Peering at his scared face, I asked Carmen, "Was it worth it?" "I just couldn’t take working for wages for somebody else," he said. "I had to be my own man."
His memorable battle with welterweight champ Kid Gavilan was fought on September 18, 1953. Carmen lost that one, but in the second round he dumped "The Keed"on his hind quarters. It was the first time the Camaquey sugarcane fieldhand had ever been down.
"I thought I beat him," Carmen told me in our 1982 interview, but the judges gave it to Gavilan. The decision caused a big stink -- the TV fans thought I won."
He never could get Gavilan back into the ring.
The astonishing rise of Tony DeMarco’s career started with a KO of Johnny Saxton in 14 rounds to win the welterweight crown. It ended two months later when Battling Basilio flattened him in 12. On November 30, 1955, they met again and the Boston Garden ran red with blood. One reporter wrote: It was the bloodiest 33 minutes ever seen by lovers of the Sweet Science." In this fight, Basilio had to call on all his reserves to survive a crucial seventh round. But the result was the same: those power-laden straight rights that wrecked havoc whenever they landed, had left the gallant DeMarco slumped on the canvas, trying to rise, straining the rippling sinews of his thick neck, a KO victim in round 12.
Simply, we had tougher fighters in those days.
Carmen Basilio hated Sugar Ray Robinson ever since he introduced himself to Sugar one day on the street and Sugar treated him like a leper. Carmen told his wife, "I’m going to kick his ass someday,"
Carmen would have to vacate his welter crown to fight Sugar for his middleweight crown because a rule (later changed) in those days stated a pugilist couldn’t hold more than one title at a time.
They fought twice, once in Yankee Stadium on September 23, 1957, and again in Chicago. A third fight never took place because Robinson, known for his greed, wanted the lion’s share, leaving Carmen with peanuts.
"Too bad," Carmen told me. "The third fight would have made us both rich."
Among the 38,000 New Yorkers who paid $560,000 (at the time the second largest non-heavyweight gate in history) were Joe Louis, Gene Tunney, Willie Pep, Sandy Saddler, Ernest Hemingway, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, and Archie Moore.
"We’ll lick him good," Robinson’s manager, George Gainford, told reporters before the bout. "We’ll stick him, feint, dodge, stick, stick..." Most fight critics agreed with him, after all, Hadn’t the lanky, mocha chocolate Robinson accomplished everything asked of him? Since abandoning his song-and-dance act, Sugar had KO’d both Bobo Olson and Gene Fullmer in grueling matches.
When Johnny Addie announced Sugar the ballpark rang with cheers. The roar for Basilio wasn’t quite as jubilant, but starchy enough to linger in the outfield for a spell.
At age 37, most scrappers had already passed their prime, Sugar Ray, the epitome of ring grace, still looked young. Carmen, on the other hand, entered the ring, not in a sleek velvet robe like Robinson, but in a plain, white cotton robe and a five o’clock shadow. "A fighter should look like a gladiator," he said, "Not a damn choir boy. These fancy-dan’s today make me sick."
It was a helluva fight because Basilio made it a helluva fight.
As Gainsford had predicted, Sugar sticked, feinted, dodged, danced, and sticked, while the onion farmer peppered him with lightening speed wallops, pausing dramatically at the end of each bell to sneer in contempt at his rival. Basilio trounced Robinson, but at the end of the 15th bell, Carmen’s face looked like Linguini.
Angelo Dundee, who worked Basilio’s corner, hoisted him up as they announced the winner. In Sugar’s corner, Gainford was yelling "Robbery!" and complaining to referee Al Bert that Basilio’ corner put chloroform in the Vaseline.
A poll of 34 boxing writers showed 19 for me, 8 for Sugar, and 7 even," said Basilio. "But it was a helluva fight! When I went to my dressing room, I locked myself in and wouldn’t see anyone. Robinson’s left jab and quick hooks had done quite a job on my face and I didn’t want anyone to see what a bloody mess I was."
During one exchange, Carmen said, Robinson hit him low on purpose and asked, "Hurt you Carmen?"
Carmen grinned insinuatingly at the "Harlem Hotshot" and sneered, "No, do it again and see what happens!"
Six months later they fought again. A memoirist called the Chicago fight "The Battle of the Shuttered Eye." Robinson, the sting-artist closed Carmen’s eye in the forth and jabbed him until his head looked like raw hamburger. Sugar Ray won the decision but admitted to this writer that it was the toughest fight of his 202 fights, which included 110 knockouts.
"I could have went another 15 rounds," Basilio whispered to me and my photographer, Dave Walton. Later, when we interviewed Robinson and told him what Basilio said, Sugar chucked, "Maybe he could have went another 15 rounds but not with me."
Both battles are remembered as the most savage and brutal the ring has ever seen, even taking into account the Zale-Graziano and Pep-Saddler brawls. There wasn’t a knockdown in 30 rounds of ferocious fighting.
When Sugar lost his title on January 22, 1960 to a spoiler named Paul Pender, the NBA refused to recognize the new champion. Basilio was selected to fight Gene Fullmer, who had fought his way up the ladder, poleaxing the likes of Tiger Jones, Chico Vegar, Spider Webb, and Milo Savage.
In their two classic wars, Fullmer’s hamming fists were too much for the aging Canastota Clouter. For the first time, Basilio failed to go the distance, The first fight was stopped in the 14th, The second fight was halted in the 12th. They were classics.
In his last fight, in 1961, the 34-year-old Carmen Basilio was little more than a punching bag for middleweight title holder, Paul Pender. When the decision was announced, Basilio sat on his stool, his face looking like he had run into a nest of angry bees.
He hung up his gloves.
The ring will never see his likes again.
Bill Kelly is a writer for hire.For feedback or to secure Bill's services email wildbillwildbill