Fifty Years Ago Nino Benvenuti
Arrived In America
By Bobby Franklin
On April 17, 1967 Nino Benvenuti stepped into the ring at Madison Square Garden to challenge Emile Griffith for the Middleweight Championship of the World. This would only be the third time Nino had fought outside of his native Italy and would be his first appearance in the United States. He brought a record of 71 wins in 72 fights with him. Twenty-nine of his victories were via knockout.
While it was not unusual for European fighters to arrive in the States with outstanding records on paper, many of the opponents they had would be viewed as being of questionable talent and lacking in motivation. With Benvenuti this wasn’t the case.
In the 1960 Olympics Nino had won a Gold Medal in the welterweight division. He was voted outstanding boxer in the games beating out a young American boxer by the name of Cassius Clay for that honor. Of course, the Olympic games that year were held in Rome, but by all accounts Nino was deserving of the recognition.
It has been reported he had an amateur record of 120 wins and no losses. It is hard to verify that figure, but anything close is still quite impressive. He won numerous amateur titles.
Nino would turn pro in 1961 and begin amassing a very impressive record that led to his winning the Italian Middleweight Title in 1963. In 1965 he won the World Light Middleweight Title by defeating Sandro Mazzinghi. He would beat Mazzinghi in a rematch. In Sandro’s career he suffered only three losses in sixty-seven bouts, two of those being to Benvenuti.
Nino would stay busy in the ring defending the title and fighting non-title bouts. He defeated American Don Fullmer and in his first fight outside Italy he defended the title against Jupp Elze in Germany. His next stop would be a title defense in South Korea against Kim Ki Soo. Fighting Soo in the Korean’s hometown Nino tasted defeat for the first time losing the title. Benvenuti claimed he was robbed and that is very likely. However, instead of looking for a rematch and a chance to regain the title he decided to campaign for a shot at the World Middleweight Title.
Emile Griffith was the champion, and promoters were looking for someone exciting to match against him. Things were a bit slow in the division at that moment and Nino had wins over top contenders Mazzinghi and Fullmer. Nino also had something else going for him; personality. He was handsome and could light up a room with his smile. Combine that with his not so bad boxing abilities and you had the perfect combination for a very attractive bout. Tex Maule writing in Sports Illustrated would call Benvenuti “The best Italian import since olive oil.”
As Nino entered the ring for the fight he looked fit and relaxed. At 5’10” he was tall for a middleweight and he had broad shoulders. One thing that was in question was how he would adapt to fighting under American boxing rules which allowed for a lot more infighting and roughhousing than he was used to. Remember, all but one of his previous fights took place in Europe where the rules were similar to those in Olympic boxing and a fighter could be disqualified for crouching too low and going to the body too aggressively. Nino dispelled any notion that he would have a problem with the change as he came out very strong in the first round and showed that he could be every bit as rough as his his American counterparts. He fought hard in the clinches, so much so he had Emile complaining about the tactics he was using. It was clear Benvenuti was there to win and was not going to give any ground.
Nino floored Griffith in the second round for a two count but the champion wasn’t hurt. In the fourth round the champion connected with a solid right that put the Italian down and had him hurt. Griffith was unable to take advantage of the moment and Nino, using his defenseive skills, survived the round. The rest of the fight was hard fought with Benvenuti bleeding from a cut on the bridge of his nose that he sustained in the second round.
Griffith worked the body hard in hopes of slowing Nino down in the later rounds, but the tactic did not work. To the chants of Neeno!, Neeno! from the crowd Benvenuti finished strong and won a unanimous decision bringing the Middleweight Crown to Italy for the first time.
After the fight the new champion had to be secluded in his dressing room for about an hour before meeting with the press as he was ill. No, not from the effects of the punches but rather from the emotions of having accomplished his dream.
Nino Benvenuti not only won the title that night, but he also gave boxing a much needed shot in the arm. He brought an excitement to the sport. He proved so popular that in his rematch with Griffith five months later it was decided to hold it at Shea Stadium. Nino would lose the title on a close majority decision that night and then regain it the following year.
Nino was now in his thirties and his fine boxing skills were slowly starting to diminish, though he still could dig down and show what made him a champion. He did just that in his defense against former Welterweight Champ Luis Rodriguez where he was taking a pretty good lacing and then flattened Luis for the count in the eleventh round with a perfectly timed uppercut. He defended the title four times before losing it to the great Carlos Monzon. After losing to Monzon in a rematch he retired. Benvenuti always said he would get out of the game when he no longer had it and he made good on that promise. He was one of the few who knew when it was time to pack it in.
He invested wisely, acted in movies, hosted a television show, and opened a restaurant. He also became a city counselor in his home town of Trieste. He maintained a friendship with Emile Griffith and helped him out financially. Griffith was godfather to one of his sons. Nino also became friends with Carlos Monzon and had him as a guest on his television program a number of times.
Nino Benvenuti is living la dolce vita in Italy. On April 26th he will celebrate his eightieth birthday making him the oldest living middleweight champion, though he looks years younger. He still flashes his infectious smile and looks more like a movie star than a former boxer.
Nino’s name is rarely mentioned when the topic of all time greats comes up, but he certainly was a very impressive boxer/puncher. He was a master at throwing a hook off the jab. He could move very fast, had great defense, a lethal right hand and a devastating uppercut. Nino was always very courageous in the ring and had no quit in him. He was a proud and popular champion and is still well loved in Italy.
His professional record was 90 total fights with 82 wins, 35 by knockout, 7 losses and 1 draw. He was stopped on only three occasions, two of those were in his final two bouts which were against Monzon.
Nino Benvenuti was a classy champion. He made the sport interesting and fun. He deserves to be remembered with the respect and dignity he earned. On April 26th raise a glass of wine to him and say “buon compleanno Nino Benvenuti campione”