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At 81, still a force in the boxing ring

Vinnie Savino, a dentist from Brookville, turned to

Vinnie Savino, a dentist from Brookville, turned to boxing to help overcome the hardships in his life. Savino, 81, has forged a bond with the young fighters at the Westbury Boxing Gym. Newsday followed Savino for nearly a year to tell his story in this in-depth video feature. (Newsday / Chris Ware, Robert Cassidy)

The fighter moves about the ring, stalks his prey, shuffles forward, patiently relentless.

He gets close to the foe, wings a right hook -- so compact, tight and sharp. Then the right, thrown to rattle the brain pan of the opponent, who is backed against the ropes. Eyes are focused on the aggressor because he is an anomaly.

The bell rings to end the round at the Westbury Boxing Club, and the onlookers nod their heads, their approval and admiration evident: they are watching Vinnie Savino doing at 81 what only a handful of people his age can do: spar 10 rounds against a young gun less than half his age.

He is beloved at that gym, which functions as so much more than a place for people to pound a heavy bag, skip rope, learn the basics and beyond of pugilism: Savino is an institution here, not only because he's the oldest guy to climb into the ring, but because he is family to the hard-core crew at Westbury. And this family knows there's no place he'd rather be than trading jabs, absorbing shots that have left him with a black eye, a swollen nose and bruised ribs that have him seeing stars when his side gets bumped. They see him as a role model in perseverance who claims a spot there nearly every day.

They know that the ring is the safest place for the still-practicing dentist from Brookville because, he tells them, without boxing, without this outlet, this distraction, he might not be alive.

Boxing wasn't always in his blood. Growing up in Flushing, Savino showed a great facility for the piano. The son of Joseph and Jenny Savino was giving concerts at Steinway Hall in Manhattan at age 11. He performed dutifully, knowing his father took pride in the son's delicate touch.

Fighting became part of his foundation when he was 12, maybe 13. The school bully was a kid named Freddie. Young Vinnie and Freddie were escorting two gals to a party, Savino recalled.

"Freddie was punching me in the arm, aiming kicks at me, trying to impress the girls. I was afraid to hit him back," he said. Freddie sensed the uncertainty and upped the ante.

Believing his competitor was an easy mark, Freddie baited the trap. "I have some boxing gloves back at my house," he said. "Let's go and fight in my cellar." A handful of Freddie's pals were clustered, gleeful, ready to see the decimation. The two squared off, and young Vinnie threw a right hand. It landed hard. Down went the bully. Freddie skidded on the concrete, amazement and ire in his eyes. He stood up, charged at Vinnie. Bang, came Vinnie's left hand, and Freddie hit the floor again.

"My life right then and there changed," Savino, said, recalling the moment. "I don't think I ever again took any BS." Not from playground tough guys anyway, but it was a different story at home, where young Vinnie attracted negative attention from his dad.

"My father was a very tough guy," Savino said. "He had a way of reinforcing his ideas whether he was right or not. He was a violent guy. He never beat up my brother [or sister]; he saved the violence for me. And why? I can't figure that one out. I never saw my dad hit my mom, but in the house, it was constant warfare."

Piano stress

The battle surged to another level when Savino graduated from eighth grade. He played his heart out at his graduation ceremony at PS 32, nailing the piano piece. But the stress from wanting to get it right weighed on him. He thought he could breathe easy, take a victory lap, but back at the house, Dad "requested" he do the piece again for guests.

"No," the boy said. "I don't want to. Please Dad. Please leave me alone."

"Either you play it, or I will beat the hell out of you," Savino said, recalling his father's warning. Young Vinnie responded, "Do what you have to do, I'm not playing that effing piece." Dad kept his promise.

"He gave me a pretty solid beating," Savino said with no emotion. "He did a job on me. Yeah, other kids got a graduation gift, maybe a bike, or a pair of skates . . . I got my face bashed in. I think of what my dad did when I was 13, the pain of that feeling -- that never goes away," said Savino, whose father has been dead for about 30 years. "The memory is so vivid. It has haunted me virtually my whole life."

Savino soldiered on, that emotional scar healing to a point but still inflamed, as he attended St. Francis Xavier High School in Manhattan. He boxed while attending Georgetown University, where he did his undergraduate work, and he graduated from dental school there in 1958.

In his mid-30s, he gave up the piano for good. "I can hardly read the music," he said. "I'm so sorry I stopped. I had lessons after the Air Force. I had a fistfight, defending myself. I broke my hand, I never played again."

The ghost of his dad, his malevolent side, loomed, but Savino persevered to find a normal life. He met his missus, a British woman named Brenda, when she came to his Flushing office to fix a cavity. They married in 1964 and had two kids. Paula arrived first, then Vincent. Savino said he never raised his hand to the kids.

He beamed when his son joined the New York Police Department and was even more pleased when Vincent found his true calling as a firefighter. Then fate threw one of those overhand rights that leave you on the mat with your brain scrambled. Vincent was killed in an auto accident Feb. 2, 2004. He was 28.

Living with heartache

The emotional battering Savino took seeped in and stayed. "I can't describe the pain," he said. "It never really gets any better. Time is not a factor. You learn to live with the heartache. You lost your son, but you have to learn to go on."

As it had in the past, physical pain helped. Pugilistic therapy. The ring called. Black eyes, busted nose -- that's healinga It has been for Savino.

His best pal at the gym is pro boxer Tommy "Razor" Rainone, a 35-year-old Hicksville resident who met the dentist in early 2006. "We hit it off quickly," Rainone said. "I see him almost every day there [at the gym]. And you gotta be crazy to want to do this; the pain, the sacrifice."

The two bonded over similarities in upbringing; Rainone had felt the sting when his mom divorced, then remarried, and he became the target of his stepfather's frustration, he said. "Boxing saved me from who knows what. I had so many friends who passed away from drugs. It saved me from maybe death, or prison."

Savino, who still works in the dentistry practice he opened nearly six decades ago, will tell you the same. "I think boxing saved my life," he said. When the past creeps back and darkness descends, Savino goes for therapy: 10 rounds with Rainone, who respects his much older opponent.

"I daresay there are very few guys out there at 80 who could spar 10 rounds like he does," Rainone said. "He never fought as a pro, but in his day, he could hang with top contenders."
Even Savino's wife is in favor of his workouts. "I think it's terrific," said Brenda, 74. Is she worried he'll get hurtc "No," she said, chuckling. "I worry about the other guy."

Savino aims to keep hitting the gym and boxing until the end of his run. "I have no intention of stopping," he said. "I haven't been killed yet, I enjoy it, and it takes my mind off things I don't want to think about. ... I had hard knocks. We all do, and this has helped me enormously. I'm able to stand up to these guys, and the punches. I gut it out. You wobble a little, but stay standing."

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