.”

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 proclaimed. “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 explained, required a much deeper spiritual commitment. He said 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 I 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.”

After an earlier version of this article was published over a decade ago, the United Kingdom of Jehovah Witnesses was extremely critical of Monaco’s actions and arguments.

Citing numerous passages from their scriptures, they opined, “Professional boxing cannot be considered simply an innocent sport. It is a well-known fact that boxers go into the ring with a strong urge to hurt their opponents. For the time being, they may even have a murderous feeling toward them….

“So, it is no wonder that from time to time the press reports that a boxer has been mortally injured in the boxing ring. In boxing there is always the risk that one of the fighters might become a manslayer…...

“Therefore, such a person should be given a reasonable period to discontinue his unchristian profession or occupation. His failure to do so would mean that the elders would have no alternative but to exclude him from the congregation.”

The strong-headed Monaco was unequivocal in his response.

“Nobody’s perfect,” he said. “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. I love boxing, but I don’t do it anymore.”

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  1. Bruce 02:14pm, 03/09/2019

    Superb writing and a fascinating subject.

  2. Lucas McCain 03:41pm, 03/06/2019

    Wonderful column—it points in so many directions and engages so many moods, yet the final effect is a broad sense of what a strange species we are.  And peter’s praise for Jerry Quarry’s insight was one last kick in the stomach., just in case there was any energy left for reaction!  Poor Jerry.

  3. Pete 11:38am, 03/06/2019

    Terrific piece about and attitude by Mr. Monaco.

  4. peter 10:11am, 03/06/2019

    Dom Monaco is, indeed, a “terrific guy”, like Harvey comments. Every time I see Dom in the gym, he seems “perpetually happy and eternally optimistic”, as the author notes. Bruce Silverglade could not have a more positive and trustworthy person working for him at Gleason’s Gym…With this article, Mr. Mladinich continues his legacy of being the “John Steinbeck of boxing literature” because he writes with clarity and warmth about boxing—a harsh, unforgiving sport—and the colorful characters within it….BTW Jerry Quarry’s measured, relaxed, and insightful commentary throughout this bout was top-notch. Professional quality.

  5. Mau-Mauing The Flak Catchers 09:00am, 03/06/2019

    How does someone come to America at 17 and 50 years later still have a thick accent? My friends parents immigrated from Norway to Brooklyn, New York in the early 1960’s and later moved to upstate New York. Both still have thick Norwegian accents, especially his mother. Look at Arnold Schwarzenegger, the guy has been in America since the 1960’s and he stills talks like Dracula. I lost my Baltimore-ese accent long ago, at least I thought I did until some lady asked out of nowhere if I was from Bawlmer.

  6. Harvey 05:16am, 03/06/2019

    Seems like a terrific guy. Too bad he gave himself to a cult.

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