Italian spirit: Lorenzo Zanon interview

Paul Zanon
14/02/2018 11:10am

Boxing Monthly's Paul Zanon spoke to the Italian heavyweight who shares his surname about his glory nights in the 1970s and early 80s, which included tussles with Norton, Quarry and Evangelista, as well as a world heavyweight championship challenge against Larry Holmes...

I’ve interviewed a few hundred fighters over the years, but never one who has shared my rather unique surname. I have fond memories of sitting down with my family and watching Lorenzo Zanon fight on a snowy black and white television set in the 1970s, as he took on some of the very best heavyweights the world had to offer at the time.

With my parents hailing from Italy and my brother also being named ‘Lorenzo Zanon,’ the 6ft 3in Italian heavyweight was always going to get good household support from us.

Roll the clock forward 40 years and here I was about to interview someone who may well be a distant relative.

After waiting for the prolonged international ringtone to sound a couple of times, a warm voice answers: "Pronto." After introducing myself, he responded with, "Paaauuuul! Tutto benne? Influenza?" Basically seeing how I was doing after my recent spar with Aussie flu. After having a virtual hug over the phone, I put my very best Italian language skills to use and cracked on with the interview.

Zanon, originally a resident of Lombardy, Italy, moved to the warmer climes of Natal, Brazil, ten years ago. Now positively engrossed in the South American culture, the former European heavyweight champion and world title challenger kindly took half an hour of his time to reminisce about some of the highlights of his career.

“I started boxing at seven years old, which was needed as I was a bit fat," he begins. "My two brothers also had a go, but they never stuck with it.”

As an amateur, Zanon won the heavyweight silver medal in the Italian championships in Rome in 1972, then the year after turned over. After racking up 12 victories and one draw, in his fourteenth fight, Zanon took on Guiseppe Ros for the Italian heavyweight title.

When asked to recount the evening, Zanon laughs before saying, “It was nearly 50 years ago! I can barely remember!” then adding: "I was 23 years old and he [Ros] was 11 years older than me and had enormous experience. He’d already fought some great fighters like [Joe] Bugner, [Ros lost a UD over 15 rounds to the Hungarian born pugilist] and he was regarded by many as a favourite going into our fight.

"I had an accident in my car at the age of 18 when I broke the patella in my knee, damaged my hip badly and had paralysis of my root leg and foot. I never thought I’d be here fighting for that title five years later. Also, I was fighting with only one hand, the left hand [as the other had been injured in training]. Anyway, I won on points and it was a good learning curve for my career and a great satisfaction against the odds.”

Less than two years later, Zanon took an almighty leap up in class and made his maiden boxing voyage to the US, fighting Ken Norton and Jerry Quarry within a short space of time. However, neither man was the original intended opponents for the Italian’s debut. Zanon explains: “I went to America a few months earlier, to sign a contract to fight Muhammad Ali. Instead, Ali did the contract with [Alfredo] Evangelista. Soon after, I signed the fights with Norton and Quarry and Ali signed the fights with [Earnie] Shavers and [Leon] Spinks.” It was argued that Zanon would have had as good a chance against Ali, if not better, than Spinks at that point in his career.

Zanon then recounts the tale of his American road trip in more detail. “Norton. I knew of his record very well and knew he could hit hard with both hands. In fact, every time he hit me, it hurt! However, I knew I was a bit faster and had better technique and when I was able to land, I did so with success. I was picking up points, when suddenly he caught me with his power, which was far superior to mine. That was that.

“Soon after Norton I fought Jerry Quarry, in fact, only seven weeks later. I was winning the fight easily. By the ninth round I hadn’t lost a round on all the judges' scorecards and I’m not sure if it was because of something I stupidly did, lost my concentration, got caught in his trap, I don’t know, but he hit me with a left hook and I woke up in the hotel!

“I didn’t fight after Quarry for 13 months. The Italian boxing federation took my licence away. Maybe they thought I wasn’t good enough? The reason they gave was as a precaution. A precaution for what?”

The case against Zanon is hard to comprehend - he’d just taken on two very highly rated heavyweights in the US, back to back within seven weeks and was certainly no embarrassment, lasting into the fifth and ninth rounds.

Whatever the reasons they gave and whatever the circumstances were, Zanon was eventually given his chance for vindication. Thirteen months later, he proved to himself and the boxing world that he was still a force to be reckoned with; having taken a convincing points victory over Alfredo Evangelista [on 4 February 1977, in an eight-round contest] and despite not getting his crack at 'The Greatest, Zanon was able to raise his own career bar, by taking on Evangelista again in April 1979, but for the European heavyweight title this time round.

Zanon explained the importance of the fight against a well respected opponent in Evangelista. “At that point in his career, the only fighters he [Evangelista] had lost against, were myself, Muhammad Ali and Larry Holmes. To re-beat him and become the European heavyweight champion in Turin in 1979, was a big moral victory.” [N.B. From 1909-2018, there’s only been five Italians who have held the heavyweight EBU strap - Zanon was the third.]

Four months later, Zanon transcended the post-Quarry mist with gusto and fought the legendary Larry Holmes for the world title. It’s also worth noting, that Zanon was the first Italian heavyweight to challenge for the world strap since Italy’s only ever world heavyweight champion, Primo Carnera, way back in the 1930s.

Zanon recalls the fight with an upbeat tone in his voice. “It was a great memory. Technically, he was incredible. He could hit you seven times, if he wanted to. Everything he threw was polished and fluid. For example; Norton hit hard and he put me down, but it wasn’t like Holmes. Norton put me down with one big shot. Holmes didn’t have one punch that really hurt like Norton. Holmes hit me, then again, then moved, then hit, again and again, until he put you down. He did so with speed and precision, like I’d never seen before.”

I was lucky enough to get a quote from the Holmes camp recently regarding the fight. “Lorenzo was a good fighter. He gave Larry a good fight for the first three rounds with his jab.” To be complimented about your jab from probably one of the best jab-artists in boxing history is certainly something to take to the bank.

So who was Zanon’s toughest opponent? The Lombardian favourite explains: “Every time you have a boxing match, you come up against a fighter who can either hit, can hold, can move well and has good defence. Or sometimes has all those qualities. However, after each fight, it becomes easier to deal with these issues, because you build up experience. But at the time of each fight, every fighter has something about them that makes it difficult for you.

"Every fighter makes you learn. Some of the fondest moments of my career, were not always fights I won, but who I was in with and how far I developed during those fights. But when I did win something like a title, don’t get me wrong, it was fantastic. There’s a certain prestige and self esteem that comes with winning a title. It makes it all feel like it [the training] was worth it when you have the belt around your waist.”

Outside of the square ring, Zanon emphasises how close he is to his family and explains how an imminent trip to Italy to see his three daughters especially is very important to him. It also turns out the sporting gene has been passed down with success. “My daughters were all professional basketball players," he points out. "One in particular, up to a couple of years ago, was on the national squad for 10 or 11 years, in Serie Uno [Division 1]. I’m very proud of them.”

Despite having an interest in boxing, Zanon is no longer actively involved in the sport as he was many years ago. So what does the endearingly polite 66-year-old do with his time now? “These days? I’m a pensioner! I have a field of 10,000 square metres where I grow fruit and various other plants. I have a swimming pool, one cat, one dog and that’s how I pass my time. I’m happy with life and love to see my family.”

Zanon signs off with a comment about his relationship and contentment with boxing. “I’m very, very happy, more so, because I loved boxing. The sport also gave me the opportunity to live a good quality of life. It changed my life. For the last ten years I’ve lived in Brazil and have been able to live a life of leisure! I’m content and a lot of that is down to my boxing career.”