A Champ Called Carmen

Farewell to Carmen Basilio, one of the best of his time.

The great boxing trainer Angelo Dundee once remarked: “It takes a brave man to even enter the ring. It takes a strong man to go one round, and a very strong man to go ten.” I remember it so well because it contrasted with the many instances as a youngster where I read about some “stiff” or how “easily tired” a fighter was, verdicts from sports journalists whose biggest opponent was a typewriter.

Dundee was beginning his career when he trained Carmen Basilio, who recently passed away. When I was growing up, I watched Basilio, called “the onion picker,” any time his fight got on television. He was a little guy, a little over five-six, with a wiry, whipcord body who always came to win. There was never any fat on Carmen Basilio’s hide! His style was like Rocky Marciano, except he didn’t have Rocky’s one-punch knockout power. Instead, Basilio wore opponents down by attrition. For the other guy it must have been psychologically draining to do everything possible, but all in vain as the onion picker came on relentlessly.

In those days there were clear weight divisions and one champion. Basilio was a natural welterweight (148 pounds), but the big money was in the middleweight division (160 pounds). There were marquee names then in both categories: Sugar Ray Robinson, Tony DeMarco, Kid Gavilan, Billy Graham, Gene Fullmer, Johnny Saxton and Jake LaMotta to cite seven amid many others.

Martin Scorcese made the film, “The Raging Bull” about LaMotta, who was about five years older than Basilio. As a schoolboy I remember passing by LaMotta on a warm spring day. He wore a sky blue suit and an open-necked white shirt. If I had any schoolbooks I would have asked for his autograph. Instead I looked keenly at him as I slowly walked along. LaMotta, the middleweight champion at the time, looked as tough as they come, a king of the universe to judge by his stride up Park Avenue. That said, he was no raging bull. He was most famous for playing possum, pretending he was hurt, then nailing the opponent who fell for the ruse. That’s cunning not rage. Tough to be sure, the Bronx Bull had no punch.

Sugar Ray Robinson, one of the greatest of all time, figures in this. I saw on television in 1951 the last of the six matches between Robinson and LaMotta (Robinson won five). It was lop-sided in Robinson’s favor from the beginning. LaMotta never, ever got knocked off his feet—except if you count once a few years earlier in a fixed fight—so it was finally given to Robinson as a TKO in the 13th round. By then LaMotta had become nothing more than a punching bag, though he taunted Robinson that he’d never go down.

In contrast, Robinson’s two fights with Basilio, starting six years later, were awesome from beginning to end. The first, won by Basilio in 1957,was deemed the Fight of the Year. Each time it was a split decision over fifteen rounds although, for what it’s worth, the press at ringside had Basilio winning both times. Most in the crowd felt Carmen got robbed. In any event, it was so thrilling as a youngster reading the differing accounts in the newspapers such as the Journal American, the World Telegram, the New York Post, the Daily News and the Daily Mirror. For a kid, the photographs were like the Mona Lisa, only a zillion times better!

Robinson supposedly said that his fourth fight with LaMotta was his toughest, but it was not a championship match with everything on the line as was the case with Basilio. From the looks of it at the end, Sugar Ray had more than his hands full with the latter.

In that second fight with Robinson, Basilio fought with a closed left eye from the sixth round on. Angelo Dundee was amazed at his valor. “He’s a great champion,” Dundee was quoted in the next day’s papers. That he was! See it for yourself on YouTube.

Endnote: “I don’t enjoy getting hurt, waking up with a puffed eye, pain and stiff all over, but you have to take the bitter with the sweet. The sweet is when guys recognize you on the street and say, ‘Hello, champ,’ and know who you are. It will always be sweet for me.”

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