On this day: Nino Benvenuti defeats Emile Griffith in first chapter of a legendary trilogy
They fought a total of 45 explosive rounds during their three-fight rivalry, and the first clash remains the most memorable one, becoming the 1967 Fight of the Year according to The Ring.
Giovanni “Nino” Benvenuti was already a champion as a junior middleweight, having wrestled the title away from his countryman Sandro Mazzinghi back in 1965 and defending it in a rematch only to lose it controversially in South Korea against Ki Soo Kim (the man he had defeated in the gold medal bout in the 1960 Olympics) a year later.
Already unable to make weight and with a couple of European middleweight title bouts under his belt, Benvenuti challenged Emile Griffith for the Ring middleweight title that Griffith had taken from Dick Tiger one year earlier and defended against Joey Archer twice during that period.
Even though Griffith was already an all-time-great by the time they met, Benvenuti didn’t exactly sneak up on him. Nino had been awarded the Val Baker trophy to the best boxer in the 1960 Olympics, the same games that saw a young Cassius Clay take the gold a few divisions above him. And by the time he met Griffith, Benvenuti boasted an astonishing 71-1 record, putting him on track to become (as he did later and still remains) the greatest Italian boxer of all time.
Griffith, a product of the U.S. Virgin Islands living in New York City, had already faced the best fighters across three divisions in one of the deepest eras in boxing, and was considered an ample favorite in spite of Benvenuti’s accomplishments.
On April 17, 1967, the pair met at the fabled Madison Square Garden for what it was thought to be a very good matchup between youth and experience, with two champions seeking to carve their name in stone in the history of the division.
Supremely confident from the very early going, Benvenuti tried to fight his way through Griffith’s defense with his short and unorthodox hooks and uppercuts, until one of his long right hands landed on Griffith’s temple to send him (aided by a nudge of Nino’s left hand) down on the seat of his trunks for the first roar of the crowd in the night.
Seizing his momentum, Benvenuti pressed on scoring at will with both hands, until a demolishing right by Griffith landed on his jaw midway through the fourth round to spin him around and send him down to the canvas.
Benvenuti got the memo, and proceeded to fight behind his long jab for the rest of the night against an opponent who had a formidable jab of his own but who was at a considerable disadvantage in the reach department.
With the competitive and very even first half already in the books, Benvenuti cruised towards the final rounds to score a unanimous decision win that crowned him as the new Ring champion to kickstart one of the best trilogies in the history of the division.
Griffith would win a close decision in the rematch at Shea Stadium on September 29 of that same year in which he managed to score the only and decisive knockdown of the fight in the 14th round, but they would meet back again at the Madison Square Garden on March 4 of the following year and Benvenuti would regain the belt after dropping Griffith in the ninth round and scoring a similarly close and controversial decision.
The consensus was that the winner of the trilogy would become an instant all-time-great, but unbeknownst to them they were merely holding the title for a beast lurking in the shadows of the smoky South American rings of Buenos Aires. A couple of years later, they had both lost twice to Carlos Monzon, who scored three brutal knockouts in those four fights to cement his own place in boxing history.
Benvenuti finished his career with 82 wins, one draw and 7 defeats (35 knockouts) and was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1992, while Griffith finished his own career with a record of 85-24-2 (23 KOs) and was inducted into the IBHOF two years earlier as part of the inaugural class of 1990. Both fighters remained close friends throughtout their lives.
Diego M. Morilla writes for The Ring since 2013. He has also written for HBO.com, ESPN.com and many other magazines, websites, newspapers and outlets since 1993. He is a full member of the Boxing Writers Association of America and an elector for the International Boxing Hall of Fame. He has won two first-place awards in the BWAA’s annual writing contest, and he is the moderator of The Ring’s Women’s Ratings Panel. He served as copy editor for the second era of The Ring en Español (2018-2020) and is currently a writer and editor for RingTV.com.