On July 27, the biggest show in Italian history will take place in Milan: Silvio Branco will fight Manny Siaca for the interim WBA light heavyweight title, European light middleweight champion Michele Piccirillo will face Luca Messi, and Andrea Sarritzu will try to take the European flyweight crown from Ivan Pozo.
Three titles in the same night give a sense of relief to the Italian boxing community who can proudly claim that their sport is alive and kicking. For the long-time fans, it is a throwback to what boxing used to be; until the 1970s, the noble art was a mainstream sport that often got the front page of national newspapers and whose champions where hired to star in commercials, TV shows and movies. Some fighters were so popular that gossip magazines minded to send paparazzi to follow them and shoot photos of them while they were walking in the street, dining in restaurants or dancing in clubs. That’s one reason why most people thought that some boxing champions never trained.
Since the 1980s, boxing started a downfall which seemed unstoppable. It lost a lot of appeal in the heart of the general public who started choosing other sports. Volleyball, ice hockey and basketball grew so much that sold-out arenas became the norm. Rugby also improved a lot; the clubs kept drawing small crowds, but the national team was successful in getting 20,000 people for each major game. In the 1990s, even kickboxing and muay thai had some success. In Milan, Rimini, Turin, Rome and Trieste almost every promoter drew at least 4,000 spectators. The only difference with the other sports is that kickboxing and muay thai didn’t capitalize on their momentum and went back to being minor league.
Why boxing had a downfall while the other sports improved? According to most experts the main reason is the lack of rivalries. Italians love to see two real champions fighting to prove who is the best. Soccer fans are still arguing about Sandro Mazzola and Gianni Rivera playing in the 1970 World Cup. Cycling fans are still divided in two groups: the ones rooting for Fausto Coppi and the ones who claim that Gino Bartali was the best. Today’s teenagers know the claim “A man alone in command, he wears a yellow jersey, his name is Fausto Coppi.” That’s what the radio speaker said when Fausto Coppi dominated the Tour de France… in the 1950s.
Boxing fans still talk about the two fights between Nino Benvenuti and Sandro Mazzinghi. On June 18, 1965, in Milan, Benvenuti KOed Mazzinghi in six rounds and won the WBA/WBC light middleweight belts. On December 17, 1965, in Rome, Benvenuti knocked down Mazzinghi during the second stanza and went on to retain his crowns on points. In the 1980s, Italian fans would have loved to see Patrizio Oliva vs. Nino La Rocca, Francesco Damiani vs. Angelo Musone (or Biagio Chianese). Promoters never organized those fights. Without a rivalry, boxing was attractive only for the hardcore fans and they are just a niche.
After many years of mere survival, boxing is getting back to the major league. That’s thanks to Salvatore Cherchi who was good enough to find the financial resources needed to promote three titles in the same night, but also thanks to two extremely popular Italian fighters who were brave enough to risk their own reputation to give the public a new rivalry: Michele Piccirillo and Luca Messi.
No introduction is needed for Michele Piccirillo (45 wins, 3 losses, 1 no-contest and 28 KOs), being a former IBF welterweight champion and having defeated top-ranked opponents like Cory Spinks, Rafael Pineda, Frankie Randall, Juan Martin Coggi and Andrew Murray. Piccirillo is no stranger to all-Italian brawls: in 1998 he beat twice Alessandro Duran for the WBU welterweight title. Piccirillo has nothing to prove, he could get some easy purses defending the European light middleweight belt against easier opponents and retire as a champion. He already said that he will hang up the gloves within one year. Piccirillo is risking a lot against Luca Messi (30-6-1 and just 11 KOs) because the latter boxer is hungry of glory. Messi lost his share of battles against average fighters and most journalists don’t consider him in the same class as Piccirillo. Everybody was surprised when Messi held his own against WBA light middleweight champion Alejandro Terra Garcia. It happened on August 13, 2005 in Chicago. Messi lost by unanimous decision, but was jubilant because he proved the haters wrong. Nobody thought he could get past the first round. As Luca Messi said many times: “I just wanted to survive and land some good shots. It was a dream just to be there, in America, fighting for the world title.”
On July 27, the situation will be different. Messi is determined to win: “I thank Michele Piccirillo for giving me the opportunity to become European champion, but I will make him regret it. I won’t make the same mistake of Lukas Konecny who fought Piccirillo for the vacant Euro belt. Konecny used all his strength at the beginning of the fight and knocked down Michele in the second round. As the fight progressed, Konecny ran out of gas and was almost knocked out by Piccirillo. The judges had no doubts and gave Michele the victory by 3, 6 and 7 points. I will be the aggressor for the entire fight. I will give Piccirillo no rest.”
About the outcome of Piccirillo-Konecny, I asked to former kickboxing world champion Vic Antico and that’s what he said: “Piccirillo has great technique, works well with his left jab and hurts with his right hook. He can brawl too and is used to fight for major titles in front of large crowds. Messi is a good boxer, with a very strong desire to be recognized as a real champion. Their fight will be a great show.”
The July 27 card will be held inside the legendary Velodromo Vigorelli which is Milan’s version of Madison Square Garden. On September 7, 1963 the Vigorelli hosted the fight between WBA/WBC light middleweight champion Ralph Dupas and Sandro Mazzinghi who won by TKO 9. In the following years, the Vigorelli closed its doors to boxing for good. Italian fans are excited to be back in that legendary building and this adds a lot of charm to the “Night of the 3 Crowns.”
Former WBC super middleweight champion Cristian Sanavia will also fight in the show. He will face journeyman Sylvain Gomis just to keep in shape. Sanavia said many times that his dream is a third battle with Markus Beyer, but he would welcome a fight with Joe Calzaghe.
Light welterweight contender Giuseppe Lauri will fight mediocre Tarik Sahibeddine in a six-round bout.