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Monday, March 30, 2020

Thunder from the North:
Carmen Basilio and the Fight Game

Carmen Basilio
Copyright ©2020 All rights reserved by the author.

In a stellar career which lasted thirteen years (1948-1961), Canastota boxing champion Carmen Basilio established himself as a multiple world title holder in two different weight classes, and he competed against some of the greatest fighters ever to step inside of a boxing ring: Kid Gavilan, Tony De Marco, and Sugar Ray Robinson to name just a few…Basilio endured truly humble beginnings (his family was poor onion farmers who lived in upstate New York) and long work hours to establish himself as a top-notch athlete.  

After serving a stint and boxing in the U. S. Marines during World War II, Basilio decided to skip the family agricultural business and he instead became a professional fighter. His professional debut came on November 24th 1948, when Basilio knocked out opponent Jimmy Evans in 3 rounds.  Basilio quickly established his relentlessly brawling, slugging style that was to become his signature, while fighting his adversaries.  Never a stylish dancer or a deliberate tactician like fellow rivals Sugar Ray Robinson and Johnny Saxton, Carmen was a seemingly indestructible close-quarters puncher, who was impossible to intimidate and very nearly impossible to hurt. Basilio was not a tremendous puncher like Utah-born world middleweight champion (and also rival) Gene Fullmer…but Carmen’s perpetual attack of crowding out his opponents on the inside of exchanges made Basilio very successful in the boxing ring.  Basilio’s enemies were never given time to rest from Carmen’s wicked, non-stop rushes.  Basilio’s punches were solid and crisp, although they were not typically combustible.  He wore his opponents down through both the cumulative effects of his endless punching and his superlative durability.  

Basilio’s early career was a very curious admixture of wins and losses…yet by 1953 he established victories over top-rated welterweights Ike Williams, Lew Jenkins (both boxing icons, but somewhat faded at this point) and classy fellow New York fighter Billy Graham.  Graham was a rugged and quick-witted boxer of considerable talent and his rivalry with Basilio was a memorable one.  They fought three times with Graham winning the first bout by unanimous decision and Basilio winning the 2nd encounter by unanimous decision.  The third Graham-Basilio fight ended in a draw result for both.  When his trilogy with Graham was completed, Basilio was now a top-ranked American boxer contending for legendary Cuban Kid Gavilan’s world welterweight title.

The Kid Gavilan-Carmen Basilio match took place on September 18th, 1953.  In a faced-paced 15-round thriller, Basilio knocked the champion down with a hard left hook (Basilio’s best punch) that caused flashy and clever Gavilan to crash canvas-ward in round 2. The gutsy Gavilan beat the referee’s count and resumed heavy fighting with his young challenger. Both combatants went the scheduled distance; with Gavilan the victor by split decision. 

This loss hardened Basilio’s resolve and it bolstered his confidence. Carmen had proved to his Syracuse and Canastota fight fans that he indeed was a world-class boxer.  Between the end of 1953 and early 1954 Basilio twice clashed with game Frenchman Pierre Langlois, earning a draw in their first fight and then scoring a unanimous decision over his top-ranked opponent in their last meeting.   
This victory propelled the self-proclaimed Upstate Onion Farmer to a second welterweight world championship fight against the new titlist and New Englander Tony De Marco.  The five-foot-six, and ½ inch Basilio was duly prepared, and on June sixth, 1955, he met the fierce and feisty Bostonian at Syracuse’s War Memorial Auditorium.  In front of his beloved hometown audience the spirited Basilio and indomitable De Marco waged a vicious war, which vacillated back and forth, until Carmen took control and scored a brutal technical knockout against Tony in round number twelve. Basilio was now the undisputed 147-pound kingpin of the world welterweight division and his dreams were fulfilled.  But Carmen knew very well that in order to keep his throne he would have to defend it against all comers, and he would soon again do battle with De Marco…this time in Boston.

In another volatile encounter, Basilio withstood heavy fire from the former champ.  Basilio would not be discouraged and by round 12 (as in their first fight) Basilio had stopped De Marco by knockout.  In 1956, Basilio would lose his crown to Johnny Saxton, via controversial 15-round decision.  Before year’s end, Basilio would kayo the newly crowned champion, to reclaim his world welterweight belt and scepter, in round nine.  In February, 1957, Johnny Saxton would again challenge the tough, slugging Basilio, with Carmen the impressive winner of their rubber match, by halting Saxton in round two. 

Having firmly established his reputation as one of boxing’s most elite members, Basilio now eyeballed world middleweight champion Sugar Ray Robinson’s title belt.  Robinson was long regarded as boxing’s best pound-for-pound fighter in the world.  Despite being considered a hardened pugilistic veteran, Basilio was thought of as an underdog against Sugar Ray.  The two world champions collided at Yankee Stadium on the 23rd of September, in 1957.  Both New Yorkers shook the Bronx to its core, as Robinson’s stinging combinations from long-range landed against the determined welterweight king.  Basilio outhustled Robinson in most of their fight’s epic exchanges, landing more punches and walking through Sugar Ray’s barrages, stunned, but undaunted.  Basilio was properly awarded a hard-fought decision victory by way of split verdict over Robinson and Carmen was now the 160-pound world boxing champion.

Basilio had arrived at the summit of his powers with this huge victory…but Robinson (reputed by many boxing pundits as the greatest-ever fighter in the sport’s history) would not be denied his revenge.  At Chicago Stadium on March 25th, 1958, it was Sugar Ray Robinson who outhustled and outpunched a resilient and a relentless Basilio, to recapture the world middleweight title by way of split-decision victory.  Sugar Ray avoided many of Carmen’s haymakers and he effectively countered the Italian-American’s punches from long-range.  Basilio’s left eye had been badly bruised by the four (and soon to be five-time world middleweight boxing champion).  But Carmen fought on courageously and he refused to give up, while sitting on his stool.  Basilio kept his second and last meeting with Robinson very close, loosing narrowly by a points deficit.   

Basilio was now slowly fading from his prime. From 1959-1960 he lost two bouts to former middleweight champion Gene Fullmer, each by way of stoppage.  Fullmer, unlike Carmen, was a natural middleweight, and the Utah bull…being much larger and stronger than Carmen, wore him down in both brutal slugfests.  Carmen gave the steely Fullmer plenty of heat on both occasions, but Fullmer was simply too tough for a mainly welterweight dynamo like Carmen Basilio.  

Carmen’s last fight came on April 22nd, 1961, when he dropped a unanimous decision to the new world middleweight champion Paul Pender, at the Boston Garden, in Massachusetts.  Pender was a very savvy and indefatigable boxer, who was at his best, and Carmen, who suffered a knockdown during their 15-round battle, was but an apparition of his glory days. 

Yet Basilio, whose unusually brilliant and animated eyes were always illuminated with determination and faith, had very much life left in him.  He lived to eighty-five years old, when he died on November 12th, 2012 in Rochester, NY.  Carmen Basilio built up a very esteemed ring record, consisting of 56 victories, 16 defeats, 7 draws and 27 knockouts.  But it is not for his career statistics that Basilio will be remembered…it will be for his singularly brazen spirit and integrity.  For Basilio fought in an era in which the underworld dominated boxing and corrupted it. Standout fighters such as Jake La Motta, Sonny Liston, and Charley Burley were all reputedly to be negatively influenced by Mob interference…but not Carmen Basilio. Carmen refused to be bullied or manipulated by any criminals of the day, and he fought on terms exclusively honest and unbiased. Talent, diligence, and luck would dictate the outcomes of Basilio’s bouts, not crooks.

Basilio has a nephew, Billy Backus, also of Canastota, New York, who became a world welterweight boxing champion. Backus was also a very spiritually rigorous and physically tenacious fighter.  Carmen said when Billy won the world welterweight title from Jose Napoles in 1970, “It was the proudest moment in my life.”  Certainly, America and New York State had great honor in having Basilio reside here, for all of his life.  Basilio truly loved boxing, and the State of New York loves Carmen, for the dignity, decency, and bravery that he displayed through his long and productive life.  

It was Carmen Basilio’s spectacular spirit and career that helped motivate the proprietors of the International Boxing Hall of Fame to put their shrine in Canastota, NY.  There, Basilio is immortalized along with the likes of all-time boxing greats Benny Leonard, Muhammad Ali and Thomas Hearns.

About the Author: Michael Mauro DeBonis is a poet and a historian from Long Island, N. Y. Mr. DeBonis graduated from both Suffolk County Community College and SUNY Stony Brook (B. A. English). Michael’s work first appeared in the Village Beacon Record and the Brookhaven Times newspapers. His latest work (poetry and prose) may be found in The New York History Review.

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