Book review: Emanuele Blandamura autobiography
“Life is a succession of rounds. Taking hits. Rolling with the punches. Hanging in there, not giving up. And when the time comes, striking back – in the right place, at the right time.” - Jean-Claude Izzo
Emanuele Blandamura pulls no punches in his recently released autobiography, ‘What a Battle Life is’, in collaboration with distinguished Italian boxing journalist and author, Dario Torromeo. The book’s central theme is about the pivotal event that goes on to have such a destructive and destabilising effect on his life. “I don’t need anyone. I’m an orphan. My mother and father are both alive, but they’ve abandoned me”.
Deserted by his 18-year-old mother who’s not able to cope with the responsibility of parenthood, Blandamura’s father is left to pick up the pieces of a broken relationship. After struggling himself to juggle a full-time job and the incessant demands of a toddler, the small boy is sent to live with his grandparents, Felice and Isabella, in the Nuovo Salario district in north Rome.
The former European middleweight champion develops a special bond with his grandfather, the man who at 56 years of age is suddenly tasked with raising a grandson. “My grandfather never told me how to live, but just set the template for me to follow in his quiet and unassuming way.” Torromeo, award-winning author of 15 boxing books and former Corriere dello Sport journalist, delves into the crippling anxiety, debilitating self-esteem and psychological damage of this most disturbing of starts. And Blandamura puts in all on the line, just as he has done during an 11-year pro career.
He falls in love with boxing after a chance visit to a local gym run by the then 70-year-old Guido Fiermonte, an anglophile former Italian champion who was awarded the gold medal for military valour during the Second World War. Torromeo’s research leaves no stone unturned, and Fiermonte, we discover, taught the finer points of the noble art to Tennesse Williams and Yehudi Menuhin. Legendary Italian actresses, including Pier Angeli (who starred with Paul Newman in Somebody Up There Likes Me – the biopic of Rocky Graziano), also trained at his gym.
Blandamura, who at this point, has gone off the rails, his inner torment eating away at him, finds solace in the gym. A late starter, and despite losing his first fight just shy of his 20 birthday, he goes on to enjoy a successful amateur career that includes a call up to the Italian squad. His ‘Road to Damascus’ moment comes while watching bronze medallist Roberto Cammarelle at the Athens Olympics in 2004 losing in his semi-final against Alexander Povetkin (the Italian heavyweight would go on to win gold in Peking and controversially lose to Anthony Joshua in the 2012 final). Even though his mind is made up to turn pro, dreaming of world glory, he doesn’t make his debut until 2007, at the age of 27.
Seeking further answers through counselling, Blandamura battles depression and has difficulty forming meaningful, long term relationships. The feeling of utter abandonment and loneliness at times is overwhelming, to the point that one day, he contemplates ending it all. But boxing proves to be his saviour, “It’s the right medicine for someone like me. Boxing isn’t a sport, it’s a way of life.”
In his 16th fight, he wins the WBC Mediterranean Middleweight title against the unbeaten Manuel Ernesti followed by the WBC International Silver belt in his next bout against Luca Tassi. Following an impressive win against Austria’s Marcos Nader (his first fight abroad, in Stuttgart) for the EBU EU title, he receives a call from his manager and great friend Christian Cherchi of the OPI Since 82 boxing promotions company.
He’s to challenge the unbeaten Billy Joe Saunders for the vacant European title in Manchester at the then Phones 4U Arena (now Manchester Arena) – and an opportunity to follow in the footsteps of Italian legends, Tiberio Mitri and Sumbu Kalambay. Fighting is in Saunders’s blood – his grandfather Absolom Beeney aka ‘Pickles’ was a legendary unbeaten bare-knuckle champion. Despite a gritty performance, Blandamura is stopped in the eighth and suffers a perforated ear drum.
But the most devastating KO comes on 5 September 2014 when he learns of his beloved grandfather Felice’s death, the person “he loves the most in all the world…the man who saved his life”. The man who reminds him of Santiago, the protagonist in Hemingway’s ‘The Old Man and the Sea’, his favourite book, who has been his rock, has also deserted him. It’s another bitter blow for Blandamura, who has slowly begun to build bridges with his father, but more importantly his mother, whom he meets for the first time in 2007 at the age of 27.
Having lost a second time in a European title challenge (KO8 versus France’s Michel Soro at the Teatro Principe in Milan), he gets another shot and a chance to avenge a defeat against amateur rival from Emilia, Matteo Signani. It turns out to be third time lucky, and Blandamura captures the European title with a split decision win after a hard-earned and physically exhausting battle – 17 stitches over his eye and a wrist in plaster for his troubles. It’s a special moment for the Rome pugilist, as both his parents are there to watch him, and it’s a first ringside for his mother. “The lone wolf is now a champion!”
The year 2018 is one that Blandamura won’t forget in a hurry. While he can never fully get rid of the trauma that has persecuted him throughout his life, he has rediscovered a new serenity. The anger that has plagued him has dampened. The relationship with his parents is mending – gradually. On the boxing front, the 38-year-old gets his crack at the world title against WBA champion and London Olympic gold medallist, Ryota Murata. Along with long-term coach Eugenio Agnuzzi, the planned Tokyo heist doesn’t go according to plan, and the Roman is stopped in the eighth (the same round for his European title losses).
Blandamura we discover is a Buddhist and follower of Daisaku Ikeda’s teachings, an avid reader and lover of classical music. ‘A River Flows in You’ by South Korean composer and pianist Yiruma is his favourite track. A big aficionado of the Native American ‘Sioux’ – his ring nickname – their battle cry of ‘Hoka hey’ (which we’re told means ‘Let’s get stuck in’ rather than the more widely held ‘Today is a good day to die!’) seems an apt mantra for his daily battles. Interestingly, he and his friend, fellow Italian middleweight Emanuele Della Rosa have had it written into their contracts that they will never meet in a ring.
Torromeo is the writer turned counsellor. The many sessions the two have shared deliver a hard-hitting book that tackles some of life’s big questions. For Blandamura, the fight to “fill the void of my childhood” is now a lot easier. “I no longer feel like an orphan; a thin piece of string now ties me to my parents.”