In 2022, the Italian boxing scene that was home to some of the greats looks to rise again
It wasn’t 94,000 fans filling Wembley Stadium for Tyson Fury vs. Dillian Whyte in April, or even 19,000-plus packing Madison Square Garden a week later for Katie Taylor vs. Amanda Serrano, but when 37-year-old former super middleweight champion Giovanni De Carolis turned back the clock to hand Daniele Scardina his first pro loss in front of 5,000 people in a sold-out Milan Arena, it was a sign that maybe the sport of boxing is still alive and well in Italy.
“That hadn't happened in a long time in Italy,” said former world champion and current chief boxing analyst for BOXXER, Paulie Malignaggi. “It was a domestic level fight, but a pretty decent level. De Carolis has a few losses, but he's also been matched tough, he's gone out of town, he's an ex-WBA champion, and he was looked at as the fading guy. Scardina was undefeated and a prospect who is basically a socialite in Italy. He's friends with all the rappers and all the famous people and has a lot of followers. So it created a bit of a firestorm and there was interest. I hadn't seen that kind of interest in Italy in a while.”
One look at the De Carolis-Scardina match or, more accurately, one listen, and the roar of the crowd proved that Italians still care about a sport that has long been below soccer on the national radar, but that once produced a few world champions or stellar exports to compete on the world scene. But in recent years, that hasn’t been the case, and in Malignaggi’s eyes, there are a couple of reasons for that.
First, you need a television deal to do anything in any sport these days. Now, Italy’s leading promoter, OPI Since 82, has a TV contract with DAZN, where they work closely with one of the sport’s top firms in Matchroom Boxing, boxing fans in Italy will see fights on a regular basis.
“They're able to put together some cards, and they've been doing that for a couple of years, and obviously it was a grassroots type of build,” said Malignaggi, who, while encouraged by the response to the May event, knows that to keep that momentum going, there needs to be a fighter the country can get behind.
“Now what we need is a real, bonafide star, and that's what we're really trying to get there,” he said. “We have guys who are obviously popular on a national level. We need somebody who can cross over and be popular on an international level. But for that to happen, we need enough talent and there are a lot of things involved with that. Scardina and De Carolis are certainly popular, but I don't know what kind of damage De Carolis, at 40 years old, can do internationally. But it created a stir. Now the next step is, do we have a guy in the wings that can create that international buzz and get people excited?”
The 30-year-old Scardina, who looked and fought the part (and has the 288k Instagram followers to prove it), was seen as that “guy in the wings,” but in his big step-up fight, he got stopped in five rounds, putting his career on ice for the moment. So who’s next? Malignaggi talks of the potential of unbeaten Ivan Zucco, and the Cangelosi brothers (Cristian and Alessio), but they’re still in the developmental stage of their careers. And then there’s Rome’s Guido Vianello, a 2016 Olympian who is currently 8-0-1 as a pro and signed to one of the sport’s leading promoters, Top Rank.
“He was making some noise,” said Malignaggi. “He signed a Top Rank contract, which obviously is nice, but he's kind of slowed down since. He had some popularity, was in Rome, he was an Olympian, he looks the part - 6-6, good looking guy - so you've got your storylines, but I think some of our best talents probably never turn pro.”
And therein lies the rub, with Malignaggi explaining how Roberto Cammarelle, a two-time world amateur champion, 2008 Olympic gold medal winner, and 2012 Olympic silver medal winner is now working an office job for the Italian State Police.
“He was probably our best talent. He won gold in '08 and probably should have won gold in '12, but he didn't get the decision against AJ (Anthony Joshua), but by most people's accounts, he probably won that fight, too. But he never turned pro, and that's the thing about the amateur boxing scene in Italy. It pays, and you get a pension, so these guys are on a guaranteed salary, and if they turn pro, you lose your salary and you're on your own. You may make a lot of money, or you may be a bust and you can't return to that position. Cammarelle chose not to turn pro, and he probably was our biggest hope.”
It's a risky proposition. Roll the dice on a pro career or keep your amateur status and have security. A 2000 Olympic bronze medalist, Paolo Vidoz took that chance by turning pro and while he won some big fights, he never reached the top of the sport, retiring with a 28-11 record.
But there is that kid out there who wants to remove the safety net and chase glory, even if it means leaving home to train abroad in England or the United States. And that’s the kid who can reignite the boxing scene in Italy. In the meantime, there’s hope, and sometimes that’s all that’s necessary.
“The De Carolis versus Scardina fight showed that if you build it, they will come,” said Malignaggi. “I'm not gonna tell you every single show they're gonna put on is gonna sell 5,000 tickets, but you can see the progression and the hard work that's been put in it. It's a slow process, but I think it has a chance to make a resurgence.”
Thomas Gerbasi is currently senior editor for BoxingScene.com, Women’s Boxing columnist for The Ring magazine, a contributor to Boxing News (UK) magazine, and soon to be inducted into the International Women’s Boxing Hall of Fame’s Class of 2022 in the non-participant wing. An award-winning member of the Boxing Writers Association of America, Gerbasi is also the author of five books. His amateur boxing record was 0-1.