“The fight in which Carmen Basilio gained the middleweight championship with a split decision over Ray Robinson in Yankee Stadium has been written into boxing history,” Nat Fleischer began his Ring magazine article kicking off the November 1957 issue. “And what a brilliant chapter it makes there.”
With my whole heart and soul, I concur with Fleischer. Because my birthday happens to coincide with a significant achievement in the career of one of my favorite prizefighters, September 23 is a pretty big deal to me personally. This year I turn 47 which, I will be the first to admit, is hardly newsworthy. However, 2017 also marks the 60th anniversary of Carmen Basilio’s unlikely, barbaric victory over the legendary ‘Sugar’ Ray Robinson, one of the great all-time middleweight title fights. It was “a dream come true” according to Carmen who said that he had “dreamed about fighting at Yankee Stadium since I was a little boy.”
Nat Fleischer summed up Basilio vs. Robinson better than I could ever hope to when he wrote, “The affair was a throwback to the days when ring men fought their hearts out to gain their objective and because of that, it will take its place among ring classics.”
Although it hadn’t occurred to me until fairly recently, I realize that I have some sort of preoccupation with the middleweight division. Like when Virginia Madsen asks Paul Giamatti why he’s so into Pinot Noir in the movie Sideways, one of my favorites which I have re-watched a couple times in past weeks, she remarks non-judgmentally, “It’s like a thing with you.” Not that I have ever been called upon to defend my predilection toward boxing’s 160-pound division (especially by a genuinely interested woman) like Miles must defend his taste in wine, but I can completely relate to his profound response. He is similarly describing himself (and me, for that matter) when he explains to Maya in measured, earnest tones, “It’s a hard grape to grow. It’s thin-skinned, temperamental, ripens early. It’s not a survivor like Cabernet which can grow anywhere or thrive even when it’s neglected.”
Before you begin to fear that I have lost the plot (or my mind, both admittedly distinct possibilities the older I get), rest assured that I am about to circle back around to the topic at hand. “It can only grow in these really specific little tucked away corners of the world,” Giamatti continues, a comment which could just as well suffice in describing Carmen Basilio and his upstate New York hometown of Canastota which is renowned for producing onions, not grapes.
Basilio’s parents Joseph and Mary would double as “the most patient and most nurturing of growers” in this admittedly tangential analogy (but it’s my birthday, so give me the gift of humoring me) and it could stand to reason that Angelo Dundee was the “somebody who really takes the time to understand Pinot’s (Carmen’s) potential” and “can then coax it into its fullest expression.” Being a teetotaler, I’ll have to take Giamatti’s Miles at his word concerning the fragrant notes unique to Pinot Noir but will steer this digression into the garage (or off the cliff) by submitting that they can be likened to the nuances of Basilio’s chosen hardscrabble profession, the sweet science of boxing, a sport which any enthusiast would agree exhibits subtleties that are “just the most haunting and brilliant and thrilling and subtle and ancient on the planet.”
The 36-year-old Robinson had a hell of a time maintaining possession of the middleweight title in 1957. Losing the championship to Gene Fullmer by unanimous decision a mere two days into the new year, he would reclaim the crown on May 1 by knocking Fullmer out cold with a hellacious left hook that Ray referred to as “the most perfect punch of my career.” Enter into the picture World Welterweight Champion Carmen Basilio. Having won the title from and successfully defended it against Tony DeMarco in two knock-down, drag-out slugfests, the ‘Upstate Onion Farmer’ subsequently traded the championship with the mobbed-up Johnny Saxton and was in talks to put his title up against Gaspar ‘Indio’ Ortega but instead pulled his flag from its stake on the summit of the 147-pound division when the opportunity presented itself to punch up, literally and figuratively, at middleweight champion ‘Sugar’ Ray Robinson.
Despite discrepancies of 6 ½ pounds and 5 inches in both height and reach, Basilio was six years Robinson’s junior as well as the popular choice amongst the betting public. “Installed as an 8 to 5 favorite months ago, he continued up to ring time to retain the advantage,” Nat Fleischer asserted. “Not so with the scribes,” he admitted. “They were mostly in Robbie’s corner.”
Also in Robbie’s corner were his long-time seconds Harry Wiley and George Gainford. It was Gainford who gave the 15-year-old Walker Smith Jr. his new name, producing an AAU card bearing the identification of Ray Robinson, one of his former fighters, to fool the officials into allowing the underaged Smith to compete in his first amateur bout. He additionally bestowed onto Robinson his ring moniker, stating that his fighting style was “sweet as sugar.” From the very beginning down in the basement of Salem Methodist Episcopal Church in Harlem, Harry Wiley Sr. taught Ray every trick in the book, forging such an intimacy with Robinson and Gainford that they sometimes communicated in a sort of wordless shorthand where a gesture or glance was all that was required to convey a message.
“The first time I saw Carmen was in an eight-rounder in New York when he fought Mike Koballa in 1950,” Angelo Dundee reminisced in his memoir My View from the Corner (co-written with Bert Sugar). “I was working Koballa’s corner that night, and he outboxed Carmen to win the decision. In the dressing room afterward, one New York sportswriter, Lester Bromberg, suggested to Carmen that he ‘should retire’. Carmen merely looked at him and, in typical Carmen fashion, sniffed back, ‘Forget it…I’ll be champ.’” Because Dundee’s brother Chris had been “trying to squeeze buffaloes off nickels” to cut down on the overhead of his September 22, 1952 Miami Beach promotion, Angelo served, by default, as Basilio’s chief second for the first time in a winning effort against Baby Williams. Less than three years later, Carmen would make good on his promise to become a world champion, the first of fifteen that Angelo would train.
“The air was filled with mutual disrespect,” Wil Haygood penned in his Robinson biography Sweet Thunder. “No one could quite figure out the roots of the near-hatred.” The disdain was no mystery to Carmen Basilio. The grudge blossomed out of what Basilio perceived to be ‘Sugar’ Ray’s holier-than-thou persona. “He was in love with himself. He was arrogant, a real egotist,” Carmen says in the documentary Fighting the Mob, “and thought that no one was better than him and that everybody had to get down on their hands and knees for him. I’m a stubborn S.O.B. too and I’m not going to get down on my knees for anybody.”
The roots of Basilio’s dislike for Robinson first took hold following a personal snub that occurred five years earlier. “In 1952, I had just fought Billy Graham on television and I took my wife to New York City. We were walking down Broadway and this pink Cadillac pulls up. ‘Sugar’ Ray Robinson and a group get out and I said, I want to meet him,” recalls Carmen. “He gave me the brush-off. I was embarrassed and I said someday I’m gonna fight that S.O.B and kick his ass. Well, it took five years but by 1957, I got my chance at him.”
Robinson’s negotiating tactics only made matters worse. “He has this attitude that he’s going into Yankee Stadium alone and he is drawing the crowd,” Carmen had said, as quoted in Gary B. Youmans’ book The Onion Picker. “It takes two to make a fight.”
A “muttered exchange of insults” between the two fighters during the final instructions at center ring was interrupted by spontaneous chuckles from Basilio which puzzled both referee Al Berl and Ray Robinson. “He started to sneer like he was trying to scare me,” Carmen Basilio told ESPN’s Ringside Rivalries co-hosts Brian Kenny and Bert Sugar, “and he made me laugh.”
Throughout the first three rounds, Robinson was “jabbing, stabbing, and even grabbing at the rough-hewed features of the man in front of him,” reported Bert Sugar in his book The Great Fights, “beating him with the punch and to the punch.”
It’s as if the ring inside Yankee Stadium was the stage at Birdland. ‘Sugar’ Ray Robinson was boxing’s jazzman whose left jab established a steady and familiar rhythm only to intermittently disrupt the four-four-time beat with an improvised blast when least expected to either the jawline or ribcage, moving up and down the scales at will and without great effort like a true bebop genius, riffing away with improvisational mastery and keeping everyone guessing as to when the next shrieking note would be sounded.
Carmen Basilio, meanwhile, was liable to crouch down and rock and roll right past the bouncer manning the entryway to the jazz club, even if he took a few lumps in the process, and batter the door down, a do-it-yourself demolition crew storming the stage where he would clobber the hepcat with his own horn before taking the place apart brick by brick, beam after beam in the hope that the compromised structure would topple beneath its own unstable weight.
The repetitive pummeling of ‘Sugar’ Ray’s jab tore open the flesh around Carmen’s left eye. Thanks to both Basilio’s prominent brow line and the placement of the cut, the blood seeped not into his eye but down his cheek, leaving his vision unimpaired other than the negligible swelling that set in over the later rounds. In the eighth, Basilio reentered the ring with “his eye now covered with grease coating the cut and looking more like a ghostly apparition than a gladiatorial aspirant,” in the always colorful terminology of Bert Sugar.
Round eleven will remain one for the ages, specifically prompting Nat Fleischer to remark, “I cannot recall an exhibition of more savage battling.” Peppering Basilio with five consecutive jabs, Robinson barely misses with a right hook when Carmen pivots just out of range, back and to his left. Basilio hooks to the body and head in rapid-fire succession and Robinson answers with a left hook not dissimilar from the one that laid out Gene Fullmer in their rematch, only Carmen walks right through it and, though it is difficult to assess from the vantage point we stay-at-home viewers are afforded, Basilio backs Robinson to the ropes just prior to the bell and lets loose with what appears to be a barrage of nineteen clean punches before Ray can summon the wherewithal to return a shot in an opportune moment of available breathing room. In today’s era, the fight would have proceeded no further, Basilio waved off and awarded a technical knockout.
Ray emerges from his corner for round 15 seeking the reassurance of referee Al Berl that this was indeed the fight’s three-minute finale and appearing every bit relieved to learn that this was so. He repeatedly smothers Basilio with bearhugs which Carmen responds to with little sentimentality and five straight shots to the ribs during the final clinch. “The evening, coming to a close, had showcased two primary emotions within each fighter: contempt and pride,” wrote Wil Haygood in Sweet Thunder.
Robinson dedicates several pages of his autobiography Sugar Ray to the unseemly negotiations preceding the first Basilio fight and yet only a few lines to the bout itself. “Maybe the turmoil affected my performance, maybe not. I thought I won,” he theorized succinctly. “So did the people in the crowd of 38,072 who booed the votes for Basilio by the two judges, Artie Aidala and Bill Recht. But, once again, I was an ex-champion. I was disgusted.” Adding insult to injury, the IRS had filed a lien against Robinson’s $483,666 purse as “anticipatory income” to go toward satisfying his tax debt.
Basilio’s take-home pay might have been less than half of what Robinson was contracted to receive, but at least Carmen got to take his home. Furthermore, he not only received multiple accolades from the “Bible of Boxing”, singled out as The Ring magazine’s 1957 Fighter of the Year and sharing Fight of the Year honors with his bitter adversary ‘Sugar’ Ray Robinson, but was featured as well on the cover of Sports Illustrated. The added attention didn’t alter Carmen’s disposition one bit. “I didn’t think nothing of it,” the no-nonsense Basilio would retrospectively brush off the well-wishers, glad-handers and soul-suckers who suddenly materialized, wanting to bask in the reflected glory. “I just did my job the way people expected me to do it.”
Howard Cosell informed Carmen at the weigh-in prior to the rematch that he had polled ten sportswriters to get their input on the outcome of the fight, nine of whom predicted a Robinson knockout. “Nine of ‘em are wrong,” spat Basilio before stalking off. “He was an easy guy to walk away from,” he would later joke about Cosell.
Basilio’s custodianship of the World Middleweight Title was a temporary assignment, six months to be exact, until such time as he and ‘Sugar’ Ray Robinson could resume hostilities (in the truest sense of the phrase) at Chicago Stadium. Another instant classic resulted in another split decision. Robinson walked out of the ring with the belt, Carmen with a horrific-looking hematoma on his left eye that appeared as though someone had jammed a plum beneath the lid. He was TKO’d twice by Gene Fullmer in attempts to win the NABF version of the middleweight title (Basilio’s only two career defeats occurring by stoppage) and, in his fistic curtain call in 1961, was outpointed decisively by World Middleweight Champion Paul Pender at Boston Garden.
It speaks volumes of Carmen Basilio that the International Boxing Hall of Fame is located not in Las Vegas or Atlantic City or even midtown Manhattan but just off the exit of the New York Thruway for his otherwise unassuming hometown of Canastota, New York. For the past decade, I have traveled upstate from Long Island every June to attend the induction weekends and still recall how excited I was to first meet Carmen ten years ago. He was always happy to sign an autograph or pose for a photo with you, even if he would pull you close while whispering in that gruff but good-natured voice, “Get in here, you sonofabitch” and throwing a short uppercut into your gut which might not have had the same steam on it as those absorbed by Ray Robinson, Gene Fullmer, Tony DeMarco, Johnny Saxton, and Gaspar Ortega but would cause you (ok, me) to wince anyway.
In a cruel postscript to this story, six championship belts belonging to Basilio and Tony Zale were stolen from the IBHOF museum display cases in November 2015 and have yet to be recovered, despite the efforts of Zale’s grandniece Haley and Mike Tyson, who had belts of his own lifted from a Las Vegas storage unit. Among the missing title belts is the one that was awarded to Carmen Basilio by The Ring magazine for his victory over ‘Sugar’ Ray Robinson on September 23, 1957.
“Youth triumphed over age,” Nat Fleischer wrote in The Ring in 1957. “A solid heart, iron fists, determination, courage to the highest degree-these were among the many factors that enabled Carmen to carry on in the face of great odds.”
One reason I appreciate boxing so much, having given the matter much consideration, is because it is such a primal manifestation of the instinct toward self-preservation, the ultimate fight or flight challenge. The way I look at it, this also applies to the common citizen who muddles through their everyday, ordinary existence. Certainly to me. Putting these tools to use is more or less the only way I’ve survived to this point, with hopefully a few more years still to go which just might teach me why I continue to put myself through this on a daily basis.
“There is an old saying that no man walks so tall as the man who has accomplished something. And yet,” Bert Sugar pontificated, “the man who walked the taller on the morning of Tuesday, September 24, 1957 was the shorter of the two men who had met the previous night in New York’s Yankee Stadium to decide the middleweight championship of the world.”
I will be waking up in North Reading, Massachusetts on Sunday morning September 24, 2017, walking my 47-year-old self toward the kitchen to fetch the first of several cups of coffee with a slow, lumbering gait at my same, below-average height. While I play catch with my nephew Nalo in the backyard of my brother Marc’s house or read books with my niece Corrina on the couch inside, my thoughts will occasionally wander over to Carmen Basilio. The onion picker who dreamed of becoming a world champion prizefighter. And damned well did it. Thirteen years to the day before I was born.