SPIRITUALLY SET FOR A NEW GO

Middleweight Champion Nino Benvenuti has his Beethoven, Challenger Emile Griffith his apples-peaches-pumpkin-pie mother. In a close matchup, the heavier Italian should win
September 24, 1967

Here's the plan. On the evening of September 28 Aldo DiBelardino, who is known as Mr. Di, will drive Nino Benvenuti (see cover) to Shea Stadium to defend his middleweight title against Emile Griffith. Mr. Di is the proprietor of the Villaggio Italia, a resort hotel in Haines Falls, N.Y., in the Catskills, where Benvenuti has been training and which evidently was designed to evoke the old country; for example, a gondola is moored in a little pond, several fluted columns stand about in simulation of ruins and there are bidets in many of the rooms. En route to the stadium Mr. Di will put Beethoven's Ninth on the tape deck. Last April, when he drove Benvenuti to Madison Square Garden for the first Griffith fight, Mr. Di played the Ninth, too. According to Mr. Di, Benvenuti was so affected he exclaimed, "I've already won the tight."

With the possible exception of the Fifth, the Ninth is Benvenuti's favorite Beethoven symphony. "I associate it with all the happy things in my life," he said the other day while, attired in black bikini undershorts, he studied English by the Villaggio pool: The communichezion is not clear. Wai? Bicose. "Particularly," he continued, "near the end of the first movement when the violins come in. It relaxes me."

Benvenuti is not superstitious; the replay is Mr. Di's idea. Nor is Benvenuti in need of tranquillity. "It may not be an easier fight," he said, "but it will be a quiet fight. I have more peace of mind. Before I didn't know what I was going against. Even though I was sure of myself it was an adventure, a mystery. Now it is a reality. Griffith is Griffith. I've seen everything he can do. If he could have done better he would have done so during the fight. He may change, but it will be in a very limited way—fight a little dirtier, be more aggressive, but that's the extent of it."

"Griffith is a guy who tries to confuse, to con, but he doesn't learn from his previous fights," said Libero Golinelli, Benvenuti's trainer, who was reclining on an adjoining chaise, working on his suntan. "He's not an intelligent fighter. Griffith knows only one way, like a horse with blinkers on. Forward!"

"Griffith is always Griffith," said Benvenuti, getting up. "You know, for years I wondered what sort of person I would be when I became champion. I don't see any change in my character. What has changed is other people." He went to the diving board and did a front one-and-a-half, which turned out to be more like one-and-three-quarters, and a back one-and-a-half with much the same result. Then he swam 10 laps in the icy water.

By tradition, fighters are not supposed to swim. The theory is that boxing and swimming make different demands on the muscles, and it is therefore deleterious to indulge in both. For instance, Griffith says that Gil Clancy, his co-manager and trainer, won't even let him "soak a little bit." Golinelli scoffs at this prohibition. "Swimming is a beautiful sport," he says. "It does good for Nino's spirit."

Golinelli, who, among other things, was the jitterbug champion of his division in the Italian army, is very big on spirituality. "In my opinion," he says, "American trainers stay on the old system. But today is not like 30 years ago. You have to go with the times, try to understand the boys of today. You have to attract them with gimmicks or they don't want to work. You have to take care of the spiritual side of a fighter. Thirty years ago fighters were uncomplicated. Now, because they are complicated you have to combat the boredom."

In Golinelli's sense Nino Benvenuti is a very complicated cat. As he says: "Sometimes I have to be reminded to be interested in boxing, because the other activities interfere and I can't resist them. I have to give satisfaction to my own temperament." For example, he recently completed his autobiography, entitled Io Sono. On his night table are three paperbacks: Il Compagno Don Camillo by Guareschi and Pian della Tortilla and Uomini e Topi by Steinbeck. "They're just light reading," he says. "I don't pretend to be an intellectual. I read because I enjoy reading. I'm sorry that I can't paint. I love it. I tried, but.... I have so many paintings—mostly contemporary Italian. After the last fight a friend gave me a Picasso sketch. If I beat Griffith again he will give me another one."

To keep his fighter amused, Golinelli had him train in different settings. First he spent 10 days in the gym in Bologna; then he went to Loiano, 2,325 feet up in the Apennines, for 22 days, which Golinelli says was ideal for "footing" or roadwork; next to the beach at Rimini for five days; the Atlantic crossing on the Raffaello provided yet another change of scene. "On the ship we never used the air conditioner," says Golinelli, who is a fresh-air nut. "We want to breathe the pure air from the sea." Golinelli is also a food faddist; at the moment he has Benvenuti on a yogurt kick. Moreover, Golinelli is an advocate of yoga. At one point in his workout, Benvenuti and the other fighters in camp, who all wear sweat suits advertising Supermercato Mobili, a furniture store, sit in a ring about Golinelli and, at his command, assume four yoga positions. They are supposed to think, Golinelli says with a degree of fervor, of "niente, niente, niente. Yoga," he adds, "reposes the mind and nervous system."

Benvenuti intends to fight Griffith in much the same manner as before. "I will try to keep him far away," he says. "In close he's dangerous with the head." However, Golinelli has several refinements in mind. "Nino was too much with the left hook," he says. "Griffith comes in low so it always went over his head." Golinelli is trying to get Benvenuti to throw a left uppercut to complement the right uppercut he used so well in the first fight and to follow it up with a right hook, a curiously neglected punch.

As Benvenuti implied, the principal reason he won in April was that Griffith was unable to reach him. Besides having an advantage in reach, Benvenuti would jab Griffith—or, as often, feint a jab—then spring back out of range. Now and then he would take a stand and catch Griffith coming in—frequently with the right uppercut. But Benvenuti not only beat Griffith outside, he beat him inside, which is where Griffith has won so many fights. Benvenuti did not let Griffith lean his head on his chest and bang away with both hands; he tied him up or, as they say, outstrengthed him. Since he could not reach Benvenuti with most of his jabs or get off inside, Griffith resorted to lunging right leads that occasionally got over Benvenuti's low left, most impressively midway in the fourth round, when Griffith knocked him down. Unaccountably, Griffith failed to follow up, throwing but eight worthless punches in the remaining half of the round and, as he fell behind, he got right-hand happy and, when these punches failed to land, futilely grappled over the last four or five rounds.

"I guess," Griffith says, "I just decided I was going to go the distance."

As he said recently while watching The Flintstones in his room at the Concord, where he is training, "It was my fourth lousiest fight." The Concord is in Kiamesha Lake, N.Y., in the Borscht Belt, which is actually heralded by billboards advertising borscht—regular and no-cal. The Concord is supposedly the biggest resort hotel in the world and all you hear there are superlatives. Three carloads of dishes are broken every year. The bar is so long that the people at the far end pay in Canadian money. The artist in residence claims that his pastels "when properly framed will last over 200 years." "It was my fault," Griffith went on. "I took him lightly. The gentleman beat me and may he reign until the 28th of the month. I went to pieces. I looked like an amateur. I was me and I wasn't me. Some things happen you can't explain. When I knocked the gentleman down I was backing up. I seldom back up for anyone. I was lunging. I didn't throw punches in the clinches. The gentleman got away with little moves, et cetera and whatnot. He made me look like a bum. I was so anxious to hit him. I admit it. A bum. The gentleman went home. They gave him a big celebration. That's why I've got to beat him. So New York will respect me.

"I'm a spoiled little monster. But I'm no goddam butterfly. I'm proud. Any little thing offends me, turns me on a little bit. But being proud makes me more disciplined in my work. I'm trying so doggone hard to do everything right, to be this perfect fighter Gil wants me to be. In my younger days I was a carefree guy. Then I used to lie in bed and say 'Heck, what am I doing?' I used to wish all kind of craziness would happen, that the fight would be postponed. But if I wasn't a fighter, what would I be? Head of the office at the hat factory making $150 a week? I'm glad Howie [Howard Albert, a milliner who is Griffith's co-manager] looked at me that hot day and entered me in the Golden Gloves. And that I turned pro. No one likes to get hit, but if you're going to get hit in the schnauzer get a bit of moolah for it.

"I'm just thinking of myself. I don't give a hoot who digs me as long as my mother—my apples-peaches-pumpkin-pie Chubby Checker mother—digs me. I do everything for her. I need that title back. I'm going to get it back. I feel cheap without it. I'm glad the gentleman's over here in one piece. I'm glad he's given me a chance. That I call him a gentleman for. But he better not gouge me in the eyes anymore. It was so broad.

"I'm going to knock him out. I've got to start knocking people on their pants. People think I can't punch no more." He held up his hands, blotting out Fred Flintstone. "These little hands of mine carry so much power," he said musingly. "These little, skinny things."

"He's going to fight like Emile Griffith this time," Clancy promises. "He's going to throw combinations, keep him busy, move his hands all the time, not let him feint for two minutes every round. Benvenuti gave everything that night. It was a supereffort for him. For Emile it was one of his lesser efforts. This time Emile will make him do what he wants."

What Clancy has been telling Griffith during his sparring sessions is even more indicative of the kind of fight Clancy wants him to make:

"Your hands are free. I don't want you to relax in there. Push him off. Use your shoulder if you have to. Couple of hooks underneath. Forget the right hand. You're ducking punches that aren't being thrown. You're winding up before you punch. Just drop them in. There's no such thing as half a combination. You got to make him punch. Give him your head, but move it. Automatic combination. There's nothing to think about. How can you leave yourself hanging out there? The hook has got to come back automatic. Hooks follow right hands. Move your hands like a freight train. No one's holding them. Don't try to strength with him. Relax and move your hands. What happened? Don't hesitate. Once you make your move—do it."

Despite Griffith's protestations that Clancy and Syd Martin "are like sharks and hawks on me," his spiritual needs are not being neglected. Martin is Griffith's handler and asserts that in his youth he was a foremost backward runner. "I used to run backward in Yankee Stadium, Soldier Field," he says sonorously. "I'd challenge everybody, beat everyone. Bojangles was a leading exponent of backward running. The secret of the whole thing is to keep abreast of that curb and don't be afraid of taking a spill."

Griffith gets his uplift by watching the cartoons on TV, playing gin rummy, going to Monticello Raceway and frugging in front of the juke box in the Concord's Nite Owl Lounge. "I'm not used to isolation," he says. "The way I go is ridiculous."

But the major spiritual experience of Griffith's stay at the Concord was the foot race (frontward) between Clancy and Mr. Forbes of Forbes Industries. Mr. Forbes is more widely known as Griffith's cousin Bernard, the character who intemperately leads the cheering section when Griffith fights in the Garden. The transformation of Bernard into Mr. Forbes of Forbes Industries, a wealthy eccentric—in fact, the black Howard Hughes—whose hobby is prize-fighting, was Clancy's doing. Now, whenever Bernard, smelling very sweet from after-shave, strolls into the Nite Owl, the bartenders sing out: "Long-distance telephone call for Mr. Forbes. Phoenix calling, Mr. Forbes. Your call from Detroit, Mr. Forbes." Clancy has inquired of a number of the guests whether they happened to recall the article in LIFE on Mr. Forbes. "I remember it," one old lady told Clancy. "You know, he's made millions."

"I believe it myself," Bernard says. "Everybody looking at me. I'm scared to walk around."

Griffith was the starter for the Clancy-Mr. Forbes race, which took place in the Concord's indoor tennis courts.

"On your mark," he said.

"Hold everything," Bernard said. "Suppose he beats me."

Which Clancy did, and Forbes Industries went down 10 points.

Spiritually, then, Griffith and Benvenuti seem to be equally well prepared, although Griffith might be more determined. Physically, he is possibly stronger, but his true fighting weight is 152, no matter what he weighs in at, while Benvenuti is a proper middleweight, and the eight-pound drag has got to tell. Benvenuti is the more various fighter; Griffith may be a harder hitter but he has not been knocking anyone out lately. Dreamwise, they look pretty even. During the past few weeks Griffith has had a recurrent dream in which he is fighting Benvenuti, cutting him up so severely that his face is streaming with blood. The bell rings—but concluding what round?—and Benvenuti turns his back, presumably heading for his corner. "I always wake up then," Griffith says. "I sit up in bed, and I'm in a cold sweat. I'm dripping wet." For his part, Benvenuti says he has often dreamed of seeing himself and Griffith separately in a great crowd, perhaps on a street. "I observe both our faces," he says. "Griffith has a sad expression. Myself, I am looking happy."

The odds for the first fight were 13 to 5 Griffith; they are now 6 to 5 pick 'em, which may well be a reflection of the wagering, but having beaten Griffith once Benvenuti should logically be a slight favorite. So, at the price Benvenuti is the pick. Of course, as apples-peaches-pumpkin pie Chubby Checker mother says, "No Griffith ever lost twice," and there is the indelible memory of Benvenuti doing the dipsy-doo along the ropes in the fourth. But he got up. And there is the Ninth.

PHOTOTALL AND SPARE, THE CLEVER BENVENUTI MAY SEEM FRAGILE. HIS PUNCH DOES NOT PHOTOBROADLY MUSCLED GRIFFITH, SMALLER THAN BENVENUTI, HAS HAD FEW KOs LATELY

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)