(ATR) Muhammad Ali’s legacy will forever be linked with the city of Rome. The legendary boxer’s brilliant and decisive gold medal performance captivated a boisterous Italian crowd at the Palazzo dello Sport on September 5, 1960.
Ali, then Cassius Clay, at top of podium in Rome (Public Domain)
Then known as Cassius Clay, the 18-year-old fighter took command of the bout in the third and final round, defeating Poland’s Zbigniew Pietrzykowski by unanimous decision to win light heavyweight gold. Clay’s victory was one of three by American fighters at the 1960 Summer Olympics and his springboard to stardom.
Italy’s top fighter Giovanni Benvenuti, a middleweight, also impressed the judges and approximately 8,000 spectators earlier that same evening as he fought his way to one of three gold medals won by the Italians.
Benvenuti, 78, will represent the Italian Olympic Committee (CONI) while attending the former world heavyweight champion’s funeral service this Friday in Louisville, Kentucky. Ali died last Friday at an Arizona hospital at the age of 74.
“He was the greatest ever because he had not only attributes for boxers, but he was also one outstanding athlete, a superman,” Benvenuti told Around the Rings. “In the ring, he had all facets of boxing and a perfect body for this sport."
Benvenuti recalls meeting Ali at the 1960 Summer Olympics.
Giovanni Benvenuti in January 2014 (Getty Images)
“We spoke quite a bit even though I didn’t understand English and he spoke little Italian,” Benvenuti said of their encounters at the Palazzo dello Sport boxing venue. “However you always find a way to communicate at events like that. I even saw him win the gold medal in the final.”
“He was always happy and liked to joke and smile,” Benvenuti said. “You have to be when you aren’t even 20 and a champion.”
Benvenuti and Ali developed a long-term friendship which continued after the world heavyweight champion was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease in 1984, three years after his retirement from boxing.
“I was really taken by the fact he never let his spirits get down and how he always remained positive,” Benvenuti said. “He gave a lot to boxing regardless of his abilities, and the whole sporting world. Along with being a champion, he became a symbol. People like him are rare.”
Benvenuti will be accompanied at Ali’s funeral by Rome 2024 head of athlete relations and CONI executive board member Fiona May.
The decision for Benvenuti and May to represent CONI at Ali’s funeral was taken by Italian Olympic Committee president Giovanni Malagò.
Malagò said “it is a duty that Italian sport be present in on the occasion of the last salute to the unforgotten American champion”
Rome 2024 also issued a statement saluting the boxing legend: “The city of Rome, the Rome 2024 Olympic Bid Committee and the entire Italian country honor this great sports hero, being grateful to him for having started his fantastic career winning an Olympic gold medal at the 1960 Rome Olympic Games.
“We will always remember you on top of the world, blessed by the Five Rings,” the statement concluded.
Palazzo dello Sport Olympic Legacy Venue
The setting for Ali’s memorable gold medal winning bout over his Polish rival – the Palazzo dello Sport – is still a popular sporting venue in Rome today.
PalaLottomatica, formerly the Palazzo dello Sport (Getty Images)
Rome 2024 is proposing the Olympic legacy arena in its dossier for volleyball events should it win the right to host the 2024 Summer Games.
Now known as the PalaLottomatica, the purpose-built arena for the 1960 Games was designed by architect Marcello Piacentini and its reinforced concrete dome was engineered by Pier Luigi Nervi.
Considered an architectural marvel at the time, the arena’s modernist cylindrical dome filtered light from outside down to the boxing ring (or basketball court) and spectators.
Situated just south of Rome’s city center, the arena was remodeled in 2003 and is currently used for Italian basketball and volleyball matches in addition to concerts. It has also been home to the fencing world championships and European taekwondo championships.
Numerous musical artists have also performed at the Palazzo dello Sport/PalaLottomatica including the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, Depeche Mode, Dire Straits, Carlos Santana and Avril Lavigne.
Still, the arena’s greatest legacy may be Ali’s magnificent performance beginning one of the most incredible and compelling careers in modern sports.
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Written by Brian Pinelli
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