Carmen Basilio: Boxer who beat Sugar Ray Robinson for a world title

 

Carmen Basilio said he made his opponents cry with "onion juice", and during a remarkable boxing career he left some of the very best in tears. Basilio was born to onion farmers, raised on an onion farm and worked in the onion fields. His fighting nickname, not surprisingly, was "The Upstate Onion Farmer". He belongs to that special time in boxing when black and white pictures and film capture all the struggles and joy that the best and the worst fighters had to somehow overcome.

Basilio started to fight during his years as a US Marine, turned professional in 1948 and inside 12 months had won 15, lost two and drawn two. "It was a hard way to make a few bucks, fighting good men, but I was slowly building a following in Syracuse and back in those days that meant a lot," he said.

It was in 1950 that Basilio first met Angelo Dundee, and it was not an auspicious occasion. Basilio was bruised, cut and dejected in his changing room in Brooklyn after losing to Mike Koballa when Dundee went in to say hello. Dundee had been in Koballa's corner. "I saw something there that I knew was special," insisted Dundee; a couple of years later Basilio trained at Dundee's Magic City gym in Miami before beating Baby William. This time Dundee was part of Basilio's corner.

Basilio started to put together some fantastic wins and moved slowly up the rankings, but bold talk of Mob involvement combined with Basilio's utter refusal to surrender a cash percentage looked like denying him a chance. A decision in one fight against a "connected" fighter was changed to a draw five days after Basilio's hand had been raised as winner. "There was something funny going on at the time," Basilio said.

In 1953 Basilio lost a narrow decision over 15 rounds for the welterweight world title to the Cuban idol Kid Gavilan, a fighter often connected with the many men in overcoats who ran boxing as their personal fiefdom in the 1950s. "It was a victory in disguise and got me noticed," said Basilio, who had dropped Gavilan heavily in round two.

Basilio finally won the world title in his 63rd fight when he beat Tony DeMarco in Syracuse, the nearest fight town to his home. "I was the world champion and finally the number one welterweight in Syracuse, and that mattered," said Basilio. The following year "he came up short", which sounds like a line from Goodfellas, and dropped a controversial decision to Johnny Saxton in Chicago. Saxton was in deep trouble, saved by the bell at the end of the third and then he was given a break, perhaps as long as 10 minutes, to have a torn glove replaced. "He ran like a deer for the rest of the fight and copped the decision. It was a big stink," Basilio remembered. Perhaps the glove incident inspired Dundee, who would use a similar tactic a few years later when Henry Cooper dumped Cassius Clay on the canvas.

Basilio regained the welterweight title from Saxton and in 1957 moved to middleweight to challenge Sugar Ray Robinson in New York. It was, like so many of Basilio's fights, a savage brawl for the full 15-round distance; there is one photograph, taken from the canopy above the ring, of the pair in the middle of the stained canvas both winding up hooks.

Basilio took the decision and secured his position as a great fighter fighting in great times. The rematch was equally brutal and is best remembered for Basilio's left eye, which was swollen and closed for nearly nine rounds. Robinson took the verdict and never gave Basilio a third fight. "Sugar was not the hardest puncher I ever met, that was [Ike] Williams," claimed Basilio, who was never truly gracious in praise of Robinson.

"You have to know that when you are fighting good fighters that you will get hit," said Basilio. "If you start developing a fear, then you're going to quit fighting." Basilio never took a backward step and always denied that he got hit as often as people think he did. Dundee supported Basilio's words: "He was fearless, completely dedicated and a better boxer than many people, who should have known better, realised."

After the second and last Robinson fight Basilio fought seven times, including three defeats in fights for versions of the world middleweight title. He retired at only 34, having won 56 of his 79 fights; between 1955 and 1959 The Ring magazine picked a Basilio fight as its prestigious Fight of the Year.

In retirement he became an early star of the dinner and cabaret circuit, taught physical exercise at a local college and marketed his spicy Carmen Basilio's Italian Sausage. He was an early inductee at the Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, New York, which is where the Upstate Onion Farmer was born and where for over 20 years thousands came to shake his hand every year at the annual ceremony.

Carmine (Carmen) Basilio, US Marine, boxer and raconteur: born Canastota, New York 2 April 1927; died Rochester, New York 7 November 2012.

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