Tennis Prose



Guillermo Vilas on Boxing

(Originally published in London-based weekly magazine Boxing News in 2008.)

THE great former tennis champion Guillermo Vilas, the muscular, left-hander from Argentina, is not only an avid follower of the boxing, he was also close friends with the likes of Carlos Monzon, Victor Galindez, Nicolino Locche, among others. “I was good friends with Monzon. I saw him many, many times,” says Vilas, during our conversation in Flushing Meadows, New York at the recent US Open where he played a senior mixed doubles event.

“Monzon was a very good guy, very cool. I liked him very much. Very straight-forward. I’m a boxing fan. I like it. I always follow a lot of boxing. But Monzon was always very special.”

When asked what is the appeal of boxing, Vilas, who has authored two poetry books, replied: “Because of it’s survival. Boxing is a way people survive before, from thieves, they adjust to whatever problem they have.”

“If something [terrible] happens, anything happens, like a bomb comes and the whole world [is destroyed] – the boxers will survive the best. They know how to take pain. One who knows how to take pain can do more things. And that’s why I see boxing, Ultimate Fighting, it’s amazing. It’s very brutal, yes. But boxing is more coherent.”


“But to me, that sport of survival is very important. And boxing adds to a lot of security that you can see now.”

Known as the “Young Bull of the Pampas”, Vilas had his best year in 1977, winning an astounding 16 of the 33 ATP singles tournaments he entered, including the French and US Opens, where he defeated Brian Gottfried and Jimmy Connors, respectively.

Vilas is the only man in tennis history to win ATP Tour singles titles on five different continents in the same year (Asia, Europe, North and South America and Africa).

That year in 1977 his match record was a remarkable 145 wins and 14 losses. Vilas says Monzon very much appreciated the skills required to play tennis.

“Carlos, he loved tennis. He loved to see tennis. That was the amazing part. He liked to go and sit down and watch. Didn’t play.”

“There was a study that the fastest sportsmen with the [best] eye coordination are the tennis players. And the Formula I drivers also.
“The rock and rollers play tennis – and the chess players. Monzon, though, just loved to watch.”

Vilas’s first boxing memory was when he was around 16.

“Locche was very famous boxer in Argentina. He went to fight in Japan against Paul Fuji and won the world title there. Not long ago I got hold of a film of this fight from Carlos Irusta [Argentine boxing historian and writer].”

Locche then defended the title several times in Argentina and lost it [to Alfonso ‘Peppermint’ Frazer] in Panama.”

Vilas recalls the story about when Monzon went to support Locche in his fight with the Colombian Antonio Cervantes in Venezuela in 1973.

“Locche lost [by TKO 9] and when they left and were walking, a guy [with a gun] came and said, ‘Stop over there.”

Then Monzon opened his shirt [which Vilas mimes] and said,  ‘Shoot me. Or run.’ And the guy runs. And Locche said to him, ‘How could you do that?’ Monzon said, ‘When you take the gun out it’s to shoot. You don’t take the gun out to say, ‘Hey look at, Stop there and all those things.'”

“Monzon added, ‘If they wanted to rob us, say, ‘Give us the money.'”

Vilas asked Monzon to explain what would have happened had the man fired a shot.

“Monzon replied, ‘It would be a bad judgement on my part.’ [laughter]. But he [Monzon] was right.”

Vilas also personally knew former WBA light-heavyweight champ from Buenos Aires, Victor Galindez, who made 10 world title defences.

“I was very good friends with him,”  said Vilas. “Galindez quit. And then I wrote him a letter. And said he should come back. He published the letter in a magazine and said he is my friend and that he wanted to give me his gloves and memorabilia.”

“He kept fighting. I think he won one fight, against Mike Rossman.”

“In the end he had to retire because of a problem with his eye. So he started racing. It was such bad luck. They were racing in an oval in De Mayo. His car broke down. He walked away and one car turned over. He could hear all this noise. But he didn’t turn around. He was walking with his co-pilot. And the car squashed him. It was a crazy day. How do you die like this?”

Vilas recalled how some people thought Galindez was overweight.

“It was because he would drink 12 litre bottles of Coca Cola every day. He loved Coca Cola. Monzon used to drink Coca Cola mixed with the red wine. Did you ever try that? Whew!”

Vilas avidly follows the sport today. His favourites are: “The guy from the Philippines [Manny Pacquiao]. He goes and fights all over and he has no fear. There was the Prince [Hamed]. The guy who had the longest streak [Bernard Hopkins], The Klitschkos are very good. But when I saw them for the first time, I said, ‘These guys cannot fight. Terrible.'”

“But it shows if you learn and take people to teach you, you can get better. They said they would be world champion. I said, ‘How? It’s impossible.”

Vilas watches boxing live and on TV. Even his wife, Phiangpathu, and four-year-old daughter, Andanin, enjoy the action.

“I go to Las Vegas whenever I can. The biggest match I saw was [Julio Cesar] Chavez against ‘The Surgeon’ (Frankie Randall).  But because there’s seldom a big fight when I’m in Vegas, I go to the Showboat. They have these small fights. I go to every match.”

His favourite boxing films? Raging Bull. Hurricane. When We Were Kings.

“I think every sportsman should see that [latter] movie. All the technical things are in it, how Ali used the crowd, how he prepared the crowd, and what a celebration it was for them. So many things to write about.”

Some more boxing memories: “My father took me to see [Oscar] Bonavena fight. I was impressed because I bought some gloves and I realised how much it hurt [to punch]. You have to get used to the pain.”

“Monzon used to put injections into his fingers. He hit so hard that his bones were deteriorating. He had the punch of a heavyweight. He was very tall (5ft 11in) for his weight category. He had amazing timing. He was very accurate.”

Monzon v Marvin Hagler? “Monzon tried to come back one time [he retired in August of 1977 at 35]. They were trying to convince him to fight Hagler. He was considering it. I was talking to him one time and he was smoking. And I asked him, ‘Do you think you can come back?’ He showed me the cigarette [and said], ‘I don’t think so.'” [laughs].

“He thought that Hagler was very good. But if he could get around, Monzon believed Hagler was an easy target at certain moments. He said Hagler needed a certain way to get his opening. He knew what it was. Monzon said he knew how to get him.”

Monzon’s close call (draw in 1967) with Bennie Briscoe? “Monzon told me he didn’t know what was happening for one or two seconds when once Briscoe caught him.”

“Briscoe didn’t know Monzon was groggy. Monzon was ‘out’.”

But Vilas has fond memories of Monzon. “One time in 1977, the year I won everything, he went to a sports awards event in Buenos Aires. He asked me if I was going to win.”

“I said, humbly, I don’t know. There are so many good sportsmen.’ But Monzon hit me on my left arm really hard!”

“It paralysed me. He said, ‘I don’t like guys who play humble”. I won the trophy, but couldn’t lift it.”

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  • RIP · December 16, 2011 at 12:23 am

    Great piece. Well done. Very much enjoyed it. The first pro player I ever met in my life was Vilas at an autograph signing he was doing for Head in NYC. I had seen him on TV and thought he had the build of a boxer, the style of a rock star and the stamina of a triathlete. Remember shaking his hand at that autograph signing and realizing his massive left arm was bigger than my leg.
    Amazing player to watch because of his physicality, had that poetic intensity, fought so hard. Like Sabatini he always had a loyal and loud following in NY. Got to hit with him a few times at Manhattanville College when he was playing the old Connors (Champions) Tour and the guy is such a generous coach/teacher: he quickly sees your strike zone and hits perfect topspin right to that to trying to get you grooved. Sometimes, you meet Hall of Fame players who are either too injured, too busy or just too burned out to keep playing. Vilas loves hitting the ball – a great clinician – and he loves talking tennis too.
    My friend Alberto lives in his neighborhood in Buenos Aires and said he is often at his tennis club there – I will send him this link.
    He’s one of the best interviews in tennis – funny, wise and soulful – and also very sharp analytical mind for the game and an unique ability to read a player’s character and potential.
    I believe Vilas presented Nadal with his first ever ATP title (either first or second). I interviewed him shortly after that at South Street Sea Port and vividly remember him saying that Nadal would win majors and was a future No. 1. He not only said it, he explained it. He was right. I think I can count on one hand the times I’ve experienced that in an interview.

  • RIP · December 16, 2011 at 12:35 am

    A classic kicker:
    “I don’t like guys who play humble‘. I won the trophy, but couldn’t lift it.”
    That really did make me LOL.

  • Dan Markowitz · December 16, 2011 at 1:20 am

    I interviewed vilas–i can only type with one hand as my left arm is in sling for next five weeks after surgery–when he was 50 and still playing beautiful tennis. i asked him what the trick was to playing so well at 50 and he said, i can only do one hard thing a day now. i used to play tennis twice a day, go for a run/swim, and other things. now i just play tennis and then rest.

    sounded wise to me.

  • Scoop Malinowski · December 16, 2011 at 1:37 am

    Vilas is one of my favorite people in tennis and there are a lot of big favorites in this great sport. Just an amazing guy, down to earth, intelligent, engaging, no big ego, funny and inspiring too. Dan apparently he did a lot of things exercise wise back in his prime, a pro I met in Florida from ARG who is a friend of Vilas told me Vilas used to train with the rugby team, running in water, all kinds of physical work, that’s why he is built like a football player not like a typical tennis player with long muscles. He didn’t have special talent, but a special drive. He could play five sets and not drink any water whatsoever, he’d drink bottles of Coke instead. Then after a brutal workout he’d eat at the restaurant and eat THREE meals. I was in awe doing this interview and listening to these tales, and the last one about Carlos Monzon was a real laugher. Gotta love Monzon, not for how he killed his wife of course (with an uppercut that sent her to her death over a hotel balcony railing RIP) and Vilas, two great champions from Argentina.

  • Scoop Malinowski · December 16, 2011 at 1:42 am

    Thanks Richard I knew you would enjoy this. Rafa’s first title was in Poland – does that make him a small part Polish? (His champion self was born in Poland) I think you are right and Vilas was there. Vilas must have seen a part of himself in the young Rafa. I would love to read those original quotes. Vilas is one of the very best interviews in tennis, up there with Johnny Mac, Fred Stolle, Vijay Armitraj, Richard Williams, Pancho Segura, Vera Zvonareva, and Marcelo Rios (just kidding).

  • Scoop Malinowski · December 16, 2011 at 1:43 am

    Dan good job with the one finger typing, really hope you make a full recovery and can get back out on the court soon. PS Sell that dang surfboard.

  • Dan Markowitz · December 16, 2011 at 12:40 pm

    just got in wave above my beginner head. vilas and i were supposed to write a book together. i asked him to send me some of his poems because he has supposedly published three books of poems in argentina, but he only recited one to me, the muhammad ali poem, “me, we.” never did get to see any of his other poems.

    he told me he developed his topspin by looking at how a washer-dryer machine made its circular motion.



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