Rodrigo Valdez: Hard Punches & High Spirits

By Ted Spoon on August 23, 2013
Rodrigo Valdez: Hard Punches & High Spirits
Empowered by the sun, he continues on his lonesome, anything but a beaten man.

A small TV doesn’t have a prayer of accessing PPV events, but Rodrigo isn’t fussed. Boxing will always play second fiddle to his era…

Cartagena is located in the north of Colombia. It is a particularly handsome city.

Historic buildings charm tourists while palm trees cleanse the suburbs of that grubby feel. There’s a lively ambience (minus the congestion) and the Caribbean Sea helps take the edge off a taxing climate. As a coastal city, it is also inured to warfare. An unmissable fortress is speckled with cannons, rusted but still threatening.

Things are a little more civil today, but Cartagena’s most famous warrior lives, and as the sun begins its sweltering assent he reaches for a pair of shoes.

These daily strolls are on doctor’s orders, to help with the diabetes. At 66 there are the expected cracks in the paintwork; balding, greying hairs, and a series of wrinkles, but nobody mistakes him. Tributes come at a healthy click.

“Oye, mi Hermano!”

A wave is returned, kindly but briefly, and the walk continues.

Against the backdrop of sunshine and rich colors, loud clothing fits right in. Not to undercook his presentation, gold rings, bracelets and a necklace jazz him up nicely. A taxi driver once quipped that he is “the only one who can do that without fear of being assaulted,” but even today I’m not sure I’d fancy the thugs’ chances. 

A street fight was the reason Rodrigo Valdez landed in a boxing gym.

It’s often ignored, but genetic chemistry comes first; Jack Dempsey was a real cocktail. In Valdez’s case a strong African body was infused with fiery, Hispanic culture. Physically, a shade under 5’10”, he wasn’t a short middleweight, but those arms were a little stumpy. Maybe that’s how the power was generated, bone-rattling, nerve-numbing power. Number 29 is where Ring magazine rated him on their list of all-time sleep inducers. He was also practiced, and more so than power, that is what made him.

Distant fights are a no-no for punchers. Their game is to smash because they lack the basic tools to give n’ take. When smashing fails it makes for ugly viewing and unreliable scorecards. There was none of this with Valdez. The guard was tight, the head moved to a confusing bob, and gunpowder was rationed. There was an accomplished look about him.

A few speed bumps figured on the way up, enough to deter modern whippersnappers, but these were tough times. A man can only make so much with a fishing rod, so Rodrigo grit his teeth. A capable fighter became hazardous. Still, talent doesn’t equal opportunity. The fate of Charley Burley leaps out of the memory bank. Valdez required exposure, good matchmaking, and after six years of fighting that opportunity came in the form of Gil Clancy.

Now a stablemate of the inimitable Emile Griffith, things were about to get interesting.

Come 1970, Valdez was twenty-three years old. There was some filling out to be done at 151 lbs., and Pete Toro showed that there were technical flaws to boot. A majority decision was dropped. Two months later Ralph Palladin grabbed a split decision and the beaten man packed his bags for home.

There was a rethink and a return to New York. As for losing again, first came six years of fireworks.

It was a tight schedule but Rodrigo found the time to work on his English whilst removing men from their senses. The months went by, sturdier pins were put before him; the results stayed the same. In 1973 the seasoned Antonio Aguilar prepared Valdez for his “first bout with a top contender,” Philadelphia’s “Bad” Bennie Briscoe.

It’s tiresome even to say Bennie’s name. Everything about the middleweight bulldozer spelt resistance. It was definitely a step up in class; a perfect time to reveal hidden talents. Valdez demonstrated that he could move his feet as well as plant them, leading his relentless opponent onto thumping counters. Easy? Not a chance, but Rodrigo grinded out a useful 12-round decision.

At the top of the pile stood a genuine legend of the 160-pound class, Argentina’s Carlos Monzon. From axing Nino Benvenuti, to abusing Emile Griffith, to bullying Jean Claude Bouttier, Carlos waved his iron fist over a lively era. Most reporters didn’t get it, like a group of Rastafarians trying to appreciate Metallica, but a savvy percentage recognized how hard the plodding champ was to beat. They weren’t half wrong.

It was harder still to discourage Valdez, he wanted in, but Monzon failed to respect his 90-day period in which to defend. An observer had the cojones to blast the middleweight champ while sparring, claiming he was scared. The whole ambience of the room changed when Monzon addressed him, insisting on the opposite. They were of course both wrong.

The two major powers of the division would have their fight, but the WBC belt was now floating around.

A rematch between Valdez and Briscoe was a fair solution, and a new champion was to be decided in the traditional way. Referee Harry Gibbs was virtually jobless in this high-quality inside scrap. Briscoe was rattled in the first round, hinting at the unlikely. Then his nose started leaking. Between catching those wide hooks on his arms and firing back Rodrigo looked to have the decided edge. Briscoe continued being himself, pressing forward.

In the seventh a right hand cracked Valdez. All of a sudden he looked flustered. The script began to hum the Briscoe ethos; pressure will pay off. It was in the same moment that Valdez did what came naturally in times of crises, he gritted his teeth. Vicious hooks and right hands were fired back. Briscoe was as solid as they came but these sledgehammers were causing vibrations. A big left whooshed past, the right found its mark.     

It wasn’t a head-twister, landing on the nose, but the impact was enough to turn Bennie into a zombie. After getting back on his feet it was waved off, Emile Griffith congratulated his stablemate, and Colombia had its second world champion along with Antonio Cervantes. It was a special time for the nation. A young Miguel Lora began jabbing at an imaginary target.

Four defenses were tallied against unspectacular opponents. There was only one man who could decide top dog and the big fight was penned for June 26, 1976 in Monte Carlo.

The real scoop behind the event was not that Monzon won but that shortly before Valdez’s brother had been murdered. There had also been some lapses in training, and during the downtime a reporter had caught Rodrigo “looking out at the Mediterranean from his hotel in a quiet-looking, tired way.” Mental strength has its limits. The underdog went into the ring mourning.   

Often accused of starting slowly, allowing Monzon to dictate was a problem that quickly worsened. Game but not his fearsome self, Valdez was dropped in the fourteenth and lost unanimously. Clancy blamed the loose ropes; it didn’t wash. There would however be a shot at redemption.

One year, one month, and four days later they were back in Monaco.

Carlos had sworn that this was his last fight. Making money via cinema was better suited to his 34 years, although trainer Amilcar Brusa claimed that he’d “never seen him more serious about any fight.” Clancy said the same thing about Valdez and not a word of it was hyperbole.

At the bell Valdez raced out of his corner, punching with Briscoe-denting power. Clancy knew how difficult it was to warm his man up; he loved what he saw. Come round two and a stray swing nicked the champion’s nose. Seconds later he was on the deck after a crunching overhand right. It was the first time he had touched down in 11 years.

Up in flash, the referee counted at a fighter more irritated than hurt, but Monzon knew he was in a fight.

Valdez’s head began to snap back from that heavy jab. Uppercuts and right hands flowed from the range-finder, tenderizing the challenger’s skin, but the Colombian Rocky was far more tenacious this time. Carlos, sometimes accused of flaunting his mastery, was forced to unleash the animal which Brusa claimed to perceive in training. The action worked its way towards a punishing 10th as the champion displayed those extra dimensions which had averted defeat for 13 long years.

The challenger’s face was unsightly after 15 rounds, but the usual quip of the champion being unmarked could not be made. It was a great fight, a tremendous effort on both sides, but again there was a clear winner. The retired boxer was recently asked why he didn’t beat Monzon and you won’t find a better answer. 

“Well, man, because Monzon was good.”

Before Carlos’ domestic strife burnt him up, Valdez commented on the well-wishes he received, and you may have got the sense compliments weren’t Monzon’s style; if anyone managed to beat some respect out of cold Argentinean it was Valdez.

A well-worn thirty years of age, Rodrigo went on to collide with old rival Benny Briscoe for the vacated titles. After a further fifteen they were his, but the satisfaction was superficial. His era was a sinking ship. Argentinean Hugo Pastor Corro overcame Valdez in a fight which the latter exhibited poor reflexes and muddled tactics. The rematch insisted on retirement.

After two pointless additions he finally did.

Today you’ll often catch Rodrigo seated outside, enjoying his new profession as spectator. A little wander around his pad reveals just how steeped in leather and bruises his journey has been. Trophies, belts and pictures really give you something to look at for such a modest home. The air is one of pride, but pretension is nowhere. Admitting of weaknesses isn’t a problem. For the last decade whiskey has been consumed in sizeable quantities. Having grown conscious of the fact it raises his blood sugar that famous resolve has been on show once more. 

Finding his feet to grace the living room, a small TV doesn’t have a prayer of accessing PPV events, but Rodrigo isn’t fussed. Boxing will always play second fiddle to the era he was a part of. Times have changed, but spirits remain strong, and as night turns to day he’s reaching for those shoes.

An entourage used to strut in unison, grooming his celebrity, emptying his pockets. Inevitably the big bucks withered alongside youth. For many fighters this is the harshest of realities, but it often causes Rodrigo laughter, especially the poor investments. Without success, life attempted to trouble this soul.

Empowered by the sun, he continues on his lonesome, anything but a beaten man.

Another random salutes the warrior from Cartagena.

It’s kindly returned.

Follow us on Twitter@boxing_com to continue the discussion

Carlos Monzon vs Rodrigo Valdez I (Full fight)

Rodrigo Valdez vs Benny Briscoe II

Pete Toro W 10 Rodrigo Valdez

Carlos Monzon vs Rodrigo Valdez II (Full Fight)

Rodrigo Valdez vs Benny Briscoe III

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  1. Jose A Rodriguez 07:22pm, 09/01/2013

    I am still waiting to see an article of my learning experience against Rodrigo Valdez.  Although, I was down five times in the five, I got up to continued fighting and only Arthur Mercante stopped the fight.  I was just starting in boxing with 12 fights and fighting a soon and future World Champion.  I’m very proud of that fight.

  2. Jethro's Flute 10:16am, 08/29/2013

    Interesting article on a good and rather unlucky fighter.

    As an aside, Monzon was unfairly slated by writers during his reign but he was indeed very hard to beat.

  3. Thresher 10:45am, 08/24/2013

    Nice background setting. I like that technique.

  4. Mike Schmidt 11:53am, 08/23/2013

    Simply superb story—loved it—and two of my favorite fighters. The Champion Valdez, much like today’s Champ Sergio, was a small Middle—in fact he was a rated top five Welter not much the years back before denting Bad Briscoe with the firecracker right hand. Ted you make if feel like the reader is right there, scruffy old print shirt and cool drink on a park bench perhaps, sitting with the Grand Champion Valdez feeling the breeze—keep them coming please and more.

  5. Matt McGrain 10:49am, 08/23/2013

    Much needed. Much appreciated.

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