Life at 47 can be a challenge but Italian boxer Emiliano Marsili is always prepared for the next one, as he returns to British soil for a European title showdown
DESPITE having had the good fortune to achieve and experience so much in my easy life, when I turned 40 there was a lingering unease at the direction it was going – and so I wrote a small list of goals on a yellow Post-It note. While over the next seven years many (but not all) on the list have been ticked off, my 40s have been, quite frankly, a bit of a disaster at times – an invariable struggle with much of the misery, personal destabilisation and regression self-inflicted. A prolonged mid-life crisis gone nuclear. If I could turn back time I would probably throw that damn Post-It note away and write a new one saying “All is good in the world. Be thankful for what you have.”
What daunts me now is that 50 is fast approaching . Do I return to life’s crossroads, hoping to choose the right direction that will fulfil the second half of my existence? It feels a uncertain proposition at my age. My father retired at 55 and I am still trying to figure things out. Maybe I should just follow the ways of The Dude, the slacker hero in the 90s cult classic film The Big Lebowski and just give in to it all. Played by the then 47 year-old Jeff Bridges, the Dude abides, enjoying the simple pleasures, carefree and equanimous in the face of the drama, chaos and adversity that surrounds him.
This week, though, I have been drawn for inspiration to another, starkly contrasting 47 year-old “Dude” who has fastidiously stuck to the same path but gives a timely reminder that age is just a number and redemptive opportunities can present themselves at any time. I am talking about the improbable figure of Emiliano Marsili.
The Italian boxer is a remarkable character. Tomorrow night, he takes on Welshman Gavin Gwynne for the vacant European Lightweight title at the famous York Hall in Bethnal Green, the spiritual home of British pugilism. He is just three months my junior.
His fascinating story doesn’t start and end there. Nicknamed Tizzo (which literally translates as Dude), Marsili has the enviable record of being unbeaten throughout his professional career – across 42 fights and 20 years, drawing once and winning the rest. The southpaw has held the European title before too. The first time over ten years ago when he stopped Spain’s Luca Giacon in the second round, retaining the belt for two years, and four more bouts, before vacating. He has only been given one chance to fight for a recognised world title, against the Montenegrin Dejan Zlatičanin for the WBC version in New York in 2016, but he pulled out due to illness. British boxing fans, however, may remember the biggest win on his resume that came a year before the Giacon bout, when he beat “Dirty” Derry Mathews. Fighting for the lesser recognised IBO World Lightweight title in front of a partisan crowd at the Olympia in Liverpool, it was the only time Marsili, until tomorrow, had ever fought outside of Italy.
Those who have seen Mathews box will tell you he is a wily and unpredictable operator with a devastating knockout punch in his artillery. Though he never became much more than a British champion, he was a box office draw who fought the best in the country. Just three months after losing to Marsili he stopped future world champion Anthony Crolla. But the tough Italian had his number that night in a pulsating contest.
Tizzo was on top for the majority of the opening fourth rounds, but in the fifth Mathews had appeared to have turned things around and was on top. “Marsili’s not liking it, not liking it one bit,” the venerated boxing pundit Steve Bunce cried, co-commentating with John Rawling for Box Nation. Approaching half-way into the sixth, Mathews caught the Roman with a big right hand and had him up against the ropes unleashing a flurry of punches. An excited Bunce declared the fight all but over. “He’ll quit here John, he’ll quit.”
Eighty seconds later, Mathews was on the canvas – Marsili applying a bonecrushing left to the body. The rangy Liverpudlian survived the round but 70 seconds into the seventh, having taken more punishment, referee Howard Foster had seen enough – Mathew’s shredded face a bloody mess, his ribs seasoned, smoked and tenderised.
Now, 12 years later, Marsili is back in Old England, out of the comfort zone of his home turf, to face the current British lightweight champion in the form of Gwynne. The 33 year-old from the Valleys has a not too threatening record of 16-2-1, containing just four wins inside the distance, though the ‘Merthyr Mexican’ does stand nearly half a foot taller than his challenger and will have an obvious reach advantage for point-scoring punches.
Though only 5′ 6½”, it says everything that Marsili has maintained the same weight throughout his career. Dedicated to the sport, in a country that loves its food he carefully watches what he eats, a strict diet that feeds into his longevity in the sweet science. His body is toughened, working full time as a docker at the port town of Civitavecchi, where he has always called home.
“Sacrifice and passion is fundamental to this sport,” once said Marsili during a promotion of his autobiographical 2017 documentary ‘Tizzo: Story of a Grand Champion’ that gives an insight into those virtues he holds true. Available to view on Amazon Prime, it is worth 52 minutes of anyone’s time. Unlike the Dude portrayed by Bridges, Marsili’s mother says “he has never been a slacker.” He admits it is exhausting working long shifts before and after training. His daughter complains that he can become stern and touchy when the dual role takes its toll, but he never loses his desire.
But if he is fighter in the gym, he is a boxer inside the ring. Brains and brawn, he compares boxing to fencing, working his opponent out, calculating his every move. After over a decade as an amateur winning regional and national titles, he eventually turned pro at 26. But there is little reward in Italy for a sport that gains marginal attention, despite producing such greats of the past like Primo Cernena, Nino Benvenuti and Bruno Acari. Bureaucracy plays it hand too. We learn that Marsili was threatened with a lifetime ban if he fought Matthews because the Italian Boxing Federation did not recognise the IBO – yet some of the biggest names have at one time carried their strap, including Lennox Lewis, Tyson Fury and Floyd Mayweather, among many more. After winning, he renounced the title and his suspension was commuted to two months.
“I dreamed of becoming a great champion. Luckily my dream came true. I still hope to finish it with the icing on the cake to have a world championship in America to end on a high note,” Marsili said. Six years later he still waits, but a win against Gwynne and that door may well open one last time. The fight is live on TNT Sports 2 [10pm] and, where my support may ordinarily attach to the Briton, I will probably be cheering on the inspiring Italian instead – as if he was fighting for me and every other 47 year-old still clinging on to both past glory and a chance for a better future. And with outsider odds of 5/1, the Dude is a proposition worth backing. After all, he was 15/1 against Mathews.
But, you know, that’s just, like, my opinion, man.