Calabria is one of the Italian regions best-known in the United States. That’s because millions of U.S. citizens have Calabrese blood. Most of them live in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. The largest Calabrese community should be in Philadelphia, but there are also groups in small towns like Clarksburgh (West Virginia) where they promote an annual parade inviting major celebrities as Grand Marshall. Not many people know that Calabria produced some of the best Italian fighters of the last 30 years. The most famous is Giovanni Parisi, the only one who won it all. Born in Vibo Valentia on December 2, 1967, Giovanni won the Olympic Gold Medal in the featherweight division, built a professional record of 41 wins (29 KOs), 5 losses and 1 draw. He became WBO lightweight and light welterweight champion. You can read everything about his career in my articles published on this website on December 5, 2005 and September 25, 2006.
Another famous Calabrese boxer is Giorgio Campanella. Born in Crotone on February 20, 1970, he had an outstanding amateur career winning four Italian titles (in the lightweight and light welterweight divisions) and the European light welterweight championship. Between 1990 and 2000, he fought 38 professional bouts: 31 wins (24 by KO), 6 losses and 1 draw. He became Italian super featherweight champion and fought three times for a WBO belt. He is still remembered in American gyms because he knocked down WBO super featherweight champion Oscar De La Hoya with a perfect left hook to the chin. It happened on May 27, 1994 in Las Vegas. After the second loss to Shane Mosley, the Golden Boy was asked by Larry Merchant: “Did Mosley hurt you?” Oscar’s answer was: “Only two fighters hurt me: Ike Quartey and Giorgio Campanella.” If you want to know more, read my interview to Giorgio Campanella published on November 22, 2005.
A third outstanding Calabrese boxer was Vincenzo Belcastro. Probably, you never heard of him because he spent his entire career in Europe. In Italy, not many people remember him because he always had the press against him. The so-called experts wrote that he wasn’t the equal of the champions of the 1960s and 1970s. Maybe that’s true, but Vincenzo Belcastro proved to be the best of his own era and that’s enough to treat him with respect. Born in Fuscaldo on February 2, 1962, Vincenzo Belcastro debuted professionally in 1984 and kept on fighting until 2000. He built a record of 32 wins (only 4 KOs), 13 losses and 5 draws. His record doesn’t look impressive because Vincenzo didn’t stop fighting in 1996. From 1997 to 2000, he fought 5 times getting 1 draw and 4 losses. When Belcastro was in his prime, he was a real toughman. He worked his way up slowly, but ultimately made it big. In 1986-7, he won and defended the Italian bantamweight title. On April 13, 1988 he got a chance against hyped Fabrice Benichou. The Frenchman had a big mouth and was supported by the press, but Vincenzo KOed him in 3 rounds becoming European bantamweight champion. The victory was no fluke as Belcastro successfully defended the EBU belt against Lorenzo Martinez Pacheco (TKO 9), Billy Hardy (twice), Luigi Camputaro (on points) and Ronnie Carroll (unanimous decision). On April 28, 1991 the Calabrese brawler lost the belt on points to Thierry Jacob.
During his reign as European champion, Vincenzo Belcastro had two chances to win the world title. On August 21, 1988 in Capo d’Orlando (Sicily), he lost a split decision to IBF super bantamweight king Jose Sanabria. The judges scored 115-114 for Belcastro, 114-113 and 116-110 in favor of Sanabria. When two scorecards are that close, it’s reasonable to assume that either boxer could have won the fight. The third scorecard means little to me because I remember the judge who gave 8 points to Sugar Ray Leonard against Marvin Hagler… Belcastro’s second opportunity to become world champion took place on January 26, 1991 against IBF titlist Robert Quiroga. The match took place in Capo d’Orlando and was one-sided. Quiroga got two scorecards in his favor: 120-110 and 117-111. A third judge scored it 115-114 for Belcastro.
Showing typically Calabrese determination, Belcastro worked hard and got back on top. On January 27, 1993 in Orzinuovi he beat Antonio Picardi by majority decision and won the European bantamweight title. Belcastro successfully defended it against Drew Docherty (on points) and lost it to Naseem Hamed by unanimous decision. The journalists who didn’t like Belcastro wrote that he was finished. As usual, Belcastro reacted proving them wrong. Reacting is a characteristic of the people with Calabrese blood. If you are looking for trouble, provoke a Calabrese and you will find it. I know because I have Calabrese blood and never let anybody insult me and get away with it. Never. When somebody tells me to act as if nothing happened, my answer is: “My parents, grandparents and the previous generations were not from England. Self-control, forgiving and forgetting are not in my genes.”
Going back to Vincenzo Belcastro, he got a third world title shot and performed well. On December 17, 1994 in Cagliari (Sardinia) he lost to split decision to IBF super flyweight champion Harold Grey. One judge scored it 114-113 for Vincenzo. The others had it 115-113 and 115-112 in favor of Grey. There were many close fights in Belcastro’s career. Maybe that’s why he was underrated. My opinion is that if a soccer team can win 1-0, a boxer can win by one point. After losing to Grey, Belcastro challenged tough Serguei Devakov for the vacant European super bantamweight crown. It was April 5, 1995 and Belcastro won on points. He successfully defended the belt three times before losing it to Salim Madjkoune (TKO 8) on July 11, 1996. Despite the critics and the split decisions in favor of his opponents, Vincenzo Belcastro can proudly claim to have dominated the European scene from 1988 to 1996, becoming champion three times in two weight divisions.
A fourth excellent Calabrese boxer was Antonio Renzo. Born in Calopezzati on December 18, 1959, Antonio fought professionally from 1984 to 1994 building a record of 26 wins (21 KOs) and 9 losses. He failed in his first attempts to become Italian and European champion, but kept on trying and eventually won both titles. On December 23, 1989 Antonio stopped Luca De Lorenzi in four rounds and became Italian lightweight champion. On April 27, 1991 Renzo demolished Steve Boyle (TKO 7) and won the European lightweight belt. As usual, journalists called it a fluke and Antonio reacted with a vengeance. He successfully defended the EBU belt against Paul Charters (KO 11) and Carl Crook (TKO 6) before losing it to Jean Baptiste Mendy (TKO 9). After losing the rematch to Mendy, the Calabrese brawler fought twice losing on points to Antonio Strabello and defeating Michel Dahmani for the IBF Intercontinental lightweight crown. He then retired as a champion. I interviewed Antonio Renzo many years ago and he was working as a cook in the restaurant owned by his brother. Maybe I will interview him again in the future for The Sweet Science. I’m sure he has a lot to say about Italian boxing and journalists who always put down our best fighters.