OF course I had no business going to Paris to cover a world title bout. I’d been a professional journalist a few days over three months, having been “rescued” from an insurance office by a BN editor who said he saw “raw promise” in the articles I’d submitted for consideration, and offered me a job when a vacancy came up. Carlos Monzon of Argentina was due to defend his world middleweight crown against French glamour boy Jean-Claude Bouttier on September 8 1973. The editor planned to go over – he’d covered several high-profile bouts in France – and shortly afterwards he’d booked a holiday in Majorca with his new girlfriend. Unfortunately for him, the fight was put back three weeks, to September 29 – when he’d be away. As so often, when it’s a close decision, it was a long time coming – but when it did come, it was what I’d so hoped to hear. “You’d better go to Paris, Simon.”
I was elated. The previous year I’d gone there to see the first meeting between the pair (in a trip organised by Bernard Hart, with whom I remained friends until his death this year). That was a great trip (Monzon won on a 12th-round retirement – title bouts were over 15 then), but I could afford only a cheap ticket – to be at ringside, and reporting, was brilliant.
It was quite a week leading up to the fight. On the Monday I celebrated my 24th birthday in the luxurious surroundings of the London Hilton (covering an Anglo-American Sporting Club promotion – in the heavyweight eight-rounder Les Stevens outpointed Dave Roden); on the Tuesday it was Wolverhampton for the first-ever British title fight at 11st (then called light-middleweight), with local favourite Larry Paul beating former British welterweight ruler Bobby Arthur by 10th-round KO. At some point I telephoned the French promoters, and a Monsieur B told me I had to go to No 36, Rue Bergere, to collect my Press pass – the office was on the first floor.
My flight from Heathrow was quite early on Saturday morning. I set my alarm and asked my stepfather to give me a call. Clock and stepfather duly played up – and I promptly rolled over and went back to sleep, meaning I left a good hour later than I’d intended. My (first) car wasn’t in its first youth – in fact it was a source of constant amusement to my editor, who heaped every insult on it bar refusing a lift when he needed one. But the old girl did me proud – and when the plane took off for Paris, a rather breathless BN reporter was amongst those present.
Having disembarked, I had to take the Metro to the centre of Paris. Their underground system was different from London’s – on a previous trip to Paris, to cover a bout for another publication, I had got in a terrible muddle and thereafter switched to taxis, running up an expense account which the editor refused to pay. I’d been warned to watch the exes this time, so I picked up an underground map and sat in the train trying to make sense of it. An attractive, dark-haired young woman, seeing my bewilderment, sat down beside me and offered to help – she was from America, she said, and had been to Paris before. Currently she was on an extended tour of Europe, and would be coming to London in two months’ time. She showed me how to read the map, and we chatted animatedly for the rest of the journey. Before we parted I wrote down my name, and the BN address, and invited her to look me up when she came to London. She smiled and said she might just do that. Alas, she never did – if she had, she’d have got the best lunch petty cash could buy. I had plenty to be grateful to her for before the day was over.
I checked in at my hotel and walked to Rue Bergere, quickly finding No 36. When I got up to the first floor I realised it was a hotel – a chambermaid was cleaning one of the bedrooms. I mentioned Monsieur B’s name – she’d never heard of him.
This was a poser. With no other address, all I could do was go to the Roland Garros Stadium (where the fight was taking place) and hope to find someone who could help. I made my way to the Metro and, with my newly-acquired knowledge, found the right line. There were a lot of stops, I remember – maybe as many as 20. But I got there eventually, and found the Stadium – where several other reporters had congregated, including some from Argentina. We were not allowed through the gate – we had to wait for Monsieur B to come. He was paged several times over the tannoy, but never appeared.
Eventually one of his henchmen came. No, our passes were not there. We had to collect them from No 35, Rue Bergere. Light dawned. “Trente-cinq?” I shouted. “Monsieur B told me trente-six.”
“Non, monsieur – trente-cinq.”
So that was it. I’d been right there all the time. I rushed back to the Metro – and if the journey down had seemed interminable, the journey back was infinitely worse. Would the place still be open? Would anyone be there? I got to my stop at last, sprinted round to Rue Bergere and found No 35 (directly opposite No 36). The front door was open! I rushed up the stairs to the first floor – was that door open? Yes! A woman was sitting at a desk. For the life of me I couldn’t have said if she was old, young, short, tall, fair, dark or wearing a gasmask. I gave my name. “Le Boxing News? A Londres?” She started riffling through a stack of envelopes. “Ah, oui.”
I muttered my thanks and made my way downstairs. Only when I got out into the street did it occur to me to open the envelope and make sure it actually did contain a Press ticket, rather than a Parisian plumber’s business card – after the events of that day, nothing would have surprised me. But it was the pass! Now I could stop worrying and start thinking about important things, like some food – I knew they’d stopped serving lunch at my hotel, but I found a street café and got a ham roll and coffee for roughly the cost of a three-course dinner in London. Fortified and happy, I made my way back to the hotel and went up to my room. I’d had some worries, but everything had turned out all right – nothing else could possibly go wrong. I lay down on my bed and closed my eyes.
When I awoke, just over half an hour later, my first thought was that I’d been transported to the middle of a remake of the Siege of Paris. After a few moments I realised that what was hammering against my window was not machine-gun bullets – it was hailstones. And the outdoor boxing show was due to start in just over two hours’ time.
I considered the situation. I was booked for one night at the hotel – I certainly didn’t have the money for any more. (This was before we all had credit cards.) I couldn’t contact my editor because he was on holiday in Majorca. There really was only one thing to do. I headed for the bar.
The barman was all smiles. “Oh, I’m sure the fight will go ahead.” There are few things more comforting than a drink you haven’t paid for (good old expense account), and after the third I felt a lot better. And the storm did stop! I grabbed every available piece of clothing and made my way to the Metro. With a short rain-jacket that didn’t fully cover my sports jacket, I must have looked strange – I certainly attracted some funny looks. But I didn’t care – I was warm! The evening was decidedly cool, as I noted in my report. The one thing I’d forgotten to bring was a pair of gloves, which meant I had difficulty holding my pen and making notes for the most important fight I’d yet to cover.
Champion Monzon was virtually unknown when he came to Rome in November 1970 to challenge Nino Benvenuti for the world title. Of his 79 previous bouts, 75 had taken place in his native Argentina, four in Brazil. It was a major shock when he beat Benvenuti in 12 rounds – and in the return Benvenuti was halted in three and announced his retirement. Monzon had made six more defences, victims including two-weight world champion Emile Griffith (twice) and Bouttier, as mentioned. At six feet, he was tall for a middleweight, with a long reach and a particularly damaging right hand.
Bouttier was a fine middleweight at European level, but his limitations at world-class had been rather exposed by points losses to Brazilian Juarez de Lima and American Lonnie Harris – two good fighters who never got a world title shot. (In fact de Lima beat Bouttier twice, both times in Paris in 1969, though Bouttier finally got revenge with a points win the following year.) Since his first loss to Monzon Bouttier had won six straight – but best name, Emile Griffith, was a rather hollow victory, the former world champion being controversially disqualified in seven rounds when looking comfortably ahead.
You couldn’t really give Bouttier much chance of revenge – but that didn’t stop his countrymen packing the Roland Garros and shouting encouragement from the opening bell. And Bouttier was certainly up for the challenge. The big difference between watching from ringside rather than from way back, I found, was that I could see the contrasting expressions on their faces – Bouttier grim determination, Monzon a contemptuous sneer.
There was a difference in the fight, too. The first time, Monzon had come out strongly to impose his authority – this time he was content to let Bouttier come to him, confident the challenger had nothing to trouble him.
The crowd, naturally, were strongly behind Bouttier, cheering his every aggressive move. And I thought he was having some success – but every time he edged ahead, Monzon would come back to level things out. At no point did I have Bouttier ahead by more than one round.
It was always hard-fought, and leading British referee Harry Gibbs told me afterwards it was the most difficult fight he’d ever had to control. “Both were equally bad,” he said. No respecter of reputations, Gibbs gave Monzon a public warning in the 10th when the champion landed a right to the side of the head after Bouttier had slipped to the canvas. I had Bouttier ahead after the 12th, but after that it was all Monzon – with Bouttier going down in each of the last three, from Monzon’s vaunted right hand. Bouttier made it to the final bell, but the decision was unanimous for Monzon – 145-139 Gibbs, 147-138 and 148-145 from the two judges. I had it 146-141.
In my report I wrote “Monzon needed his all-out attack in the last three rounds to make sure of keeping his title.” He did, but it wasn’t a case of a great champion finding the extra gear when he needed it – more an effortless changing up from second to third. I also wrote that “it was not an impressive performance by the champion.” The brutal fact was that Monzon didn’t need to look impressive – having beaten Bouttier before he’d “been there, done that,” and did just as much as he needed to win clearly.
When I finally left, it was by a different gate from the one I’d come in – and there was no sign of the Metro. I asked a man for directions. “This way,” he said. We walked for some time, he grim-faced and silent, I getting increasingly worried. From time to time I asked how much further, only to be told “Not much.” Eventually I gave up – we came to a fork in the road and my companion went one way, I the other. I came across another man, standing by a parked car, and he told me the Metro was shut now. He then indicated the car and explained that it was his, and he suffered from insomnia. Could he give me a lift somewhere?
I hesitated, remembering what my mother had told me about accepting lifts from strangers, then I figured – hey, I was 24, and I was more than fed-up with this game! I gratefully slid into the passenger’s seat, my hand just millimetres from the door-handle. I needn’t have worried. In what seemed just a few minutes we drew up outside my hotel, and I thought the least I could do was ask my saviour in for a drink – I’d seen the sign saying the bar was open until 2 a.m. We walked in, and the bar was in darkness – I spoke to the concierge on the desk, drawing his attention to the notice. “Open until 2 every night except Saturday,” he said. “There is a mini-bar in every room …”
“Do you want to come up?” I asked my new friend. He duly did, and I sorted out the drinks – and we sat chatting about such interesting topics as Asterix the Gaul. He was as keen to practise his English as I was to resurrect my O level French, so we’d start in one language and carry on until the other person got stuck and reverted to his. A surreal ending to one of the weirdest days of my life.
My friend left around three o’clock and I crashed out for four hours’ sleep. BN had booked me quite an early flight back on the Sunday, so I figured they could afford a taxi to the airport – and after all the alarms and excursions of the previous day, the journey home went without a hitch. I spent the afternoon in a kind of mental fog. Refreshed, I arrived at the BN office the next morning. Assistant Editor Steve Fagan looked up. “Have you done your report?” I swallowed hard and counted to 10. “No, Steve.”
“Hmmm … well, you’d be better get on with it now.”
I sorted out my notes and put a clean sheet in the typewriter. Had it really happened? My notes, and the French papers I’d picked up at the airport, said it had. I duly started. “Carlos Monzon, the Iron Man from Argentina …” Once I’d started it gradually came together, though it took most of the morning. I handed the report to Steve, ate my packed lunch and decided to go out for some air. As I got to the door Steve called out “Simon?” I turned round.
“Not a bad read.”
Postscript: winner Monzon and loser Bouttier would have differing fortunes following their rematch. Monzon had six more fights, all wins, and all world title bouts – in 1974 the WBC in their wisdom (!) stripped him and installed Colombian Rodrigo Valdes as champion. Monzon reunified the title by beating Valdes by unanimous decision, did the same in a rematch, and retired undisputed champion. Sadly, in 1988 he was jailed for 11 years following the death of his girlfriend – and in 1995 he was killed in a road crash while returning to prison after a furlough for good behaviour. He was 52.
Bouttier had just four more fights, winning two, losing two. He regained the European title he’d never lost, halting Italian Elio Calcabrini in 12 rounds, but lost it to Britain’s Kevin Finnegan (unanimous decision) in his first defence. In December 1974 he met old rival Nessim “Max” Cohen for the vacant French title in Paris (which I also covered for BN), was stopped in 11 rounds, and announced his retirement. He went on to become a TV commentator and died in August 2019, aged 74.
As for me, over the years I’d attend several more world title bouts in the UK – but usually covering undercard fights. I didn’t get the chance to report one for almost another 13 years – Dennis Andries stopped Tony Sibson in nine rounds to keep his WBC light-heavyweight belt at London’s Alexandra Palace, September 10 1986. I was covering this for a provincial paper, which needed the report on the night – so I scribbled it out at ringside, nabbed an abandoned phone and read it over rapidly, with one eye on the kind person who’d offered me a lift to the nearest Underground station, giving me a chance to get the last train (which I did, with about 30 seconds to spare). Of course I was glad of the chance to cover a world title bout – but Monzon v Bouttier in Paris it wasn’t.