Tiberio Mitri?ro;”"La Tigre di Trieste"?ro;”Italian Middleweight Boxing Champ and Pulchritudinous Bit-Player

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On his 24th birthday, July 12, 1950, Tiberio Mitri stepped into the ring at Madison Square Garden for the biggest boxing match of his life: 15 rounds for the world middleweight championship against reigning titleholder Jake La Motta. Fair-haired, blue-eyed, square-jawed and devastatingly handsome, Mitri, in truth, had backed into the bout after La Motta's scheduled opponent, Rocky Graziano, fractured his left hand one month earlier in a training accident, forcing him to withdraw.

Still, Mitri legitimately deserved a title shot. Unbeaten in 52 professional fights?49 victories and three draws?"La Tigre di Trieste," as the Italian was known, had earned the European middleweight crown on May 7, 1949, by beating Cyrille Delannoit on the Belgian's home turf, Brussels. At 5-feet, 9-and-a-half-inches tall and 160 pounds, Mitri had used his speed, agility and superb boxing craft to whup several other prominent middleweights, notably England's Dick Turpin and France's Laurent Dauthuille (who had defeated La Motta), as well as outpointing American light-heavyweight Dick Wagner at the Garden in May 1950. But Mitri, who moved into Graziano's training facility northwest of New York City to prepare for La Motta, possessed relatively low-octane punching power, making him the underdog versus the "Bronx Bull," who also had charted a somewhat circuitous path to the fight. In an era chockablock with talented middleweights (147 to 160 pounds), La Motta had seized the crown from Marcel Cerdan after the Frenchman injured himself early in their June 1949 championship fight in Detroit. Cerdan, in turn, had won the title in September 1948 by beating American Tony Zale. But on Oct. 28, 1949, as Cerdan flew from Paris to New York for a December rematch with La Motta, his Air France flight crashed in the Azores, killing everyone aboard. Then came the Graziano defection, setting up La Motta versus Mitri.

Born the son of a fishmonger on July 12, 1926, in Trieste, the northeastern Italian city adjacent to Yugoslavia, Tiberio Mitri began boxing at age 13, turned pro in 1946 and became Italian middleweight champ two years later. In January 1950 he wed teenaged, va-va-va-voom Miss Italia 1948 Fulvia Franco. In a bizarre twist, Franco was awarded her tiara when her competitors bowed out of the pageant in a brazen display of politically motivated sisterhood. In the aftermath of World War II, both Italy and Yugoslavia angled for control of Trieste and its surrounding area, inducing the United Nations to intervene in 1947 to establish the Free Territory of Trieste. Against this background the would-be Miss Italias displayed their nationalistic fervor by voluntarily taking a collective powder, leaving Trieste representative Franco as the contest's sole participant. She didn't argue. (The women's solidarity gesture was rewarded when, in 1954, the two nations signed a treaty apportioning the territory, with the city of Trieste returning to Italy.)

With one screen appearance at home?as Miss Italia, a real stretch?Fulvia entertained notions of launching a career in Hollywood, and that's exactly where she plopped herself down while Mitri trained for his fight against La Motta. Both men weighed in at 159, but Jake, at age 28, enjoyed a decided experience advantage, not least his five fights against middleweight "Sugar" Ray Robinson, whom he had beaten only once. (La Motta met Robinson a sixth?and final?time in early 1951.)

More than 16,000 people, including New York Gov. Thomas E. Dewey, jammed into the Garden to witness the fight, many of them virulently anti-La Motta. But even with the crowd behind him, Mitri, dressed in white trunks, could not handle the relentless Bronx Bull, renowned for his ability both to dish out and take punishment. The champ, wearing dark trunks, landed several lefts to Mitri's head in rounds one and two, but the challenger eluded him in the third, retaliating with his own lefts to the head. With La Motta carrying the fight to Mitri, both boxers opted for long-range attacks, with a minimum of clinches.

"Aware that Mitri's punch was fast but futile, La Motta disregarded defense almost completely as he moved in on the Italian round after round, throwing punches to the head and body with almost every step," The New York Times recounted the next day. "[But] the Italian admirably absorbed all that came his way and not once during the 15 rounds was Jake able to put him on the floor. In the last round, beaten though he was, he mixed it up eagerly with the champion and drew a round of applause from the crowd by outpunching Jake."

Too little, too late: La Motta won a unanimous decision. The referee scored it 12 rounds to three in favor of Jake, while the two judges called it much closer?9-6 and 8-7, respectively. "My punches were like caresses, his were blows of mortar," Mitri noted poetically. "Jake was too strong for me."

He returned to Italy to choruses of his countrymen's huzzahs, initiating a campaign to reclaim the European middleweight title?he relinquished it to fight La Motta?while, like his wife, dabbling in film. She showed up as window dressing in five 1952 films (Bellezze in moto-scooter, for one), he lent his hunkifying looks, and little else, to two pirate pictures (I tre corsari, for one) that same year. By then the glamorous couple had a year-old son, Alessandro.

After working his way through the continent's middleweights, Mitri faced England's Randolph Turpin (Dick Turpin's brother) for the European title on May 2, 1954. Randy Turpin had caused a minor boxing-universe cataclysm in July 1951 by outpointing "Sugar" Ray Robinson to win the world middleweight crown in London, then turning around and losing it right back to Robinson two months later in New York. That same year Turpin wrested the European championship from Holland's Luc van Dam with a first-round knockout.

An ecstatic crowd of 31,000?with Fulvia ringside?had scarcely wriggled into their seats at Rome's Stadia Torino when Mitri landed two consecutive punches to Turpin's head at 28 seconds into the first round, flattening the Englishman. "A short left hook and then a right to the jaw slammed the 25-year-old Turpin to the canvas," reported the Associated Press. "He fell hard and his head hit the deck with a thump." Standing over Turpin, the referee counted to eight, stopped, and signaled to Mitri to raise his hand in triumph. In less than a minute he had retaken the European middleweight belt.

"It was like a revolver shot," Mitri told the AP, describing his lethal first punch. "I saw him fall down. Now I'm ready for the world championship."

Not quite. In quick succession, Mitri lost a decision to Welshman Gordon Hazell in a nontitle fight in London (June); pounded Hazell into submission after five rounds in a rematch in Rome (July); then?amid Italian newspaper accounts that he and Fulvia would separate "by mutual consent" because of "incompatibility of character"?disposed of England's Les Allen (September). Seemingly indefatigable, he agreed to box France's Charles Humez on Nov. 13 in Milan for the European middleweight title.

Humbled by Humez in round three, Mitri simply didn't have it. "A left dropped Mitri at the start of the third," AP reported the following day. "The Italian remained on his knees for a few seconds, then rose to receive another left to the face, which sent him down for the count of eight. He had just got up when a third left to the jaw floored him for three seconds." Mercifully, the referee put an end to the proceedings, one of only two occasions that Mitri ever would fail to finish a fight.

"I cannot leave him alone now that he is down," Fulvia wailed to an Italian reporter. But she soon changed her mind, and the couple divorced, an event assiduously documented by a dauntless press gang. Although he never regained the European crown, Mitri continued to box with success, retiring after a match in Rome on Sept. 27, 1957. In 99 pro bouts, he lost only six times.

His ring career completed?no tedious comeback for "La Tigre di Trieste"?Mitri concentrated on the cinema, appearing principally in Italian adventure movies. He snagged minor roles that showcased his pulchritude, even playing a boxer in 1959's Un uomo facile (An Easy Man). Luchino Visconti counted himself an admirer; Mario Monicelli used him in 1959's La grande guerra (The Great War), which won the Golden Lion at that year's Venice Film Festival; and Michelangelo Antonioni offered him a substantial part in 1957's Il grido (The Outcry), but Mitri declined, stating, "I don't like the idea of playing a cuckold."

Elsewhere, he can be seen for a blink in the 1959 sword-and-sandals epic Ben Hur; in the 1957 screen adaptation of Ernest Hemingway's World War I drama A Farewell to Arms; and in two World War II sagas?The Best of Enemies (1962) and Anzio (1968). And that's him as a "henchman" in Mario Bava's over-the-top Danger: Diabolik (1968), a favorite among the psychotronic set. Additionally, Mitri made and sold paintings, wrote a pair of books?the autobiographical Una botta in testa (A Blow to the Head) and Una faccia piena di pugni (A Face Full of Punches)?and tramped through two more marriages: first to Helen de Lys Meyer, an American with whom he had a daughter, Tiberia; second to a much younger Italian woman, Marinella Caiazzo, in the early 80s.

By then his life had begun to disintegrate. On top of three divorces, both his children died young: Alessandro OD'ed on heroin in 1981, Tiberia succumbed to AIDS in 1986. Mitri cranked up his alcohol and drug intake, resulting in arrests for drunk driving and narcotics possession.

He resurfaced briefly in 1995, cast as an elderly fighter instructing two boxing-fixated teens in Lino Capolicchio's affecting Pugili (Boxers), then evaporated into Rome's gritty Trastevere district, where for the past several years he lived alone and virtually penniless in a tiny, grim apartment filled with his trophies. Wracked by Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases, his hearing significantly diminished and his speech slurred, a 74-year-old Mitri appeared on state-run tv in January, a footnote in an ongoing debate in Parliament regarding increased pensions for retired athletes.

A local charity paid him visits, and he was aided by a butcher who lived nearby, a longtime boxing fan. But incapacitated by disease, he seldom recognized his friends, and often he could be found seeking a handout in restaurants and bars. Speculation abounds that he had ceased taking his daily medications, which might explain why, disoriented, he wandered onto railroad tracks in suburban Rome on the morning of Monday, Feb. 12. An approaching train, moving at less than 20 mph, sounded its whistle three times in an attempt to warn Mitri, but he did not budge. Maybe he didn't hear; maybe he didn't care. The train severed him in half.

An inquest called his death an accident, not suicide. "This is a piece of boxing history we are losing," late-60s middleweight champion Nino Benvenuti said in tribute. And Mitri's friend Claudio Lazzaro wrote in Milan's Corriere della Sera: "He needed a network of assistance. We were trying to organize it. A battle against time. Lost. Death came first."

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