Boxing in Sacramento was on life-support in the early 1970s, with no main event fighter enough of an attraction for promoter Babe Griffin to confidently finance a show, and much of the young talent taken from home by the Vietnam War. This helps to explain why Monroe Brooks, who moved to Los Angeles in 1972 to box professionally after an impressive amateur career in Wichita Falls, Texas, would find himself fighting in Sacramento 18 times between 1973 and 1976.
Brooks became a state champion in three weight classes – 135, 140, and 147 pounds – and a world-ranked contender in the middle division. Brooks was handled by former world-rated featherweight Henry Davis as a pro, and trained at the Hoover Street Gym in Los Angeles owned by Davis and Thel Torrence.
Davis had also trained heavyweight Ken Norton when Norton was an apprenticing professional, but logistics of the boxing business led Norton to new management, which chose Eddie Futch, the trainer of Joe Frazier, to help develop Norton.
That relationship lasted until Norton beat Muhammad Ali in 1973, when his management then became uncomfortable with Futch’s involvement with two top-ten fighters, Norton, of course, being the second-best of the two.
The Sacramento Bee wrote that with Brooks, “Boxing…has come out of mothballs in the capital city.”
An exciting, hard-punching boxer with “the fastest hands in the west” who was also handsome and had an ebullient personality, Brooks became enough of a draw to keep promoter Griffin active.
“As far as I’m concerned, Brooks is fighting out of Sacramento,” Davis said. “We go to Los Angeles to train because I have a gym there and Monroe can spar with some of the best around.
“He’s been sparring with Jimmy Heair, Rodolpho Gonzalez, and Hedgemon Lewis,” Davis said, explaining why Brooks was always so sharp. “How can you beat that for sparring partners?”
Lewis was a top welterweight contender, trained by Futch at the Hoover Street Gym, where he, Norton, and Brooks were good friends.
Brooks was fighting Raul Montoya in Sacramento on September 18, 1973, when Norton and Lewis drove from Los Angeles to watch.
1973 had been Norton’s breakout year. He beat Muhammad Ali in March, breaking Ali’s jaw in the process, and had lost a close, controversial decision to him only a week before coming to Sacramento.
Norton invested money from the Ali fights in the construction of a hotel and apartment complex. He was building a house in upscale Pacific Palisades, and would soon be starring in movies such as “Mandingo” in addition to challenging for the world heavyweight championship.
Monroe Brooks On the Come Up
It is not difficult to imagine that Norton was feeling quite good about himself the night he was in town, attending the post-fight festivities at the Torch Club, where local attorney and boxing fan Bill Barnaby was enjoying a drink with his wife.
When Norton asked Mrs. Barnaby if she would like to party privately with him, Mr. Barnaby, who might have weighed in as a welterweight – if fully dressed in suit and tie, with his car keys and pocket change in his pants – took umbrage, to use a legal term.
Laughing as he tells the story fifty years later, Barnaby remains thankful that cooler heads prevailed, preventing he and Norton from hurting each other.
Brooks became such a fixture as the headliner on local boxing cards that he would often stay in town for longer periods than his fights alone warranted, training at the Capitol Gym, sparring with future top boxers such as welterweight Pete Ranzany and middleweight Karl Vinson.
Davis sold half of Brooks’ contract to Jackie McCoy in 1974. McCoy had managed four world champions, with Carlos Palomino soon to become his fifth.
This moved served a couple purposes. First, McCoy’s connections would hopefully benefit Brooks in his quest to become a champion. The politics of boxing is a harsh enough world even with someone as powerful and respected as McCoy leading the way.
Without the McCoys of the world, a boxer is always at a disadvantage at the negotiating table, if he is ever offered a seat.
McCoy thought highly of Brooks. Not one to speak in hyperbole, McCoy said “Brooks has all the physical attributes. He’s a very strong guy, real fast and knows how to relax. He has the right mental attitude, too.
“I honestly believe Monroe will become a super champion. I mean up there with guys like Sugar Ray Robinson and the present welterweight champ, Jose Napoles.”
Another reason for the new managerial structure was that promoter Griffin and his matchmaker Sid Tenner were barely making ends meet, and talking publicly of cashing in their chips.
“It’s ridiculous,” Griffin said of increased rent and overhead expenses. “Nobody but the auditorium people are guaranteed of making any money. I just don’t see how we can continue to hold boxing shows there.”
The Right Complexion To Get Protection?
Brooks was talented and personable, but he was also African-American. Fan support in boxing, especially at the local level, is often a matter of ethnic identity.
With Sacramento’s black population then running between 10-12%, there was no rush of people knocking down the doors to see him fight.
It was apparent that Pete Ranzany – the white, Italian welterweight – was who the promoters were hoping to one day butter their bread. If Ranzany proved to be legitimate, which appeared to be a strong possibility as he fought on the undercards of Brook’s main events, he would be the man promoters were going to go with. Brooks could see the writing on the wall.
The Bee’s Bill Conlin was on the money when he wrote that Brooks “kept the pugilistic lights a-burning in Sacramento until Ranzany came along.”
The same thing happened to Karl Vinson, who became a world-ranked middleweight by having to travel more than he liked. Sacramento was his hometown but, especially as Ranzany continued to develop, would not become his home base.
Hoping to secure a title shot, Brooks lost in August, 1975, to Adolpho Viruet in Las Vegas.
He complained afterward of being tired during the fight, which at first might have been taken as an excuse. Brooks would have a similar complaint, however, in other fights, before his concerns were validated. He remained a highly-ranked junior welterweight for several years, although, even with McCoy guiding the ship, it would be difficult to land a title fight.
Originally competing in Muay Thai, Saensak Muangsurin had become WBC champion in only his third boxing match.
Brooks would spend two years pursuing Muangsurin, enduring close calls and major disappointments before Muangsurin finally agreed to a January, 1977, fight. Brooks’ challenge of Muangsurin would not take place in a traditional title fight city such as Thailand’s capital of Bangkok, but in the much more remote Chiang Mai.
Palomino by this time had become the WBC welterweight champion, taking the title from England’s John Stracey, who had beaten Napoles. McCoy was confident he would soon be managing three champions, with Brooks and Los Angeles heartthrob Alberto “Superfly” Sandoval standing with Palomino.
The Los Angeles Herald Examiner’s Leo Noonan wrote of the 20-year old Sandoval as being “almost too good to believe.”
As fate would have it, though, neither Brooks nor Sandoval – two guys dripping with potential – were able to fulfill McCoy’s projections.
The airline Brooks was flying to Thailand for the Muangsurin fight went out of business while Brooks was in route to Honolulu. A scheduled short stop in Hawaii turned into a five day layover while waiting for new tickets to be issued. He would be held over for another two days in Japan upon reaching Asia.
“I was in the best condition of my life when I left the U.S., but I lost that conditioning,” Brooks would say after the fight. “I wasn’t able to train for a week because of all that travelling and lying around.”
Brooks Feels Weak, Finally Gets Insight As To Why
But Brooks, who after this fight again mentioned being too weak to compete at his best, dropped Muangsurin in the third round before being knocked down himself in the 14th and again in the 15th, when the fight was stopped.
Later that year, a fight with Randy Shields in California was cancelled when Brooks was hospitalized with acute anemia.
“It’s not sickle-cell or anything like that,” Brooks said. “It’s something that 15% of blacks have. I’ve been anemic all my life.
Brooks would fight six times in 1978, the two of these fights he lost being the most memorable. They would effectively end his hopes of winning a title.
He was stopped in nine rounds in April by future WBC champion Bruce Curry, in what was more of a struggle for neighborhood bragging rights than it was a title eliminator.
The Curry and Brooks families were close in Texas, with the children regularly referring to each other as cousins. Brooks’ brother Overton was Bruce’s best friend.
When Curry moved to Los Angeles to fight professionally, he at first stayed with Brooks.
But the two were no longer friendly, and this fight was hyped as some sort of blood feud. Rumors in California gyms said the two men were involved with the same woman, but newspapers didn’t repeat this, hinting it might not have been the case. That angle would have provided more sensationalistic copy than one in which former roommates were arguing over expenses.
“I don’t want to get into all the reasons I don’t like Brooks,” Curry said. “It would take a couple days.”
Brooks said of Curry, “I took him under my wing. I trained him, sparred with him. Pretty soon, though, he became a headache, nothing but a problem.”
It’s true,” Curry admitted. “Monroe was responsible for bringing me to Los Angeles. But once I got there it was a big letdown. He and Henry Davis made me a lot of promises. I signed with Henry and the next thing I knew he was in Germany training some fighter.
“He let me use his 1973 Chevy but he made me put tires on it and wanted me to make one of his monthly payments.”
“He was lazy,” Brooks countered. “He didn’t want to work. He wanted to be taken care of. I did for a while, but if he wasn’t going to help himself, I wasn’t going to take care of him.”
“Monroe says I WAS LAZY,” Curry asked rhetorically upon hearing from reporters what Brooks had said about him. “That’s a lot of bull….”
Explaining why he left Los Angeles, returning to Texas, Curry said, “I was broke and I wasn’t getting any fights. The only guy I knew in Los Angeles was Monroe. I got disgusted and went home.” This was in 1975.
“I came back in ’76 and had three fights for about $100 each, and after all my expenses were deducted I was broke,” so “I asked Jesse Reid to take me over.”
Reid has worked with dozens of world champions and top contenders, and Curry immediately found success with him.
“I’ve had 14 fights for Jesse and earned close to $70,000 in 14 months…”
The fight between Brooks and Curry was a “sensational back alley brawl,” with one ringside observer saying, “They should be in a bar, not in a ring.”
On losing to Curry, Brooks said, “He didn’t beat me. I beat myself. I lost my head and you can’t do that in this business. That was a super grudge fight.”
The fight that ended Brooks’ tenure as a legitimate contender, however, was the December, 1978, loss to long-time lightweight champion Roberto Duran, testing the waters as a welterweight.
Brooks’ effort to battle his anemia included injections and a lot of pills. McCoy mentioned the disease limited Brooks’ training, as he was not able to run and spar on the same day.
“I’m not able to work as hard as I’d like to work,” Brooks said.
Upbeat and confident, though, he also said, “If I beat Duran my whole life turns around. That’s why I took the fight…plus I fear no man.”
But Duran stopped Brooks with a left hook to the body in the 8th round. According to the Associated Press, Brooks “never had a chance.”
McCoy would release Brooks from his contract shortly after this, but Brooks wanted to continue boxing, and did so without a manager.
“I’m not in boxing to become rich,” Brooks said, “just to live comfortably. I’m not in love with boxing like I once was. There’s no romance now. I’m just here for the finance.”
Brooks had lived comfortably as a contender, but this required dedicating most of his boxing earnings to the immediate level of comfort. There was not much left to finance continued comfort as his boxing career wound down. He worked as a bartender in 1983 when signing to fight the notoriously light-punching Vilomar Fernandez in Sacramento.
The Bee’s Ben Swesey warned that Brooks “…isn’t as fast or as sharp as he was.” Conlin added, “…once, Brooks could fight.”
Fernandez stopped Brooks in the 2nd round. Conlin wrote, “This time, as rumored out of Southern California, the 30-year old Brooks was on rubber legs, ripe for the picking.”
Retirement included another half-decade of talk about a comeback, as Brooks, working at a men’s clothing store, was “on the shorts.”
His son Monroe IV also boxed professionally, winning four of 14 fights that were spread over three distinct periods, each period separated by five or six years inactivity. Brooks the father was 65 when he died in 2018.
—Sharp, an author, and former fighter himself, has written more about Sacramento's fight scene.