Bunce Diary: On the trail of Nino Benvenuti, Carlos Monzon and Marvin Hagler on the Mediterranean Sea

THE GHOSTS of truly great middleweights live on the coast between Monte Carlo and San Remo. Marvin Hagler, Carlos Monzon, Nino Benvenuti, Alan Minter, Rodrigo Valdes and Emile Griffith all fought and bled along that rocky piece of paradise.

There was a time when the strip of rich land, next to the pale blue Mediterranean Sea and the towns, villages and retreats was home to the finest middleweights. They had fights that are now lost in time, the very best of their generation and more. They are some of the greatest middleweights in history.

It was in Monaco in 1971 that Nino Benvenuti led his fans across the Italian border for the rematch with Carlos Monzon. It was a particularly brutal fight, Monzon won in the third round; the Italian was dropped twice before the end. Monzon had won the title from Benvenuti in Rome, six months earlier – that fight was incredible. After the win by the towering and brilliant Argentinian, the playboy playground was set for a middleweight invasion. Carlos, by the way, was made for the Riviera.

Benvenuti had defended his world middleweight title three years earlier, just inside Italy and less than an hour from Monte Carlo in San Remo against Don Fullmer. San Remo is an Italian classic; faded grand hotels, ice-cream at 9am and last week I took a six-euro train there on the morning of the Joe Cordina weigh-in. I was looking for the venue from Benvenuti’s defence. I never found the Teatro Ariston and I never looked hard enough. The 2,000-seat arena is there, and the neon sign looks iconic. Still, in San Remo I did get a sense of Nino’s glory days. Every man over 60 sipping espresso looked like Nino now, it was uncanny.

Nino never fought again after the loss to Monzon in Monte Carlo; he was 90 and out. Monzon would start a love affair with France and Monaco after the win.

In 1972 and 1973, Monzon twice beat French idol, Jean-Claude Bouttier in world title fights, The second fight was in Paris, went the full 15 and Bouttier was heroic. Monzon was merciless.

In 1973, Monzon defended his title against former champion, Emile Griffith, in Monte Carlo. It went 15 rounds, and it is a typical Monzon fight: smart location, 15 rounds of his jolting jab and a clear win. Griffith, incidentally, was not finished with the city.

Monzon beat Jose Napoles on the outskirts of Paris in 1974 in a fight that I have always considered monumental; Napoles was the untouchable world welterweight champion, Monzon the middleweight king. It was a fight that should still be celebrated, a fight involving two great boxers, neither of whom get the full credit they deserve. Monzon was too big, too hard for Napoles.

Monzon was back in Monte Carlo in 1976 against Rodrigo Valdes. Monzon had made 12 defences of his title, he was 33 and he had fought 98 times. Valdes was considered the real threat to his reign and held the WBC title; in 2023 a fight like that would stop the lights in Las Vegas. In 1976, it had a royal blessing in the millionaire’s playground. Monzon, with his shirt undone to his navel, was made for Monte Carlo. Monzon won. King Carlos of Monaco had his two belts back.

They had a rematch a year later back in Monaco and Monzon won again and then he walked away. The tiny, rich retreat on the rocks was making boxing history. Monzon followed Benvenuti and walked away from boxing after a final fight in Monte Carlo.

Emile Griffith was on the Monzon-Valdes II undercard. He had been the middleweight champion; he was having his 112th fight. He lost to a kid called Alan Minter on points. Griffith never fought again. Three giants of the middleweight division all calling it a day after a last fight in Monte Carlo.

“We just read about fights like Monzon and Valdes” said Tony Sims, the man in Cordina’s corner. “They were heroes and those fights in Monte Carlo live forever.”  He was too busy to take the train with me for an espresso and homage to Nino in San Remo.

BOSTON – JANUARY 17,1981: Marvin Hagler (R) connects with a right hook to Fulgencio Obelmejias during the fight at Boston Garden on January 17,1981 in Boston, Massachusetts. Marvin Hagler won the WBC middleweight title and the WBA World middleweight title. (Photo by The Ring Magazine via Getty Images)

It was also in San Remo that possibly the greatest middleweight of the last 50 years or more, Marvin Hagler, made one of his defences. Hagler was on the Italian Riviera in 1982, as mean and angry as Hagler could ever be. It took more than a nice coffee, the sun, a beach and a bowl of pasta to make Marvin smile.

Hagler stopped Fulgencio Obelmejias in the fifth of 15 at the Teatro Ariston to retain his title. Obelmejias had lost just once in 39 fights, and that was to Hagler; he had knocked out or stopped 35 of the 38 men he had beaten. The Venezuelan was a dangerous man. I regret not finding that fabled venue, scene of both a Benvenuti and a Hagler middleweight title defence. If you go in search of history, it makes sense to record it. I was praying for a Hagler, Monzon or Benvenuti plaque. It made no difference; I still felt the greats on those steep streets and by that palm tree sea.

Hagler had also fought in Monaco, in the chief support, when Vito Antoufermo defended the middleweight title there in 1979. That coast is rich in our history.

Not all great middleweight world title fights were at the Garden in New York or one of the Las Vegas sites; instead, they were in sumptuous resorts, by the shimmering Mediterranean and surrounded by elegance. And old, old wealth. The remote locations mean they are close to being lost in history. That would be a shame. Marvin, Carlos and Nino ruled that exotic piece of the boxing map like proper boxing royalty.

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