PREVIEW Italia Thunder vs British Lionhearts

British Lionhearts
Enjoy Peter Lerner's in depth preview of the British Lionhearts' opponents, Italia Thunder

THE British Lionhearts latest World Series of Boxing campaign kicks off tonight at the PalaVespucci in Rome. They will be facing the Italia Thunder team, who are returning to the league after a year’s absence.

The Thunder squad was presented to the media last week and includes an intriguing mix of seasoned elite international amateurs, young national team members, up-and-coming Italian national amateur champions looking to take the next step, and a group of fledgling professionals.

Two-time national champion Federico Serra was selected at 49kg. Serra’s opponent in December’s national finals, Francesco Barotti, is the back-up. At 52kg national team stalwart Manuel Cappai is the first choice but he has an able substitute in Gianmario Serra, Federico’s twin and also national champion for the last two years. Promising Francesco Maietta and Vincenzo La Femina are the picks at 56kg. 9-0 (4) pro Michael Magnesi is first choice at 60kg. Also selected was Sedik Boufrakech. Reigning national champion Paolo Di Lernia is the man at 64kg. Also competing at that weight will be a professional, Francesco Lomasto. He is the current Italian champion at light welter. London 2012 bronze medallist Vincenzo Mangiacapre and heavy-handed youngster (and Amir Khan lookalike) Mirko Natalizi will be competing at 69kg. The middleweight division (75kg) features two of the national team’s young guns, Salvatore Cavallaro and Giovanni Sarchioto. Rio Olympian Valentino Manfredonia has been selected at 81kg. He will be supported by Adriano Sperandio, a Roman professional with a 7-0 (1) record. Heavyweight (91kg) is the domain of team captain Clemente Russo, a four-time Olympian. His understudy will be Mattia Faraoni, a 4-0 (2) professional. Guido Vianello and Mirko Carbotti are the fighters at super heavyweight.

Tonight’s match will see five bouts take place. These are:

49kg: Federico Serra vs Galal Yafai

56kg: Francesco Maietta vs Jack Bateson

64kg: Paolo Di Lernia vs Dalton Smith

75kg: Salvatore Cavallaro vs Luka Plantic

91kg: Clemente Russo vs Josip-Bepo Filipi

Ahead of the match Boxing News has profiled the five Italia Thunder fighters who will be competing. A full report on the match itself will appear in next week’s issue.

Federico Serra, light flyweight (49kg)

At light flyweight (49kg) Galal Yafai will come up against 22-year old Federico Serra. The Sardinian has been boxing since just November 2013 (his first bout came in February 2014) but his rise has been meteoric. After just twelve bouts and little more than a year of experience, he came out of nowhere to beat reigning senior national amateur champion Gianluca Conselmo to win the Guanto D’Oro in 2015, the second most important domestic amateur tournament. Going into the bout Conselmo had fifty-eight fights under his belt as well as national team and WSB experience. Later that year Serra defeated Conselmo again, this time to win the national amateur championships – known as the Assoluti – and, together with his brother Gianmario (selected for the Thunder squad at 52kg), made history as the first twins to win the national title in the same year. In 2016 he repeated his success in the Guanto D’Oro, this time up at 52kg, and retained his Assoluti title at 49kg. His 20-4-3 record includes victories in his last twelve fights. As club coach Domenico Mura told Sardinian television station Canale 12, “Federico is no longer a surprise package. Now he’s a reality.”

In that first eye-opening meeting with Conselmo, Serra was intent on taking the centre of the ring and blended grit with sharp technical skills and an impressive left jab. In the 2016 Assoluti he boxed for long stretches as a sprite-footed southpaw. Mura told Boxing News that in the gym they have recently been training him as a southpaw in order to broaden his arsenal.

“We started giving him more training as a southpaw in the build up to last year’s Assoluti,” said Mura. “I remember when I was boxing just how tricky southpaws could be to face.” Mura can talk from rueful personal experience – in the 1992 Junior World Championships he was leading Daniel Santos by three points with just twenty seconds to go when the dangerous Puerto Rican stopped him. Santos of course went on to become a two-weight WBO champion (with one highlight being that scary one-punch knockout of Neil Sinclair in Sheffield).

Serra’s most notable qualities so far have been his composure and lack of fear as he’s accelerated through the levels. However, Yafai – with his WSB and Olympic experience – is the toughest opponent of his career to date and understandably starts as favourite. It is also Serra’s first taste of the 5×3-minute round format.

Francesco Maietta, bantam (56kg)

Twenty-year old Francesco Maietta is another of Italian amateur boxing’s future hopes. Jack Bateson’s WSB opponent made an immediate impact on the international stage just after his nineteenth birthday, winning bronze medal at the European Championships in Bulgaria. In his semi-final he came up short but gave a spirited display against Michael Conlan, losing 27-30, 28-29 and 28-29. In 2016 he competed for the first time in Italy’s two most important senior amateur competitions, the Assoluti and Guanto D’Oro, winning both of them. His record stands at 59-13.  He has only ever lost once at domestic level and that result was avenged twice.

Though Maietta boxes for the Italian army, he is a product of the frighteningly prolific Excelsior gym in the small town of Marcianise, near Naples. People speak of head trainer Domenico ‘Mimmo’ Brillantino in reverential terms, and rightfully so: from a demographically small talent pool his gym manages to produce national champions year after year. Olympic medallists Clemente Russo and Vincenzo Mangiacapre (both members of the Italia Thunder squad) are two names which stand out, yet this year alone three Excelsior fighters won the Assoluti: Maietta, Raffaele Di Serio (also representing the army) and Paolo Di Lernia.

Maietta is something of a deceptive fighter. He often eschews the deft, evasive footwork and eye-catching single counters that seem the default basis for many top Italian amateurs – especially those like Maietta who have been in the national team set-up for several years – and instead usually favours a hunched, aggressive front-foot style. Depending on the adversary, however, he is quite willing, and able, to change styles. In the final of the Assoluti he boxed a back-foot fight against the talented and dogged Fabio Reitano, completely nullifying his opponent’s attacks with rapid combinations and good upper-body movement. Whatever his tactic, his most prominent attribute is perhaps his ability to time his lengthy and frequent combinations – he has a knack of surprising his opponent and landing just when it seems the assault has passed.

Paolo Di Lernia, light welter (64kg)

Like Maietta, Di Lernia is an Excelsior fighter and he possesses those attributes which seem to define the gym’s fighters: a tendency to use a solid grounding in the basics as a springboard for improvisation, fluid switching between body and head-shots, the adaptability to change tactics and styles mid-fight, and an almost flashy self-confidence.

The 21-year old boasts a 40-6-3 record. After several years in which he seemed to come up just short in national competitions, 2016 saw him blossom into the leading amateur at his weight in Italy. In July he picked up the Guanto D’Oro while in December he landed the Assoluti title by beating the very decent Sebastian Mendizabal in the final. This recent coming of age is reflected by the fact that he’s undefeated in his last eighteen fights. He will therefore be bringing a certain amount of confidence and momentum into his clash with Dalton Smith. Going against him however will be his lack of experience at international level – he has represented Italy just the once. He is one of several promising youngsters in the squad whom the Italians are hoping will be able to take that step up from top domestic level.

Salvatore Cavallaro, middleweight (75kg)

Though the same age as Di Lernia, Salvatore Cavallaro falls into a different category – together with Francesco Maietta he is a precocious youngster who has already made a mark internationally and is now looking to establish consistency in international tournaments. Unlike the majority of fighters in the Italia Thunder squad, he already has WSB experience, having fought six times in the 2015 season (registering two wins and four defeats). Like Maietta, the Sicilian middleweight won a bronze medal at the 2015 European Championships. He narrowly missed out on the Rio Olympics – after beating three opponents in the Baku pre-qualifying event he lost his crucial quarter-final. That fight back in June of last year (which took his record to 79-18-2) was the last time he stepped in the ring, so there may well be a lack of sharpness when he comes up against old foe Luka Plantic, one of the Croatian members of the British Lionhearts squad. These two met in the Mostar Youth Tournament in 2013, with Plantic winning on points.

Though rust could well be an issue, and there have also been question marks about the rate of his development since 2015, there is no doubt that Cavallaro is a talented young fighter. The European bronze and victories over Olympians such as Antony Fowler and Valentino Manfredonia hint at his potential. He is a stocky, cautious southpaw who likes to coax errors and openings before whipping in quick shots. He’s particularly good at turning a seemingly innocuous probing jab into a sharp hook.

Clemente Russo, heavyweight (91kg)

Team captain Clemente Russo is the best-known fighter in the Italia Thunder squad and a WSB veteran. Together with the now-retired Roberto Cammarelle, this somewhat divisive figure has been one of the totems of Italian boxing, amateur or pro, over the last decade. His résumé is staggering: two Olympic silver medals (in Beijing and London), two World Championship golds, seven consecutive Assoluti titles, a WSB individual title in 2011 and victory with the D&G Italia Thunder team in the 2011/12 season of the WSB. He won his first eighteen WSB contests and has an overall record of 208-45-3. He has participated in four Olympics and it is not inconceivable that he might attempt to qualify for a fifth. Some of the notable fighters he has beaten include Deontay Wilder, Oleksandr Usyk, Tony Yoka and Rakhim Chakhkiev.

Outside of the ring his cocksure, loquacious manner, his participation in various reality television shows and his willingness to engage with the mainstream press have made him the dominant public persona in Italian boxing so far in this century. That is surely no mean feat for a fighter who has never turned pro (unless one acknowledges AIBA’s APB format) and whose fighting style is effective but perhaps not necessarily always attractive to the casual fan.

Yet the last year has been a tricky one for Russo. His obsession with finally winning an Olympic gold ended in his second bout in Rio against old rival and eventual gold medallist Evgeny Tishchenko. His participation in the Italian version of Celebrity Big Brother culminated with his expulsion after an early morning comment that seemed to condone violence against adulterous women. In the space of a couple of months his long quest for an Olympic gold had been thwarted and his years of public image work had been irreparably damaged.

Four months on the dust has settled somewhat and Russo finds himself back in the format in which he has so often excelled. Though no longer the force of five to ten years ago, he is still a formidable fighter. His bull-like strength is paired with an instinctive, hands-down countering style. He relies largely on anticipation and upper-body movement to avoid punches – though he’s likely to tuck up behind a high guard when on the ropes or under significant pressure – before striking back with any number of shots from his varied repertoire. Russo is also something of a master of nullifying his opponent’s work up close, usually by stepping inside punches and forcing a clinch.

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