Midway through the seventh round at Wembley Arena in London last Saturday night, Vito Antuofermo's face was an infrared map of hell, his cheeks streaked with rivulets of blood, his left eye a crimson pool. At ringside his wife screamed for the fight to be ended, and referee Octavio Meyran, halting the action and calling in the doctor, seemed intent on doing just that. And Alan Minter, high on triumph, leaped and danced in the center of the ring to the cheers of his 10,000 utterly committed fans.
But then, incredibly, the referee signaled for the fighters to continue, and Antuofermo made another of his brave, wild, blind-bull charges, pushing Minter back onto the ropes, connecting with a right. And the bout went on, with each passing second burying more deeply the confident predictions made about it. The pundits had forecast a photocopy of the Antuofermo-Minter fight in Las Vegas just 104 days before, when the Englishman had taken away Antuofermo's middleweight world title—one unique in boxing, in that it's recognized by both the WBA and WBC.
The experts asserted that Minter would fight as he had in Nevada, content to rack up points while retreating from Antuofermo's rushes, keeping out of trouble, boxing cool. From the beginning of this fight, though, there was an entirely different Minter. As Antuofermo bore in, Minter stood his ground, punishing his opponent's scarcely defended face with right jabs. And as he did so, bloodying Antuofermo in the very first round, it seemed, paradoxically, that the only thing he had left to worry about was the effect on himself of his howling, oversupportive fans, whose stomping had even drowned out the silver-trumpeted fanfares of the marines when the fighters were introduced.
Earlier in the week Minter had confided that fear. "I've got to be careful of my own crowd, careful not to let them work me up," he'd said. "I have to control myself, only get involved in my own time. I reckon I'm a better fighter on the road. I've learned to control myself—I used to be a bit of a hothead."
Minter said this at the gym above the Thomas à Becket Public House on the Old Kent Road in London's Southwark, the kind of inner-city zone that gives inner cities a bad name. Seven hundred years ago pilgrims watered their horses at a hostelry on the site of the pub on their way to Canterbury in Kent, to the shrine of St. Thomas à Becket. The present building, in which Minter did the final phases of his training, is scarcely a century old, an echoing Victorian extravaganza that miraculously survived the World War II Blitz that leveled square miles all around it.
Minter, too, had to survive an expected blitz. "All right," he said, "I know that he has to rough me up and that he's trying to upset me already, calling me pussycat, that kind of thing. He's got a bigger mouth than the Thames. They're niggling me to get me into a brawl."
Which is why Minter was also concerned about the refereeing. He had been told that Carlos Padilla, the referee in the Sugar Ray Leonard-Roberto Duran fight, had been taken aside before that bout by a WBC official and instructed not to interfere too much. Padilla had refereed the fight in Vegas in which Minter had won his title—and on that occasion Antuofermo had complained that there had been too much interference, that he had been prevented from fighting in his customary style. For the rematch, Octavio Meyran of Mexico would referee, and no one seemed to know much about his officiating.
Antuofermo, an Italian citizen who lives in Brooklyn, had almost the same worry when he headed into London last Wednesday after almost three weeks of training in the mountains near Genoa in northern Italy. "Who are the officials?" he wanted to know immediately, and Mickey Duff, the promoter, read the names of the European judges and the Mexican referee. Antuofermo grunted noncommittally. What he was undoubtedly thinking of was the extraordinary scoring in Vegas of an English judge, Roland Dakin, who had given 13 rounds to Minter, scored one even and given only one to Antuofermo—eccentric behavior at best. Dakin keeps a seaside pub at Bracklesham Bay in Sussex, Minter's home county, and when Antuofermo came into town, Dakin urged him to head down to the coast, to try a pint of real English beer, an invitation that was not taken up. No, declared Antuofermo, all he wanted in England was to get his title back, the one Minter had borrowed. He said that in a West London hotel on a cold June evening that hardly seemed to require the heavily framed, very dark sunglasses that he refused to take off for the photographers. He was just superstitious, he declared. It was his rule to wear shades before a fight, even in bed. He had neglected to do so in Vegas against Minter and look where that got him.
Under pressure, though, Antuofermo confessed that the glasses hid a real shiner, courtesy of a sparring partner. He said that if he were home in Brooklyn, his mother would have cleared it up in no time with one of her celebrated bread, water and parsley poultices.
Antuofermo was jaunty enough on the surface but the worries were still there. The refereeing: "Padilla took away my strength by breaking us up all the time, then last week he lets Duran swarm all over Leonard." And cuts: both he and Minter are notorious bleeders, though neither had suffered from this in Vegas. Fighting under British Board of Boxing Control regulations, Antuofermo's cornermen, Howie Albert and Tony Carione, would be permitted to use only a very mild 1-in-1,000 solution of Adrenalin as a coagulant.
It was hard to tell what sort of shape Antuofermo was in, but there was no such uncertainty about Minter. In the gym Minter was eager and sharp, scorning protective headgear in some sparring rounds. And in the bar downstairs, a shrine to boxing, not Becket, the locals were confident under the smiling oil painting of Henry Cooper, the former heavyweight contender. For years Our 'Enery had been the idol of the Cockney fans, and they were a little sniffy at first about Minter, a boy from out of town. But they'd been won over by his performance in Vegas.
"There won't 'arf be a knees-up in 'ere when 'e wins on Saturday," somebody said. A Cockney "knees-up" being a lot of beer, a lot of dancing and singing of old-time songs.
There were an awful lot of Cockneys in Wembley Arena for the fight, a sellout, and the din was enormous.
From the start, Antuofermo—heavily mustached, unshaven for days, barrel-chested, a smaller Rocky Marciano—threw wild punches and charged in low. Which was absolutely no surprise. And Minter did not retreat. He stood up, crashing rights into a face that Antuofermo seemed uninterested in protecting. Then Minter would follow the jabs with left crosses. Authoritative and aggressive, Minter guided those jabs with cold eyes. In 51 fights Antuofermo had been stopped only twice, but just before the end of Round 1 one of Minter's combinations cut him over the nose, a little toward the right eyebrow. Already Antuofermo was in trouble.
For only a moment in the whole fight, at the end of the second round, did Minter lose his cool. Then he seemed to ignore the bell, going after Antuofermo so that his father-in-law and trainer, Doug Bidwell, had to drag him toward his corner. Now there was a split over Antuofermo's left brow, the crowd was chanting Minter's name, and the beginning of Round 3 would be his moment of temptation to mix it with Antuofermo.
But Minter avoided it. The third reverted to the pattern of Round 1, Antuofermo coming on like one of those doomed divisions on the Western Front in World War I. When, briefly, he managed to get Minter on the ropes, the champion slipped him expertly. Twice Minter coolly turned his back on Antuofermo, inviting the referee to intervene, which he did. One Antuofermo rush, almost at belly level, came close to pushing Minter through the ropes, but he twisted away, grinning a wolfs grin.
In the sixth, Minter opened up Antuofermo's right eye again, with a looping right. Not until the seventh did Antuofermo catch Minter—with a right chop and a left hook—but instantly the champion was counterpunching heavily, Antuofermo's face was again a bloody mess, and the referee was intervening, borrowing a towel to wipe the blood from his own face as the doctor examined Antuofermo.
And then the eighth: two more right jabs and a left from Minter were enough to prompt Carione to move into the ring to concede after the round ended. As Minter leaped high in the ring, this time with reason, they were still working on Antuofermo's face. Eighteen stitches would be needed to close him up, and gallantly, simply, he would say of Minter, "A great champion."
"It's a shame his corner stopped him," said Minter. "I would have done him in in the next few rounds. I was homing in on his chin." A new Minter, all right, now the undisputed middleweight champion.
And a busy one, his manager reckoned. "He'll rest, but not for long," Bidwell said. Marvin Hagler would seem the logical choice for Minter's next defense, and down at the Thomas à Becket they'll no doubt arrange another knees-up for that.
Minter confidently held his ground and jabbed.
For Antuofermo it was just a bloody bad fight.