By Elliot Worsell
HAVING waited two decades for it, Emiliano Marsili would have been forgiven for fearing his first defeat as a professional would be a far more decisive and damaging experience. The older he got, after all, the more the likelihood of this scenario increased and the younger the opponents naturally became, which, for obvious reasons, only added to any sense of foreboding.
It was perhaps a surprise, then, that Marsili’s first defeat as a pro – and maybe, should he now retire, his only one – arrived very much on his terms, with him sitting on a stool between rounds eight and nine. In control, both of the fight and his own destiny, Marsili signalled his inability to continue against Gavin Gwynne on Friday night (December 1) and duly accepted his fate, grateful at least that the choice was his and that, unlike most ageing boxers, he had not been disconnected from his senses or discovered on the night that his legs, faculties, and punch resistance had betrayed him in one fell swoop.
Instead, at the ripe old age of 47 he was let down not by his brain or technique but rather his body, which, of all the inevitabilities in boxing, was one Marsili, 20 years after turning pro, fully expected.
“I don’t feel good about the first defeat, but I didn’t feel like I lost the fight in the ring,” the former European lightweight champion told Boxing News upon his return to Italy. “Only an injury stopped me. I was winning the fight.
“The (injured) shoulder is getting much better now, but I felt it during the fight after the fourth round. I think I was doing good and I think I was ahead, but that was only my sensation in the ring at the time. You never know for sure with the scorecards. But I felt good during the fight. It is normal to worry about the judges when you fight abroad and that is why I try to finish with a knockout or stoppage to prevent the fight going to the scorecards. When you fight abroad it is always more difficult.”
Twice now Marsili has boxed abroad – that is, outside his native Italy – and twice he has emerged with his reputation enhanced on account of impressive performances in the role of underdog. Eleven years ago, he rocked up in Liverpool to stop Derry Mathews inside seven rounds, while on Friday, when considered over the hill and too small to prevent Gavin Gwynne winning the vacant European lightweight title, Marsili shocked British fans all over again. This time he rocked Gwynne early with a left hand and then proceeded to show an ease of movement which belied his age and suggested there was still plenty to give, both physically and mentally.
“Yes, I hurt him,” he said, “especially in the first round. I also hurt him again in either the fourth or fifth round with a hook to the liver.
“When I was moving, Gavin complained to the referee, but the reality is, he didn’t know how to cut off the ring or stop me. In the eighth round, I started to punch again after feeling the pain in my shoulder in the seventh, but the pain became too much.
“Everything surprised him, I think. At the press conference he said he was the bigger man – a welterweight against a lightweight – but I showed him that also inside I was the better boxer.”
Though less shocked than some, Marsili’s manager, Christian Cherchi, admits he continues to be awe-struck by the feats of a man who somehow gets better with age. “It was an incredible performance from Marsili because nobody believed, at 47, he could perform like that,” Cherchi told BN. “This was especially true after people saw pictures from the press conference and the weigh-in and saw the difference between him and Gavin in age (Marsili is 14 years Gwynne’s senior). Very, very few people were giving Marsili a chance in that fight and he proved them all wrong. Okay, yes, on paper he lost the fight. But I think, in the eyes of the people, he won the fight. He gave him a lesson.”
Be that as it may, Marsili, according to the record books, did indeed suffer his first professional loss on Friday in Bethnal Green. That it came the way it did, with Marsili ahead on two of the three judges’ scorecards and causing Gwynne, the victor, all manner of problems, should not be ignored, but still it changes very little.
Similarly, what should also not be ignored is the fact that it has taken Father Time over 20 years to catch up with the fleet-footed Marsili and deliver him a lesson most boxers receive at an age when there is still time for them to learn from it. In Marsili’s case, he has tasted defeat right at the point at which he has stood up from the table, retrieved his coat from the back of his chair, then tucked the chair back in beneath the table. It has arrived, in other words, with him both well-fed and on his way out the door.
“Let’s say ‘yes’ for now, but we’ll see,” Marsili said on the subject of retirement. “I didn’t have to prove anything at the end because I have already done what I set out to achieve. If I had the chance to have the rematch with Gavin in Italy and beat him, that would be the perfect scenario, but I don’t have any complaints if I have to finish like this because I showed what a true Italian boxer can do.”
If lucky enough to have no complaints, the same, alas, cannot be said for regrets. Specifically, what appears to irk Marsili more than anything, and what was maybe driving him to continue boxing deep into his forties, is the fact that despite reigning in Europe for so long he never managed to secure a shot at a version of a world title. This, given the sheer quantity of them available, will forever be a bugbear for the otherwise content native of Civitavecchia.
“I will probably regret that all my life,” he said. “When I had the opportunity to fight Dejan Zlaticanin for the WBC (lightweight) title, as official challenger, I didn’t do it because I had health problems in the last week. I had to pull out.”
“To be honest with you, I didn’t see any sense in Marsili taking this (Gwynne) fight, because he was already a two-time European champion, and there was nothing to gain,” added Cherchi. “It was not a big-money fight or whatever. But after the fight I can say that this fight gave him more credit than all the other fights for the European title. The only one that compares is (Luca) Giacon (in 2012) because Giacon was the new big prospect in Italy at the time and he didn’t go anywhere because of Marsili. He also went to Liverpool and won against Mathews but unfortunately he didn’t get to fight for the world title. It was supposed to happen in 2016 against Zlaticanin at Madison Square Garden but he had to pull out the week before because he had the flu. It was a pity because he could have won. He never got another opportunity for a world title after that.”
To put Marsili’s achievement in context, the southpaw, while never mixing with the very best, has managed to stay unbeaten for over 20 years and through 44 professional fights. For even more context, consider this: Sven Ottke went unbeaten for seven years, Rocky Marciano for eight, Andre Ward for 13, Joe Calzaghe for 15, Ricardo López for 16, and active undefeated boxers Terence Crawford and Tyson Fury have both so far avoided being beaten for a total of 15 years. Meanwhile, if you discount the Conor McGregor farce, Floyd Mayweather managed 19.
“I turned professional quite late at 27 and at the time my goal was to become Italian champion and nothing more,” said Marsili. “I am very happy to have achieved more but I must always keep my feet on the ground and focus on my work even if I have achieved more than I expected.”
If you’re looking for secrets as to how Marsili has managed to achieve what he has achieved, you may end up being disappointed. For there is, he says, no magic well, no fountain of youth, and no special elixir. In fact, his incredible longevity can be attributed to things more rooted in the soil of his sport: competition, a willingness to learn, and an even greater willingness to sacrifice everything.
“The difference between me and other boxers is that I spent a long time training and sparring on the same team as Sandro Casamonica, Gianluca Branco and Stefano Zoff when each one of them were fighting for either European titles or world titles,” he said. “I would do lots of sparring with them and learn a lot. When I was sparring, I was not doing badly and that gave me a lot of confidence. I also live very well. If you don’t do that, you will not be fighting for the European title at 47. Most days I go to bed at nine o’clock and then wake up early. Thanks to my family, I have been able to keep straight and lead this kind of life.”
After a certain point honesty helps, too, with experience allowing one to be at peace with one’s limitations and to also do away with the delusion that fuels so many younger and more insecure pros. By 47, you pretty much know what you can and can’t do, Marsili says. Moreover, by 47, you know what parts of you no longer work as well as they once did.
“Mentally I am better now (at 47), yes,” Marsili said. “But physically you lose the resistance you had before when you were young. But I am more experienced and calmer now; I take time to make decisions and I am clever.”
He will of course now need all his experience and intelligence to make the right decisions going forward. For if he is unable to lure Gwynne to Italy for a rematch, the most sensible option, which Marsili himself concedes, is probably retirement. And yet, in light of the fact he has done nothing other than box for the last 20 years, and in light of the fact he has triumphed in every professional fight bar one, his last, one wonders how a man like Marsili, 42-1-1 (16), will handle a cruel beast like retirement when the time eventually, and inevitably, comes.
“I will probably stay in boxing,” he said, which comes as no surprise. “I want to open my own gym. My wife has got a promoter’s licence, so it would be good to keep the boxing tradition going in Civitavecchia. I want to help new boxers from there. If I do that, I think I will be okay in retirement. I will have new guys to focus on and I can spar with them and help them and try to teach them what I was taught.”
Just as good fences make good neighbours and good listeners make good therapists, good students make good teachers, with the best of them often selfless, smart, and prepared to lead by example. For the students of Emiliano Marsili, there can be no better example to follow, no better teacher from whom to learn, and if needing to believe in miracles, no better antidote to their scepticism.