Willie Monroe Jr. a middleweight on the rise

It’s Saturday morning, the day after another ESPN2 “Friday Night Fights.” In the main event, Monroe took the next step forward in his career with an easy unanimous-decision win over middleweight gatekeeper Brian Vera at the Turning Stone Casino in Verona, New York.

It’s at the Turning Stone where the 28-year-old Monroe (19-1, 6 knockouts) has blossomed professionally, registering three consecutive meaningful wins while shedding the “damaged goods” label that had lingered since he dropped a split decision to prospect-spoiler Darnell Boone four years ago. Along the way he transformed into one of the division’s most interesting young contenders.

After the ring has been dismantled and the adrenaline fades and gives way to suppressed pain, Monroe makes the nearly two-hour drive from Verona to his home in Rochester.

For his boxing career, Monroe Jr. has adopted the nickname “The Mongoose”, but at home he goes by one monicker: Dad.

“They love it, they want to fight,” said Monroe Jr. of what his eight-year-old daughter and two-year-old son think of his job. “I’m not gonna let my daughter fight but I’ll teach her how to throw a right hand so she can protect herself.”

His son, Gabriel, has shown inclinations towards the calling that seems to run in the family’s genes. “He already beats up the door knobs, the back of the chairs. I’m like this: if he really wants to fight I’m going to stand behind whatever his choices are.

“That’s why I’m working so hard as a fighter so daddy can be there for them and get them wherever they need to be as adults.”

Released and revived

It’s that pledge that kept Monroe Jr. focused on his career goals when his boxing outlook seemed bleak. After the loss to Boone, Monroe was released by promoter DiBella Entertainment and his career lost direction.

VERONA , NY - JANUARY 16: Willie Monroe Jr. (R) punches Bryan Vera during their NABA/NABO middleweight championship fight at the Turning Stone Resort Casino on January 16, 2015 in Verona, New York.  Monroe Jr. won the 10 round decision. (Photo by Alex Menendez/Getty Images)

VERONA , NY – JANUARY 16: Willie Monroe Jr. (R) punches Bryan Vera during their NABA/NABO middleweight championship fight at the Turning Stone Resort Casino on January 16, 2015 in Verona, New York. Monroe Jr. won the 10 round decision. (Photo by Alex Menendez/Getty Images)

During a 17-month ring absence he worked a variety of jobs that included building radios for the U.S. military at Harris RF Communications, picking up shifts part-time at Foot Locker and supervising disabled people at a group home called Eastern Seals.

A busy southpaw who is hard to hit with a clean punch, Monroe received few calls to fight. Sensing a potential gem in boxing’s free-agent bargain rack, Philadelphia-based promoter Artie Pellulo of Banner Promotions reached out and offered him low risk, low pay bouts to build his record as they waited for an opportunity to showcase his wares.

“I was very uncertain about where I was. People still knew I was a good fighter so it was hard to get fights unless I was coming in on the ‘B-side’ being that nobody wants to fight a good lefty,” Monroe told THE RING.

That opportunity presented itself in the ESPN2 Boxcino tournament, where Monroe won three bouts against opponents with a combined record of 55-4-1 over the course of a three-month period in 2014 to earn national notoriety and world rankings in two sanctioning bodies.

“I’m a firm believer in God and God doesn’t make any mistakes,” said Monroe of his road to this point. “I think I’ve proven myself. Everybody’s road to the top is different. A lot of people talking about DiBella dropping me but hey, that’s his loss. Artie Pellulo’s Banner Promotions, they gave me an opportunity with Boxcino.

“I seized the opportunity and that just shows a lot about my character and who I am as a man and as a fighter. I have true championship intangibles in and outside of the ring.”

There’s a lot running preceding me’

Monroe is named after an accomplished fighter; just not the one many people think. His father, Willie Monroe Sr., was a ‘90s middleweight contender who earned a 24-4-2 (17 KOs) record from 1985-2000, fighting two Roy Jones opponents – Antoine Byrd and Otis Griffin – in losing efforts.

Monroe’s great uncle, Willie “The Worm” Monroe, was the more well-known relative, accumulating a 39-10-1 (26 KOs) record which included handing “Marvelous” Marvin Hagler his second loss some 40 years ago.

Willie Monroe Jr. v Bryan VeraThe Monroe surname remains synonymous with one of middleweight boxing’s most revered periods, when fighters like “The Worm,” Hagler, Eugene “The Cyclone” Hart, Bennie Briscoe and Bobby “Boogaloo” Watts turned Philadelphia venues like The Spectrum and The Arena into 160-pound warrior pits during the 1970s. Monroe wasn’t originally from Philly, but rather Florida, after which the family migrated north to Rochester.

“The Worm” was scouted by the Cloverlay camp, which boasted then-heavyweight champion Joe Frazier, turning him into a Philly fighter. Despite his pedigree, Monroe Jr. says he’s only met his great uncle on a handful of occasions and learned instead from his grandfather, brother of “Worm.”

“There’s a lot running preceding me and a lot expected of me,” explained Monroe Jr.

He began boxing at age six and reports his amateur record at 128-14, winning National Silver Gloves and Junior Olympic titles before losing in the 2008 Olympic qualifiers to Shawn Porter.

After graduating from Monroe Community College in Rochester with a degree in Physical Education, Monroe won his first 10 pro fights before losing a close one to Boone, a 21-loss journeyman who has fought nearly every top fighter of the past decade from 154-168 pounds, who holds a knockout win over current RING light heavyweight champion Adonis Stevenson and is the only man to have knocked down current RING super middleweight champion Andre Ward.

Aside from switching promoters, Monroe also acquired a new trainer six fights ago in Tony Morgan, a Florida-based guru best known for guiding Andre Berto to two runs as a welterweight titleholder. Monroe and Morgan became acquainted in 2010, when Monroe came down to the Winter Haven Boxing Club to help Berto prepare for his eighth-round TKO win over Carlos Quintana.

“[Monroe] was signed under Lou DiBella at the time and so was Berto, and I called Lou and said, ‘I really like this kid.’ I said I think he’s going to do some big things,” said Morgan of his first impressions.

Monroe holds his training camps out of Morgan’s Central Florida gym but keeps in shape at the Fight Factory gym in Rochester with assistant trainers Danny Akers and Timothy Nolan, and strength coach Lee Davis.

Morgan feels that Monroe’s sparring stints in the camps of Berto, Randall Bailey, Miguel Cotto and Austin Trout, plus the exposure from the Boxcino tournament, have nurtured his confidence and prepared him for when he faces the bigger names of the division.

And if you ask his trainer, that time is coming sooner rather than later.

“Being on that big stage, it does something to you,” said Morgan. “You never know when you’re on the big stage how they’re going to perform. I think Willie has the confidence and the demeanor to be on the big stage now. I think his confidence has grown traumatically. I say traumatically because he’s had a lot of hard times, he’s had the loss of a team and he had to grow the hard way.

“But I truly think he’s ready. I would say this year is title time.”

 Ryan Songalia is the sports editor of Rappler, a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America (BWAA) and a contributor to THE RING Magazine. He can be reached at ryansongalia@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter: @RyanSongalia.