A majestic Italian, a gallant Brit, a midnight dip and stolen crisps in Switzerland
THERE is a short list of world title fights taking place in Switzerland.
In 1991, one fresh November night, a WBO title fight took place less than one mile from the Swiss border in the Italian enclave of Campione D’Italia. The venue was the historic Casino di Campione, which is in the town on the shores of Lake Lugano. The town is surrounded by Switzerland. Surrounded in every direction.
In that ring that night was Italy’s 1984 Olympic champion, Maurizio Stecca, defending his WBO featherweight title. Stecca was a great little fighter. His challenger was Tim Driscoll, a florist from Bermondsey. It was a fight that deserves to be recognised for its quality and quirky location.
The casino where the fight took place was replaced with a giant and towering eyesore in 2007; it closed in 2018 and opened again earlier this year. It has a history of mystery and intrigue going back to the spymaster days of World War II.
The fight was buried at the time and remains that way to this day. I watched it again with Italian commentary and it’s very good. It’s bloody and hard, but with undeniable class. The fight is forgotten, but there was a memorable beano to that distant resort, a coach and plane extravaganza with a wayward gang of boxing fans.
The Driscoll trip (I’m sure) started in Romford, home of Matchroom. I got there nice and early and there were about 30 people on the coach – they were Tim’s loyal followers. There was a lot of Fila, white trainers and Italian jeans. The Bermondsey Boys were going on a jolly. The fight was that night.
The flight went to Milan, which is about 80 kilometers (50 miles) from Campione D’Italia. There was another coach waiting for the shuttle to the Lakes. We were all staying in a nice motel on Lake Lugano. I had not managed to get any Italian lira. I never did it at either airport; I never did it, I went the whole trip without spending a penny. I never had it to spend.
The venue was not spectacular. It was about as impressive as the previous time a Fisher boxer travelled to a casino for a world title fight where he was a big underdog. That man was Lloyd Honeyghan, and we all know what happened that night in a ballroom at Caesars Atlantic City in 1986. Denzel Bentley, from the Fisher, has the same type of odds against him on Saturday.
Stecca had lost just once in 43 fights, his gold in Los Angeles in 1984 at bantamweight was impressive. Driscoll had a good win over Steve Robinson, who at the time had a record of four wins and three defeats. He dropped Robinson. He had also had two ten-round wars with Johnny Good for the Southern Area featherweight title. It was a risk, but a risk worth taking. The boys on the bus were confident.
At the venue, Nino Benvenuti was smiling his best Nino smile at ringside and shaking hands. It is always a pleasure to be in his company. He felt like genuine boxing royalty, and he was.
I had various newspaper assignments for the night. I think that the Sunday Express had put a phone in for me. I was also doing about six other Sunday and daily papers. It was a smart earner, make no mistake. There was no mobile phone action; every paper had a free-phone number from European countries and the USA. I was Steve Bunce in one or two, Steve Early, Mark Hilton, Frank Ward and Steve Royce in others. I grew to like some of my pen names. Not one word of copy was sent via any type of computer; it was all phoned and dictated, and often it was the same person taking the copy. “So, who are we tonight?” I was often asked. It was a busy night for me.
There was no other boxing on in Britain on that night, but the sport was high-profile at the time; Chris Eubank had stopped Michael Watson just six or so weeks earlier. Watson was just out of a coma.
At the casino, the fight was stopped by Freddie King in Driscoll’s corner at the end of the ninth round. Tim was, according to the scorecards, trailing heavily; he was losing 89-81 twice and 88-82. It was not that one-sided, nowhere near that wide. It was compelling, slick and quality. Driscoll had a damaged nose and cuts near his right eye. His face was swollen, but even in the last seconds of round eight he was chasing Stecca.
Tim Driscoll was broken in defeat. He could be proud of the nine completed rounds.
I filed my copy and by the time I had finished the place was empty, just a woman with a broom. There was pasta and it was great and free; I had two plates with Claude Abrams, the editor once of this magazine. And then we walked back under the stars, and I had to dive in the lake. I had to. It was one of my first overseas fights and it meant a lot. I had covered Driscoll as an amateur.
The following morning, I had a small sense of dread when I got on the coach. I had been hungry after the swim, and I had taken the crisps from the mini bar. I had no lira, I never paid, and I just got on the coach. The Driscoll faithful started to drift on, their bags often clanking with the unmistakable sound of glass on glass. There was a bit of murmuring and then, just as the doors were about to shut, a woman from the front desk jumped on and, through a translator, started to call out different people from different rooms. When she had exhausted her list and emptied the bags belonging to the men she had called, she was standing in the middle of about 100 mini-bar special bottles of vodka, gin, scotch and wine. I escaped with my crisps. It was not exactly the Italian job, but the boys gave it a good go. I got home late that night and still had not spent a penny during my 20-hours in the Italian Las Vegas.
Driscoll had two more fights and quit and Stecca lost his title to Colin McMillan the following year. Campione D’Italia is still in Switzerland.