From 1986 to 2001, Roberto Sabbatini was the most important promoter in Italy. Roberto breathed boxing since childhood because his father was legendary promoter Rodolfo Sabbatini, whose shows featured outstanding fighters like WBA/WBC middleweight champions Carlos Monzon and Rodrigo Valdez, WBA light heavyweight titlist Victor Galindez, and featherweight kings Eusebio Pedroza (WBA), Danny Lopez (WBC), Johnny Famechon (WBC) and Vicente Saldivar (WBA/WBC). No wonder that Rodolfo will be inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame next June. When Rodolfo passed away, Roberto carried the family’s tradition in the boxing business. Let’s hear the story from him.
When did you decide to become a promoter?
When my father died, on January 6, 1986. He had scheduled a show for the following month and I was forced to take care of it. I kept on promoting shows until 1994, when I decided to leave boxing. After a few months, Giulio Spagnoli asked me to become his business partner and I accepted. Giulio is the son of another legendary Italian promoter: Renzo Spagnoli. Me and Giulio worked together until 2001, when I left boxing for good. During my 15 years in the game, I promoted mostly in Southern Italy because it was easier getting money from the politicians. I’ll explain it for the American readers. In Italy, every local government (city, province and region in order of importance) has a sports department. The councilman who runs it has the interest in promoting the biggest number of events possible, so the voters can thank him for giving them free sports entertainment. If a boxing promoter proposes a big show, in the main local square, the councilman can give him a contribution which may cover in total or in part the costs of the show (fighters’ purses included). In Sicily and Calabria, sports department managers were easier to talk to and more willing to help. I also promoted in Central Italy: Sumbu Kalambay vs. Mike McCallum was staged in Pesaro (in the Marche region), Sumbu Kalambay vs Iran Barkley in Livorno (Tuscany). In Northern Italy, my favorite place was the city of Campione d’Italia where there are the casino, the lake, the mountains and other things attractive for the tourists.
Did you ever promote abroad?
Not much. I promoted just in the Principality of Monaco. My biggest fight there was Patrizio Oliva vs. WBA light welterweight champion Ubaldo Sacco in 1986. That night, Patrizio became world champion. In Monaco I promoted IBF middleweight champion James Toney vs. Francesco Dell’Aquila in 1991. Francesco was a good boxer who compiled a record of 31-1-2 and had won the Italian and European middleweight titles.We didn’t think much of Toney, even if his record was 27-0-1 and he had beaten Michael Nunn (TKO 11). Instead, Toney made short work of Dell’Aquila (TKO 4). We understood Francesco’s limits, but we never imagined that Toney would have had such a great career.
Did you ever work with foreign promoters?
Yes, especially with Bob Arum who was an associate of my father. In France, my partners were Michel and Louis Acaries. In England, I worked with Barry Hearn, Mickey Duff and Frank Warren.
What was your best show?
WBA light welterweight champion Patrizio Oliva vs. Rodolfo Gonzales in Agrigento (Sicily). It happened on January 10, 1987. The place was packed and more than 10,000,000 people watched the fight on national public network RAI 2. It was the top audience of RAI 2 that year, also because it was broadcasted live at 9:00 pm (this never happens today). Oliva guaranteed a big audience and therefore good money from the TVstations. Even his battle against European welterweight champion Kirkland Laing drew good TV ratings. Believe me, that was a terrible fight. Laing used all the dirty tricks in the book.
Those big TV ratings are in contrast with the opinions of many Italian journalists: they used to write that Oliva was a boring fighter.
Oliva was a technical fighter who studied the right strategy to win on points. Journalists love brawlers and that’s why they never were too enthusiastic about Patrizio. On the other hand, the Italian fans were always interested in Oliva’s career because he won the Olympic gold medal and he kept on winning as a pro. Patrizio was definitely a big draw.
Did you make your record attendance with him?
No, I made it with WBC super middleweight champion Mauro Galvano vs. Juan Carlos Gimenez in Marino (close to Rome). The match was held on February 6, 1992 at the Ice Palace and it was soldout. More than 4,000 people bought the tickets. In Italy, large paying audiences are rare. Those 4,000 tickets sold can be considered a big success.
What was the best fight you promoted?
WBA middleweight champion Sumbu Kalambay vs. Mike McCallum, in Pesaro. It was Kalambay’s second defense of the belt and he won on points. It happened on March 5, 1988. Technically, it was a magnificent fight.
Let’s talk about your father. Explain to the American readers who he was.
My father Rodolfo was a sports journalist who decided to become a boxing promoter. This happened in 1964. He was so successful that he sold out the Palaeur in Rome. That building has 18,000 seats for boxing. My father kept a photo in his office: thousands of people out at the Palaeur for the fight between European light middleweight champion Sandro Mazzinghi vs. Jo Gonzales. They couldn’t get tickets because there were no more! Can you imagine selling 18,000 tickets today? No way, not even with the world heavyweight title on the line. By the way: Mazzinghi KOed Gonzales in four rounds on December 1, 1967. Mazzinghi was just one of the many famous fighters promoted by my dad. Probably, Carlos Monzon was the best of them.
Why did Monzon defend his middleweight title only once in the United States?
Because he was so big that his opponents agreed to fight him anywhere. In Europe, Monzon was promoted by my father. In Argentina, Tito Lectoure took care of him. Lectoure and my dad were very close friends. Another great middleweight champion promoted by my father was Marvin Hagler. The fight took place in San Remo, on October 30, 1982. The Marvelous One defended his WBA/WBC titles against tough Venezuelan Fulgencio Obelmejias: Hagler won in five rounds.
Your father also promoted a very controversial boxer: welterweight Nino La Rocca.
La Rocca was critized by some journalists who never liked him; the reasons are beyond me. I’m sure that the American readers never heard of Nino La Rocca, so I will tell them his history. La Rocca was born in Mali (Africa), but lived and fought in Italy where he got the citizenship. He spoke Italian and performed well in front of the tv cameras. He had also a happy-go-lucky attitude and the people loved him. Among his fans, there was President Pertini. In the early 1980s, Nino La Rocca was as popular as the soccer players. After Nino lost to WBA/IBF welterweight champion Donald Curry (KO 6), those journalists who never liked La Rocca wrote that he was a total joke. They forgot that, in 1986, Donald Curry was at his best and nobody had a chance against him. Honestly, I think that Nino La Rocca was a good boxer, very fast and with good technique. He wasn’t very courageous, but he was not a bum. After all, he became European welterweight champion (beating the awkward Kirkland Laing on points) and closed his career with a record of 75 wins (54 KOs) and just 6 losses.
Who’s your favorite fighter today?
I don’t follow boxing anymore. I just take care of my own business: I opened a small shop in Rome.
Okay, but there is a champion who would make you spend $500 for a ringside seat?
There’s nobody that good!