Skill: Subject to Gradation

By Ted Spoon on June 14, 2012
Skill: Subject to Gradation
The great middleweight Carlos Monzon’s legacy is like a gloomy painting without a title

To avoid being vague, three middleweights have been selected to help illustrate how easily the finer details can get lost in reputations…

“Another faculty, we may take notice of in our minds, is that of discerning and distinguishing between the several ideas it has.”—John Locke

Much is lost in a world of order. We find it necessary to isolate things into extremes—a coarse exercise to aid in peoples understanding of basic rules and concepts (i.e. good and evil, right and wrong).

As a measure to make sure we all play nice it’s essential, but in terms of its effect on our ability to detect life’s many shades of grey, it is a decided handicap.

You would think that a fist-fight is just about the most simple of activities. Indeed, “One shall stand, one shall fall” as a certain Autobot put it. This is why the majority desire a very basic affair. To them, boxing is a simple activity; so should be the action.

Centuries ago, back when combative manoeuvres began to multiply, a basic crowd were quick on the pick-up and jeers followed like a right hand. The boxer had found room for expression, but, with no preconceptions of such behavior, the crowd treated it like today you would a racial slur.

Philosopher John Locke had stated that, regarding the ideas our perception fashions, there are various “modes” from which information is received, starting simple and with ascending complexity. Similarly, the act of boxing would come to be appreciated on different levels, though under rigid guises or modes. 

The concept of fencers vs. sluggers points to classic models, though each sponsor will discover his own flair. Invariably these genres are combined, overlapped and confused to the point little is familiar. 

At this granular level even judges are unreceptive, leaving only small groups to understand, and ultimately, appreciate the fighter. 

To avoid being vague, three middleweights have been selected to help illustrate how easily the finer details can get lost in reputations.

“I see particularly the bad moves and the dangerous openings they leave—as well as the good moves. And I continue to improve a little all the time.”—Dick Tiger, 1963  
When you think Dick Tiger notions of ripping hooks, concrete muscles and taxman-esque persistence are involuntary. Losses to men like Joey Giardello and Emile Griffith have their reasons, but seen as they were to slicker opponents it compounds this idea of Tiger as a steamroller; amazingly strong but something of a one-trick pony.   

Amazing as it was, if strength was the only thing Tiger flaunted he would have never escaped from that early rut he found himself in, and yet for the rest of his career most observers would only pick up on that caustic aggression.

The Dick Tiger from 1957 and the one from 1961 looked awfully similar; to the untrained eye they fought almost identically. During this period the screws were ever-so-slightly tightened. The results entailed big differences. 
Never were these improvements more mistreated than by reporter Oscar Fraley who entitled Tiger’s first victory against Gene Fullmer ‘Back to the Stone Age.’

‘It could have been on a barge in the Mississippi, gaunt in the flickering of torches.’ Even dinosaurs as spectators wouldn’t have looked out of place, apparently. What Oscar failed to notice, as did many others, was that subtle cunning which had shaped his ascendancy.

With a ‘close in’ style of attack Tiger pushed forward, but with measured pressure. Different to some tactless drone he left a small gap to make his man uneasy. Indifferently swatting down jabs the urge to retaliate became unavoidable, and when they did the stalking Nigerian came with whipping blows, making him something of a counter-slugger.

He knew when he was off-balance or poorly positioned and retracted half-boiled efforts. His defense, basic but correct, allowed him to emerge from hard fights with minimal scarring. Finally, there was a reverse gear which he shifted into occasionally to watch his opponent overreach. These were the petite traits of a considerate fighter who didn’t waste energy but always trained for the long haul. 

Having sliced Gene over both eyes the final round of their ‘Primeval Brawl’ pictured Tiger still poised and capable of punches in rapid bunches. Utilizing all those faint moves, Biafra’s warrior would go on to overcome Joey Giardello and Jose Torres minus brutalizing them with his leather-tipped clubs. 

They weren’t instances lacking in controversy but Emile Griffith had the pleasure of twice getting the nod against Tiger.In the following decade he bumped into a towering Argentinean and suffered an especially rare stoppage. 

“I really did not have as many problems as I expected. It was almost too easy.”—Carlos Monzon, 1974

Beating Jose Napoles should not have been easy. The idea of the brilliant Cuban suffering a beating was even more remote, but that is exactly what Carlos Monzon handed him.

Lacking both speed and that ravenous urgency, descriptions concerning Monzon were always prone to be a little blasé. Everyone saw the strength, the iron jaw, the right hand power, and not much else. The rationale behind his victory over Jose was “too big, too strong,” but the smaller man wasn’t just overpowered in there.

The terms “pushy” and “ponderous” are sure to accompany future pieces about a man who seemed to catapult rather than snap his punches. Moving around with the fixed gait of an undertaker doesn’t help salvage this initial feeling of an overachiever. 

What was spectacular about Carlos was how he coordinated his discreet abilities.

Seldom (if ever) has there been a boxer who utilized his advantages so well. While Dick Tiger cultured his limited strengths Monzon evenly distributed his many. He did not settle on any one tactic and this is why opponents found it so difficult to get traction.

There were promising moments for Napoles early on. During the first four rounds he was slipping that long left, getting in his own jab, attacking the body and trying on sweeping hooks; he certainly did not look like some helpless welterweight.

Monzon did not strictly box or go for the knockout. His stubborn style insisted on deliberate but purposeful contributions. A clean contest ensued and Napoles found the middleweight champion to be more elusive than his light-heavyweight stature would propose.   

Not known for his defensive talents, Monzon’s ability to take the play away from the opponent was one of his greatest assets, and after negating most of Jose’s efforts he shifted through the gears. Near the end of the fifth Carlos spotted a lull in his opponent’s work ethic and punished him with remarkable accuracy.

Not having a set array of combinations as many fighters do, Monzon pieced his attacks together as he went, suddenly pausing to scout better angles. It wasn’t as dynamic to watch, but when you consider how many spoil opportunities through hastiness, this type of steady thumping was amazingly effective.

In the shortest space of time “Mantequilla” became very hittable. Angelo Dundee (who had not seen Monzon before) had witnessed enough after the sixth and mercifully retired his man. Over 14 defenses of the 160 lb. title, brawling and slick competitors alike were abused by South America’s trudging hitman.   

Monzon’s legacy is like a gloomy painting without a title. Many aren’t fans, but with that intriguing element most are sure to come back for a second viewing where they are increasingly likely to notice those faint hues which make the composition work.

“I came along in an era with Ray Robinson, Charley Burley, Ezzard. James would fit right into that category.”—Bill Miller, 1994

With James Toney there is no confusion as to what he was, or rather what fans thought he was. Branded as a premier counter-puncher; no doubt this was the preferred mode, but it’s an ugly simplification for a man who likened himself to have imitated those Golden Age moves.

The man who yelled to high heaven for “Burger King!” surprisingly found it tough to keep his weight down. As a consequence his true (middleweight) abilities have become a touch diluted.

You may soundly argue that it was a testament to James’ talents that he could still perform whilst carrying that tire around his waist, but it could be equally reasoned that, physically compromised as he was, we lost sight of what he could do to boxers nearer his natural size.

The victory over Michael Nunn is overlooked as remarkable performances go. Ray Leonard is always commended for how he went against the grain and turned predator against Thomas Hearns, but Toney did something similar with an even bigger points deficit. 

Hardly textbook, a gritty, slashing type of fight was waged by the smaller challenger. Having never knocked anyone out past the fifth, an early lead by Nunn was odds-on to extend beyond reach. Using his slippery, Ezzard-influenced defense, Toney avoided the truly damaging punches while forcing Nunn to deal with his rushing.

Most counter-punchers major negative is their inability to create opportunities. Waiting in ambush, it is opportunities that they are accustomed to receiving. Sometimes cagey, Nunn definitely wasn’t on the night, but such were his physical advantages that he could pepper Toney without getting himself in silly positions.

In arduous stages Toney discovered punches that worked and merrily head-hunted—a nightmare scenario for obdurate counter-punchers like Juan Manual Marquez. As Nunn tired they became harder to avoid and in the eleventh he was plastered with a smokin’ left hook from a boxer who had essentially inverted his style.

This late minute concluding was again on show against Charles Williams in a bout where the scorecards were going in the right direction. Charles’ head-first brawling made for easier clay for Toney’s gloves to mould, but aside from a superb ability to manipulate his foes, James could also box in the purest sense.

The nickname of “Lights Out” was more of a half-truth for a fighter who chose chemistry over pyrotechnics. Ninety percent of the time Toney boxed and against Mike McCallum you saw some of the sweetest science in history.     

Though an old bird when they fought, McCallum was still dangerous when given the time and space to call upon that wealth of experience. Both men stayed far away from the ropes and boxed a very clean contest; high on craft with minimal lazing.

Sore over their initial draw the IBF middleweight champion was “on” during the 1992 rematch. Double jabs and careful parries styled Toney who fought very differently to the retreating blender that went onto mince Iran Barkley. Moving in quarter circles, disrupting the tempo with slips and firing lush counters, Toney’s worth as a true virtuoso was to be cruelly censored when Roy Jones came along and shredded the instruction booklet; the kind a logician like John Locke enjoyed writing.
Toney himself didn’t possess the necessary eloquence to convey exactly what it was that helped him “knock that punk-ass out!”

Had Essex’s philosopher been a 20th century sportswriter you can bet he would have captured all those iridescent tones which help sustain boxing’s founding status of heroic-fencing over that of human Ping-Pong. 

Follow us on Twitter@boxing_com to continue the discussion

Dick Tiger vs Gene Fullmer I

Carlos Monzon vs Jose Napoles

Michael Nunn vs James Toney (Full Fight.)

Discuss this in our forums

Related Articles


This is a place to express and/or debate your boxing views. It is not a place to offend anyone. If we feel comments are offensive, the post will be deleted and continuing offenders will be blocked from the site. Please keep it clean and civil! We want to have fun. We want some salty language and good-natured exchanges. But let's keep our punches above the belt...
  1. Jim Crue 04:15am, 06/15/2012

    I love this site!!  After 60 years as a fan I have pretty much given up watching or caring about current fights or fighters. This site reminds me that boxing was once a major sport with REAL fighters.
    Thank you

  2. john coiley 03:41am, 06/15/2012

    Ah, as always, you hit it on the noggin (yeah, that was a pun), how styles sometimes nullify power. and vice versa.

  3. MIKE SCHMIDT 04:25pm, 06/14/2012

    Really really nice article—loved Monzon—great fighter

  4. The Thresher 01:05pm, 06/14/2012

    Great stuff here and great videos. truly rocks.

Leave a comment