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Tuesday, April 26, 2022

Who Stole Our History?
Big Money Heist at Museum in Upstate New York Remains Unsolved

Carmen Basilio, circa 1956,
courtesy of the Associated Press

By Michael Mauro DeBonis
Copyright © 2022. All rights reserved by the author

On the 5th of November in 2015, a very singular theft took place at the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, New York (Silkov, 1). The burglar(s) entered through a side window, which they had broken to access the building (Gray, 1). The crime of grand larceny involved the illegal and forced removal of six world boxing championship title belts from American titlists Tony Zale and Carmen Basilio (Gray, 1).

Zale called the “Man of Steel,” was the middleweight division’s unquestioned dynamo, in the 1940s, during one of boxing history’s most competitive periods for the 160-pounds weight class (Mueller, 1). Zale was an athlete of impeccable talent, skill, and courage. When reigning world middleweight champion Tony Zale lost his much-venerated crown to the equally legendary fighter from France named Marcel Cerdan in September of 1948, Tony was thirty-five years old and well past his prime (De Cristofaro, 89). He had recently emerged victorious from a horribly brutal and savage blood feud with his archrival, Rocky Graziano, from New York City (De Cristofaro, 87-89). Zale personally hailed from Gary, Indiana, where he was a true blue fan favorite there and elsewhere (De Cristofaro, 87). His three-bout trilogy with former middleweight champ Rocky Graziano, fought between 1946-and 1948 (Mueller, 1), is considered rightly as one of the most barbaric and bitterly contested in the entire modern history of pugilism (De Cristofaro, 87). The inactivity of Zale incurred during his military service in WWII (1942-1946) did much to advance his patriotism but nothing to enhance his athleticism. After World War II, “The Man of Steel” was rusty.

But Zale (1913-1997) was no ordinary fighter. After some intensive training and six tune-up fights in 1946 (Editors, BoxRec.Com), he cleared the way for his first meeting with the rough and tumble brawler Graziano, a top-ranked candidate for Zale’s highly-coveted world middleweight crown (De Cristofaro, 87). Graziano unleashed much fire and kayo power on the proud Polish-American champion, severely hurting Zale in their messy and murderous shootout before Tony miraculously rallied back and pounded Rocky senseless to the canvas in round 6 (De Cristofaro, 88).

Zale’s second bout vs. Graziano came almost a year later, in July of 1947, resulting in a huge upset and a quite different outcome opposed to their first challenge (De Cristofaro, 94). Both men let loose furious assaults from the opening bell, with Graziano absorbing a reciprocally devastating amount of blood-spilling from Zale. Graziano, however, somehow was able to withstand Tony’s supercharged blows. He successfully countered by unloading a hellacious and deadly barrage, which put Zale into a state of senselessness and hurt, causing a full 10-count against him and putting the middleweight crown on Rocky’s underdog head by way of a technical knockout in six rounds (De Cristofaro, 94).

The third Zale-Graziano fight took place on June 10th, 1948, at Ruppert Stadium, in Newark, New Jersey (De Cristofaro, 88). In defending his newly-acquired title, Rocky Graziano came out with his usual blazing attack. Zale, the cool, calm warrior, took a few heavy shots from the bull-like champion, but unlike in their first encounter, Tony did not wilt from Rocky’s fierce combinations (De Cristofaro, 88). Zale successfully avoided most of Graziano’s big haymakers before shrewdly and sharply responding with a highly concussive body and headshots of his own against the Italian-American champion (De Cristofaro, 88). Zale put the rugged Graziano into dreamland in round three and he brilliantly recaptured his world middleweight championship (De Cristofaro, 88).

Zale immortalized his legacy and his reputation as the most elite and esteemed middleweight of his era. But after three tremendous battles waged against his New York enemy, Zale’s best days in boxing were all behind him. Zale and Graziano both had physically paid dearly for their three bloodbaths, with each becoming part of boxing’s most sacred legends and lore. Canastota boxer Carmen Basilio would (just a few years later) reach heights in the sweet science as dizzying as Zale and Graziano did.

Carmen Basilio (1927-2012) was a feisty and ferocious brawler from upstate New York (De Cristofaro, 125) and a man whose courage and physical durability seemingly knew no bounds (Please see Michael M. DeBonis’ article Carmen Basilio: Thunder from the North-New York History Review, 2020 Edition). The former onion farmer from rural New York State detested long days of hard, mundane work on his family’s onion farm…but early in childhood, Carmen developed a love for boxing, and no one (in or out of the boxing ring) would ever discourage him from his chosen pugilistic destiny. And Carmen had no qualms about forsaking physically arduous work on the onion farm in exchange for what he felt was more productive (yet more physically taxing labor) training in a boxing gym. Carmen loved boxing and training for boxing (De Cristofaro, 125). The whole process of shedding the proverbial blood, sweat, and tears was little trouble for Carmen Basilio, whose work ethic for conditioning himself in preparation for boxing’s brutal warfare was equaled by almost no one (De Cristofaro, 125), with the possible exceptions of Evander Holyfield (in our own time), Tony Zale and Rocky Marciano.

After a brief stint in U. S. Marine Corp during the end of WWII, Basilio turned from amateur boxer to professional boxer, in late 1948, as a welterweight (Editors, BoxRec.Com). Basilio would go on to defeat the likes of Ike Williams, Billy Graham, and Pierre Langlois, all top-notch, world-class welterweights (Editors, BoxRec.Com). Basilio had his share of defeats along the way (one of them was against the iconic Cuban sensation and world welterweight champion Kid Gavilan in September of 1953). This highly controversial loss would embolden Basilio’s boxing efforts and increase his self-confidence as a fighter of note.

By June of 1955, Carmen Basilio had clearly emerged as the number one (147 pounds) welterweight division world title contender against the lion-hearted super-tough champion from Boston, Tony De Marco (Editors, BoxRec.Com). De Marco was a fearsome and ferocious power-puncher who displayed huge amounts of courage, skill, and durability versus his opponents in squared-circle conflicts. Basilio could match the champion in terms of valor and talent, but certainly not in kayo (knockout) power. What would be the deciding winning factor here against Tony De Marco for Carmen Basilio? Carmen Basilio’s unparalleled physical endurance would prove to be the bout’s prevailing determinant (De Cristofaro, 127). After twelve rounds of unpleasant and absolutely carnal, bloody combat between De Marco and Basilio, Basilio would take De Marco’s world welterweight crown by knockout (De Cristofaro, 127). He would repeat this feat against De Marco in defense of his title by scoring an impressive but hard-earned knockout over his valiant New England rival (De Cristofaro, 127).

In 1956, Basilio lost his world welterweight title to the very skilled warrior, Johnny Saxton, a courageous and classy American boxing stylist (Editors, BoxRec.Com). But the champion (Basilio) dominated his challenger throughout their meeting, and Carmen was removed from his welterweight championship, via a hotly contested and spurious 15-round points verdict, in Saxton’s favor (De Cristofaro, 127). Before the year was up (in September of 1956), Carmen would brutally kayo the champion in their rematch, in round number nine, to recapture his world welterweight throne (De Cristofaro, 128). The Basilio-Saxton rubber match (3rd bout) would be fought in February of 1957 (Editors, BoxRec.Com). The indomitable Basilio scored a huge knockout victory over welterweight champion Johnny Saxton in just two rounds (De Cristofaro, 128). Carmen was truly the unmitigated ruler of his welterweight division and now he viewed the brilliant Sugar Ray Robinson’s undisputed world middleweight title as potential and personal quarry (De Cristofaro, 128).

The undeniably resilient and superbly brave Carmen Basilio and the lightning-fast and ultra-intelligent Sugar Ray Robinson would brutishly clash twice in their respective professional boxing careers (De Cristofaro, 128-129). The relentlessly punching brawler Basilio and the master technician and fight strategist Robinson’s first heavily bloody battle went (in September 1957) the full 15-rounds, with Carmen withstanding Sugar Ray’s brutish fistic onslaughts and Basilio convincingly outpunching the middleweight kingpin on the inside and to his body. Basilio scored a spectacular and legitimate split-decision points victory over the graceful, devastating, and highly-determined Robinson. Basilio’s terrific physical constitution and his unceasing and fiendishly intensive work rate, combined with his regal raw courage, simply overwhelmed Robinson’s well-schooled ducking, slipping, and wicked combination punching. It was a very memorable meeting waged between two all-time boxing greats, and their second and final meeting would be no less esteemed than their first.

On March 25th, 1958, the Basilio-Robinson rematch took place (Editors, BoxRec.Com). With added incentive and in better physical condition, Robinson superbly out-boxed the perpetually pugnacious and gallant-spirited Italian-American champion. Basilio withstood non-stop viciousness from his iconic and single-minded challenger, Robinson. Sugar Ray avoided most of Basilio’s bull-like rushes and successfully counter-punched Carmen at long-range, landing countless stinging and wicked head and body shots. In round 6, Sugar Ray landed a terrific uppercut to the champion’s left eye, causing much damage and bleeding (De Cristofaro, 128). Carmen’s eye rapidly swelled closed (De Cristofaro, 128) and Basilio, ever the brazenly nerved champion, fought courageously on for 9 more rounds until the bloodbath concluded (De Cristofaro, 128). Basilio, for his part, managed to give his stalwart challenger an absolutely carnal and wicked body attack, inflicting heavy damage to Robinson’s quite-chiseled midsection and even his head. Despite being blind in one eye, Basilio kept the fight extremely close, losing his world middleweight title narrowly to Robinson via a split-decision victory (De Cristofaro, 128-129). Although a rubber match was forthcoming between Carmen Basilio and Sugar Ray Robinson, history decided against this possibility. The two boxing dynamos were never to meet in the ring again (De Cristofaro, 129).

Basilio (in his later years) suffered two horribly brutal knockout losses to the super iron-strong Utah brawler, Gene Fullmer (De Cristofaro, 129). They were the only knockout losses in Carmen’s entire fabled and prosperous career (De Cristofaro, 129). But they are revealing to historians of the sweet science in several ways. After Basilio’s last bout against Robinson, Carmen’s best days in boxing were gone. It also shows boxing students that, although Basilio was outweighed and much smaller in comparison to Fullmer, he was still athletically capable of giving his opposition severely hellacious physical abuse. Carmen could not match Gene Fullmer in size and punching power, but he did equal Gene in terms of elite athletic durability, talent, and bravery. Fullmer was a former world middleweight champion himself, and he was naturally larger and heavier than Basilio, who was much more of a natural welterweight. It is in boxing’s welterweight division that Carmen Basilio excelled best. We will never forget his superlative achievements, or the absolutely stellar ones of Tony Zale, his mythic and dynamic middleweight predecessor.

The last bout of Carmen’s thrilling and highly revered career came against reigning world middleweight boxing champion Paul Pender on April 22nd, 1961 (Editors, BoxRec.Com). The rugged New Englander outpunched and floored the aged Basilio to retain his title via a 15-round unanimous decision (De Cristofaro, 131). It was the only time Carmen hit the canvas during his long career. Basilio retired subsequently following his loss to Pender. But he had earned three world titles in two of the most competitive weight classes in boxing, Herculean feats of undisputed brilliance not easily achieved by anyone.

Tony Zale, too retired from the fight game shortly after suffering a twelfth-round knockout loss to his middleweight title challenger, Frenchmen Marcel Cerdan (De Cristofaro, 98). Zale was badly faded following his grueling three-bout vendetta versus Rocky Graziano. However, the exceptionally valiant and totally adept Marcel Cerdan was at his athletic and pugilistic peak. Cerdan was able to outbox and outhustle Zale, despite Tony giving the French stylist a very conspicuous black eye in the action of battle. Zale’s body and strength may have been ground down to dust by his dignified conqueror, but Tony’s lion heart remained firmly intact, fighting for his championship until he could no longer stand. The former champion Zale did not insult Cerdan in any way, as he gallantly began his well-deserved retirement.

In one of humanity’s most savage and feisty sports, Tony Zale spectacularly acquired two world titles in boxing’s most hotly-contested weight class. Zale had earned and defended his crown against many of the best middleweights who had ever lived, and he had beaten them soundly. Like Al Hostak, Georgie Abrams, Fred Apostoli, and Rocky Graziano. When Zale pulverized the super-punching Graziano to regain his world middleweight throne in 1948 (their rubber match), Zale had become the first boxer to regain the middleweight championship of the world since Stanley Ketchel accomplished the task four decades earlier, with Ketchel’s 1908 knockout win over Billy Papke (De Cristofaro, 88). This was only the second time in boxing history that such a mystifying and backbreaking win had been successfully brought to fruition in the world's middleweight ranks (De Cristofaro, 162).

Since 2:45 a. m. of November 5, 2015, the suspects of this major burglary remain at large and unidentified by New York State and Federal law-enforcement authorities (Gray, 1 and Krull, 1). After hours of operation, the thieves shattered a side window to enter the International Boxing Hall of Fame when the building was unoccupied (Gray, 1). The intruders purportedly took advantage of weak security measures at the IBHOF when they struck, such as the lack of any onsite security guards and lack of any closed-circuit video surveillance systems (Silkov, 4). The thieves then approached and smash the glass showcase, which housed the six stolen world championship boxing belts (Gray, 1). The robbers swiftly exited the IBHOF before the police showed up onsite two minutes later, responding to the museum’s burglar alarm (Mueller, 1).

Four of the missing world title boxing belts belong to the Basilio family, and two of them belong to the Zale family (Krull, 1). The belts are adorned and studded with various jewels and precious metals, and their supposed combined monetary value is estimated to be $300,000.00 or greater (Mueller, 1). It is (therefore) factually correct to say this specific theft is the most expensive one involving boxing memorabilia ever (Mueller, 1). Criminal investigators have also described this reptilian heist (digging into the case) as the product of very seasoned and organized burglars (Mueller, 1). Five of the six stolen boxing belts are all original Ring Magazine ones (Gray, 1), which means their individual artistic craftsmanship is both extremely impeccable and wholly nuanced. The Ring boxing belts are masterpieces of human design and handiwork.

In all the thirty-plus years of the IBHOF’s history, the nefarious suspects who committed the crime successfully executed the only attempted heist there (Gray, 1). The number of culprits involved in the huge left is still being debated among law enforcement officials investigating the crime (Gray, 1). The boxing belts are not just highly significant historical objects. They are all very personal family heirlooms. “They [the belts] are our family heritage,”’ said Haley Zale, Tony’s niece and the Zale family spokesperson (Mueller, 1). Haley Zale has stoically and sharply helmed a global “Bring Back the Belts” effort (Mueller, 1). Ms. Zale will not let the public forget of the crimes committed against her family and the Basilios. Why should we then let them pass from our minds and hearts, as well?

The International Boxing Hall of Fame is the fight game’s most sacred and golden shrine. Despite financial rewards amounting to $20,000.00 dollars, funded by former world heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson and other concerned parties (Silkov, 5), leads trickling into investigators have been scarce (Mueller, 1 and Silkov, 7). It is both tragic and ominously ironic that it should be Basilio’s trophies stolen from the IBHOF. Basilio’s life and achievements inspired the founding of the IBHOF in Canastota, New York, Basilio’s hometown (Silkov, 3). Basilio remains Canastota’s most esteemed athlete and one of her favorite sons.

From the very beginning, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has been involved in this case, along with the Canastota Police Dept. (Mueller, 1). No arrests have been executed by authorities conducting this investigation thus far (Mueller, 1 and Silkov, 4). When the thieves broke into the IBHOF on November 5, 2015, they stole the most lucrative merchandise housed by the museum (Silkov, 2). Rumors concerning the thefts being the result of an inside job are currently unconfirmed (Silkov, 5). The FBI is determined to locate the perpetrators of the IBHOF 2015 theft, despite the fact that clues regarding this case are so scant.

The Resting Boxer, Roman bronze
sculpture, circa 300 BC, photo courtesy
of The Italian National Museum of
Rome, 2022

What remains to be said about this despicable act is that the missing boxing belts represent rewards to two men (Zale and Basilio) that were earned through the literal spilling of their blood. Zale and Basilio’s stellar accomplishments occurred in what could be the sports world’s most savage and carnal of endeavors. But to add insult to vile injury, the criminals behind the IBHOF heist coldly and selfishly stole not only the property of the Zale and Basilio families but also those families’ individual history and memories. The latter matters as much as the first. The robbery at the IBHOF does not erase or subvert Zale and Basilio’s superhuman sacrifices, but it does injure them. This is so, especially considering the corrupt and cowardly way Zale and Basilio’s property was seized, unlike the champions, who had to exhibit the utmost human bravery to gain possession and ownership of their revered trophies. History and the law will judge these crooks harshly, perhaps more than the law. But only history can ever solve this as yet enigmatic riddle.




1)   S. De Cristofaro, Boxing’s Greatest Middleweights, copyright 1982,  

       Rochester, New York

2)   The Editors, BoxingRec.Com, February 25, 2022,

3)   Tom Gray, The Ring Magazine, November 10, 2015,

4)    Melissa Krull, Spectrum News 1, November 18, 2020,

5)    Richard Mueller, Sports Collectors Daily, November 6, 2017,

6)    Peter Silkov, The Boxing Glove, November 4, 2018,




If you have any information regarding this case, please contact the Canastota Police Department at (315) 697-2240, (or) you can contact the FBI’s Buffalo field office at (716) 856-7800.  Thank you.



About the Author:  Michael Mauro DeBonis is a poet and a historian from Long Island, New York. Mr. DeBonis is dedicated to studying and to learning the history of the great State of New York. A graduate of both Suffolk County Community College (A. A. in Liberal Studies) and SUNY at Stony Brook (B. A. in English Literature), Michael’s work first appeared in The Village Beacon Record and The Brookhaven Times Newspapers.  Michael’s latest work (poetry and prose) may be found in The New York History Review and elsewhere.

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