What you do when you were a kid?" Luis Rodriguez asked his driver. "I was in the war," said the driver, who had driven Luis all over Rome and had become fond of the Cuban.
"In the war?" asked Luis. "Which war?"
"Sí, the Ethiopian campaign."
"How you do, my friend?"
December 1, 1969
"It was a whirlwind," said the driver, sweeping his hand before him.
"I was captured," said the driver. "I was the only Italian captured in the Ethiopian campaign." Then he laughed.
The laugh eluded Luis, who was not aware of the Italians' gift of amusing themselves and the world. Afterward, in Rome's Palazzo Dello Sport, he became all too familiar with one of their amusements. But by then it was too late. Had he known that a fight in Italy is high comedy, that an Italian referee is a jester of supreme rank, that all of this is the latest national diversion, he would have dropped Nino Benvenuti with a burst from a Browning automatic at the opening bell of their middleweight championship fight last Saturday night.
As it was, Luis Rodriguez lay there in the 11th round, a sad, dark Cantinflas with a slalom run for a nose, sucking desperately for air, the victim of ruinous officiating and a left hook, a picture of which should be hung in the Louvre. The hook, sort of an uppercut that could not make up its mind, came at 1:08 of the 11th, and it accomplished this: it knocked out Rodriguez, former welterweight champion, for the first time in more than 100 fights; it spared Benvenuti the dangerous necessity of having to fight four more tough rounds in a bout that was quite close; and it spared Italy another riot, one that certainly would have paled that slight disagreement in Milan last week.
All week on the Via Veneto, prospects of a riot were hardly remote. True, life went on as usual. The hustlers of the illicit worked double shifts in the outdoor cafés; the men in their sport coats of shorn spring lamb and lavender ties and socks stood like mannequins outside hotel lobbies; and the endless parade of the Italian character moved back and forth. But it was the fight, not some new starlet in from the provinces, that provided the animation.
Even in the Colosseum at night, a time and place owned by the world's largest collection of alley cats and the phantoms who flit in and out of the amber light of the archways, the name of Benvenuti was passed around in the dark. Benvenuti obsessed everyone, and, as they have done with their heroes (and governments) before him, the Italians seemed to anticipate and demand his downfall.
The complaints were numerous: he is a timid champion; he is a Fascist; he is, because of an old liaison, a shameful husband; he is too much of a spectacle—an odd prejudice for a people who dearly love spectacles. Before the fight, one expected to see large signs being carried through the crowd, signs reading, NINO AGAINST DIVORCE or NINO UNFAIR TO UNWED MOTHERS. To be against divorce in Italy is not, for the most part, politic or safe outside the provinces. The cops were sensitive to the mood in Rome. Benvenuti was put in isolation, and rigid supervision rode the media. One television camera belonging to ABC, which paid $60,000 for broadcasting rights, was not allowed at ringside. "It is in the way of the people," said the chief of police. "It will cause a riot." One American photographer was told to take down his lights, because the chief thought they were not safe. "Are you crazy?" said the photographer. "You put $30 million in the Andrea Doria and another ship touches it on the side and it sinks like lead and kills dozens of people! What's a few lights?"
Said the chief: "They will cause a riot."
No one, of course, can understand a crowd, understand how its opinions are made and changed within a microsecond. It is a strange giant. But the chief's alarm, perhaps the result of battle fatigue, was never realized. In the end it was just a matter of bella figura for the Italians. Once he was inside the arena, Nino had never been a Fascist and he had always been as reserved as a Dominican monk picking flowers. He simply belonged, above all else, to the family. The image of the Italians, the beautiful front and show, was all that was important. His jabs that never landed became pistons, mediocre body punching became savage and the deep cut above his nose was just a scratch.
Had the fight gone the distance and the officials given the decision to Rodriguez, the body count of casualties would have been impressive. That is, if you assume that Rodriguez could have won two of the last four rounds. But Nino's hook took everybody off the hook. The men hugged and kissed each other and cried over each other's shoulders. The women, raising their Fellini eyes, blew kisses to the heavens.
The more emotional forgot such theatrics and, like an Alpine snowslide, smothered the ring. There lay Rodriguez, with half of Rome descending upon him. The referee, a sensible man with peripheral vision, raced through the count and was never seen again. As for Luis, left there for the rabble, he was finally reached by his corner and, after a few gentlemen in shorn lamb were peeled off him, he was carried to safety. It took close to five minutes before his head was clear. "They could have counted to a hundred," said Angelo Dundee, his manager.
Long before the hook, the real damage had been done to Rodriguez. And it was not done by Benvenuti. It was done by one Mario Carabellese, the referee whom Benvenuti did not want because, according to Nino, he was too inexperienced. It was an effective camouflage by Benvenuti's camp, the purpose of which was to say: "See, I'm complaining about the referee, too. I don't get all the breaks in this town."
The behavior and judgment of the referee, of the kind that has become notorious in recent Italian boxing history, were, technically, infamous. From the start he crippled the Cuban's style. Rodriguez, one of boxing's fine craftsmen for nearly a decade, was warned more than a dozen times—four times in one round—for using his head, which he was not using. Benvenuti, easily the sloppier of the two fighters, was warned twice, and each of his warnings elicited a volley of persimmons from the audience. With this intimidation of Rodriguez and the lunge, clinch and grab style of Benvenuti, it was a dull, graceless bout, suitable only for a novice gym and the unschooled intelligence of the crowd.
Though it was held in Italy, the match seemed to promise much more. For one thing, here was Rodriguez, a terror among the middleweights when the division was, to say the least, highly competitive. He had clean moves, all of which were off some weird rhythm, and he was a respectable puncher. Benvenuti, at 31 a year younger than Luis, was clever, had a clear line to his style—uppercut, left hand, then a right—but had shown fleeting signs of disinterest and physical decline. What happened was that the fight was a bore.
Luis wanted to fight Benvenuti from "halfway." The tactic was designed to avoid clinching and to enhance his chances of a knockout. He hoped to drop a right hand over every left hook that Nino threw. Nino, though, did not seem interested in throwing many left hooks. When he did throw a few, he caught a number of hard rights, one of which opened a deep cut on the bridge of his nose in the fourth round.
Most of the time, it appeared, Nino was just satisfied with being styleless, a fact that raised questions. Was he trying to disturb the rhythm of Rodriguez with his sloppy maneuvers, or was he certain that the referee—in any exchange of heads in close—would be sympathetic to him? If he was trying to direct the referee's attention to Rodriguez' head by crowding him, he was effective. Luis was so wary of being disqualified that often, when on the ropes, he held his head up and away. No fool, Benvenuti took advantage of the head's position and thumbed and laced it at will.
"Even with the referee," said Dundee afterward, "we could have had this fight. It was ridiculous what they were letting Benvenuti do in there. Still, even with the fight he was forced to make, Luis was a winner. Maybe it was close. But then he goes and does what we tell him not to do all week. He drops his head into the left hook, instead of throwing the right over it."
Alone in the shadows of his dressing corner, Luis uncoiled quietly. He was not happy, but he was not morose, either. "It was my destiny," he said. "It is like my nose, my destiny. It comes from my grandfather. I must protect it, but I can't change it." The nose, besides his glad spirit, is the thing no one can forget about Luis Rodriguez. It is simply magnificent, as long and as wide as the boot of Italy. "People kid me," he says, "but to me it is a joke. I don't mind when they call me feo viejo. It means 'old ugly.' I tell them I really think I'm pretty. But there are mirrors, you see. They do not lie. But—you pretty in the face is nothing. The wonderful of a person is in your heart. I am rich there, here in my heart, and some day I will be rich in my pocket. I hope so."
It is unlikely that Luis will ever become affluent. He has fought long and often, but money has a way of vanishing among Cuban fighters. The same cannot be said for Nino Benvenuti. With his various businesses and a recent movie to his credit—one which convinced critics he will surely remain a boxer—Benvenuti is in training to be a millionaire. He is also certain that he is immortal now that he has beaten Rodriguez. He said before the fight that he would accomplish that. "My goal." he said, "is to become immortal, to be always remembered by fans for having done something extraordinary, something fabulous." In European boxing, however, Benvenuti is suddenly sharing much of the continent's adulation with a Spanish heavyweight named Urtain. Baptismally, Urtain is known as Jose Manuel Ibar. His other names are: The Tiger of Arrona, The Basque Bull, The El Cordobés of the Ring. Few in Spain, or in the other less enlightened areas of European boxing, doubt that he will become the heavyweight champion of the world. He was on the Benvenuti-Rodriguez card last week and he quickly knocked out an excessively wary American import. His manager, jubilant in victory, said, "Urtain is the strongest man in the world. He lift a stone once, and it weigh 250 pounds. He lift and shoulder it 198 times, without breaking the succession." Urtain holds up his arm and makes a muscle. He may be able to chop down a forest of trees but he will not be the heavyweight champion of the world.
Nor will Nino Benvenuti remain immortal for long in Rome, though for a time he has provided Romans with their bella figura and made them glad to be Italian. As for Luis Rodriguez, he could not have cared less about Italy's social and political climate. He had come for a title and he left only with a lesson. "Certain things never do," a wise man once mused. "Never play cards with anyone called Doc, never eat at a place called Mom's and never tie up with a woman who has more problems than you have." It also would be prudent, Luis would now agree, to avoid fighting in Italy with anyone called Nino Benvenuti.