SEPTEMBER 25, 1997
Nino Benvenuti remembers the day in November 1995 when he decided to change his life. The former matinee idol, who won a gold medal in front of his countrymen at the Rome Olympics in 1960 and later held the world middleweight tide for most of three years, had been beating himself up, guilt-ridden that for all his success in and out of the ring, he hadn't done enough to help others. "I felt I had so much more to give," he says. "I wasn't at peace with myself. I wanted to do something to test myself."
Benvenuti, who'd been working as a boxing commentator, traveled from Rome to Madras, India, volunteering to work for a church-run charity as a caretaker for sick and poor people. When word came after his first week there that members of the Italian press were coming to see him, he fled seven miles by bicycle into the woods, to Pope John's Garden, a leper colony run by the sisters of St. Charles Borromeo and one that, Benvenuti says, even many doctors and priests avoided for fear of contracting leprosy. For three months Benvenuti bathed, bandaged and befriended the patients, including a man named Amin, who used to kiss his hand each morning and follow him around throughout the day. "Amin was always smiling," says Benvenuti, 65. "I asked him why, and he said because he was the fortunate one; others with the disease didn't have medical care. I went there to shed some guilt. I returned a rich man, rich in a way no money in the world can make you."
Benvenuti had already lived a bountiful life. He won two of his three memorable title bouts against Emile Griffith in the 1960s and was known as a refined boxer who read modern literature, listened to Beethoven and trained at a gym in Bologna that was adorned with Renoir reproductions and a carpeted marble staircase. While still boxing, he served briefly on the Trieste city council on a neo-Fascist ticket, saying that it was the only party supporting the cause of the people from Istria, a historically Italian region that was given to Yugoslavia after World War II. But after being booed at bouts, he resigned his post and renounced the party. Toward the end of his career he costarred in a spaghetti Western, Alive or Preferably Dead, and started an aluminum-production business, which he sold after 18 months. After retiring in 1971 with a career record of 82-7-1, he appeared in commercials for Cinzano beverages.
These days Benvenuti lives with his second wife, Nadi, in Rome, where he hosts a weekly television show called Non Solo Calcio (Not Only Soccer) and runs a company that organizes sporting events. He's also in negotiations with an Italian TV network to make a movie based on the autobiography he wrote two years ago, entitled II Mondo in Pugno (The World in Your Fist). Earlier this year he launched a program through the Italian Boxing Federation to teach the basics of the sport to students in 12 high schools in Rome. In other words, he's still giving.