SI Vault
Mark Kram
December 01, 1969
Italian fight fans had a staunch ally in the referee, but they would have gone berserk if Rodriguez had somehow won
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December 01, 1969

Nino's Hook Stopped A Roman Riot

Italian fight fans had a staunch ally in the referee, but they would have gone berserk if Rodriguez had somehow won

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Even in the Colosseum at night, a time and place owned by the world's largest collection of alley cats and the phantoms who flit in and out of the amber light of the archways, the name of Benvenuti was passed around in the dark. Benvenuti obsessed everyone, and, as they have done with their heroes (and governments) before him, the Italians seemed to anticipate and demand his downfall.

The complaints were numerous: he is a timid champion; he is a Fascist; he is, because of an old liaison, a shameful husband; he is too much of a spectacle—an odd prejudice for a people who dearly love spectacles. Before the fight, one expected to see large signs being carried through the crowd, signs reading, NINO AGAINST DIVORCE or NINO UNFAIR TO UNWED MOTHERS. To be against divorce in Italy is not, for the most part, politic or safe outside the provinces. The cops were sensitive to the mood in Rome. Benvenuti was put in isolation, and rigid supervision rode the media. One television camera belonging to ABC, which paid $60,000 for broadcasting rights, was not allowed at ringside. "It is in the way of the people," said the chief of police. "It will cause a riot." One American photographer was told to take down his lights, because the chief thought they were not safe. "Are you crazy?" said the photographer. "You put $30 million in the Andrea Doria and another ship touches it on the side and it sinks like lead and kills dozens of people! What's a few lights?"

Said the chief: "They will cause a riot."

No one, of course, can understand a crowd, understand how its opinions are made and changed within a microsecond. It is a strange giant. But the chief's alarm, perhaps the result of battle fatigue, was never realized. In the end it was just a matter of bella figura for the Italians. Once he was inside the arena, Nino had never been a Fascist and he had always been as reserved as a Dominican monk picking flowers. He simply belonged, above all else, to the family. The image of the Italians, the beautiful front and show, was all that was important. His jabs that never landed became pistons, mediocre body punching became savage and the deep cut above his nose was just a scratch.

Had the fight gone the distance and the officials given the decision to Rodriguez, the body count of casualties would have been impressive. That is, if you assume that Rodriguez could have won two of the last four rounds. But Nino's hook took everybody off the hook. The men hugged and kissed each other and cried over each other's shoulders. The women, raising their Fellini eyes, blew kisses to the heavens.

The more emotional forgot such theatrics and, like an Alpine snowslide, smothered the ring. There lay Rodriguez, with half of Rome descending upon him. The referee, a sensible man with peripheral vision, raced through the count and was never seen again. As for Luis, left there for the rabble, he was finally reached by his corner and, after a few gentlemen in shorn lamb were peeled off him, he was carried to safety. It took close to five minutes before his head was clear. "They could have counted to a hundred," said Angelo Dundee, his manager.

Long before the hook, the real damage had been done to Rodriguez. And it was not done by Benvenuti. It was done by one Mario Carabellese, the referee whom Benvenuti did not want because, according to Nino, he was too inexperienced. It was an effective camouflage by Benvenuti's camp, the purpose of which was to say: "See, I'm complaining about the referee, too. I don't get all the breaks in this town."

The behavior and judgment of the referee, of the kind that has become notorious in recent Italian boxing history, were, technically, infamous. From the start he crippled the Cuban's style. Rodriguez, one of boxing's fine craftsmen for nearly a decade, was warned more than a dozen times—four times in one round—for using his head, which he was not using. Benvenuti, easily the sloppier of the two fighters, was warned twice, and each of his warnings elicited a volley of persimmons from the audience. With this intimidation of Rodriguez and the lunge, clinch and grab style of Benvenuti, it was a dull, graceless bout, suitable only for a novice gym and the unschooled intelligence of the crowd.

Though it was held in Italy, the match seemed to promise much more. For one thing, here was Rodriguez, a terror among the middleweights when the division was, to say the least, highly competitive. He had clean moves, all of which were off some weird rhythm, and he was a respectable puncher. Benvenuti, at 31 a year younger than Luis, was clever, had a clear line to his style—uppercut, left hand, then a right—but had shown fleeting signs of disinterest and physical decline. What happened was that the fight was a bore.

Luis wanted to fight Benvenuti from "halfway." The tactic was designed to avoid clinching and to enhance his chances of a knockout. He hoped to drop a right hand over every left hook that Nino threw. Nino, though, did not seem interested in throwing many left hooks. When he did throw a few, he caught a number of hard rights, one of which opened a deep cut on the bridge of his nose in the fourth round.

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