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

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

    Click image for larger version  Name:	89f0ceea-3b3a-4866-8286-2fc25d69dbc7-worm_1_.jpg Views:	1 Size:	34.9 KB ID:	13530

    By Arne K. Lang

    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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