ITALIAN LEGENDS OF BOXING
Boxing was once very popular amongst Italians and notably children of Italian migrants, who took to the sport as a way to build their confidence and self-defence skills. Many Italians punched their way to the top and made their mark in the boxing realm. We looked back on some of the most famous Italian boxers.
Primo Carnera, the giant boxer from Friuli
Over six feet in height and weighing more than 125 kg, Primo Carnera was considered at his time the tallest and heaviest world heavyweight champion. In fact, it was his impressive build that got him into the boxing profession in the first place.
Born in Sequals in the Northern Italian region of Friuli, Carnera set off for France at the age of twelve where he worked as a labourer, before taking off with a local circus. He was touted as a “freak show giant” due to his staggering build and progressed to a strongman and ultimately a wrestler. Carnera did not speak fondly of his time in the circus troupe; he is reported to have said, “It is no life to live. I feel foolish and am very lonely most of the time. I am paid very little…and the work is hard and the conditions bad.”
By 1928, the circus had disbanded and Carnera was left broke, depressed and alone. A chance encounter with heavyweight Paul Journee, who spotted the giant sprawled on a park bench in Paris, resulted in a meeting with controversial fight manager Leon See and within two weeks Carnera was in the ring. Within fifteen months he boasted an impressive career of 16 wins to two losses.
Carnera’s star began to rise and in 1930 he arrived in the American boxing scene with much fanfare and anticipation, with a debut match against Big Boy Peterson at Madison Square Garden. Time Magazine labelled him “The Monster” and he was dubbed “a mighty killer,” “The Ambling Alp” and “a new giant menace on the American boxing scene.” Carnera took out the World Heavyweight champion from June 29, 1933 to June 14, 1934. By 1938 he resigned from boxing after having to have a kidney removed.
After stepping away from the boxing scene, Carnera enjoyed a movie career, starring in a number of films including “Mighty Joe Young” and “Prince Valiant,” before embarking on a wrestling career.
Rocky Marciano, the only boxing champion to retire undefeated
It is no coincidence that Marciano shares the same first name as cinema’s most memorable boxer Rocky Balboa. In fact, the fictional character played by Sylvester Stallone in the hugely popular Rocky film series was named after Marciano who inspired the fighting style and iconography of Stallone’s iconic character.
Born as Rocco Francis Marchegiano in Brockton Massachetus to Italian immigrant parents, Marciano dreamed of pursuing a career as a professional footballer or base baller. He didn’t step into the ring until 1943 after he was drafted into the army and only took up boxing to avoid having to assist cooks in the kitchen. However, he proved to have a natural talent and after being discharged from the army, Marciano began to compete in amateur boxing fights.
Marciano’s true passion was baseball, but after a failed tryout with the Chicago Cubs in 1947, he put his baseball dreams aside and stepped into the ring professionally. By 1949, Marciano had built a reputation and became a boxing phenomenon knocking out all sixteen of his first opponents.
One of his most iconic fights was on September 23, 1952 against defending champion Jersey Joe Walcott. In typical underdog fashion, Marciano was behind in points, having struggled all night long. He caught Walcott with a short, overhand right on the jaw in the 13th round, which ultimately knocked him unconscious, giving Marciano the coveted championship belt. Marciano went on to defend his title six times, and in 1956 he announced his retirement becoming the only boxing champion to retire undefeated.
After his retirement, the former boxer dubbed “The Brockton Blockbuster,” enjoyed a successful career in the media, commentating boxing matches and hosting a weekly boxing show. On August 31, 1969 on the eve of his 46th birthday, Marciano was killed in a tragic plane crash.
Today, Marciano is still regarded as one of the best heavyweight boxers of all time and is regularly featured in top ten lists of the world’s greatest boxers.
Rocky Mattioli, the Italian-Australian boxer who knocked out most of his opponents
Considering that Rocky Mattioli was named after Rocky Marciano, it would only seem fitting that Mattioli would pursue a career in the ring. In fact, Mattioli has more in common with his namesake than just his first name. He was born in Ripa Teatina, Abruzzo; the same city Rocky Marciano’s father was from. However, his interest in boxing only happened by chance.
Mattioli, who immigrated to Morwell, Victoria, donned boxing gloves for the first time at the age of six to defend himself from some local boys who were harassing him. The first time he entered a gym was because he was there to interpret for a cousin from Italy, who wanted to learn boxing because he was being bullied at school.
Eventually, Mattioli entered the boxing arena and made a name for himself in Australia before competing in Europe and the United States. He was known for his aggressive boxing style, which had been described as someone who had “a hammer in both hands,” and over his career, he boasted an impressive knockout ratio of 70 percent.
Mattioli hung up his gloves in 1982 and now resides in Milan. He is highly regarded as one of the top ten Australian boxers and was inducted into the Australian National Boxing Hall of Fame in 2004.
Nino Benvenuti, the sixty-five in a row winner
Nino Benvenuti is arguably one of Italy’s most awarded boxers, scoring a number of accolades including the Italian welterweight title from 1956 to 1960, the European titles in 1957 and the gold medal at the 1960 Olympics in Rome. One of his biggest claims to fame is his impressive sixty-five wins in a row in the super welterweight division.
In 1971, Benvenuti announced his retirement in Monte Carlo after he lost a rematch to Carlos Monzon. Some say his retirement came earlier than expected. During his career, he won an astounding 82 out of 90 professional boxing bouts.
Like many other Italian boxers before him, Benvenuti embarked on a film career starring in “Sundance and the Kid” and “Mark Shoots First”, playing a role in the 2008 Italian biopic “Carnera: The Walking Mountain.”
In 2016, Benvenuti was inducted into the National Italian American Sports Hall of Fame in Chicago. “To be inducted into this museum of Italian American sports…alongside others boxers like Jack La Motta and Rocky Marciano, but also baseball players like Joe DiMaggio … is the cherry on top of my life” he said at the time.
Rai Fazio, the Perth-born “Australian Rocky”
Fazio regularly makes headlines in his home city of Perth for both his antics in and out of the ring. As a former Junior Golden Gloves Champion and Australian Amateur Boxing title-holder, Fazio was thrust into the spotlight of the Perth social scene and began to garner intense media attention after being linked with local Bikie group the Coffin Cheaters.
After being involved in a public brawl in 2003 and having his Northbridge gym burnt down, Fazio took a step back from the spotlight.
During his hiatus from the spotlight, Fazio ventured into film and began to pen a screenplay based on his life as an aspiring boxer. The semi-autobiographical film “Two Fists, One Heart”, was released in 2009 - centered around an Italian-Australian boxer whose strict Sicilian father pushes him to his limits to pursue a boxing career he missed out on. Described as an “Australian Rocky”, the film was heavily inspired by Fazio’s tumultuous relationship with his own father Joe, a renowned boxing trainer in Perth.
Fazio also starred in the film alongside Logie winner Jessica Marais (Packed To The Rafters), supermodel Nicole Trunfio and comedian Tim Minchin.
Since his film debut, Fazio has continued to venture into acting and starred in the Underbelly spin-off “Underbelly Files: Infiltration” and has returned to the gym as a trainer to the stars. His high-profile clients have included Oscar nominee Hugh Jackman and “Dancing with the Stars” Carmelo Pizzino. Fazio and his father regularly train personalities who compete in the annual Perth boxing fundraiser, The Royal Queensbury Championship.