Funeral services will be Saturday, June 29, for Philadelphia boxing legend Willie “the Worm” Monroe, 73, who died Saturday, June 22, of complications from Alzheimer’s disease at his home in Sicklerville.
Mr. Monroe rose to prominence in the 1970s as one of a group of middleweights who emerged from Police Athletic League programs and Joe Frazier’s Gym on North Broad Street to take on one another.
“It became like a round robin,” said John DiSanto, founder and editor of PhillyBoxingHistory.com. “Willie the Worm could really fight, and he was in a deep, thick division with a lot of talent.”
There was Eugene “Cyclone” Hart, a pure puncher; Bobby “Boogaloo” Watts, a pure boxer; and Monroe, a lanky 6-footer who hit well and moved with a silky rhythm that earned him his nickname.
Challengers including “Marvelous” Marvin Hagler wanted to “cut their teeth” on the Philly middleweights, DiSanto said. On a snowy night in March 1976, Mr. Monroe beat Hagler by decision in a 10-round bout at the Spectrum.
“Hagler went through a lot of our middleweights,” DiSanto said. “Then he ran into Willie the Worm. It was definitely the highlight of Monroe’s career.”
Hagler, the undisputed middleweight champion from 1980 to 1987, beat Mr. Monroe in two rematches, but Willie the Worm kept fighting. During a boxing career from 1969 to 1981, he had 39 wins, 10 losses, and one draw, with 26 of the wins by knockout. He never got to fight for a world title.
“It was a very natural arc,” DiSanto said. “He won all his fights at the beginning. He beat Hagler, and after that, there was a slow fade-out of his career. He had a good run. He was a super-memorable Philadelphia fighter.”
Born to John and Plessie Monroe in Alabama, Mr. Monroe was the 13th of 17 children. His early years were spent in Crestview, Fla., where he graduated from Crestview High School.
It was Mr. Monroe’s father who encouraged him to pursue his dream of becoming a fighter.
He set out for Rochester, N.Y., in 1963, building a solid amateur record of 43 wins and no losses, with 37 knockouts, his family said. He won three Golden Glove titles.
In 1969, Mr. Monroe moved to Philadelphia to meet trainer Yank Durham, who was training Frazier. Durham noticed that Mr. Monroe boxed with a sleek, slippery motion that suggested a worm, and thus was born “Willie the Worm.”
His professional debut was as successful as his amateur one. He was undefeated with 21 wins until 1972, when he lost his first fight by decision to Max Cohen in Paris.
Mr. Monroe regained his stride, becoming fighter of the year in 1974. He defeated Hart, Stanley “Kitten” Hayward, and Billy “Dynamite” Douglas.
Still pursuing his goal to become a standout middleweight, he beat Hagler in 1976. The snow was so deep that TV crews couldn’t reach the Spectrum. As a result, no footage of the fight exists.
Mr. Monroe retired in the early 1980s but couldn’t walk away from the ring entirely. He was gracious to fans and autograph seekers, said his daughter, Monica. Years later, he got back in the ring, as a professional referee in Pennsylvania.
“I met him at the Spectrum and the Blue Horizon,” said DiSanto. “There would be Willie the Worm, refereeing” in the legendary North Philadelphia boxing venue.
Mr. Monroe worked at The Inquirer in trucking and building services from 1984 to 2011. Pat McElwee, his boss, said with a chuckle that he was “a good guy, real quiet, but I wouldn’t want to pick a fight with him.”
His daughter said Mr. Monroe was very down to earth, hard-working, and a family man who enjoyed his children and grandchildren.
“I’m a Philadelphia police officer, and he worried about me,” she said. “But he taught me his values; to treat people the way you want to be treated. In 24 years in the Police Department, I’ve never had a problem.”
In addition to his daughter, he is survived by his wife of 51 years, Barbara; daughter April; four grandchildren; three sisters: three brothers: and a large extended family.