When Nino Benvenuti, an elongated middleweight who looks a bit like a muscular Beatle, won the middleweight championship of the world by drubbing stubby Emile Griffith in Madison Square Garden last week, he may have achieved the most impressive debut in America for any Italian since 1492. Shrugged off by most experts before the fight as just another effete European boxer, Benvenuti won a stylish, no-nonsense victory with an elegant upright stance, extraordinarily quick hands and command tactics which had Griffith floundering helplessly for most of the fight. He survived a sneak right hand that floored him and later took complete control for the final five rounds, despite a deep cut across the bridge of his nose.
When it was all over, Benvenuti endured the wild enthusiasm of his flag-waving compatriots smilingly, then retired to his dressing room and was ill, apparently as the result of an excess of emotion rather than damage inflicted by Griffith. It was two hours before he recovered enough to deliver a short, melodramatic speech to a victory party at Leone's Ristorante in which he attributed his success to father, flag and family in the best tradition of the cliché.
The forgivable platitudes were the only ones to mark Benvenuti's visit to the U.S. He trained for the fight at the Villaggio Italia, a bit of Italy tucked away in the Catskill Mountains about 120 miles from New York, and the training program devised by Libero Golinelli, an ex-Partisan colonel, was refreshingly different.
His training began when Benvenuti arose at dawn and quaffed a concoction of fruit juices, milk and a touch of cognac prepared for him by the m√¢itre d' of the Villaggio. Fortified by this, he did his running, which was longer than most Americans like, stretching sometimes to 10 miles. His meals were Italian and included red wine at lunch and dinner. During the day he read, played tennis, did a little trapshooting and submitted to dozens of interviews by radio, TV and press, all with an engaging good humor.
Benvenuti is tall, he smiles easily and he is, in a rather craggy way, a handsome man. He was notably undisturbed at the thought of fighting Griffith. Fighting he considers his business and his approach to it is matter-of-fact.
"I have no fear in the ring," he said one evening after dinner just before his workout. "When I step between the ropes, the hard part is all over, and if I feel that I am sufficiently prepared, I fear no man. I know Griffith is a good fighter and his style will be new to me, but I am then in my own world and I would not care if he stood on his hands and fought me with his feet. I would know what to do."
Benvenuti is just 29 and he has been fighting since he was 13, losing only one of some 190 amateur and professional fights, so his self-confidence is justified.
"Always in my fights I find that there is a time when I am aware that I have become the master of my opponent," he said one afternoon. "When I beat Mazzinghi for the junior middleweight championship of the world, it came in the sixth round. For five rounds he had been thinking that he could beat me, and his blows had force and authority, but during the sixth round, as I pressed the attack, he lost his confidence and I could feel it in the diminished force of his blows. After that I knew that I would win and I did."
Golinelli, a short man with a stern, solemn face, came into the room and motioned imperiously to Benvenuti, who grinned at him. It was time for his last hard workout.
"I must go to work now," Benvenuti said. "Golinelli has prepared me well for this. If I lose—and I don't expect to lose—I will have no excuses. I have been as much at home here as I would have been in Italy. This country reminds me of the Dolomites near Trieste, where I live."
Golinelli spoke impatiently in a rapid Italian, and Nino got up lazily and followed him to the basement gymnasium. Dressed in sweats, he began to move around the big room slowly, Golinelli walking a shorter circle inside his and giving him low-pitched instructions. Benvenuti is a remarkably graceful athlete and he went through the loosening-up exercises with a flair that made him seem a dancer warming up for a ballet rather than a boxer preparing to go five hard rounds with his sparring partners. At Golinelli's command, he walked with exaggeratedly long strides, shaking his arms, then jigged a bit with his arms at his sides, wiggled his head, jumped up and down, jogged and took tentative dancing steps until the trainer judged that he was loosened up enough to box.
In the ring next door, Benvenuti fought with the confidence and hand speed that was to take him to victory over Griffith. He has exceptionally wide shoulders and long, muscular legs and he hit hard with both hands. He reacted quickly when he was hit himself, striking back viciously and accurately. At one point, Golinelli called two more boxers into the ring and had two bouts going at once.
"This is so that Nino will never be distracted by what is going on about him," he explained later. "It helps him to concentrate on his opponent."
Golinelli wound up the workout by pelting Benvenuti with rubber balls from a distance of about 15 feet. Some of the balls were striped, some a solid red, and Benvenuti protected himself dexterously by punching the striped balls and ducking the red ones. The balls, about the size used in tennis, were hard enough to hurt if any penetrated Benvenuti's guard. None of them did.
"It is to quicken the hand and the eye," Benvenuti said later. "If Libero cannot hit me throwing balls, can Griffith with his fists?"
For most of the time in the Garden three nights later, it turned out that Griffith could not. Benvenuti won the first two rounds of the fight handily, snapping Griffith's head back with sharp, jarring left jabs and using his superior height and reach to stay clear of his opponent's lunging attack. Fighting flat-footed, he caught Griffith several times with hard, lifting right uppercuts. The best of these came early in the second round, starting a handsome sequence of punches. It twisted Griffith's head sideways and dazed him. A left followed and then another right uppercut that landed high on Griffith's belly, sending him bouncing to the canvas. Griffith was up by four and clear-eyed when the fighting resumed.
Although Benvenuti kept his hands high in an almost classic stance most of the time, occasionally he lowered his left hand, looking strangely like Muhammad Ali. Usually when he did this, he hooked Griffith to the belly. It was a dangerous ploy against a good right-hand puncher and it cost him in the fourth round.
With a minute of the round gone, Benvenuti lowered the left hand and Griffith leaped in to hit him on the side of the jaw with a swinging right that knocked Benvenuti spraddle-legged into the ropes. He hung momentarily with his head over the middle strand, then fell full length to the floor. He was inert for a second or two, but he got to his feet easily before Mark Conn, the referee, reached the obligatory eight-count. Like Griffith's eyes two rounds earlier, Benvenuti's were clear, and Conn moved aside to let the impatient Griffith resume his attack on the challenger.
Curiously, Griffith did not exploit his advantage. A two-fisted attack to the belly might have brought Benvenuti's guard down and opened the way for another right to the head. Instead, Griffith seemed intent on knocking the challenger out with another head shot, and Benvenuti smothered his blows or blocked them. By the end of the round Benvenuti had resumed the attack and caught Griffith with a heavy one-two—a left to the belly and a right to the head—just before the bell.
For most of the rest of the fight Griffith fought an oddly defensive campaign. It had been expected that he would carry the fight to Benvenuti on the inside, crowding in close and ripping away at the belly with the short, hard hooks and uppercuts which are Griffith's stock in trade and which European fighters are not supposed to be able to cope with. But when he did come inside, Benvenuti tied him up expeditiously, then banged away at his ribs and the side of his head with a free hand.
After the 10th round, in which he mounted his last serious attack, Griffith backed away into the ropes more often than not, crouching a little and peering out at Benvenuti between upraised gloves, much on the order of Floyd Patterson. He explained later that he had hoped by this tactic to lure Benvenuti into range for another right to the head, but the ruse was painfully unsuccessful. Benvenuti, grown increasingly bold, stepped in with snapping left hooks and right uppercuts that jolted Griffith.
He grew stronger as Griffith wilted. By the end of the fight there was no remote doubt about the winner, and the large Italian segment of the 14,000-odd people in the Garden were screaming "Neeno! Neeno! Neeno!" ecstatically even before the referee announced the decision. Nino won 10 to five on two cards and nine to six on the other, which was very charitable to Griffith.
Long after the fight, when he had had time to calm his emotions and his upset stomach, Benvenuti said, "He is a good fighter and I will be glad to fight him again. I will win again. I knew I would win tonight after the sixth round. That is the round in which I established my domination. After that I knew I would beat him, and I am sorry only for getting hit that one time. I was foolish and careless. It won't happen the next time."
The next time is expected to come July 13 in New York and not a second too soon, since Benvenuti does not expect to fight much longer. In a perfectly planned boxing career, he has lost only to Kim Ki-Soo, a Korean, in Seoul. He had to get down to 154 pounds for that match, which cost him his junior middleweight championship.
"He should have won," says Golinelli. "He had Soo in trouble late in the fight when Soo's seconds loosened the ring ropes so they fell down. It took eight minutes to fix them and Soo recovered."
Benvenuti, who has devoted 10 months a year out of his life to training since he was 13, says he will fight for another two years at the most. "Right now I am at my ultimate," he explains. "I do not know how long I can continue at this level, but I promised myself that I would study myself when I am 30 years old. If I feel that I can continue at this level for another year or two after that, then I will continue fighting. But if I feel I am past the crest of the hill, I will stop. I do not have to fight for a living. I fight for the enjoyment of it."
Since he owns an insurance agency, an aluminum factory and some $250,000 in stock, Benvenuti does not worry about when his fighting career will end. He can divert himself with skiing, water sports, shooting and driving one of his four cars at breakneck speeds around Trieste. He can also listen to music and read. He brought Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea to Villaggio Italia with him and read Voltaire when he had finished that. A stern family man, he put himself to sleep at night viewing pictures, glued to the ceiling over his bed, of his two young children and a wife who looks like an Italian movie star.
He returned to Trieste three days after the fight. There was a general police strike in Italy when he got back, but the constabulary in Trieste stayed on duty so that his welcome would go smoothly. After a triumphal parade in a convertible to the town hall, he wept openly as he waved at the crowds.
"You have brought honor to Italy," the mayor told him. Indeed he had, and to boxing, too, which can use it.
A bruising right uppercut by Benvenuti twists Griffith's face and sets him up for a right to the belly that dropped him in the second round.
Ecstatic Italian followers, who swarmed into Madison Square Garden ring after unanimous decision, hoist the new champion to their shoulders.