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Remembering Carlos Monzon's only fight at Madison Square Garden

1m - Boxing
Forty-years ago, Carlos Monzon defeated Tony Licata by 10-round TKO. AP Images

Carlos Monzon was a pungent mix of primal power and urbanity -- a badass playboy just as comfortable chilling with the jet set on the Riviera as he was hanging out in the slums of San Javier, Argentina, that spawned him. But he looked different from the cheap seats at Madison Square Garden than he did on television. The bright lights and distance emphasized his stick-figure physique -- all legs and arms.

But it was Monzon, all right. His regal bearing and mop of black hair were unmistakable. As were his black trunks imprinted with "Fernet-Branca," the potent liqueur so popular in his native Argentina.

It was 40 years ago -- June 30, 1975, to be precise -- but you don't forget the only time you see a fighter like Monzon box live. I was only a cub reporter, so I didn't even apply for a media credential. Instead, I went with my buddies and watched from the gods.

It turned out to be Monzon's only fight in the United States, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to witness this unique, albeit controversial, champion. His eventual fall from grace was as tragic as his rise had been triumphant. And although we didn't know it at the time, the arc of his life had already passed its apogee and begun its descent.

When Monzon arrived in New York City to fight Tony Licata he hadn't lost in more than 10 years and had been champion since November 1970. His prestige was such that it seemed more like a royal visit than a fight, especially with his glamorous consort, actress/model Susana Gimenez, in tow.

"Monzon was in the middle of a torrid romance with Susana," said Carlos Irusta, Argentina's leading boxing journalist. "They met a year before when they made a movie, 'La Mary.' They fell in love and he started to live in Buenos Aires, not in his hometown of Santa Fe. And when Carlos went to New York to fight Licata, Susana went with him."

Monzon's wife, Mercedes Beatriz, best known as "Pelusa," was almost as volatile as her husband. When she learned of the affair, she confronted Gimenez at a theater where her rival was working and yelled, "Carlos is mine!" as she sprang at her husband's paramour.

"They kind of had a brawl," said Irusta. "It was no secret that Susana and Carlos were dating. Some months before, they went to the Tamanaco Hilton hotel in Caracas, Venezuela. It was supposed to be a secret rendezvous, but Susana let the press know. It wasn't long after Monzon returned home from the Licata fight that divorce proceedings between Carlos and 'Pelusa' began."

New Orleans native Licata, who fought out of Tampa, Florida, lived in a different world than Monzon, a world devoid of glitz, flashy women and five-figure paydays. He was a popular, workaday boxer fighting his way up the rankings under the guidance of Lou Viscusi, a veteran manager who had, shall we say, connections in the right places.

Licata was the son of an Italian father and a Chinese mother, whose uncle, Ralph Chong, had been a decent middleweight. Tony was a slick, quick craftsman in the manner of other New Orleans cuties such as Willie Pastrano and Ralph Dupas. He'd built a record of 49-1-3 (20 KOs) en route to a title shot, and his only loss (by majority decision to Ramon Mendez) had been avenged.

Regardless of his respectable credentials, few gave Licata a chance. He was bolder than Pastrano and Dupas and wasn't averse to trading when he thought he could get away with it, not a good thing when your punching power is average at best and you're in there with one of the greatest middleweights of all time.

I had met Monzon briefly at the Boxing Writers of America Association's 1972 awards banquet, where Carlos was honored as Fighter of the Year.

The champion stood alone, acknowledging well-wishers with bored indifference, but as I approached, he cracked a smile.

I thought for a nanosecond it was for me, but it wasn't. The smile was for Philly middleweight Bennie Briscoe, who was just behind me. They had fought twice in Buenos Aires, a draw and a decision for Monzon. The 25 hard rounds they'd shared had forged a bond only fighters can really understand.

Licata was tough but not as tough as Briscoe. Nonetheless, he proved a brave and determined challenger. Tony took a pasting pretty much from the start, but always flurried back when things looked the worst. Monzon administered a steady beating, catching Licata coming and going with heavy blows.

Even so, it was the challenger's plucky stand against supposedly overwhelming odds that stood out. Despite an occasional roar of "Argentina," it was when Licata fired back that the crowd of 13,496 erupted.

None of Licata's punches appeared to hurt Monzon, but as the rounds ticked by, two questions demanded answers: What was keeping Licata upright, and why couldn't Monzon close the show?

The champion's infatuation with Gimenez was clearly a factor. Even Monzon admitted that.

"When I was in the ring and I saw her at ringside, cheering and shouting, I tried to make the best fight of my life," Monzon revealed in his autobiography, "Mi Verdadera Vida [My Real Life]."

In that he failed. The supremely confident champion had predicted it wouldn't go past the fifth round, but despite being hammered around the ring, Licata was defiantly upright at the bell and ready to go when the bell rang for the sixth.

If Monzon was frustrated, he never showed it. He remained outwardly composed and kept the pressure on and the punches flowing. After absorbing a spiteful beating in the ninth, Licata finally caved in the 10th, dropping to his hands and knees after taking a wicked right.

Licata was up by the count of five but looked perilously vulnerable when referee Tony Perez turned Monzon loose. A pair of malevolent left-right combinations landed flush and Licata dipped down to one knee. He instinctively popped right back up, but Perez waved it off at the 2:43 mark and guided the blurry-eyed challenger back to his corner.

Licata fought on with middling success until 1980, but even in defeat, it had been his finest hour.

Once the ring announcer made it official, Monzon walked to the ropes, blew a kiss to the crowd and thrust both arms into the air. The victory earned him the cover of Sports Illustrated, headlined "Monzon The Magnificent," but the magazine was a bit late on the uptake.

By then Monzon was 32 years old and the attrition of 97 professional fights was beginning to show. Considering his hedonistic lifestyle, which included chain smoking up to 100 cigarettes a day, it is remarkable that Monzon accomplished so much and stayed on top for so long.

There were three more successful title defenses after Licata, two against the murderous punching Rodrigo Valdes, and then Monzon was done. A knockdown he suffered in the second Valdes fight convinced Monzon it was time to quit. He announced his retirement in August 1977, still the undisputed middleweight champion, and remained a hugely popular figure in Argentina for some time to come.

But the inner rage that fueled Monzon's boxing career was toxic outside the ring and eventually consumed him. According to writer Dan Colasimone, Gimenez "was another of Monzon's lovers whose face sometimes bore the bruises of his violent domestic outbursts."

When she left him, Monzon's downward spiral accelerated.

"He drank a lot, and you could say he was a violent drunk," said Irusta. "I believe that when he was unable to express himself with words he would respond with violence. The difference in the ring was that it was his work, and he channeled all his aggression."

Accounts of exactly what happened in the early hours of Feb. 14, 1988, are many and varied. But they all end the same way -- with Monzon's common-law wife, Alicia Muniz (mother of his son Maximiliano), lying facedown in a pool of blood, two stories below the balcony of a house in Mar de Plata. Monzon claimed she fell, but forensic evidence showed that she had been strangled before her fall.

On July 3, 1989, Monzon was found guilty of murder by a three-judge panel and sentenced to 11 years in prison. Six years later, he was given a one-day furlough for good behavior. In the evening of Jan. 8, 1995, while driving alone back to prison, Monzon rolled his car and died before help could arrive.

Shortly thereafter, Gimenez invited "Pelusa" to appear on her TV show, where the two women professed their love for Carlos and cried together.