Italian sport: Nino Benvenuti, the most beloved Italian boxer in the United States
- WTI Magazine #124 Feb 16, 2020
Sixty years ago Italy, in particular its capital, Rome, showed itself to the world in all its modernity. Fifteen years after the end of the Second World War, the Bel Paese had closed most of the wounds of the atrocious war and launched itself towards the famous economic boom of the 1960s.
It was a sport event to give impetus to this period of rebirth: the Olympic Games in Rome. In a short time, the Capital city transformed itself from a peripheral city to a European metropolis, thanks to the building of many modern infrastructures. But the 1960 Games were also the first to be broadcast on television in various countries and the first to put disabled athletes on a par with the able-bodied, with the birth of the Paralympics.
Among the thousand stories of that magical summer, two left an indelible mark in the following years. Both were written by boxers: one African-American, the other Istrian-Italian. The first was Cassius Clay, who won the gold medal in Rome at a very young age, a success that launched him into the professional world where a few years later, converted to Islam, he changed his name to Muhammad Ali.
The other was Nino Benvenuti, who in the years following his Olympic gold medal became a legend of international boxing for all Italians and in particular for those emigrated to the States.
Let's start from the beginning, that is from that September 6, 1960, when at the Palazzo dello Sport in Rome the welterweight Benvenuti beat Yuri Radionyak from USSR in the final, winning the gold. At the end of the boxing tournament, Benvenuti was awarded the Val Barker cup, destined for the technically best boxer of all, taking it away from the future legend Cassius Clay.
Benvenuti, always with a fate crossed with the United States, won several awards: "Fighter of the year" in 1968; the entry into the International Boxing Hall of Fame and the World Boxing Hall of Fame in the following years; in 2011 named " Man of the Year" by the “Associazione Culturale Italiana di New York”; in 2016 the solemn entry into the National Italian-American Sport Hall of Fame. Five awards, all "made in USA", obtained by a few boxers in history.
But his fame in the States came before these awards, and it's tied to a practically unbeatable fighter in those years: Emile Griffith. Born in Saint Thomas, Virgin Island, Griffith moved to New York as a young boy and immediately started boxing with excellent results. He had a reputation as a great fighter and in 1962 he won the world welterweight title against Cuban Benny Paret: Griffith beat him hard in the ring so much that Paret died nine days later. Benvenuti and Griffith fought for the title three times in what is considered one of the biggest battles in world boxing.
The first match was held at Madison Square Garden in New York City on April 17th, 1967 and in Italy about 18 million people followed it on the radio: the highest ever listeners for a radio report after the 1970 World Cup semifinal between Italy and Germany. Griffith was defending the world belt of middleweights, fighting at home and also having history on his side: until then only one European boxer had won a world title fighting in the United States. But the thousands of Italians who emigrated to the States present at Madison were strongly supporting Benvenuti who, surprisingly, won by points.
On September 29th of the same year, at Shea Stadium in Queens, there was a rematch and Griffith took back the world title. On March 4th, 1968, at Madison Square Garden, the last match between the two saw Benvenuti as the winner, becoming the idol of the Italian Americans.
Benvenuti's career continued successfully and for other two years he successfully defended the world title, until on November 7th 1970, in Rome, he lost to Argentinean Carlos Monzon and was unable to regain the title. He ended his career in 1971, becoming a radio and television commentator on boxing, a position that brought him back to the United States for many years to comment on the most prestigious matches. Today Benvenuti is 82 years old and is still very active in the world of sports as a commentator and testimonial for sporting events. And he is still today one of the Italian sports legends both at home and in the United States.