To prepare for his roles as a prizefighter in Goodfellas, hit man Anthony (the Ant) Squigliaro in The Godfather: Part III and tough guy Bobby Zanone in The Sopranos, Vito Antuofermo didn't require much formal training. "The mob, fighting, being a wise guy—those types of roles are easy for me," says the 56-year-old Antuofermo. Maybe it's because he had plenty of hard-bitten experience to draw upon for tense cinematic moments. Before a scene with Andy Garcia in Godfather III, for instance, director Francis Ford Coppola told Antuofermo to "think back to 1979, to Caesars Palace in Vegas, when you were about to fight Marvin Hagler." The erstwhile middleweight champ wound up giving Garcia more than a baleful glare. Says Antuofermo with a laugh, "I accidentally hit him right in his f------ nose." Which is to say that while Antuofermo has found a niche career as a character actor, he remains a pugilist at heart.
In his kitchen in the Howard Beach section of Queens, N.Y., Antuofermo ticks off the many obstacles that might have kept him from success in the ring: his club right foot, a lifelong handicap that he unveils from beneath bandages; his height of 5'7", more suited for a lightweight than a middleweight; his double vision, which was only partially corrected in 1988; his unfamiliarity with the sport when he immigrated to Brooklyn from Bari, Italy, at age 16; and the fact that he didn't speak fluent English until he was an adult. Nevertheless, after a cop sent young Vito to a Snyder Avenue gym instead of jail following a street fight, he began boxing and in '70 won the New York Golden Gloves 147-pound title at age 17. Nine years later, in Monte Carlo, Antuofermo bulled and body-punched his way through 15 rounds with Hugo Corro of Argentina to become the undisputed world middleweight champ.
But Antuofermo's most famous bout remains his first title defense, the November 1979 meeting with Hagler. A 4-to-1 favorite, the challenger dominated the first six rounds, after which a blood-soaked Antuofermo lured Hagler into an all-out brawl and eked out a draw to keep his crown. "The champion's style," one scribe observed, "is neo-caveman."
He would lose two title fights to Britain's Alan Minter in 1980 before again seeing Hagler, who by '81 had regained the middleweight belt. That year Marvelous Marvin would win the rematch by TKO, but Antuofermo firmly maintains that "Hagler never beat me": His corner stopped the fight twice because of cuts, which Antuofermo alleges came from a Hagler head butt. Whatever the case, Hagler would admit that the man he nicknamed Vito the Mosquito had "been on my mind a long time."
July 12, 2009
After retiring from the ring for good in 1985 with a record of 50-7-2, Antuofermo pursued acting (Al Pacino, whom he met while filming Godfather III in Italy, sent him to the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute in Manhattan) and owned and sold a local pizza place on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn. Now the father of four works as a stevedore in Port Newark, N.J.—"on the waterfront," Antuofermo points out with a grin. But there's a notable difference between him and Marlon Brando's Terry Malloy, whose famous backseat monologue he cheerfully recites by heart. Vito Antuofermo was a contender.