“The Rematch” offers a fictionalized account of the downfall of one of Argentina’s most famous boxing champions, Carlos Monzón, El Flaco, the World Champion Middleweight Boxer from 1970 to 1977. Monzón defended his title in fourteen fights, defeating the North American boxers Bennie Briscoe and Emile Griffith, among others. In 1983 he strangled his wife and was sentenced to prison. He was killed in a car accident in 1995. When a publisher requested that Ana María Shua write a short story with a boxing theme, she recalled the violent history of Carlos Monzón, and decided to weave fact and fiction into a tale in which the destinies of two individuals converge in a high-risk game of magic and money whose ultimate stakes are either life or death. While Shua was conducting research on the topic of boxing, a friend of hers, whom she had always considered a totally rational woman, told the author that she firmly believed her father commissioned angels to protect her. In Shua’s story, a spiritual medium named Brother Zelaya convinces the narrator they can influence the outcome of Monzón’s boxing matches through mystical spells. Although money is involved, the ultimate prize for the narrator is the salvation of his invalid son Dani, a boy who suffers from an incurable condition, as did one of Shua’s cousins.
One of the challenges I faced when translating the story was to capture the rough, cocky tone of the old boxing fanatic who tells this bitter tale of violence and intrigue to someone he meets at a bar. The author herself was fortunate enough to come across such an old boxing fan, and taped an interview with him, later incorporating into the story many of the details he related.–Rhonda Dahl Buchanan
Do you know how deep the bruises were? Almost down to the victim’s vertebrae. A piece of the neck was missing in the second autopsy, but they could still see his fingerprints: his thumb, index, and middle fingers. Incredible. That’s how strong Carlos Monzón was. He didn’t have the bulky build of an American boxer. From the tip of his fingernail to his shoulder, straight as an iron rod.
I read what came out in the papers and magazines after it happened. Then I listened to the trial on the radio, like everyone else here, but it was different for me because it was personal. The lawyer for her family said something about the strangler’s pleasure, I quote his exact words: “who feels the victim’s life slipping away between his hands.” I have to object to two things: first of all, he didn’t know what he was talking about when he said “between his hands” because he did it with just one, the right hand. And second, what pleasure? Twenty to thirty seconds until the victim loses consciousness. Not much pleasure, and in those thirty seconds the man loses everything: kills his wife, leaves his son an orphan, destroys everything he earned over the years, all the glory of a champion, everything. Then people wonder, how could it happen, how could it happen?
But I don’t wonder about anything because I know it for a fact, because I had a hand in it personally. That was my rematch. It’s a long story, but if you have time, I’ll tell it to you.
I first got into boxing as a kid. One of our neighbors was a Navy champ. My father, who was in the military, made a corner for me, hanging two broomsticks on the wall and one of those duffle bags soldiers had for their equipment. He filled it with sand and sawdust, and taught me the ABCs of boxing. I never fought, but boxing was always one of my passions. That and soccer.
There was nothing special about my life. I thanked God when things came my way and also when they didn’t. I hated school when I was a boy. They used to beat me all the time to get me to study, but I wouldn’t. I wanted to work, so I got a job. I worked for the Navy as a civilian for eleven years, and moved up the ladder quickly because of my office skills. I could type seventy-six words a minute without making a mistake. At Pitman Academy forty-five was good enough for a diploma. But one day . . . I was opening the windows and realized the sun wasn’t mine, the air wasn’t mine . . . I felt that urge to rebel, to be independent. I opened a store and I went broke. The neighborhood did me in, my trust, my ledger book: I’ll pay you tomorrow, I’ll pay you next week, and next week comes and I don’t pay you a thing. Then I got into another line of business and things got better for me. That’s just the way it goes.
The bad luck started when my first kid was born. The little guy came out with both hips dislocated, a rare deformity that couldn’t be fixed so easily. At least not back then, it’s different nowadays with all the medical advances. There was this doctor who treated him ever since he was a baby, an expert podiatrist, Dr. Bordaberre. The guy had invented a treatment with four postures, setting the kids in casts for three months in each position. Can you imagine how much he suffered with each new cast until he got used to it? My wife would sleep all night with the boy on top of her, cushioning him like a mattress. But as soon as they’d take the cast off that poor little kid of mine . . . puff, the heads of the femurs would slip right out of place again. Dr. Bordaberre did as much as he could and said: there’s nothing more we can do, even if you take him to the States or Europe, they won’t be able to do more than this.
But my wife wouldn’t give up, you know how women are. Deep inside I didn’t want to either, so I can’t blame her. It’s hard to get used to the idea your boy can’t walk. Dani kept growing, always in his wheelchair. A very smart kid. One day we met a doctor who said he could operate on him and make him walk. Bullshit! After he operated on him, Dani was worse off. He could barely sit up, and could only stand the wheelchair for short periods before he had to lie down. He started having problems with his lungs. Pulmonary congestion from lying down so much. Every winter we never knew if he’d survive. It was then I met the man who’d change my life, Brother Zelaya, a great medium, the one who tied my life to Monzón’s destiny.
It’s just human nature: when things are going great, you give yourself credit for everything, but when things go wrong, you start to believe in luck, in destiny. Brother Zelaya was very spiritual. He had real powers and could control the angels, that is, he had control over one important angel who, in turn, kept the lesser ones in line. You have to be careful with angels, but Brother Zelaya knew how to handle them. And so we managed to get through each winter, always with our hearts in our throats.
I’d see my boy lying there, maybe sitting up once in a while, and I can’t tell you how helpless I’d feel. Luckily I was crazy about boxing, and that helped chase the blues away and take my mind off it. Boxing used to draw huge crowds. Not anymore. Nowadays television has taken the place of everything.
We’d always go to Luna Park, me and my wife. It was like a ritual to go down to that arena. You’d see people coming from all directions, like ants entering an anthill. First we’d stroll down Florida. What a street! Just look how that whole area changed. Then we’d buy tickets here, and enter through the other side, walking all the way around the building and stopping at the bars along the way. Like I was saying, a ritual.
I saw them all. Pascual Pérez. Of course, who didn’t see Nicolino Locche, a real champ, although not as good as Monzón. If you ask me, Nicolino had one supreme masterpiece, like a painter, or a writer who creates his best work, and that was the fight for the title. And after that, what can I say, Locche got lazy and you couldn’t count on him.
At Luna Park, about the time Monzón became a main attraction, they’d pack them in. For one of the matches between Saldaño and Cachazú, there were more than twenty two thousand people, and I had to watch it over the shoulders of some guy, and another guy watched over mine. I’m telling you, when the crowd went wild, you’d forget about everything. They were great fights between superstars, guys with loyal fans.
On the other hand, the Skinny Shotgun, as they used to call Monzón, had a hard time winning over the crowds at the Luna. He didn’t know how to play up to them like the rest did back then. Some fighters were box office favorites without much talent, scrappers, you know what I mean, good at throwing punches, letting down their guard, taking a few blows, and then giving it to the other guy. Abel Cachazú, Jorge Saldaño, Oscar Bonavena, and many more. Carlos was different, he knew how to hit without letting up.
Maybe Carlitos had such a hard time winning over the crowds because he was so calculating. He used to say: I don’t size up my opponent, I don’t even know who he is, I just take him on like someone trying to steal dough from my pocket. That’s the way he felt about his rival. Once he was up there in the ring, Carlos would stare him down, and the guy just wanted to get the hell out of there. If you ask me, he had a killer stare, just like Federico Thompson when he came here and fought Gatica. An incredible boxer, Thompson, absolutely incredible, you don’t see that anymore.
Carlos was cold. He wasn’t one of those guys who would throw punches to excite the crowd. He was cautious; he knew he had only so much air to spend. Because of the problems he had as a kid, he didn’t have much lung capacity. He had exactly what he needed and nothing more. Maybe that’s why he reminded me of Dani, and I started keeping track of him more than others.
Brother Zelaya and I talked about boxing off and on. He was knowledgeable. He knew a lot about everything, about things of this world and the other one too. Years later, when he was dying, he’d calm me down by showing me the angels surrounding his bed, but I didn’t see them because I didn’t have those powers. It all started about the time Carlos was to fight Benvenuti, and Brother Zelaya asked me if I’d be interested in helping him. Carlitos, that is. Things were going pretty good for me at the time. November, an easy month for the lungs. The little one had made it through a harsh winter. Then came spring, which is rough in the beginning, the change in the weather always brings on sickness, bronchitis, those kinds of things. But he got through that too. By then we had a little girl who was born healthy. Life has its blessings. With an invalid kid and a baby, my wife could hardly ever go to the Luna with me, but we were fine, and happy.
That was when, like I was telling you, Brother Zelaya made me an offer. Many people, he told me, through their prayers, their faith, can make someone win, let’s say, their soccer team. If you agree, we’ll work together to help Monzón beat Benvenuti. The spells were expensive, but worth it. Brother Zelaya would spend nearly all his money buying the basic materials for the spells, and some were expensive, requiring imported waxes, special oils, and relics so authentic they couldn’t be bought at any price and had to be rented from their owners. I was rolling in dough because I had made out on a big newspaper deal. Back then recycling paper was good business, you know how it is in this country, you have to make the best of what’s available. I managed to stockpile about fourteen thousand pounds of newspaper in an old house on Bilbao Street that I used as a warehouse. I sold them to a toilet paper factory and made a bundle.
From the get-go, the fight against Benvenuti seemed like a crazy idea to all us Argentines. Brother Zelaya was right: it was one of those situations where you had to put Lady Luck to work and make her take sides. Benvenuti was a great champion, the only one like him in all of Italy. Well what do I know, maybe you can compare him to Primo Carnera, back when Firpo was on top, but in those days he was the one and only.
Monzón was already a South American champion. He beat Jorge Fernández, another pro we considered a champ without a title. Nowadays he’d be a real contender. But even when he beat Fernández the first time, nobody expected much from him. People figured it was just another statistic because the fight was so close. He won fair and square, but not by much. After that, it was easier for him to win because by then he could count on my spiritual assistance.
But about the time he went to Italy to fight Benvenuti, we still didn’t know if Carlos had what it took, or if Jorge Fernández was going downhill, there was no way to tell. That’s why when Brother Zelaya asked me to help him with a mystical job, I liked the idea. I thought if it worked out, forgive me Lord, I could start betting and make some easy money. Even in that fight, I bet a few pesos, not much, because none of us were sure about him. For as much as I believed in Zelaya’s ability to control angels, I wanted to put him to the test first. After all, I’d seen how he could heal the sick at their bedside, but I’d yet to see him use his powers in the ring to help a boxer. The bets were placed, what can I tell you, twenty to one in favor of Benvenuti, like playing the biggest long shot at the races.
When the fight began, all of us in Argentina believed Carlos would lose. We didn’t expect anything out of him. Up through that eleventh round, any judge in the world would have ruled Carlitos the winner, but we thought that over there, against the local champ, they wouldn’t be fair to him. No way they’d give him the victory on points alone. Deep inside I cursed Brother Zelaya.
Then came the twelfth round. Monzón threw an incredible punch, and that’s when he had him. And believe me, he never missed an opportunity. Everyone cheered. That was the good thing about helping Carlos, with just a little nudge from the angels, he’d take care of the rest himself. They didn’t call him the Matador for nothing. He hit him with a clean punch, a blow his rival could handle only because he was between the ropes and the corner post. It was a miracle Benvenuti managed to stay on his feet. Then he served it up again with that precise aim of his. Not every boxer has that, you know. You might see boxers who aren’t that great, but can dance, and with the slightest movement, blur the target right before their rival’s eyes. Not him. Carlos had something else going for him too, he knew how to cut his opponent off. It’s like this, he’d land a punch and the guy would feel it and start stepping back, out of control, you know what I mean. And then Carlitos would take full advantage of that space in the ring to nail the guy. Even in the middle of the ropes, which is really tough without the corner to help him out. No one like him. That’s what happened here years later with Tony Mundine, the Australian. He sat him down in the middle of the ring, right between the two corners. He was a good shot, calculating, but with balls, one of the two or three great champions we had. The other guy, who in my opinion you can’t overlook, was Pascualito Pérez, with the punch of a middleweight and nearly the caliber of a Locche.
Sometimes I wonder what would have happened to Carlos if it hadn’t been for the spells I bought to lend him a hand. I’m sure he still would have had a good career, maybe not such a clean record, but a good one. A record like his is rare in the history of boxing. He had more than one hundred professional fights and lost only three, but the most remarkable thing is later he fought the three guys who beat him, and destroyed them. Ever since I got involved with Brother Zelaya’s spiritual work, Carlos never lost a single fight again, against anyone.
Do you know how you could really tell we helped him? By the way Carlos managed to defy every analysis, every prediction. When they’d say, this time he’s going to lose for sure, this time he hasn’t trained enough, he hasn’t had enough time, he’d come out on top. Why, just look at how many times he defended his title against the other great fighters of the boxing world, leaving more than one so bad off he could hardly box his own shadow, like Mantequilla Nápoles. Valdez himself ended up such a mess, he’d talk to traffic lights, if only his jaw would let him.
I really cared for Carlitos, I really did . . . and as much as I came to hate him later, I loved him like a brother back then. Even though we didn’t know each other, we were always together. I made sure Lady Luck was on his side, and in turn, he responded like a pro. I don’t want to give you the wrong idea, I didn’t do it just for him, I got something out of it too, you know, earning some hard cash betting without worrying about a thing. It didn’t matter that I had to risk twenty to get one, because that risk didn’t exist, getting that money was like taking candy from a baby. Later I lost everything when they swindled me in a business deal I never should have gotten into, but I’m not going to tell you about that, let’s leave it at this, I just figured maybe God didn’t want me to turn a buck so easily.
Not everything is left up to luck or the angels: angels help those who help themselves. Carlos was a responsible guy. He’d eat and drink whatever he wanted if he didn’t have a fight, but he’d say, the fight is on such and such a date, and three months before the match he’d stop everything. He was as professional as they come. You should’ve seen him in the ring. He’d take the pressure off Brusa, when it should’ve been the other way around. Brusa would only have to ask him, how you doing, you need anything, and loosen his shorts for him. Another remarkable thing, in a tough fight, like any at that weight, you tell me, how many boxers don’t need to sit down and rest? Not one. The round ends and most boxers head straight for the stool. The Shotgun would rest on the ropes and look out at the crowd. He’d stay on his feet! Incredible. A real tough guy.
Dani, who was a big boy by then, didn’t care about boxing. Or any sports for that matter, naturally. On the other hand, he loved to read. It came time for him to go to school, and the Board sent a teacher to the house to tutor him. Brilliant, that was the word the teacher would always say to us, this boy is brilliant. He passed from one grade to the next, just like that. He was way ahead of the other kids.
I used to meet Brother Zelaya in private to talk about Dani’s health, or something to do with Carlos. I’d get together with friends to see the fights, but I never told them anything about my part in the matches. Afterward, I’d talk it over with Brother Zelaya, who watched them from his end. We’d analyze those moments when it was obvious that without our spiritual assistance everything would have gone to hell. For example, when the American champ Briscoe landed that punch, it was unbelievable, but the ropes stopped Carlos, if not, he’d have kept on going, clear to the locker room. Here’s what happened: he held on and leaned over the rope, like he always did, then he looked at the clock to see how much time was left. You tell me, how often have you seen a boxer anywhere in the world who’s been knocked for a loop like that and still has his wits about him? None, I tell you, and I’ve seen my share of them. Groggy, and at the same time with enough sense to look at the clock to see if he could make it, and how. Then he hit Briscoe so many times, so many blows to his head! He couldn’t knock him down or out, but he punched Briscoe’s head so much, it doubled in size.
Another guy who really pounded Monzón was Bottier. They had some close fights. A good boxer, that Frenchie, but not that great. That was another time Carlos couldn’t have won without me, back when he was dating that Susana Giménez, and naturally he let up a little on his training. He’d say he put camphor in his shorts to avoid having sex, but if you ask me, the training took its place, but that was his weakness, and he should have been grateful we were there watching his back.
One guy who really gave him a tremendous blow was Gratien Tonna. He hit him with such force I thought Carlos would never come around. But you could tell someone was looking out for him up there because he reacted in a flash, and if you ask me, I bet Tonna was struck by his killer stare. Carlos hits him one time and the French guy falls to his knees and fists. He could have kept on fighting because it wasn’t a knockout by any means, but the guy looked at his trainer as if to say, hey, I’m not getting up from here, you’ll have to excuse me, but I hit this gentleman here, and it seems he got a little upset, so maybe we should just leave.
I saw him train for the Mundine fight. Well, for Carlos it was like playing. That incredible reach he had with those long arms of his. You see Carlitos would take aim, like this, a few punches, just enough to keep his opponent at bay . . . he’d jab him. At least it seemed like he was just jabbing him, but later you could see the bruises. With those little jabs, maybe by the eighth or ninth, you could see his opponent start to move his feet parallel, his legs in a straight line. His feet, you see, should be like this, one in front and the other behind, always at an angle. Parallel feet are a sign that a boxer’s off balance, same thing when he tries to plant them, or when he has trouble raising his fists. It’s not necessarily exhaustion, but the effect of the punches. Another thing Carlos had going for him, and this had nothing to do with the angels, you have to give credit where credit’s due, he’d throw a lot of punches as he backed away, something no one else hardly ever did in the ring. He’d step back punching, I mean, they’d attack him, and instead of dodging, he’d let loose and jab.
And that’s how the story went, Carlos always on top. No one could take the title from him. I won with him, and he won with me. It was like our two souls were one, that’s how Brother Zelaya explained it to me. Then came the fight with Valdez, the second one, which was the last. He’d already beat Valdez once before, not by much, but no doubt about it.
About that time things took a turn for the worse for Dani, the poor little guy, complications from one of those pulmonary congestions he always got because he had to lie down so much, especially since that operation. They said he had pneumonia. He was delirious with fever. Every time we had to go through that, I’d look at the doctors, and if they wouldn’t look me in the eye, I’d consult Brother Zelaya. So I go see him and explain the situation in great detail, and for the very first time I realize Brother Zelaya can’t look me in the eye either. He goes into a trance, his eyes stay white for about five minutes, then he shakes all over, and when he comes out of it, he says to me: there’s only one hope. Tomorrow Monzón has to lose the fight. If Valdez wins, your boy will live. This is what the angels told me.
Do you have any idea how I felt?
The worse thing was there was no time to cast a mystical spell in favor of Valdez because you can’t keep going to the angels and asking them to play white, white, white, then suddenly black. After a while you stack the deck in favor of someone, and if you want to turn the cards against him, it takes as much time as it did to turn things in his favor, it’s the only way to cancel all those benefits.
So I asked Carlos to lose. I asked him to throw the match, to stay down on the mat. I begged him. I tried to see him personally, but it was impossible because he was in isolation, as you might expect the night before a fight. So I asked him mentally, just like I used to do when I sent him everything he needed to win. You owe me, Carlitos, I said to him. It’s nothing for you to lose just once in your life. The last fight was yours, this time Valdez can win the rematch, then they’ll set up a tiebreaker, and that’s when you can make mincemeat out of him if you feel like it. You’ll recover the title and can retire singing the national anthem, but you owe me this one. I ask you this for the life of my son. I did everything for you. I led you by the hand to victory ever since you beat Benvenuti, and everything that went your way after that. You owe it all to me, for all the money I spent on mystical spells, and all the spiritual energy I put into them so you’d win. I made you the world champ, Carlitos, and you’ll go back to being a champion soon, I’m just asking that this one time you lay there looking up at the sky.
The night of the fight came. We sent our little girl to her grandparents’ so my wife could look after our sick boy in the hospital. I was lucky to be there just when his fever broke. He was so weak he could barely lift his head. You could see the moon through the window of his room. “Look, Daddy,” Dani said to me, “look at the beautiful moon.” I looked, what can I tell you, I was in such agony, that when I looked at the moon, all I could see was the face of a fat idiot. “The moon is mine: no one can take it away from me,” my little boy said to me. He was always making up stuff like that. I left him with my wife and went off to watch the fight. I had hopes. Carlos wasn’t as ready for this one as the previous one. He had a strike against him because he hadn’t fought for one year, which is a lot, not to mention that he was thirty-five years old. Rodrigo “Rocky” Valdez, who’d have thought I’d be rooting for the Colombian. The fight was in Monaco. There was a moment when I thought Carlos hesitated, that he was about to weaken and do me the favor I’d been begging him. That’s when Valdez hit him with that granitelike fist of his, making his nose bleed, something that rarely ever happened in Monzón’s professional career. I really felt for him at that moment. If you ask me, it was the third time in his career that a blow really got to him: Briscoe, Tonna, and now Valdez. I said to myself, three’s a charm, but it wasn’t. Carlos recovered, as always, this time without any help from me, I’ll give him credit, and in the three or four rounds remaining in the match, he gave Valdez a terrible beating. A demolition. That’s when his entire face swelled up, his mouth, everything, after that Valdez could hardly speak.
In the months after Dani’s funeral, my wife was too depressed to notice anything, but as soon as she felt a little better, we started arguing over money. I figured it was better to discuss it once and for all, instead of fighting over every little thing. We agreed that a certain percentage of what I earned would go to the rematch. She didn’t like what I was doing, but she accepted it as long as I didn’t cross the line.
I kept seeing Brother Zelaya out of friendship, but he was of no use to me anymore because people in that profession, who perform white magic casting spells in favor of someone, are weak when it comes to screwing someone over. I started looking for others, for someone who knew something about voodoo or macumbas. There were a few Brazilians, and I met a lot of interesting people, but I’ll spare you the details. I set aside a certain percentage of the money I earned to work against Carlos because that piece of shit owed me. What goes around comes around. And he paid up.
I have to say that it really wasn’t that hard. Because just as I’d always relied on his talents and professionalism to help him win in the ring, I only had to nudge him a little toward his weak side to bring him down. Carlos drank a lot and had a mean streak. He was very aggressive. Even back when he was a nobody, when he hadn’t made it to Buenos Aires yet, or qualified in the ranks, Brusa had to bail him out of jail a bunch of times. Once the governor of Santa Fe had to step in.
Monzón was an animal, a complete ignoramus. Later, when he became famous, that’s when all the trials started because then it was worth it to file a law suit and shake him down. Right out in public he split open the forehead of Pelusa, his first wife, who once had to fire two shots into him to keep him from beating her to death, and he smashed the faces of a waiter, a photographer, and his daughter’s boyfriend, and much more. So you see, he already had a history long before I came into the picture.
I knew I couldn’t expect much at first, for that same reason I explained to you before. I’d done too much on his behalf, so first I had to wipe out all those favors. That’s why it took me so long, but when it came down, it was a complete and total knockout. Even though I never saw it, I imagined that scene so many times that it comes to my mind as if I were remembering it, those fucking thirty seconds when Carlos committed suicide, because that’s what it was, don’t you think? He killed himself by strangling his wife that way. And I don’t need to wonder how could it happen, how could it happen? It happened because I was there, cheering him on to lose control the way he always did when he drank. I was there, forcing him to squeeze harder and harder. The only thing that makes me feel guilty sometimes is the loss of that innocent life and the suffering of their son. Those two hadn’t done me any harm, but what about my Dani? What did he ever do to him? I won my rematch, every bit of it, and by a knockout.
If you ask me, with all the bad luck Carlos brought on himself, and prison to boot, it was enough. I was through with him. As for that car accident that killed him a few years later, I don’t consider it a tiebreaker because I didn’t have anything to do with it. It was either his own doing, or perhaps someone else’s prayers, because you see, Carlos Monzón wasn’t short on enemies.
Translated from “La revancha,” from the collection Como una buena madre (Like a Good Mother, 2001). Copyright © 2001 by Ana María Shua. By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright © 2005 by Rhonda Dahl Buchanan. All rights reserved.