Nino Benvenuti is one of the greatest Italian fighters in history. As an amateur he won a gold medal during the 1960 Olympics in the welterweight division. From 1961 to 1971 he compiled a professional record of 82 wins (35 by KO), 7 losses and 1 draw. He won the Italian and European middleweight titles and became world champion in the light middleweight and middleweight divisions. No need to specify that he wore the WBA and WBC belts, because in that era there were only two organizations and to be considered a real world champion a fighter had to win both titles.
Nino also fought the biggest stars of his day and beat most of them. He was never afraid to go to his opponent’s hometown, even if that meant risking his title. He produced memorable performances in the United States, Germany, Canada, Croatia, South Korea and Monte Carlo. Among his most famous opponents were Denny Moyer and Juan Carlos Duran (both beaten on points after 10 rounds), Sandro Mazzinghi ( KOed in six rounds, later beaten on points in 15), Don Fullmer (beaten twice on points), Emile Griffith (2 wins and 1 loss), Doyle Baird (a draw), Dick Tiger (a loss by unanimous decision), Tom Bethea (1 loss by TKO, later avenged by a KO win) and Carlos Monzon (who twice beat him before the limit).
Even 34 years after he decided to hang up the gloves, Nino remains very popular in Italy. Teenagers who weren’t born when he was champion ask him for autographs and treat him like a star. Not many of today’s boxers receive the same attention. Of course, being technical commentator for the Italian television helps keep his name in the news, but that alone doesn’t explain his popularity. So let’s ask him.
Mr. Benvenuti, I saw you at a fitness festival and you attracted more people than any other boxer. How do you explain that?
I think that my original fans have to be credited for that. When I fought, there were as much as 20,000 people at the sports complex in Rome. They talked about me to their sons, keeping my popularity intact. Besides, Italian television broadcasts images of my most famous fights and that helps too. A couple of days ago, I went to a fitness gym. They had a boxing program and I asked to see the room with the ring and the heavy bags. All of a sudden, all the fighters surrounded me and asked me to get a photo with them.
Let’s talk about your career. Who was your toughest opponent?
I would say Carlos Monzon, because he KOed me twice (in the 12th and 3rd rounds). I couldn’t believe it when I lost to him for the first time because I didn’t think much about Monzon. He had a decent record, but never defeated anybody famous. Besides, he had never produced an impressive performance. I think that Monzon surprised even himself: he had the opportunity to change his life for the better and did his best. He knew he was facing a real champion and this pushed him to a point he never reached before. In boxing, your performance changes according to the stature of your opponent. When I trained to fight Ki Soo Kim, for example, I wasn’t so focused like when I trained for Emile Griffith. Who the hell was this Kim? I supposed to knock him out fast. What happened was one of the most shameful pages in boxing history.
Tell us about that.
I dominated Ki Soo Kim, knocking him down during the 14th round. He got up and made it until the end of the round. During the interval, somebody approached the ring and broke one of the columns where the ropes were tied. They needed more than fifteen minutes to repair the column. When the 15th round began Ki Soo Kim had enough energy to last three more minutes. That was their purpose. Anyway, they couldn’t even get a unanimous decision for their man: one of the judges gave the victory to me. I never lost to him in the first place! If the match was held anywhere else, I would have got a unanimous decision by a wide margin of points. Unfortunately, we were fighting in Seoul. That was June 25, 1966. I lost my WBA and WBC light middleweight belts.
Going back to Monzon, how do you explain the second defeat?
I wasn’t motivated anymore. In boxing, you must have hunger of money and titles. I was rich and had been world champion fighting everywhere. That’s also part of the reason why Monzon beat me: he had the ambition that I didn’t have anymore. In the 1990s, I went many times to Argentina because I had a relationship with a woman who worked at the Argentinean Embassy in Rome. During my trips to Buenos Aires, I took the opportunity to visit Carlos Monzon in jail (he was there for throwing his wife out the window). I can say that he really enjoyed my visit and asked me to come back, which I did.
What other fighter gave you a hard time?
Luis Manuel Rodriguez. I faced him on November 22, 1969. The match was held in Rome and I was WBA and WBC middleweight champion. Rodriguez was one helluva fighter. I knew he was tough, but not that tough. He kept moving and throwing combinations like he had a turbo pushing him. At the 11th round, I was exhausted and he kept the rhythm very high. I asked myself if I could last four more rounds. All of a sudden, I hit him with a big left hook and he went down for the final count. I thought I got lucky. In Italy, they say that good luck helps the brave ones.
In the United States, you are remembered for your trilogy with Emile Griffith.
He was another difficult opponent, but I knew it from the beginning. I knew that he had beaten the very best, so I trained harder than ever before. I also knew that a win against such a great champion would have granted me big pay checks. What I didn’t understand was that beating Emile I could have made big money outside the ring.
What do you mean?
That I was asked to star in commercials. I was contacted shortly after my first victory. They gave me a plane ticket to Hollywood, to film a few scenes they wanted to show to the executives of the biggest companies. My first wife wanted to go back to Italy; my manager didn’t try to convince me to move to California and I declined the offer. Now I realize I missed a big opportunity. In my era nobody had a team of lawyers, marketing specialists, press agents who made them understand the value of communication or how to make money outside the ring. I never had a doctor who advised me about eating correctly. All I knew was that pasta and meat gave me strength and made me feel good, so I always ate those things. Today, they call it Mediterranean diet. My first experience outside boxing was a western movie: Vivi o preferibilmente morti (Wanted: alive or preferably dead). My partner was Giuliano Gemma, the biggest Italian movie star of that time. It was 1969. The director was Duccio Tessari, a master of spaghetti westerns. With such a team, the movie turned out to be a huge financial success. I don’t remember if it was number one or number two at the Italian box-office. Later, it was sold to Germany and other European countries. You know, I was so popular that paparazzi shot me photos while I was walking in the street or dining at a restaurant. That’s why some journalists wrote that I never trained. Those guys didn’t know that I woke up at 5.00 o’clock a.m. and ran for miles … then I spent hours in the gym. Only after having completed my training session, I went for a walk downtown.
You said that today’s fighters know more than you did. Is that also true if we talk about training?
Honestly, I’m convinced that modern fighters train better than the ones of my time. Of course, an advanced training program doesn’t guarantee success in the ring. In general, I think that everybody should build the kind of physique that makes him feel good.
What would you advise to a promising fighter?
I would tell him to be selective. If I was fighting today, I would go after the Italian championship and later the European title. After making a few defenses of the Euro belt, I would go after the WBA or WBC titles. The history of those two organizations gives their titles the status of world titles. Today, too many fighters don’t consider the Italian belt worthy. I want to say to these guys: You are doing a big mistake. The Italian title is only one, there’s only one champion in every weight division. Same story for the Euro belt. Those intercontinental, international and minor world titles mean nothing! I was proud to be Italian champion. There’s a famous photo of me jumping with my arms raised in victory and a big smile on my face. It was shot one second after I became European middleweight champion. I knew that was a huge step forward for my career. I knew that I really was the best in my own continent. Winning a minor belt doesn’t make a fighter the best in anything.
One final question: I read that you traveled to India, some years ago. Why?
I was in a very special moment of my life. I felt that I had to give something back to the world, because I received so much. Since I was always touched by people who were sick with leprosy (I met one of them in Isola d’Istria, when I was a kid), I decided to go to India and work in a hospital helping people who had leprosy. I spent three months there. It helped my soul.
Birth Name: Giovanni Benvenuti
Birthplace: Isola d´Istria, when it was part of Italy; today, it belongs to Croatia
Division: Light Middleweight and Middleweight
Born: April 26, 1938
Height: 180 cm.
Manager: Bruno Amaduzzi
Trainer: Libero Golinelli
Record: 82 Wins (35 by KO), 7 Losses and 1 Draw.
Light Middleweight Titles: WBA and WBC World Champion
Middleweight Titles: Italian Champion, European Champion, WBA and WBC World Champion