Italy's Rosi discovers America

March 04, 1994|By Alan Goldstein | Alan Goldstein,Sun Staff Writer

LAS VEGAS -- Ask the man on the street to identify Gianfranco Rosi, and he probably would guess his occupation as, 1) an opera singer, 2) a Grand Prix racing driver, or 3) an Italian fashion designer.

Of course, Rosi is none of the above. He is the International Boxing Federation junior-middleweight champion who will defend his title for the 11th time tonight at the MGM Grand against top-ranked Vincent Pettway (36-4, 29 KOs) of Baltimore.

A native of Assisi, Italy, Rosi (57-3, 17 KOs) has held his title nearly five years since out-pointing Darrin Van Horn, in Atlantic City, July 15, 1989. It is the longest reign of any current champion save for super-featherweight Azumah Nelson and bantamweight Orlando Canizales. He also has made more title defenses than any previous junior-middleweight champion.

In Italy, Rosi boasts being second in popularity among sports heroes only to charismatic Alberto Tomba of the ski slopes. He serves as spokesman for Chiabolloti, a construction company, and for Gatorade.

But in the United States, the broad-shouldered Italian remains as faceless as a movie extra.

The Italian media covering this fight offer a number of reasons for the champion's anonymity here.

"It is mainly because he has not fought in America since beating Van Horn five years ago," suggested Dario Torromeo, a reporter for Corriero Dello Sport. "He lacks international exposure.

"Then, too, Gianfranco speaks little English, and few of his title fights have been seen by American fans."

But Rosi, 37, who also briefly held the World Boxing Council 154-pound title before being knocked out by Donald Curry, July 8, 1988, has zealously protected his crown by waging his fights on his native soil or in nearby Monaco.

"It was the best way to make decent purses," Rosi said through interpreter Maria Santini, the wife of his U.S. representative, Piero Santini. "The reason I have not fought in over a year is because I have had difficulty getting the right price. But the rest has rejuvenated me."

He is guaranteed $245,250 of the purse for this match. Pettway is guaranteed $50,000.

For the previous four years, Rosi was promoted by Italian backers with help from Cedric Kushner, a South African now operating out of New York. Most of his purses came from Italian television revenue.

"But now there is little boxing on TV back home, and Italy is having a recession," he said. "It is why I would like to complete my brilliant career in America."

An Italian reporter who has closely followed Rosi, said, "It is mostly his style. How do you say in America -- 'Stinko?' He is no Sugar Ray Leonard. And next to [popular former middleweight champion] Nino Benvenuti, Rosi is a mere shadow."

Gilbert Baptist, a rugged San Diego fighter, who has lost decisions to Rosi and Pettway, insists styles can be deceiving.

"Don't underestimate this guy," Baptist told Pettway when they shared training space in a downtown gym. "People say Rosi is awkward and not a big puncher, but he is a much better boxer than given credit for.

"He hits and holds, but he has all the basic skills and keeps after you with constant pressure. I know he gave me a real whipping."

The son of a farmer in central Italy, Rosi gave up playing his favorite sport of soccer to become a two-time national amateur boxing champion. He turned professional at age 22.

A durable fighter with a weightlifter's torso, he enjoyed instant success as a pro, winning all but one of his first 33 fights before being knocked out in three rounds by former champion Lloyd Honeyghan, Jan. 5, 1985.

"It was one-punch-Boom! and Rosi was out," said a reporter who was present. "His old manager, Giovano Branchini, lost faith and dropped him."

But Rosi rebounded two years later to dethrone WBC champion Lupe Aquino over 12 rough rounds. After making one defense against Duane Thomas, he was stopped by Curry, but he successfully challenged Van Horn for the IBF crown.

He proved an unusually active champion until the past two years, when he fought only four times.

After winning a split decision over France's Gilbert Dele in Monaco in July, 1992, IBF president Bob Lee ordered a rematch. They fought again in January, 1993, in Avoriaz, France, and Rosi won a unanimous decision.

"Surprisingly, at 35, it was one of the best fights of his career," Torromeo said.

While Rosi settled his dispute with Dele, Pettway, the mandatory challenger, was put on hold for more than a year.

But Rosi treats his American rival with disdain while discussing his plans of unifying the junior-middle weight title.

"I need challenges to stimulate me and keep me fighting," he said.

When promoter Don King announced the match in New York last fall, Rosi ignored Pettway and talked of seeking a fight with then-WBC champion Terry Norris. Now, even though Norris has since lost his title to Simon Brown, Rosi still regards him as a champion.

"I have great respect for Norris," he said. "In fact, I love all the great American fighters, and it gives me goose bumps to be with them here because they enjoy great popularity with the boxing fans. It is why I want to finish my brilliant career in America."

Rosi, a 3 1/2 -to-1 favorite, taunted Pettway at Wednesday's final press conference. He presented his younger rival with an autographed cloth calendar on which he appears as the pinup adorned by his championship belt.

"Beware of Italians bearing gifts," King said to Pettway.

FIGHT FACTS

Who: Vincent Pettway (36-4, 29 KOs), Baltimore, vs. Gianfranco Rosi (57-3, 17 KOs), Assisi, Italy

What: For Rosi's International Boxing Federation junior-middleweight title

When: Tonight (approx. 1 a.m. EST tomorrow morning)

Where: MGM Grand, Las Vegas

TV: Showtime. The Pettway-Rosi fight will be shown on tape delay tomorrow afternoon. Four other championship bouts will be split between tonight and tomorrow for cable viewing.

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