It couldn't have been sadder in Mudville after mighty Casey had struck out. The old familiar chant of "Ni-no, Ni-no" was stilled as fans cleared a path for their beaten hero on the march back to his dressing room. There was some restrained applause, and here and there someone cheerfully called out, "You'll beat him next time, Nino." But it was whistling in the dark. Nino Benvenuti, the greatest of Italian boxing champions, had just taken the licking of his life. Behind him in the ring, Argentine fans were whooping it up and hoisting on their shoulders the new middleweight champion of the world, Carlos Monzón. Mighty Nino had been knocked out in the 12th round.
Twelve thousand fans paying nearly $120,000 had packed Rome's Palazzo Dello Sport Saturday night to see their champion put his title on the line for the fifth time. They suspected that Nino faced a tough challenger in Monzón, unbeaten in his last 60 fights and rated No. 1 contender for the title. After all, the South American was taller, had a three-inch reach advantage and was four years younger than the champion from Trieste. Yet Italians could not believe Monzón was in a class with their Nino, who had easily polished off four consecutive challengers after winning the title, for the second time, from Emile Griffith in New York in 1968. Benvenuti might look bad against a Doyle Baird in faraway Akron, Ohio, or against a Tom Bethea in Australia, but he was always at his best when the title was on the line. And when fighting in Rome, Nino was invincible. In 31 fights in Italy's capital, he had won 31 times. He entered the ring a 2-to-1 favorite.
But after one minute and 50 seconds of the 12th round, Nino was on the floor, kneeling, his forehead touching the mat. He managed to get to his feet by the count of nine but fell helplessly against the ropes while German Referee Rudolf Drust threw both hands into the air to signal it was all over.
For Italians, it hurt all the more because there really were no excuses. They couldn't call it a lucky punch, or bad breaks. From start to finish, the Argentine took the play away from the champ. Italians had been told he was a slow, somewhat clumsy fighter whose only weapon was his powerful right, but from the beginning he outboxed as well as outpunched Benvenuti. They had heard he didn't have a left hand either, but Saturday night he showed he had one and that he knew how to use it. He pumped a long left jab time after time into Nino's face and hammered savage left hooks to the body. Confronted with the Argentine's onslaught, Benvenuti appeared bewildered, sometimes fighting as if in a trance. Always bothered by taller fighters, Nino had trouble reaching his man. He never was able to take command. The lefts that had made life miserable for Griffith and Don Fullmer and Bethea could not find Monzón.
Italians could hardly be blamed for knowing so little about Monzón. The same applies to boxing fans anywhere but Argentina, where he has had nearly all of his 81 bouts (69 victories, nine draws, three defeats). Over the past few years, he has beaten six U.S. fighters, all of them relatively unknown except for Bethea, whom he outpointed in 10 rounds. All of the bouts were held in Buenos Aires.
Though he has scored 44 knockouts, Monzón is not able to slug away with impunity, because he often hurts his hands. Before recent bouts in Argentina, he has had them injected with novocain to deaden the pain, and there is conflicting testimony about whether this was done last week in Rome. (In the U.S. the practice would not be sanctioned, but it has occurred when doctors and rival seconds were looking the other way.) Monzón took another precaution before meeting Benvenuti—he turned his back on the Trevi Fountain and tossed a coin into it over his shoulder.
In the very first round Monzón alerted Italians to the fact that, as he put it, he had not come to Rome "just for sightseeing." Benvenuti tried a few long lefts and was met by sharp counters, two left hooks to the jaw surrounding a right to the neck. As the bell rang, the referee warned Monzón against holding and hitting.
By round three Nino began to show signs of strain. He was flustered by the Argentine's style and startled by his roughness in the clinches. Toward the end of the third, Nino blew his stack. Monzón clobbered him on the neck in a clinch and the outraged Benvenuti complained loudly to the referee. If it brought him no relief from Monzón, whose jabs kept him confused and at bay, it did stimulate the crowd, and the "Ni-no, Ni-no" chants picked up in volume. Perhaps as a result, Benvenuti seemed to gain strength in the fifth. Though he was butted several times in the chest and banged under the chin by Monzón's shoulder in the clinches, he managed to duck a few jabs and hooks and land some of his own. But the hopes of Italians died in the next two rounds.
Monzón was being continually booed for butting and roughing, and fans threw paper cups into the ring in protest, but the South American caught Benvenuti repeatedly with hard rights and, in the seventh, hammered him into the ropes. Nino was saved by the bell.
Desperate and clearly facing defeat, Benvenuti somehow rallied and held his own for a spell—or perhaps Monzón was confidently biding his time. Nino connected with an elbow in the eighth, and that brought a complaint from Monzón, but the action was fairly even until the champion simply ran out of gas. By the 11th his punches were more like pushes, and he was trying to hold and clinch until the end. "Ni-no, Ni-no" faded away.
Benvenuti came out for the 12th and actually hit Monzón on the jaw with a left hook, but Monzón did not bat an eye. He herded Nino into his own corner, drove a clean uppercut to the point of the chin and the idol of Italians went down. There was dead silence in his corner. Benvenuti's wife, Giuliana, who hadn't stopped screaming from the sound of the first bell, stood mute, looking at her beaten husband. They led the stunned champion away from the ropes and back to his stool, but he was so groggy he had to stay there several minutes before he could walk down the aisle to his dressing room. When he got there he gave orders that no one be allowed to come in. Even Giuliana waited outside. She had her own explanation for her husband's defeat. For 20 days before the fight, Nino had remained secluded, almost out of touch with the world. "What do you expect?" said Giuliana. "Keeping him for such a long time so far from everyone! Twenty days without seeing anybody. He was forbidden to see his friends, to have their talks, their comfort, their encouragement. It was all a big mistake."
Perhaps it was a mistake and, true enough, Benvenuti has looked bad before, only to handle his conquerors easily in return matches. But last Saturday night he seemed to be a man past his prime.