The first page of the press brochure, one of the many unsubtle attempts at banditry in this town on the road to Monte Carlo and Nice, told a good part of the story of the world middleweight title fight last Saturday night in San Remo, Italy. What it did was offer a prize of 500,000 lire (about $800) to the visiting journalist who most effectively portrayed the charms of San Remo and its suitability the year round for similar events of worldwide interest.
San Remo, for all the millions who may think that only Monte Carlo on the Mediterranean relieves picture-snappers and bad crapshooters of their money, is in northern Italy. The northern Italians work hard and like money. The southern Italians simply like money and are truly gifted in the art of operating in leisurely fashion to get it. Had the Nino Benvenuti-Don Fullmer fight been held, say, in Naples, one might be reflecting now on a masterpiece in delicate chicanery—instead of on what was only a bad, unmoving though successful title defense by Benvenuti.
The fight was just one of the many things that did not come up right for San Remo. The weather was uncommonly cold and dreary. The organization was not firm. The local students, rimmed about in their protests by daintily attired cops, were considerably annoyed that the town council had given the promoter 50 million lire ($80,000) to hold the fight in this very lovely city covered with narcissuses, mimosa and hyacinths and resting at the bottom of an amphitheater of hills. All of this splendor, of course, will be described—most certainly by some perceptive journalist from Naples—but the town's scheme still backfired.
Last summer had been unfortunate for San Remo. The French were too busy striking. The English could escape only with ¬£50 which did not allow them to go anywhere. And the Americans, well, they apparently thought San Remo was just another Italian restaurant. The idea behind the fight promotion was to bring the tourists back to the Italian Riviera, to put San Remo on the international tourist map and to compete especially with Monte Carlo. So the town produced the money, but only with the understanding that the fight would be televised back to America. ABC obliged, picking up the rights for a meager $43,000.
December 23, 1968
The fight itself did not figure to be particularly rousing, but there is a certain fascination to a title match being held in a strange setting. History argues well for the big fight in the little town. Doc Kearns destroyed Shelby, Mont. in one of his Jack Dempsey capers, and we are all familiar with tiny, ambitious Lewiston, Me. San Remo? Well, this would be stimulating: a fight on the romantic Italian Riviera, a scene that the international jetters would have to make. The American television viewers would surely be impressed by the glittering sight of Jackie and Ari, Prince Rainier and Grace, and Marcello Mastroianni, not to mention the somewhat offbeat presence of 47 Mormons who would be there to see one of their own, Don Fullmer, reach for the prize.
Unfortunately, Jackie and Ari did not know they were supposed to be there, Marcello was busy making money some where else and the Mormons had long ago given up the idea of the trip to San Remo. Only Virna Lisi, admittedly a toothsome adornment, got to ringside, and her trip there was not pleasant. An egg and a rotten apple thrown by students just missed her pretty head.
Still, 1,800 people, contributing the equivalent of $80 each, made it inside the Ariston Theater, for the most part unscathed. It took a while for the students to perfect their throwing arms and to stoke their anger high. Then they made a move at the line of cops, who, with egg dripping off their uniforms, responded at first with a hesitant defense and then a demonic charge. A few heads were split, and the cops ended up with an outrageous cleaning bill.
"Ha!" yelled one student, "how do they like this? Bad publicity, eh? Why are we fighting? Because all over, people are not making money. People are living in bad homes and have nothing to eat. And they spend—the town council—50 million lire on a fight!"
In view of the performance inside the ring, all that lire did seem a waste. It was clear that the promoters and the vast army of town generals, who seemed always to be clucking over their stroke of publicity genius, were blatantly unconcerned about who would be fighting and how they would fight. "A good story on the town, on beautiful San Remo, eh?" one of them said to a reporter. Then he added, chuckling, "Five hundred thousand lire for you, eh?" Suppose it was a bad fight, he was asked. He shrugged and went into a lengthy dissertation on how the German Emperor Frederick III adored San Remo in 1887.
Don Fullmer was not as impressed as the emperor. All week he talked of his longing for Utah and how he certainly preferred being back home with his brother Gene (the former middleweight champion) and breaking the necks of minks on Gene's farm. It is too bad he did not look upon Benvenuti as something of a mink. He was mostly ineffective against the Italian, though he did knock the champion down with a looping right hand in the seventh round. Nino was not hurt seriously. Still, though far behind at this point, Fullmer might have turned the fight around with that knockdown. But he did not. Or could not. What is necessary to beat Benvenuti is to slip his jab constantly and stay on top of him. He has to be intimidated, never given a chance to flash his cuteness. But in the end the only way Fullmer could have taken the title home from Italy was by knocking Benvenuti out.
Benvenuti is, of course, the better boxer, but he surely had the protection of the officials. The Italians do not part with a title easily. Who can forget how Freddy Little was scandalously denied the junior middleweight title against Sandro Mazzinghi? Fullmer, it was obvious, would not be allowed to rough up Nino; the Italian referee would not hesitate to call fouls. Thus, cautiously, Fullmer stayed too far from Benvenuti too much of the time. He did manage to extract one concession from the Italian officials. After much introspection, the officials abandoned their idea of making Fullmer fight by Olympic rules; that would have made it a more ludicrous fight than it was. "We decided not to," one of the officials said later. "After Mazzinghi, the reputation of Italian boxing is at stake."
Despite all this, there can hardly be any complaint about Benvenuti. He is not a great fighter, but he is a clever, respectable champion. Oddly, for all his personal charm, he has not completely captivated the Italians themselves. There is an ambivalence in the country's feeling for him. The Italian press, which angers him perpetually, has not increased his following. Said one reporter, "Poor Nino, he has so much. But he has no culture."
Maybe not, but he does have a fine, sensitive mind—so evident the other day when he spoke of Primo Camera, the one world heavyweight champion in the history of Italian boxing.
"For us kids," he said, "Camera was the good giant, the Biblical Samson, the force we all wished to have for turning the world upside down. I saw him when I went to Sequals, the small town where he died, and spent some hours with him. He was a good and brave man, honest and less ingenuous than they wished him to be. The thing that struck me most in our entire afternoon together was his profound humanity. I should have as much."