Monday, November 26, 2007

Benvenuti - Griffith: Forty Years Later

One of the forgotten epics in boxing history was the trilogy of boxing matches between Nino Benvenuti and Emile Griffith. All three being for the undisputed middleweight championship of the world. Benvenuti is considered by many, including noted boxing writer Brian Doogan, to be the greatest boxer ever from Italy.

Although I can't do justice in this short piece as far as Benvenuti's amateur and early pro records in winning the 1960 Olympic welterweight gold medal, as well as numerous Italian and European titles, I will just quickly set the stage for the first Griffith bout. In June 1966, Benvenuti entered the ring to defend his Junior Middleweight (154 lbs.) world championship for the third time against the somewhat lightly regarded South Korean Ki Soo Kim in South Korea. Benvenuti had an amazing 65-0 record, and seemed on his way to much bigger fights. He ended up losing a split decision to Kim.

Perhaps his prior bout against notorious head butter Don Fullmer (whom he did defeat) broke down his confidence (after 26 stitches in the dirty bout), or maybe it was Kim flying very high in his home country (which is so common in sports), or maybe it was a questionable decision, but he did end up losing. Back in those days, the "light middleweight" division was lightly regarded, so losing to an average contender like Kim didn't bode well for Benvenuti's future chances at higher glory, prestige, and money in the great middleweight division. As it turned out, it was probably just an off-night in Seoul.

On April 17th, 1967, after six more wins in the middleweight division, Nino Benvenuti took a 71-1 record into the legendary Madison Square Garden (now closed) in New York City to face middleweight champion Emile Griffith. In a thrilling fight, in which both boxers were down, Benvenuti defeated Griffith by a clear unanimous decision. Ring Magazine named it the "1967 Fight of the Year." The enthusiastic crowd, of largely New York Italian-Americans, adopted the native of the Veneto as their very own. As the legendary trainer (of Griffith) Gil Clancy said, the crowd was virtually 100% in favor of Benvenuti. It was clearly an Italian thing, rather than some kind of overwhelming cheering of a White man over a Black man. Actually, as stated earlier, enthusiastic crowds can have a very favorable effect on the individual or team that is being cheered, like a bolt of electricity on their side.

Five months later, Benvenuti defended his title against Griffith again, and again it was held in New York State (Shea Stadium, Flushing, NY). This time Griffith won a close unanimous decision. After another win, Benvenuti again challenged Griffith in a "rubber match" in Madison Square Garden in 1968. Benvenuti won a close unanimous decision. Benvenuti went on to lose and win the world middleweight championship a couple of more times (5-time world champion in total). Between 1970 and 71, a slightly past his prime Benvenuti was defeated twice (TKO & KO) by Argentinian Carlos Monzon, who is considered today by many to be THE greatest middleweight of all time.

Perhaps someday we can produce a documentary, about Benvenuti and the trilogy with Emile Griffith, worthy of this piece of largely forgotten history. Benvenuti has gone on to do many things since his retirement from boxing, too numerous to name here, including a long friendship with Griffith and Monzon.

Related Links:
Nino Benvenuti Bio - Wikipedia
Emile Griffith Bio - Wikipedia
Nino Benvenuti Record -
Emile Griffith Record -
Benvenuti-Griffith I - YouTube