When Nino Benvenuti, an elongated middleweight who looks a bit like a muscular Beatle, won the middleweight championship of the world by drubbing stubby Emile Griffith in Madison Square Garden last week, he may have achieved the most impressive debut in America for any Italian since 1492. Shrugged off by most experts before the fight as just another effete European boxer, Benvenuti won a stylish, no-nonsense victory with an elegant upright stance, extraordinarily quick hands and command tactics which had Griffith floundering helplessly for most of the fight. He survived a sneak right hand that floored him and later took complete control for the final five rounds, despite a deep cut across the bridge of his nose.
When it was all over, Benvenuti endured the wild enthusiasm of his flag-waving compatriots smilingly, then retired to his dressing room and was ill, apparently as the result of an excess of emotion rather than damage inflicted by Griffith. It was two hours before he recovered enough to deliver a short, melodramatic speech to a victory party at Leone's Ristorante in which he attributed his success to father, flag and family in the best tradition of the clich�.
The forgivable platitudes were the only ones to mark Benvenuti's visit to the U.S. He trained for the fight at the Villaggio Italia, a bit of Italy tucked away in the Catskill Mountains about 120 miles from New York, and the training program devised by Libero Golinelli, an ex-Partisan colonel, was refreshingly different.
His training began when Benvenuti arose at dawn and quaffed a concoction of fruit juices, milk and a touch of cognac prepared for him by the m�itre d' of the Villaggio. Fortified by this, he did his running, which was longer than most Americans like, stretching sometimes to 10 miles. His meals were Italian and included red wine at lunch and dinner. During the day he read, played tennis, did a little trapshooting and submitted to dozens of interviews by radio, TV and press, all with an engaging good humor.
Benvenuti is tall, he smiles easily and he is, in a rather craggy way, a handsome man. He was notably undisturbed at the thought of fighting Griffith. Fighting he considers his business and his approach to it is matter-of-fact.
"I have no fear in the ring," he said one evening after dinner just before his workout. "When I step between the ropes, the hard part is all over, and if I feel that I am sufficiently prepared, I fear no man. I know Griffith is a good fighter and his style will be new to me, but I am then in my own world and I would not care if he stood on his hands and fought me with his feet. I would know what to do."
Benvenuti is just 29 and he has been fighting since he was 13, losing only one of some 190 amateur and professional fights, so his self-confidence is justified.
"Always in my fights I find that there is a time when I am aware that I have become the master of my opponent," he said one afternoon. "When I beat Mazzinghi for the junior middleweight championship of the world, it came in the sixth round. For five rounds he had been thinking that he could beat me, and his blows had force and authority, but during the sixth round, as I pressed the attack, he lost his confidence and I could feel it in the diminished force of his blows. After that I knew that I would win and I did."
Golinelli, a short man with a stern, solemn face, came into the room and motioned imperiously to Benvenuti, who grinned at him. It was time for his last hard workout.
"I must go to work now," Benvenuti said. "Golinelli has prepared me well for this. If I lose—and I don't expect to lose—I will have no excuses. I have been as much at home here as I would have been in Italy. This country reminds me of the Dolomites near Trieste, where I live."