The boxing world mourns the death of another icon of the sport in the form of former welterweight and middleweight champion of the world Carmen Basilio (56-16-7 27KO) on November 7th, in Rochester General Hospital.
Basilio was one of those guys who proved that true hard work and determination can lead to extraordinary things. Though he would start his career with a dismal 28-10-4 in his first 42 fights, he learned from his mistakes and developed underrated boxing ability to go with his great will and toughness.
Basilio would finally win the welterweight title by beating Billy Graham by decision. A draw with Graham in a rematch and a close decision loss to legendary Kid Gavilon sealed Basilio’s place among the elite fighters of his era.
Basilio would get his second chance at a world title against equally tough Tony DeMarco. In an action packed affair, Basilio would stop DeMarco in the 12th round to secure the welterweight title again. Their rematch five months later would end up being voted as the Fight of the Year according to Ring Magazine.
Late in the seventh round, DeMarco slammed Basilio with his signature left hook, yet Basilio weathered the storm and was able to survive to the end of the round. Ultimately, Basilio would prevail against DeMarco.
Basilio would lose the title to Johnny Saxton in a fight where most viewers felt that Basilio was robbed. But, Basilio would get his revenge by knocking out Saxton in the ninth round. The fight earned Fight of the Year honors from Ring Magazine, the second such honor Basilio was awarded with.
Basilio crushed Saxton in the rubbermatch within two rounds and Harold Jones in four. Showing his tremendous belief in himself, he challenged middleweight champion Sugar Ray Robinson. Most experts considered this to be an act of suicide considering Robinson was four-and-a-half inches taller, had a much longer reach and possessed otherworldly skills compared to Basilio.
Basilio rose to the challenge by putting extreme pressure on Robinson. At one point in the 11th round, Basilio landed almost three dozen punches against the fighter deemed “The Greatest of all Time”. Through hard work, hard punches, and underrated skills, Basilio beat Robinson by split decision and won the middleweight championship of the world. The fight was named the best of 1957 according to Ring Magazine.
The rematch was equally violent and competitive. Robinson would rupture a blood vessel over Basilio’s left eye in the sixth round. In spite of the obvious pain and lack of vision that Basilio possessed, he managed to remain competitive throughout the bout and nearly kept his title. The scorecards would read 69-66 for Basilio and 71-64 and 72-64 for Robinson. Once again, Basilio was part of the Fight of the Year.
Basilio would next challenge Utah native Gene Fullmer for the vacant NBA middleweight title. Fullmer was a pressure fighter like Basilio and many people, including Basilio, expected Fullmer to put pressure on his opponent and to try to impose his will on Basilio.
To the surprise of virtually every observer, Fullmer employed a stick-and-move strategy against Basilio with effectiveness. Basilio was never able to catch Fullmer but the effort he showed made this fight the Fight of the Year for 1959, Basilio’s fifth consecutive participation in the most exciting fight of the year according to experts.
Basilio lost the rematch by a 12th round TKO and lost a lopsided decision to Paul Pender in his final title shot. He announced his retirement shortly after the fight. However, retirement would not stop Basilio from utilizing his work ethic.
He taught physical education at Le Moyne College in Syracuse for 21 years and helped his nephew Billy Backus upset the odds by beating legendary Jose Napoles for the welterweight title. When the International Boxing Hall of Fame was formed, Basilio was part of the initial class that included the likes of Muhammad Ali, Henry Armstrong, Joe Louis, Carlos Monzon, Sugar Ray Robinson, Ike Williams, Kid Gavilan, Jose Napoles, Sandy Saddler, Willie Pep, Rocky Marciano, and Archie Moore.
In spite of all the fame and respect that Basilio received, he still maintained his common touch. He would sign autographs at the annual IBHOF induction ceremony until the very last person was satisfied and interacted with the people who showed up to the event.
Although Basilio’s death is a reminder of the passing of a generation and the frailty of life itself, one should take comfort in the fact that he lived a meaningful life and produced some of the most exciting fights in the history of boxing. By all accounts, he was a wonderful human being as well. One example of this was when Tony DeMarco’s son died in1975, Basilio traveled all the way to Boston to attend the funeral and give support to his former rival. This is just one of many stories that show the immense heart and kindness that he truly possessed. He will be missed but not forgotten.
Rest in peace champ.