August 22, 2013 08:35PM
By Bryant Carpenter
SOUTHINGTON — Luigi Camputaro made a career of fighting guys in their backyard.
Johnny Tapia in Las Vegas. Jacob “Baby Jake” Matlala in South Africa. Robbie Regan in Wales.
Now, 16 years retired from the ring, the fly- and bantamweight who has made Southington his home since emigrating from Italy in 1984 for the express purpose of becoming a professional boxer, is gaining the spotlight in his own backyard.
On Saturday, Nov. 9, the two-time holder of the European flyweight title will be inducted into the Connecticut Boxing Hall of Fame at Mohegan Sun. He goes in with Pito Cardona of Hartford, who held multiple lightweight belts. Also slated for induction are broadcaster Al Bernstein, promoter Joe DeGuardia, referee Johnny Callas and USA Boxing administrator Roland Roy.
“I was glad the committee recognized the fact that he was a pretty darn good fighter in his day and he fought for a lot of titles,” said veteran boxing judge Glenn Feldman of Avon, president of the Connecticut Boxing Hall of Fame. “And Luigi’s a good kid. He was so thrilled when he found out.”
Camputaro, now 49, was 29-10-1 in a career that spanned 13 years. He lost more title fights than he won, including for the WBO flyweight crown against Matlala, a bout voted 1993’s “Fight of the Year.”
Camputaro never was promoted well, which consequently had him often fighting in front of enemy crowds and also left him exposed to the politics of the sport, such as last-minute changes in opponent and, in one instance, the number of rounds to be fought.
But he never ducked a challenge, even if they came mere months after his previous fight. He was only 5-foot-2, but he battled straight-on and rarely went down. He trained like a madman, typically dropping 20 pounds to get into fighting weight.
And he could take a punch. Cecilio Espino landed a record 637 on him in their 1993 meeting.
Above all, his reputation, unlike some decisions that went against him, was sound.
“I fight almost everyone out there,” says Camputaro, who still speaks his native Italian. “I never back out before the fight. That’s who I want to fight. I want to see who I am.”
The Hall of Fame selection committee, in tabbing Camputaro, clearly saw him for who he was.
“He was an all-action fighter. That’s what everyone said about him and there’s something to be said about that,” said Feldman. “He might have fought under the radar. Had he won one of those title fights, he might have been better known. But you can’t take back that he fought guys like Matlala and Tapia. To have that on your resume is pretty good.”
Camputaro is now a wine distributor. He and his wife Tina, who grew up in Southington the daughter of first-generation Italian immigrants, have a daughter Marina, in her early 20s, and a son, Gino, who just graduated from Southington High. They have a lovely home, complete with a boxing gym upstairs in the garage, on a quiet rear lot in a fashionable neighborhood.
In a way, that’s emblematic of Camputaro’s renown in Southington. Here’s a boxer who fought around the globe, fought on television, twice wore a championship belt, but has seldom been out front in a community best known for football and baseball stars.
Where Camputaro was embraced most was Gioia Sannitica, the small town of family farms in the Campania section of Italy where he was born and grew up. It was in Gioia Sannitica, fighting under a giant circus tent, where Camputaro won the European flyweight championship for a second time against fellow Italian Salvatore Fanni in 1995.
It was in Gioia Sannitica where Camputaro, finally fighting before a true home crowd, was an overwhelming fan favorite and not a relative unknown in the visitor’s corner.
“Wherever I go, the people were great over there. ‘Hey, this is the guy who fights! This is the guy who fights!’” Camputaro recalled. “It was my town, for my people, for everybody.”
In Camputaro’s corner that night — and the guy who pulled the strings to get the fight in Gioia Sannitica — was his older brother, Giovanni. Talk about full circle. It was Giovanni, a member of Italy’s 1976 Olympic boxing team, who introduced Luigi to the sport. Every night, the two would spar. Every night, Camputaro said, “my brother would make me bleed.”
But the younger brother was adept. He got 40 amateur fights under his belt and made the 1984 Italian Olympic boxing team. Before the Games hit Los Angeles that summer, however, Camputaro embarked for Southington, where one of his sisters was living, to become a pro.
His first trainer was a Wallingford man, Bob Kowalski. His first fight was June 19, 1984 at the old Agora Ballroom. Camputaro does not remember that bout, which he won on points over Felix Rodriguez of Springfield, Mass. Nor does he recall the next one, again a win over Rodriguez, this time at the Bayside Inn in Lynn, Mass.
After opening his career 6-0, Camputaro got his first big fight Aug. 15, 1985. The opponent was 1984 Olympic gold medalist Steve McCrory, the site Atlantic City. The card included Mike Tyson.
Camputaro’s first taste of the big time exposed him for the first time to the shenanigans of the sport. The fight was supposed to go eight rounds, but was stopped after six. Camputaro knocked McCrory down in the third, but still lost by unanimous decision.
He hasn’t forgotten that one.
“I remember that fight because they stole it from me. It was my first loss and they stole it from me. They promoted it. It was their fight. I was nobody.”
Camputaro rebounded with 13 straight wins, including a 12-round decision over Roberto Cirelli on Nov. 28, 1986 in Lombardia, Italy that earned him the Italian flyweight title.
Victories continued. Camputaro, by then known by his nickname “Kid Dynamite” and training with the likes of Angelo and Chris Dundee and Tony Ayala, was 19-1 on June 23, 1989 when he took on Ray Medel for the USBA flyweight title in Denver. The fight went all 12 rounds. Camputaro lost by unanimous decision.
It was the first of five title fights in three years that Camputaro would lose, two by TKO and three by unanimous decision. The others:
n Oct. 14, 1989 vs. Vincenzo Belcastro in Battipaglia, Italy for the European bantamweight title (12-round decision).
“I didn’t do nothing,” Camputaro recounted. “Belastro, he was good fighter, no question about it. It was a bad night for me. I didn’t throw one punch.”
n April 27, 1990 vs. Sugar Baby Rojas for the WBA Inter-Continental bantamweight title at Trump Castle in Atlantic City (TKO 8th round).
Camputaro’s left eye closed up pretty good.
“Can you see?” the referee asked.
“Yeah, I can see.”
Apparently, he was not believed.
n Sept. 20, 1990 vs. Johnny Tapia in Las Vegas for the USBA super flyweight title (12-round decision).
“Johnny Tapia was good,” Camputaro said of the late and troubled champ. “I can’t say nothing. I couldn’t catch him, and he was right in front of me.”
n Jan. 26, 1992 vs. Cecilio Espino in Indianapolis for the NABF bantamweight crown (TKO 11th round).
A painful defeat for Camputaro. Of all those record 637 punches that Espino landed, the one most lethal was illegal. A head butt caught Camputaro on the chin and momentarily put him out on his feet in the first round. Camputaro kept battling. He bled profusely. He put Espino down in the 10th for a standing 8-count. A round later, with mere seconds to go, the fight was stopped.
“Come on, let her go,” Camputaro argues to this day. “He ain’t knocked me down yet.”
The breakthrough finally came Sept. 22, 1993 in Sardina. Paired for the first time with Sardinian fighter Salvatore Fanni, Camputaro won a 12-round unanimous decision to claim the European flyweight championship.
He was poised to defend the title shortly after, but an opponent backed out. Instead, he got an invite to face Baby Jake Matlala. It would be on Matlala’s turf, Sun City, South Africa, and only three months after the Fanni fight, but it was for a world title, Camputaro’s biggest shot to date.
“Everyone said, ‘Don’t go over there; the guy he gonna kill you, he’s so good.’ I never back down from anybody.”
There was, however, need for precaution. Advised to stay off the street lest they draw heat from overzealous South African fight fans, Camputaro and his brother, who accompanied him on the trip, spent 10 days holed up in their hotel.
On fight night, Matlala was carried in like royalty, shoulder-high, Cleopatra-style. He was only 4-foot-10, the shortest pro boxer ever, the only opponent Camputaro ever towered over. But Baby Jake could hit. He also offered an almost impossibly small target. Body shots? What body?
Camputaro did catch him with a hard punch late in the seventh. Too hard, though, and too awkward. The impact broke his thumb. In the eighth, Camputaro discontinued.
“It was not my day, I guess. My brother was in the corner. My brother said, ‘No, you can’t fight with one arm.’ Baby Jake, he was cut. Maybe they would have stopped the fight for him.”
Camputaro returned to the ring in 1994 to twice defend his European flyweight title against two Brits, Mickey Cantwell and Darren Fifield. Both matches were in England and Camputaro won both on points.
He was not so fortunate in his third defense. Pitted against Welshman Robbie Regan in Cardiff, Wales, Camputaro lost on points. It was a controversial decision, Camputaro said, to the point where a rematch was ordered.
“It never took place. Regan, he didn’t want to fight me. Regan, he went to fight for the world championship.”
And Regan won it, moving up a weight class to take the WBO bantamweight crown from Daniel Jimenez on decision. That vacated the European belt, which Camputaro regained a year later, again by beating Fanni.
It took two cracks this time. The fighters battled to a draw on Sardina in June 1995. Three months later, fighting in Gioia Sannitica, the town of his birth, Camputaro won his last title, beating Fanni in 12 rounds on points.
It was the crowning moment, and Camputaro the conquering hero. Little Gino, only 7 months old, became locally famous when he burst into tears on his father’s lap during the post-fight televised press conference.
Camputaro wound up fighting only three more times. He KO’d an inexperienced opponent in Wallingford, then went to Denmark in November 1996 to face unbeaten Dane Jesper Jensen. Another road game. Camputaro lost on points.
A year later, in October 1997, in Fort Hood, Texas, Camputaro fell to 1988 Olympic gold medalist Kennedy McKinney in a fifth-round TKO. Shortly thereafter, McKinney won the WBO super bantamweight title.
That proved to be the last fight for Kid Dynamite. His career was ended by a head injury, sustained not in the ring, but while building his home. He fell off the roof. Doctors orders were emphatic.
“I know, OK, I’ve got to get out. For me, it was tough getting out of boxing.”
Now his son Gino, who wrestled at Southington High, is interested in trying his hand at boxing. It’s a science, to be sure, but one Camputaro found both sour and sweet.
“In boxing, it’s a lot of, ‘Who’s big? Who’s in control?’ They win all the time,” he said. “That’s why, when you’ve got a nice kid coming up, you gotta be careful because there’s a lot of bad people out there. A lot of politics, like any sport.”
Camputaro has plenty of memorabilia from his career — fight posters, gloves, newspaper clippings, glossy magazine features. A small gold boxing glove dangles from his necklace.
The gym above the garage, he says, is for his son, but Kid Dynamite, at 49, still looks pretty explosive. His face, so easily cut, looks none the worse for 13 years of wear, a face likely to become, with state Hall of Fame induction, more recognizable in his own backyard.
Tickets for the 9th annual Connecticut Boxing Hall of Fame induction on Saturday, Nov. 9 are $90 and can be purchased by calling Kim Baker at the Mohegan Sun (860-862-7377) or Sherman Cain at the Manchester Journal Inquirer (800-237-3606, ext. 321).