Lee Groves

A tribute to Carmen Basilio

Carmen Basilio, who passed away on Nov. 7, is comforted by his cornermen after losing the middleweight title to Sugar Ray Robinson in their 1958 rematch. Basilio fought most of the fight-of-the-year bout with a closed left eye but still held Robinson to a split decision. Angelo Dundee, who pased away earlier this year, stands to the right.

 

Just 13 days after the passing of Hall-of-Fame trainer, manager and broadcaster Emanuel Steward, the boxing world is mourning the loss of another icon in Carmen Basilio, part of the International Boxing Hall of Fame’s inaugural class in 1990.

The 85-year-old former welterweight and middleweight champion died at approximately 3 a.m. Wednesday at Rochester General Hospital, where he was being treated for pneumonia.

On every imaginable level, Basilio’s life and career were defined by hard work, perseverance, substance and character. Born on April 2, 1927 in Canastota, N.Y., Basilio worked the onion fields with his nine siblings beginning at age five. The years of toil helped develop the man Basilio would become, both physically and emotionally.

Though the adult Basilio stood just 5-6½, he sported amazingly powerful shoulders and legs, which, in turn, provided the leverage for his deadly left hook. The hook’s effect was enhanced by the fact that this natural southpaw fought from a right-handed stance, which positioned Basilio’s stronger hand a few inches closer to the target. Sure, he didn’t have a great knockout percentage (27 KOs in his 56-16-7 record), but Basilio was capable of putting a world of hurt on anyone who stepped inside the ring with him.

While the farm work molded his physique, it also honed the tenacity that defined his career. The craggy-faced New Yorker was the epitome of an “honest fighter.” He squeezed out the very best of himself in every fight, which enabled him to achieve heights that lesser men with identical tools would have done. The mental fortitude forged in his youth served him well during his stint in the Marines, and following his honorable discharge in 1948 he began his professional boxing career.

Basilio hardly enjoyed a fairy tale start; in fact he was 28-10-4 in his first 42 fights. However, Basilio not only learned from his mistakes, he executed those lessons by beating several men who had inflicted previous blemishes. A draw and a split decision loss to Johnny Cunningham in fights one and three were answered by a second-round KO and an eight-round win in fights two and four and in back-to-back fights with Gaby Ferland staged 26 days apart in April and May 1950 he answered a 10-round draw in fight one with a first round KO in the rematch.

Basilio really didn’t begin to find his stride until the fall of 1952. Following a 10-round loss to Billy Graham, Basilio won seven consecutive fights, the best of which came against former lightweight king Ike Williams (KO 7) and Graham (W 12) for the New York state welterweight title. A 12-round draw with Graham 49 days later confirmed that Basilio had come a long way since Graham, a 113-fight veteran, out-boxed him 11 months earlier.

That showing vaulted him into his first shot at the welterweight title less than two months later against the formidable Kid Gavilan and it was here that Basilio introduced himself to the boxing world at large. In round two Basilio floored Gavilan for only the second time in his 112-fight career and was ahead on all cards after six rounds. “The Keed” found his rhythm in the second half of the fight but the split decision for Gavilan still was lustily booed by the throng at Syracuse’s War Memorial Auditorium. From that point forward, Basilio would be a fixture on the championship scene.

Securing a second title shot – which should have been a given after his stirring performance against Gavilan – proved a most difficult task because Basilio stood his ground against the mob-backed International Boxing Club. He served as a prosecution witness against Frankie Carbo during Carbo’s trial in the early 1960s, after which Carbo was sentenced to 25 years. The loss of time, money and opportunity was profound but Basilio held firm to his integrity and in the end he won. His battle and eventual triumph over the IBC was documented in an ESPN film “Fighting the Mob: The Story of Carmen Basilio.” It is ironic that the boy whose love of boxing was sparked by Primo Carnera’s heavyweight title reign would grow up to be a man who took on the very mob that controlled “Da Preem’s” career.

While continuing his battle outside the ring, he succeeded inside it. He went 12-0-2 in his next 14 fights before meeting freshly minted welterweight champion Tony DeMarco, who just 70 days earlier dethroned the mob-backed Johnny Saxton by 14th-round TKO to capture the crown. Before his hometown fans at Syracuse’s War Memorial Auditorium, Basilio made good on his second chance by stopping DeMarco in the 12th.

The rematch with DeMarco was staged five months later in the challenger’s home town of Boston. While Basilio retained the title in a fight that lasted just two seconds longer than the original, the most memorable moment was one that featured Basilio in crisis. Late in the seventh round DeMarco slammed Basilio with his signature left hook, a punch responsible for most of the ex-champ’s 30 knockouts in 47 wins. Most mortals would have been pole-axed by the blow but the stricken Basilio refused to yield. His legs buckled, wobbled and reeled but never folded. That miracle was followed by another as Basilio somehow weathered the fusillade of blows that rained on him for the remainder of the round.

“I got hit on the point of the chin,” Basilio told author Peter Heller inIn This Corner: Forty World Champions Tell Their Stories. “It was a left hook that hit the right point of my chin. What happens is it pulls your jawbone out of your socket from the right side and jams into the left side and the nerve there paralyzed the whole left side of my body, especially my leg. My left knee buckled and I almost went down, but when I got back to my corner the bottom of my foot felt like it had needles about six inches high and I just kept stamping my foot on the floor, trying to bring it back. And by the time the bell rang for the eighth round it was all right.” The vivid and honest description of his duress was typical of the man, as was the fact he pulled himself up from that crisis and went on to win the fight.

The pulsating battle was deemed THE RING’s Fight of the Year in 1955. In fact, from 1955 to 1959 – a yet-to-be-matched five consecutive years – Basilio was involved in the year’s best fight according to THE RING.

George Foreman and Arturo Gatti came the closest to duplicating Basilio’s feat by engaging in four Fights of the Year in a five-year and six-year stretch respectively while Tony Zale and Rocky Marciano were honored in three consecutive years. But in terms of providing consistently exciting fights that earned subsequent year-end honors, Basilio stands alone.

Basilio lost the welterweight title in March 1956 to Johnny Saxton in a verdict most believe was mob influenced. But Basilio got his revenge six months later by stopping Saxton in nine rounds, a fight that earned 1956 Fight of the Year honors from THE RING.

After Basilio crushed Saxton in two rounds and Harold Jones in four, Basilio took a leap of faith by challenging middleweight champion Sugar Ray Robinson, who stood four-and-a-half inches taller, sported a far longer reach and possessed otherworldly skills – even at age 36.

Basilio entered the Robinson fight with a burning hatred for the “Sugar Man” because of their first meeting in 1953 shortly after beating Graham for the state welterweight title. Basilio was walking down Broadway when he spotted Robinson and his entourage approaching from the other direction. Feeling they were brothers by profession, he approached Robinson and introduced himself. What he got back infuriated him – for life.

“He gave me a brush-off, and I lost my respect for him right then and there,” he recalled years later. “People come up to speak to you, you have to be happy because it’s people that make you what you are. He was an arrogant guy.”

Basilio channeled that anger into supreme aggression when they met face-to-face four years later in Yankee Stadium, and at one point in round 11 he unleashed nearly three dozen unanswered blows. After lifting the title via split decision Basilio became just the third reigning welterweight champion to capture middleweight honors (Tommy Ryan and Robinson were the others). Of course, Basilio-Robinson I was chosen THE RING’s 1957 Fight of the Year.

The rematch on March 25, 1958 was the next fight for both men and once again Basilio was perceived as the underdog. One famous interview with Howard Cosell perfectly captured Basilio’s defiance in the face of doubt. Cosell informed Basilio that he had just polled 10 sports writers for their prediction and that nine of them had chosen Robinson by knockout. When Cosell asked for Basilio’s reaction, the proud ex-farm hand had the definitive answer – “nine of ‘em are wrong!” Cosell could no nothing but chuckle.

As was the case six months earlier, the action was savage and compelling. Both men had to deal with adversities beyond just the brutal combat – Robinson was suffering from flu-like symptoms while a sixth-round right uppercut ruptured a blood vessel over Basilio’s left eye.

“I got stupid that night,” Basilio told Heller. “He kept throwing a right uppercut at me that night. He never quit. Like, a lot of times you’ll throw a punch at a guy two or three times and if you don’t get away with it you’ll quit using it. He threw it at me five times. He knew that I bobbed and weaved and he tried to catch me going down in a bob-and-weave. He’d throw it, I’d go down, I’d catch his right uppercut with my right hand, and I’d counter him with a left hook because he was wide open for it. I did it four times. The fifth time he threw it at me and I saw it coming. I missed it with my hand and it went past my hand, hit me right in the eyebrow and broke the blood vessels and blew my eyelid up. My eye shut.”

Did it ever. Long before the 15-round distance had run its course Basilio’s orb was an ugly, purple mess that was shut drum-skin tight.

The pain that coursed through Basilio’s face every time Robinson landed a punch on it must have been immense but the tenacious Basilio continued to fight through it and nearly came out of the ring with his belt. Basilio prevailed on referee Frank Sikora’s card (69-66) but Sikora was overruled by judges John Bray (71-64) and Franklin McAdams (72-64). With the victory, Robinson gained the middleweight championship for a record fifth time while Basilio had to be satisfied with yet another Fight of the Year award.

Basilio rebounded with victories over Art Aragon (KO 8) and Arley Seifer (KO 3) to earn a crack at the vacant NBA middleweight title against Gene Fullmer, a bull-strong Utah native who rivaled Basilio in terms of ruggedness. But Fullmer pulled off a strategic bait-and-switch that no one, much less Basilio, could have seen coming. Instead of going toe-to-toe, Fullmer chose to stick and move – and he did it quite well. Basilio never was able to draw a bead on Fullmer but the effort he put forth during his 14th round TKO loss was worthy enough to win his fifth straight Fight of the Year honor.

Basilio lost the rematch Fullmer 10 months later – this time by 12th-round TKO – and after 10-round decision victories over Gaspar Ortega and Don Jordan the 34-year-old New Yorker came up short in his final title challenge against Paul Pender, who won a lopsided 15-round decision on April 22, 1961. Basilio said he was badly hampered by a pulled muscle in his left shoulder, which prevented him from throwing his vaunted hook. He announced his retirement shortly thereafter.

Although Basilio hung up the gloves, it didn’t stop him from utilizing his fabled work ethic. He taught physical education at Le Moyne College in Syracuse for 21 years and worked for Rochester’s Genesee Brewing Co. for years after that. He also served as chief second to nephew Billy Backus, who scored his own title fight upset by beating welterweight king Jose Napoles on cuts in the very building Basilio won his championship 15 years earlier.

But Basilio’s greatest post-career legacy was yet to come.

In 1984 the residents of Canastota honored Basilio and Backus by dedicating statues depicting them in fighting poses. That, in turn, encouraged townspeople, particularly Ed Brophy, to explore the possibility of creating boxing’s first Hall of Fame and museum. That dream became a reality in 1989 during the ribbon-cutting ceremony and one year later Basilio was part of the initial IBHOF class that included Muhammad Ali, Joe Louis, Henry Armstrong, Rocky Marciano, Archie Moore, Carlos Monzon, Willie Pep, Sandy Saddler, Jose Napoles and old foes Sugar Ray Robinson, Ike Williams and Kid Gavilan.

For the next two decades Basilio was a fixture at the annual induction weekend and he often was introduced by emcee Joey Fiatto as “the reason why we are all here.” All the while Basilio never lost the common touch. He signed autographs until the very last person was satisfied and he treated those with whom he interacted as equals. He loved to playfully poke bystanders in the ribs just to see how they would react. Seeing it was Basilio, they deferred to his greatness and laughed with him.

That was just one part of Basilio’s human side. Another was how he looked out for his friends. 

When Tony DeMarco’s son died in a car accident in 1975, Basilio traveled to Boston to attend the funeral and give support to his onetime rival. DeMarco was touched by Basilio’s kindness during his time of grief and the two remained friends for life. For years they appeared together at the IBHOF induction weekend, including in 2005 when they celebrated the 50th anniversary of their two classic fights. Basilio and Fullmer also were friendly rivals, and during one of the induction weekend’s early years they climbed into the ring for a joke-filled boxing exhibition.

Basilio’s appearances at the IBHOF weekend were sporadic in the final few years as his resilient body finally bowed to the ravages of time. His spirit, however, never left the festivities.

The past 12 months have been devastating in terms of the legends boxing has lost. It’s almost impossible to fathom that former heavyweight champion Joe Frazier’s death occurred exactly one year before Basilio’s and that Basilio’s trainer Angelo Dundee would follow in February. Writer and historian Bert Randolph Sugar passed away in March, Johnny Tapia in May, Teofilo Stevenson in June and Jimmy Bivins in July. Other boxing figures such as Corrie Sanders, Don Fullmer and 1956 Olympic gold medalist Terry Spinks have left our midst and those who love the sport are still mourning Steward’s passing.

Basilio’s death is yet another reminder of the fragility and temporary nature of life. Many accurately say that life is occasionally unfair but one thing is beyond question: Death is, has been and always will be undiscriminating. Those who know Basilio and those who know of him can take comfort that he achieved a lot in his 85 years. He more than lived up to the fighter’s code inside the ring, but more importantly he more than lived up to the code of humanity outside it.

 

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Photos / THE RING

Lee Groves, a boxing writer and historian based in Friendly, W.Va., can be emailed at l.groves@frontier.com. He is a full member of the BWAA, from which he has won seven writing awards, including a first-place for News Story in 2011. He has been an elector for the International Boxing Hall of Fame since 2001 and is also a writer, researcher and punch-counter for CompuBox, Inc. He is the author of “Tales From the Vault: A Celebration of 100 Boxing Closet Classics.” To order, please visit Amazon.com or e-mail the author to arrange for autographed copies.

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