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R.I.P. Willie the Worm and Billy Joiner, Emblems of a Bright and Bygone Era

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The recent deaths of two former ring personalities went largely unnoticed. On June 26, Willie “The Worm” Monroe passed away at age seventy-three. Three weeks earlier, Billy Joiner drew his last breath at age eighty-one. Neither won a world title and Joiner was a mere journeyman, but both shared the ring with giants of their craft in one of boxing’s brightest eras.

Willie the Worm, who was born in Alabama, the fifth-youngest of 17 children, learned the rudiments of boxing in Rochester, New York, where he reputedly carved out a 43-0 mark as an amateur, and then plied his trade in his second adopted home, Philadelphia, where he trained in Joe Frazier’s gym under the watchful eye, at various times, of three of the sport’s greatest trainers: Yank Durham, Eddie Futch, and George Benton. Durham reputedly gave Willie (pictured) his nickname, likening his fighting style to a sleek and slippery worm. But Willie also packed a knockout punch. He stopped 26 of his 51 opponents, concluding his career with a record of 40-10-1.

Twenty-nine of Monroe’s 51 pro fights were in Philadelphia where he made his pro debut at the legendary Blue Horizon. In Philly, he didn’t have to go far to find a good sparring partner; the city was a hornet’s nest of top-shelf middleweights. Bennie Briscoe, Eugene “Cyclone” Hart, Bobby “Boogaloo” Watts, and Stanley “Kitten” Hayward were contemporaries. Their gym wars were legendary.

Monroe defeated Hart and Hayward, but was never better than on the night of March 9, 1976, when he scored a 10-round decision over Marvin Hagler at the Spectrum, Philadelphia’s largest sports arena. Monroe was a clear winner, punctuating his performance with a strong 10th round. In the fifth round of that fight, he hit Hagler with three consecutive uppercuts, knocking his mouthpiece out and leaving Hagler with a bloody nose that never went away.

Hagler suffered only three defeats in 67 starts. His first loss, in Philadelphia to the aforementioned Bobby Watts, was assailed as a rip-off. His third loss, to Sugar Ray Leonard in his final pro fight, was highly controversial.

Willie the Worm, rest his soul, remains the only man to defeat Hagler decisively. Unfortunately, few got to see it. Philadelphia was strafed by a late winter snowstorm on the day of the fight, hurting attendance and preventing the film crew from getting to the Spectrum. There is no video footage of the fight.

(In common with the great Joe Louis, Marvin Hagler was lethal in rematches. He would twice avenge his loss to Willie the Worm, first on a 12th round TKO in Boston in a good back-and-forth fight, and then taking him out in the second round in the rubber match at the Spectrum. Between his setbacks to Monroe and Leonard, Marvelous Marvin went 11 years without tasting defeat, a stretch of 37 fights.)

In retirement, Willie Monroe drove a delivery truck for the Philadelphia Inquirer, worked as a security guard at Garden State Racetrack, and for a time was a professional boxing referee. His death in the Philadelphia suburb of Sicklerville, New Jersey, was attributed to complications of Alzheimer’s. He is survived by his wife of 51 years, two daughters, and three grandchildren. Willie Monroe Jr, a former two-time world title challenger currently campaigning as a super middleweight, is Willie the Worm’s great nephew.

Billy Joiner

Summon up BoxRec and dial in “Billy Joiner” and what you will find is a fighter who compiled a pro record of 12-13-3 and was stopped five times. And if that’s all you learned about Billy Joiner, then you wouldn’t know even half the story. Joiner was the only man to fight Muhammad Ali and Sonny Liston twice.

Cincinnati has a rich amateur boxing history dating back to the days of Ezzard Charles. Billy Joiner’s father, John Joiner, trained 1948 Olympian Wallace “Bud” Smith, a future lightweight champion, and the younger Joiner followed Smith’s footsteps into a decorated amateur career.

A three-time finalist in the National Golden Gloves Tournament in a day when the annual event in Chicago was attended by some of America’s best-known sportswriters, Joiner won the competition in 1962 in the 178-pound weight class and, for good measure, went on to win the AAU tournament before turning pro under the management of George Gainford who also handled Sugar Ray Robinson.

Joiner’s two fights with Ali came as an amateur, long before Ali adopted his Muslim name. In a 2016 interview with Peter Wood, Joiner said that both losses were by one point, which is entirely plausible. Their second meeting was at an outdoor show in Toledo, Ohio, perhaps Ali’s last fight before heading off to the Rome Olympics, as he had already secured that berth.

They also met up again as professionals. On Dec. 8, 1969, they appeared at a press conference in Tulsa, Oklahoma, to announce their forthcoming fight to be held on Jan. 10, 1970, at a 4,000-seat privately-owned rodeo corral on the outskirts of Tulsa. Blackballed for his refusal to be drafted into the Army, this would be Ali’s first fight in almost three years.

Oklahoma was picked because the state had no boxing commission. In theory, Ali could not be denied a license to fight because there was no licensing agency. To make the fight more palatable to local authorities, it was announced that the proceeds would be donated to a charity benefiting retarded children. But commission or no commission, the authorities killed the fight, yielding to pressure from veterans’ groups. Ten more months would elapse before Ali finally got back in the ring, launching his second coming in Atlanta against Jerry Quarry. (For all the books that have been written about him, his aborted 1970 fight with Billy Joiner remains a little-known incident in Ali’s career.)

Joiner sparred with Sonny Liston in the post-Ali phase of Liston’s career before their two meetings. They fought at LA’s Olympic Auditorium in May of 1968 and then again 10 months later in St. Louis. Liston won the first fight on a seventh round TKO but the rematch went the full distance, ending Liston’s skein of 11 straight knockouts. Joiner subsequently fought Larry Holmes (L TKO 3) on a show in Puerto Rico that included future Hall of Famers Roberto Duran and Wilfredo Gomez and went 10 rounds with rugged Argentine bruiser Oscar Bonavena in Bonavena’s final fight.

It would be said of Billy Joiner that he never lived up to his promise, but if he had come along today he likely would have made his mark as a cruiserweight, a division that did not exist in his day. He was simply too small to compete successfully with the top heavyweights in an era of outstanding heavyweights. In his two fights with Sonny Liston, Billy was out-weighed by margins of 32 ½ and 24 pounds.

In retirement, Joiner spent 30 years with the Ohio State Highway Maintenance Department, rising to the position of superintendent. At the time of his death, the Queen City native resided in Springdale, a Cincinnati suburb.

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R.I.P. Les Bonano (1943-2022), Linchpin of Boxing in New Orleans

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Les Bonano, a fixture on the New Orleans area boxing scene for 50 years, passed away on Saturday night, May 21, at his home in Slidell, Louisiana, surrounded by his wife of 60 years, Mary, his four children and his eight grandchildren. Bonano, who had been in and out of the hospital in recent months with kidney problems, was 79 years old.

Bonano joined the New Orleans Police Department in 1965 and patrolled the French Quarter, one of America’s most harrowing beats. In 1974, while working for the New Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Department, he was charged with starting an intramural sports program to relieve tensions at the parish prison. He began with basketball and then added boxing. Somewhat later, he opened a gym and took to training, managing, and promoting fighters. He retired from law enforcement in 1981 to give boxing his full attention.

Bonano was poised to seize the moment when neighboring Mississippi legalized gambling in 1990. He carved out arrangements with Gulf Coast casino resorts in Biloxi and Bay St. Louis to keep his fighters’ busy. Many of the shows that he facilitated were mid-week shows that aired on the old USA cable network.

Bonano never had the satisfaction of managing a world champion, but he came awful close with Melvin Paul who lost a controversial decision to Charlie “Cho Choo” Brown in the inaugural IBF lightweight title fight. Others in Bonano’s stable who went on to compete for world titles include Jerry Celestine, Anthony Stephens, and John Duplessis. Celestine, a light heavyweight who fought Michael Spinks, was an alumnus of Bonano’s prison program.

More recently, Bonano promoted Jonathan Guidry, the Dulac, LA heavyweight who made a surprisingly strong showing against WBA (secondary) title-holder Trevor Bryan on a Don King promotion in Warren, Ohio.

In July of last year, Les Bonano was formally inducted into the Greater New Orleans Sports Hall of Fame with the class of 2021. “He is perhaps the final ruler of what remains of a fraying and depleted boxing kingdom in the formerly great fight city of New Orleans,” wrote Hall of Fame boxing writer Bernard Fernandez, a New Orleans native, in a tribute that ran on these pages.

We here at The Sweet Science send our condolences to the Bonano family. May he rest in peace.

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What’s Next for David Benavidez?

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What’s Next for David Benavidez?

POST-FIGHT REPORT BY TSS SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT NORM FRAUENHEIM —

GLENDALE, AZ – Forget Canelo Alvarez.

That, at least, was the message from David Benavidez and his promoter late Saturday after he demolished David Lemieux in front of a roaring crowd at Gila River Arena in a Showtime-televised rout.

Benavidez (26-0, 23 KOs) has been talking about a super-middleweight showdown with Canelo for the last couple of years. His victory, a third-round stoppage of Lemieux, put him first in line for a shot at the World Boxing Council’s version of the 168-pound title, still held by Canelo

But that talk stopped. Canelo who?

It sounded as if Benavidez, the WBC’s interim champion, was ready to shut that door and move on, possibly to Caleb Plant or Jermall Charlo or David Morrell. He never mentioned Canelo during a post-fight news conference a couple of hours after bulldozing Lemieux, a former middleweight champion who was overmatched in every way.

“Plant, Charlo, Morrell, maybe we can put together a fight against one of those guys later in the year,’’ said Benavidez, who drew an estimated crowd of nearly 10,000 for the second straight time in an Arizona arena near his old neighborhood in Phoenix.

The question is whether Plant, or Charlo, or Morrell would be willing to face Benavidez. Lemieux was smaller and older. Still, it was scary to witness the beatdown delivered by Benavidez, who grew up about seven miles from Gila River, a National Hockey League Arena.

Benavidez, 25 and still a couple years from his prime, seemingly did it all. He started with body punches. At the end of the first round, he landed a lethal upper-cut, the first in what would prove to be an overwhelming storm. In the second, he knocked Lemieux through the ropes, leaving the Canadian bloodied, dazed and defenseless. At 1:31 of the third it was over. Lemieux (43-5. 36 KOs) did not attend the post-fight news conference. He was taken to a nearby hospital in Glendale.

“He’s a good fighter, a courageous fighter,’’ Benavidez said. “He did what those others wouldn’t do. He fought me.’’

Unlike Benavidez, his promoter, Sampson Lewkowicz mentioned Canelo, who is coming off a stunning loss to light-heavyweight Dimitry Bivol.

“Please, you guys need to quit asking about Canelo,’’ Lewkowicz told a room full of reporters. “We’re looking at three guys. We think we can put together a fight with Charlo, or Plant, or Morrell. But Canelo won’t fight David.

“He’ll never fight the world’s best super-middleweight.’’

Photo credit: Esther Lin / SHOWTIME

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The Middleweight Division has a New Star in Janibek Alimkhanuly

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Step aside, GGG. Kazakhstan has a new fistic hero and his name is Janibek Alimkhanuly. Tonight, at Resorts World in Las Vegas, Janibek (he usually goes by his first name) destroyed Britain’s intrepid Danny Dignum inside two rounds, scoring two knockdowns, the second of which, a five-punch combination climaxed by a short uppercut, left Dignum unconscious. Referee Tony Weeks waived the fight off immediately. The official time was 2:11 of round two.

With the victory, Janibek (12-0, 8 KOs) becomes the interim WBO middleweight champion. The belt is currently held by Demetrius Andrade who is expected to move to 168, opening the door for the 29-year-old Kazakh southpaw to become “full-fledged.”

Although he held the WBO European middleweight title and was undefeated (14-0-1) coming in, Dignum wasn’t expected to provide much opposition. Janibek was stepping down in class after stopping former title-holders Rob Brant and Hassan D’Dam D’Jikam in his previous two fights.

Janibek’s trainer Buddy McGirt doesn’t believe that there is a middleweight on the planet who can hold his own with Janibek (no, not even undefeated Jermall Charlo!) and based on tonight’s performance, it would be hard to argue.

Co-Feature

In the co-feature, youth was served as Jamaine Ortiz, the younger man by 10 years, won a unanimous 10-round decision over former WBO super featherweight champion Jamel Herring. The judges had it 96-94 and 97-93 twice.

Ortiz, from Worcester, Massachusetts, did his best work late in the fight as Herring’s workload declined. The bout was marred by several accidental clashes of heads with Herring getting the worst of it on each occasion.

“I could have done a lot better,” said Ortiz (16-0-1, 8 KOs) after winning the most high-profile fight of his career. Herring, who was making his first start with trainer Manny Robles, fell to 23-4 and hinted that he may retire.

Other Bouts of Note

The opener on ESPN’s main platform showcased Cleveland welterweight Delante “Tiger” Johnson, a 2020 Olympian, who advanced to 4-0 (3) with a third-round stoppage of Argentina’s Agustin Kucharski (8-5-1).

Johnson had Kucharski on the canvas twice in the first minute of the third round, both the result of counter right hands. Kucharski, who was making his U.S. debut and hadn’t previously been stopped, twisted around as he fell the second time and the white towel flew out from his corner. The official time was 0:54.

Glendale, CA featherweight Adam Lopez (16-3, 6 KOs) overcame a pair of knockdowns to win a unanimous 8-round decision over William Encarnacion. The judges had it 76-74 and 77-74 twice.

Lopez, 26, is one of two fighting sons of the late Hector “Torero” Lopez, a former two-time world title challenger who developed a big following in LA in the 1990s. Encarnacion who represented the Dominican Republic in the 2012 Olympics, lost for the third time in 22 starts.

Former WBO super bantamweight champion Jessie Magdaleno returned to the ring after an absence of almost two full years and whitewashed Mexico’s Edy Valencia in an 8-round featherweight contest, winning by 80-72 across the board. Las Vegas’ Magdaleno improved to 29-1 (4-0 since losing his belt to Isaac Dogboe). Valencia declined to 19-7-6.

Cincinnati featherweight Duke Ragan, a silver medalist in Tokyo improved to 6-0 with his fifth straight win by decision, a four-round whitewash of South Carolina’s Victorino Gonzalez (5-3).

In the ESPN+ opener, undefeated Chicago lightweight Giovanni Cabrera (20-0, KOs) won a unanimous 8-round decision over 34-year-old Argentine import Elias Araujo (21-5). The judges saw it 79-72, 77-74, and 75-73. There were no knockdowns, but Araujo lost a point for holding.

Cabrera lacks a hard punch which diminishes his upside, but he’s a stylish southpaw who has elevated his game since hooking up with Freddie Roach.

Photo Credit: Mikey Williams / Top Rank via Getty Images

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