Entering the gymnasium in which Nino Benvenuti, the European middleweight champion, prepared for last week's fight in Rome with Don Fullmer, one descends a carpeted marble staircase and is ushered through Chianti-colored draperies into a small waiting room furnished in Italian modern. There is an oblong coffee table, probably teak, on which rests an imitation cut-glass ashtray and an imitation cut-glass vase. There is a floor lamp with a shade of mulberry and ivory. On the walls are reproductions of modern painters, including a Renoir, and just outside are a couple of Utrillos and a Monet. A well-filled magazine rack contains not a single copy of The Ring or Boxing Illustrated, but, instead, a selection of Italy's more elegant periodicals. The gym proper features the usual ring, punching bags, medicine balls and wall mirror. What is striking about it is its spotless cleanliness and its ceiling, which is painted white and is arched like the ceiling of a chapel. A plan is afoot to panel the walls in some exotic wood. After working out, boxers may take the usual shower or relax in a Finnish sauna. Where is this palace for sybaritic pugs? It is a far piece from Lou Stillman's frowsy old place on New York's Eighth Avenue. It is in Bologna, 210 miles north of Rome, and—naturally—it is on Bologna's Street of the Poets.
It was in such surroundings that Benvenuti worked out for the critical Fullmer fight, which Benvenuti won by a country kilometer, putting himself in position to challenge World Middleweight Champion Dick Tiger to a title bout.
The Benvenuti-Fullmer contest was a 12-rounder billed as a "semi-finale" elimination bout. To it came Fullmer, all the way from West Jordan, Utah, with recent decisions over Emile Griffith and Joey Archer that established him in the eyes of the World Boxing Association as American middleweight champion. He came with a look and a style reminiscent of his older brother, Gene, who lost the world middleweight championship for the last time when he got fresh with Sugar Ray Robinson.
As for Benvenuti, he is the wonder of the Italian peninsula. In his 120 amateur bouts and 63 professional fights, he never has been defeated. He has knocked out 26 professional opponents, has been Italian champion five times and of course now holds the European title. He won the welterweight gold medal at the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome and, in the opinion of Cus D'Amato, who was there to size up the available material against the day when Floyd Patterson would no longer be around, Benvenuti was "the class of the Olympics," notwithstanding the presence there of Cassius Clay, then in the cocoon stage of his metamorphosis into Muhammad Ali. The Olympic committee chose Benvenuti as the Games' most proficient boxer.
February 14, 1966
Until the Fullmer fight, though, Benvenuti's record had not been overly convincing to the world at large. He never had fought outside Italy or Trieste, which is his home. His opponents were mostly either Italians, unknown and unrespected outside Europe, or washed-up or never-was Americans. There was a suspicion that he had been, so to speak, "protected." His opponents should have had the protection.
The Fullmer fight was Benvenuti's first test against a ranked contender and therefore was considered critical. It was put on in that magnificent architectural showpiece of the 1960 Games, Pier Luigi Nervi's Palazzo dello Sport, which can seat 15,000 for boxing and was packed last weekend with wildly cheering, debris-throwing partisans of the adored Nino.
At the weigh-in that noon, held in a theater before a comfortably filled house of Nino-worshipers, one saw the contrast in style that would be so evident during the fight itself. There was the brush-cut Fullmer, in baggy pants, unshined shoes and nondescript topcoat, stripping down to droopy long johns, which the Roman crowd thought hilarious. "Buffone!" they howled. There was the sportily attired, jaunty Benvenuti, striding on stage like Fred Astaire about to go into a number. When he stripped, he was wearing form-fitting jockey shorts. The crowd roared approval. Both fighters were a few ounces over the 160-pound limit, but Fullmer made it by doffing his heavy underwear and Fullmer's manager, Angelo Curley, conceded that the quarter-pound or so by which Nino exceeded the contract weight made no difference.
That night there was a chant of "Nino! Nino! Nino!" as he came down the Palazzo aisle wearing a black-and-gold robe, the back of which advertised a furniture maker's products. So did his gold, green-striped trunks. It's an old Italian custom. Fullmer wore basic black.
In that first round it did seem that Benvenuti's advisers might have overmatched their man. He moved lightly about the ring in his personal variation of the classic style, landing a jab here, a body hook there and a right to the body—but not a single punch of any consequence. Then Fullmer, who had been stalking him with no more expression on his face than one of the ring posts, barged forward, flailing and banging with a flurry of lefts and rights that drove Benvenuti back almost to the ropes. The crowd, worried, took up its chant again. Fullmer managed to get inside once more and scored heavily. Infighting had been described as a Benvenuti specialty.
It was Fullmer's round, but he spoiled it all in the next one. After accepting a Benvenuti hook he reverted to a family trait—wrestling and bulling the opponent, just the way brother Gene used to do. The crowd roared in protest and showered the ring with soggy fruit. The referee warned Fullmer, who promptly charged into four successive clinches. What he did for the rest of the round was miss, clinch and wrestle. Benvenuti won it, mostly on Fullmer's demerits. The referee spent the minute between rounds shaking a finger at Fullmer.
By this time Benvenuti had figured that the way to handle Fullmer's charges was to jab or hook him on the way in—Benvenuti has a respectable left hand—and this he did. There was more clinching, more warning and more debris, but Benvenuti's dancing feet took him out of danger, and it went like that for the rest of the fight, with Fullmer taking only two or three rounds. In the fifth Fullmer bloodied Benvenuti's nose—which cost him the next round as a resentful Nino jabbed and hooked and banged Fullmer's body with rights. Benvenuti himself drew blood from Fullmer's nose in the ninth and opened some old scar tissue above his right eye. At the end there was a cut under Benvenuti's right eye, too, and a previously incurred scar across the bridge of his nose was opened. Otherwise Benvenuti remained singularly unmarked for a veteran.
There was no doubt about the outcome, though an announcer withheld the decision until the ring was cleared of Nino's admirers. When it came—Benvenuti the winner—it was anticlimactic. A glum Fullmer left the ring before it was made official. He was homesick, he said (he had been in Rome only a week), and he was going to get back to Utah as fast as he could.
Benvenuti accepted victory with characteristically debonair joy and was in the mood for a homecoming, too. He has a pretty wife, Giuliana, and two small children in Trieste, where he is registered as a resident though he spends only two months of the year there. The rest of the time he stays, along with five or six other fighters, in an apartment on the fourth floor of a house owned by his manager, Bruno Amaduzzi, half an hour's drive from downtown Bologna.
Despite that sumptuous gym, which is owned in equal shares by Benvenuti, his trainer, Libero Golinelli, and Amaduzzi, the apartment is furnished to the taste of a Spartan, its only decoration a white plastic crucifix over the front door. Before the cleaning woman arrives one is likely to find it littered with towels and trash, including a mass of orange peelings in the sink. Golinelli fighters consume oranges by the crateload. Each morning, before they set out for five miles of rugged roadwork in the steep and snow-clad foothills of the Apennines, Golinelli concocts a syrup that is one-third sugar and two-thirds orange juice, and the fighters gulp it down by the vermouth bottle. "After a few days of drinking this," one of them explained, "you feel strong." Golinelli is a trim 54 and, unlike most American trainers, he does not follow the fighters in a car when they run. He jogs along with them, setting the pace and making sure they do not lag. During World War II he fought with the partisans so effectively that the U.S. Army dubbed him a colonel.
As a successful fighter and businessman, Benvenuti could, if he chose, live in his own apartment or at least have a bedroom to himself in the Amaduzzi dorm. Instead, he insists on sharing a drab room with one or another of the stable and refuses to eat apart from its members. The only difference between him and them is that, because he has no difficulty keeping his weight down, he is permitted to eat his fill of pasta. Otherwise, Benvenuti is just one of the group, which is the way he wants it.
This is democratic, in its way, but perhaps deceptive—Benvenuti is a member of the Movimento Sociale Italiano, which is widely held to be neo-Fascist, though its leaders do not use the nasty word and never invoke the ghost of Mussolini. Benvenuti's membership is considered by his friends to be the result of his family's experiences in Yugoslavia, where, as he says, "it became impossible for Italians to live" after the Communist takeover.
At any rate, last September Benvenuti sat briefly for the MSI on Trieste's city council. He had been nominated against his wishes, and did not campaign, but lost by only a narrow margin in the election. Then the man directly above him on the preferential ballot resigned, and Benvenuti, according to the election laws, had to succeed him.
"I am not a political activist," Benvenuti explained. "I took part in one session of the council and then asked to be excused. It was a funny occasion. I felt more like a boxer than a councillor. The opposition was treating me with deference, which does not often happen. This proves that sport has no flags, and no frontiers. When you practice a sport it is counterproductive to put yourself on one side or another politically."
In all his life Joe Louis never said anything like that. But that is the way Benvenuti talks.
His political connections, limited though they be, probably account for a measure of unpopularity attributed to Benvenuti, though he is not noticeably unpopular at fights. It would be understandable, for instance, in Bologna, which is the Communist capital of Italy, except that Bologna is not understandable. For all their proletarianism, the Bolognese are dedicated to the good things of life, like dinner at Papagallo's, one of the world's finest restaurants, preferably with a pretty woman, a commodity the town does not lack. And the working class of Bologna, despite the color of its politics, turns out one of the truly splendid sports cars of the world, the Lamborghini, a 12-cylinder job capable of 260 kilometers per hour. Prices start at $10,000 for this essentially handmade machine, and now that it is in "mass production," as factory officials put it, they are making them at the dizzying rate of 60 a year.
Benvenuti is a more ardent businessman than politician. He has an interest in a Bologna aluminum foundry and owns an insurance agency in Trieste, plus his share of the gymnasium. Recently he was paid $13,000 to appear in four television commercials for an Italian brandy. In one of the skits, out of several that appear one after the other on a 10-minute program called Carosello, Benvenuti plays a James Bond character embroiled with a mad scientist. He leaps about the laboratory with a machine gun spitting away, karate-chops an opponent, electrocutes some pursuers and winds up the affair drinking the sponsor's brandy with a partly dressed blonde. He is at least a better actor than Rocky Graziano, and handsomer, too. Recently, however, he turned down a $32,000 offer to sign a movie contract. Boxing is on his mind now, and he does not even contemplate an acting career after he quits the ring.
"Now I'm a champion," he explained, "and that's why I'm in demand as an actor. The day I step down, or get beaten, the people who cheer me now might turn against me. Who would want me as an actor then? I'm certainly not a great natural actor. You've got to study acting for years to be a good actor, just as you've got to practice fighting for years to be a good fighter. If I start doing too many things I'll start doing them all badly."
Benvenuti's formal education stopped just short of college, but he did not stop studying. At present he is reading Voltaire. Among books he has liked is Hemingway's The Old Man and The Sea.
"It's a great book," he said. "Only a great writer could base a whole book on just an old man's thoughts, with no other characters than a boat and a swordfish."
He likes film soundtrack music particularly, he says, because "it is varied and has impetus." "Impetus" is another sample of the techno-intellectual language he often uses, in a conversational style that tends to be epigrammatical. ("Literature is a teacher of life, even more than education is." Or, "no generation can understand the one that preceded it or the one that follows it. To understand rock 'n' roll and to understand cubism are for two different generations.") Other fighters call him "The Intellectual." And he carries that off better than Gene Tunney ever did.
The Benvenuti family was quite poor when it moved to Trieste, but it is moderately prosperous now. Nino's father owns a retail fish market there and two 40-foot fishing boats that operate in the North Adriatic. It had been his father's ambition to be a boxer but Nino's grandfather knocked that notion out of his head. So the father decided to realize his ambition through his sons, one of whom, Dario, has just turned professional and tends to resemble Nino. Nino started boxing at 11 and in two years was engaged in actual bouts. To get to a match he would pedal his bicycle 20 miles from his birthplace in Isola d'Istria, a town on the northern Dalmatian coast, to Trieste, then back again after the match. Over the years he evolved a style all on his own, and it is impressive.
To Golinelli, who has been his trainer for the past year and a half, Benvenuti has no outstanding trait as a fighter.
"His greatest talent," Golinelli said after a sparring session in which Benvenuti displayed an eagerness to bang to the body when in close, "is not one thing but a combination of qualities. He is not a particularly deadly puncher or exceptionally strong but he does have a good punch, he is strong and he is technically good. He has nervous energy. That is perhaps his outstanding quality. Dick Tiger is physically stronger. Benvenuti's strength comes from this nervous energy."
Golinelli also said that Benvenuti has a "dry, nervous punch." Anyway, that's the way it came through in translation.
For the past year Benvenuti has been working on building himself up so that he can claim to be a true middleweight. It has worked, and at the age of 27 he has achieved his peak of physical maturity. His shoulders are wide. His arms and shoulder muscles are without excessive bulges and convey a sense of speed. His hips are insubstantial. If he is unimpressive in any way, it is because of his thighs, which are almost skinny for a fellow who has done so much bike-riding and roadwork.
Since Champion Tiger is logically Benvenuti's next opponent and Joey Giardello is thinking of a comback if he can ever get the lard out, Benvenuti's opinion of their last fight, which Tiger won, is of some importance.
"I did not think either was giving his best," he said. "I could beat the Tiger I saw."
It is a sensible summation. Giardello's best is long gone. Tiger's may be. In any case, when Giardello beat Tiger in Atlantic City in their first fight he fought very much the kind of fight Benvenuti would. He boxed Tiger.
Assuming the fight comes off, it may be held in Rome, which Benvenuti would prefer, or in the U.S. As champion, Tiger would decide. If he chooses not to fight in Rome, which Benvenuti refers to as "my piazza," the challenger at long last will fight outside Italy. As to why he has never done so before, Benvenuti has a good, businessman's answer.
"When you already have a secure position at home," he said, "you don't go looking for harder work elsewhere."
But now the position he wants is elsewhere. We may yet see him in the U.S.