By Thomas Gerbasi
Willie Monroe Jr. is in that “other” middleweight title fight this weekend, far away from Las Vegas, where Gennady Golovkin and “Canelo” Alvarez will have the boxing world watching intently.
Instead, Monroe will be in London’s Copper Box Arena, the foreign invader taking on the local hero when he challenges Billy Joe Saunders for the WBO 160-pound crown. And he’s not just okay with that, but he’s used to it, because boxers from Rochester, New York don’t get too many home games.
“That’s been my way the whole time,” said the 30-year-old challenger. “My whole career has been me going into the other guy’s backyard. Even when the Boxcino tournament came along, I was the least favored to win. I could never understand that, but everybody was saying I don’t have enough power, that I got beat by Darnell Boone, and there was always something against me. but I always seem to pull out a great win. And I’m looking to do the same on September 16th.”
Monroe (21-2, 6 KOs) is as confident as a fighter can be going into a world title fight, and that’s an attitude that comes from a lot of factors, not the least of which was everything that happened to him after his upset loss to Boone in 2011. After the bout, which left him with a 10-1 record, he was left in boxing’s wilderness, alone and without the backing that got him labeled as a top prospect.
“After I lost the split decision to Darnell Boone and my team left, I had to move back home and work two jobs and become a regular guy,” he said.
But regular guys don’t have world championship potential, and Monroe knew it. His current head trainer, Timothy (TJ) Nolan, knew it too, and he was determined to bring his fellow New Yorker back to the ring, even if they didn’t have one in the garage Nolan gutted and made into a gym.
“It was a two and a half car garage, and there are some boxing rings bigger than that,” Monroe laughs. “But we won five fights in a row with no sparring, no ring, just a heavy bag and a double-end bag.”
Returning after more than a year away, it was like starting all over as Monroe put those five wins together, but he did catch the eye of his future promoter, Artie Pelullo, who got him a slot in the Boxcino tournament in 2014. Three wins over Donatas Bondorovas, Vitalii Kopylenko and Brandon Adams earned him the tourney crown, and after a 2015 win over Brian Vera, he was suddenly in a world title fight against Golovkin.
That’s where the Cinderella Man story fell apart, as Monroe was dropped three times en route to a sixth round stoppage loss. Some critics, including future opponent Gabe Rosado and this week’s foe, Saunders, said he quit against “GGG.”
“That doesn’t define me,” Monroe said. “If I was a quitter in life, I wouldn’t have come back after the Darnell Boone fight. If I was a quitter, I wouldn’t have taken the two short-notice fights I did after the Golovkin fight and I wouldn’t have been able to come back in the fashion that I have. So whatever they want to say or whatever they want to call me, if that gave him (Saunders) the confidence to sign the contract, I’m happy for it. I don’t care what you call me, but come September 16th, when that bell rings, you’re gonna be locked in that ring with an animal and there’s going be nowhere to run.”
Since the Golovkin bout, Monroe decisioned John Thompson and Rosado, and while he is the underdog against Saunders, it doesn’t faze him. In fact, he believes being underestimated and the “B-side” gives him an edge this weekend and in every fight from here on out.
“I truly don’t believe God would bring me back this far to say, ‘Okay, I just wanted to show you that, now it’s over, go do something else,’” he said. “I’m battle-tested and I think I’m gonna be here for a long time. I know if something hard comes my way, I’ll look at it and say, ‘I’ve been here before.’ A lot of these guys, they don’t win a fight or controversy comes their way and they’re gonna fizzle out because they had the golden road so much that’s all they know. But all I know is the hard road, so as the old saying goes, when the going gets tough, the tough get going. It’s just like another day for me.”
So is Saunders a young man used to the “golden road?”
“Pretty much all of Billy Joe Saunders’ fights, he walked in as the A-side, knowing he was gonna win,” Monroe said. “And since I’ve been here, the gamesmanship has already started. We had trouble from the moment we got to customs in the airport. Then we had to do a phone conference and the people that they put on the phone were from outlets over here strictly for him. So he’s had his way for so long, but once he gets in there and it’s not going his way, he’s gonna be the one to say, ‘Damn, I’m in new territory and I don’t know how to handle it.’”
But Willie Monroe Jr. believes he can handle it all: an unbeaten champion, a hostile crowd, and the idea that he is the biggest underdog fighting in a middleweight title bout on Saturday. It’s a lot to handle, but he’s seen worse.