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In Paris last week the fashionable game seemed to be choosing nicknames for Carlos Monzon, middleweight champion of the world. The animal kingdom was heavily drawn upon, with wolves, bulls and jaguars being especially favored, but on Saturday night a feature writer in France-Soir, the city's evening paper, trumped everybody with his "A restless and lissome beetle, imprisoned in his carapace of ill-temper and implacable physical power." Which seemed a little hard on an Argentinian boxer who just does not happen to have an expressive face.
Some color, though, was needed to counteract the filthy Paris weather, as black, icy rain squalls from the southwest bullied their way through La D�fense, the new, stark Paris suburb of high-rise office blocks and light industrial plants. There an enormous circus tent had been raised on a raw construction site to shelter the 10,400 fans who had paid up to $140 each to watch Monzon defend his title against Jose Napoles, the Mexican from Cuba and the world welterweight champion.
And plenty of color, too, was needed to still certain doubts. Any meeting of two world champions must be a prestigious occasion, but there were the obvious seeds of a mismatch in this one, as well as a strong geriatric flavor. Napoles is officially 33 years old but everybody grins when this figure is mentioned, even his manager, Kid Rapidez. Napoles could have rejuvenated himself by two or three years when he went to Mexico from Cuba with new papers. And Monzon—assuming his age is correct—is 31. Mismatch elements were even less in doubt. Monzon had a five-inch advantage in reach over Napoles and possibly a 10-pound advantage in ring weight.
What Jose did have, though, was everybody on his side except for a thousand Argentinians. In his corner was practically the whole Muhammad Ali team, headed by Angelo Dundee. Indeed, early rumor had it that Ali himself would be in Paris aiding the Napoles camp. He was not, but no loss; Dundee supplied the poetry. "I said the key to last month's heavyweight fight was 'sock and lock,' " Dundee noted. "This time it'll be 'slip and rip.' " Delightedly, he tried out the phrase again, "Slip and rip."
This was in the Jovert Gymnasium in northwest Paris where Napoles worked out for the last time before the fight. Above him was a portrait of religious intensity labeled "en hommage 1916-1949—Marcel Cerdan." Clich�s, naturally, were as thick in the air as Gauloises smoke, and the most obvious of them, the one about good big ones and good little ones, was easily discounted by Dundee. "We're gonna erase that," he said definitively. " Napoles is the best fighter that Monzon ever met. He's an old-breed boxer. Monzon is a big, heavy strong guy and it's his strength that's beaten everybody, but he's awkward and Napoles has got the style and ability to stick him. Jose is tricky. He's hitting you and, bop, he's putting three-or four-punch combinations away. He's not gonna run after this guy, he's gonna play checkers with him. Monzon's a big sloppy guy; you don't have to run after him. Slip and rip," he muttered happily. "Slip and rip."
That same afternoon, though, the Cold Monster, the Prince of Air and Darkness, as the Paris press called Monzon, did not look all that sloppy. In a sudden excess of fury he put a sparring partner through the ropes twice within a minute. This was in a smarter, smoother gym than the one in which Napoles trained, out in the expensive suburb of Neuilly, on the Avenue Charles de Gaulle. The atmosphere was different, too. No smoking. Strict checking of credentials. Life very real, earnest and unsmiling, especially for Monzon's manager, Amilcar Brusa, who cast a cold eye on Anglo-Saxon reporters. He refused to speak with them, so that they had plenty of time to study the blank features of Monzon and try to detect the aura of terrifying power freely attributed to him by French newsmen. There was something there, all right, but it could be more easily identified as physical strength and speed and freedom of movement than as some terrible supernatural force hidden behind unexpressive Amerindian features.
Monzon eventually smiled in public, though. The first time was on the night of the fight as he greeted past champions—and, inevitably, Georges Carpentier—in the ring. His cool was a measure of his total, relaxed preparedness.
Hours earlier, the lines of fans had shuffled forward in the cold February night, often through patches of yellow mud that had not been entirely covered with gravel, into the vast Belgian tent. Alain Delon, the French movie star who promoted the fight, had preceded them, striding in his camel-hair coat, snapping orders in his metallic voice, personally checking loudspeakers, spotlights and leaks in the canvas.
Inside, although critics of Delon had predicted a ringside temperature of 60 degrees or lower, a thick, warm rug of humanity and a fog of cigarette smoke stoked the heat up to well above comfort level. In spite of better than 2,000 Mexicans yelling "Meh-hi-co, rah, rah, rah" and the fewer but still vociferous Argentinians, the French made the night their own, chanting through the slow prelims "Remboursez! Remboursez!" ("Give us our money back!") as some in the $140 seats frugally unwrapped packets of supper sandwiches. Finally, to swinging spotlights and a pop group called Aphrodite's Child belting out a martial hymn especially written for the occasion by Greek composer Vangelis Papathanassiou, the fighters came in, Napoles courtly in sombrero, poncho and his championship belt, then Monzon under the blue-and-white Argentine flag. It was shortly after this that Monzon smiled.
The bout began with a flurry of action, Napoles going hard at Monzon without any preliminaries, ripping through a virtuoso repertoire of fast combinations and uppercuts as Monzon retreated slowly, occasionally pushing out a left. Not altogether astonishingly, the challenger Napoles was committing himself totally to attack from the start and scoring freely. Early in the second round there was still justification enough for sending one's sombrero spinning in the air, but now there came a significant hint that the Napoles blitz was going to be inadequate. Two heavy lefts and a right from Monzon punctuated the last minute like the sullen clanging of a funeral bell. Fast, up-standing and still strong, Napoles took on the look of one of Napoleon's chasseurs in the Old Guard who refused to believe defeat at Waterloo.