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Entering the gymnasium in which Nino Benvenuti, the European middleweight champion, prepared for last week's fight in Rome with Don Fullmer, one descends a carpeted marble staircase and is ushered through Chianti-colored draperies into a small waiting room furnished in Italian modern. There is an oblong coffee table, probably teak, on which rests an imitation cut-glass ashtray and an imitation cut-glass vase. There is a floor lamp with a shade of mulberry and ivory. On the walls are reproductions of modern painters, including a Renoir, and just outside are a couple of Utrillos and a Monet. A well-filled magazine rack contains not a single copy of The Ring or Boxing Illustrated, but, instead, a selection of Italy's more elegant periodicals. The gym proper features the usual ring, punching bags, medicine balls and wall mirror. What is striking about it is its spotless cleanliness and its ceiling, which is painted white and is arched like the ceiling of a chapel. A plan is afoot to panel the walls in some exotic wood. After working out, boxers may take the usual shower or relax in a Finnish sauna. Where is this palace for sybaritic pugs? It is a far piece from Lou Stillman's frowsy old place on New York's Eighth Avenue. It is in Bologna, 210 miles north of Rome, and—naturally—it is on Bologna's Street of the Poets.
It was in such surroundings that Benvenuti worked out for the critical Fullmer fight, which Benvenuti won by a country kilometer, putting himself in position to challenge World Middleweight Champion Dick Tiger to a title bout.
The Benvenuti-Fullmer contest was a 12-rounder billed as a "semi-finale" elimination bout. To it came Fullmer, all the way from West Jordan, Utah, with recent decisions over Emile Griffith and Joey Archer that established him in the eyes of the World Boxing Association as American middleweight champion. He came with a look and a style reminiscent of his older brother, Gene, who lost the world middleweight championship for the last time when he got fresh with Sugar Ray Robinson.
As for Benvenuti, he is the wonder of the Italian peninsula. In his 120 amateur bouts and 63 professional fights, he never has been defeated. He has knocked out 26 professional opponents, has been Italian champion five times and of course now holds the European title. He won the welterweight gold medal at the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome and, in the opinion of Cus D'Amato, who was there to size up the available material against the day when Floyd Patterson would no longer be around, Benvenuti was "the class of the Olympics," notwithstanding the presence there of Cassius Clay, then in the cocoon stage of his metamorphosis into Muhammad Ali. The Olympic committee chose Benvenuti as the Games' most proficient boxer.
Until the Fullmer fight, though, Benvenuti's record had not been overly convincing to the world at large. He never had fought outside Italy or Trieste, which is his home. His opponents were mostly either Italians, unknown and unrespected outside Europe, or washed-up or never-was Americans. There was a suspicion that he had been, so to speak, "protected." His opponents should have had the protection.
The Fullmer fight was Benvenuti's first test against a ranked contender and therefore was considered critical. It was put on in that magnificent architectural showpiece of the 1960 Games, Pier Luigi Nervi's Palazzo dello Sport, which can seat 15,000 for boxing and was packed last weekend with wildly cheering, debris-throwing partisans of the adored Nino.
At the weigh-in that noon, held in a theater before a comfortably filled house of Nino-worshipers, one saw the contrast in style that would be so evident during the fight itself. There was the brush-cut Fullmer, in baggy pants, unshined shoes and nondescript topcoat, stripping down to droopy long johns, which the Roman crowd thought hilarious. "Buffone!" they howled. There was the sportily attired, jaunty Benvenuti, striding on stage like Fred Astaire about to go into a number. When he stripped, he was wearing form-fitting jockey shorts. The crowd roared approval. Both fighters were a few ounces over the 160-pound limit, but Fullmer made it by doffing his heavy underwear and Fullmer's manager, Angelo Curley, conceded that the quarter-pound or so by which Nino exceeded the contract weight made no difference.
That night there was a chant of "Nino! Nino! Nino!" as he came down the Palazzo aisle wearing a black-and-gold robe, the back of which advertised a furniture maker's products. So did his gold, green-striped trunks. It's an old Italian custom. Fullmer wore basic black.
In that first round it did seem that Benvenuti's advisers might have overmatched their man. He moved lightly about the ring in his personal variation of the classic style, landing a jab here, a body hook there and a right to the body—but not a single punch of any consequence. Then Fullmer, who had been stalking him with no more expression on his face than one of the ring posts, barged forward, flailing and banging with a flurry of lefts and rights that drove Benvenuti back almost to the ropes. The crowd, worried, took up its chant again. Fullmer managed to get inside once more and scored heavily. Infighting had been described as a Benvenuti specialty.
It was Fullmer's round, but he spoiled it all in the next one. After accepting a Benvenuti hook he reverted to a family trait—wrestling and bulling the opponent, just the way brother Gene used to do. The crowd roared in protest and showered the ring with soggy fruit. The referee warned Fullmer, who promptly charged into four successive clinches. What he did for the rest of the round was miss, clinch and wrestle. Benvenuti won it, mostly on Fullmer's demerits. The referee spent the minute between rounds shaking a finger at Fullmer.