A little more than five years ago, on Sept. 19, 2007, a crowd of local luminaries, fight fans and boxing celebrities gathered at the Onondaga County Convention Center in Syracuse to celebrate what may arguably be the most memorable moment in the career of a local athlete. Presided over by then-Syracuse Mayor Matt Driscoll, who proclaimed “Carmen Basilio Day” from a microphone suspended above a full-sized boxing ring, the $125-a-pop event marked the 50th anniversary of Basilio’s split decision victory over Sugar Ray Robinson on Sept. 27, 1957, in Yankee Stadium, when the local boy claimed the middleweight title of the world.
Against a backdrop of two screens running the original fight films continuously, Basilio, the Canastota native, was feted by Barbara Rothchild, whose father Norm promoted many of Basilio’s fights; Tony DeMarco, who Basilio knocked out in 1955 to win the welterweight title; and local author Gary Youmans, whose biography of the then 80-year-old boxer, The Onion Picker: Carmen Basilio and Boxing in the 1950s (Syracuse University Press), would publish soon afterward.
Carmen Basilio, three times a champion in both the welterweight and middleweight divisions, died in Irondequoit, a suburb of Rochester, on Nov. 7 at age 85. His passing was announced by the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, where he was inducted as a member of its initial class in 1990.
While most of the memorable athletes in Central New York are products of SU sports programs, Basilio’s journey to championship glory has a vastly different read. Like many other boxing heroes, Basilio, born on April 2, 1927, arose from poverty, in this case from the black onion fields of Canastota, where he and his nine siblings worked “down on their knees in the muck, planting onion stubs” to supplement the family income.
After initially learning to box at home—his father Joseph (born Giuseppe Basil in Italy) was “a fight nut,” he remembered—Basilio served, and boxed, in the Marine Corps during World War II. Continuing to pursue his pugilistic passion while holding factory jobs after the war, Basilio made his professional debut in 1948, and had risen steadily to the championship level by September 1953 when he nearly upset the great Cuban welterweight champion Kid Gavilan in a title fight at the Onondaga County War Memorial.
Two years later, in June 1955, Basilio, a straight-ahead give-and-take type fighter won his first welterweight title by stopping DeMarco in 12 rounds. A year later Basilio lost the title to Johnny Saxton on a decision and then regained it by stopping Saxton in a rematch.
As compelling as these events were, especially to the blue-collar world of upstate New York, the enduring drama in Basilio’s career lay ahead in his collision course with the man who is still considered by many to be the greatest boxer-puncher in history: Sugar Ray Robinson. Like other great ring wars (Ali-Frazier, Leonard-Duran, and, more recently, Ward-Gatti), this rivalry had echoes beyond the ring. Robinson, who, incidentally, began his pro career on a card in Watertown, lived a high-profile, glitzy life in New York City after achieving ring success, a foil to Basilio’s humble origins.
Basilio, in fact, felt snubbed by the champion during a chance encounter on a Manhattan street in 1953. “He gave me the brush-off,” Basilio said, “and I felt about an inch high.” It was a slight that he surely had in mind when they met for the middleweight title (Basilio had jumped up a division) four years later in front of 38,000 fans in Yankee Stadium, the fight celebrated in 2007 at the OnCenter.
Both that epic battle, in which Basilio won the middleweight title by split decision, and the rematch in Chicago (a native word meaning, ironically, “onion”) in 1958 when he gave the title back, also by split decision, contrasted and illuminated the diverse styles of the combatants: Robinson, the slick ring general, slipping punches and dancing on his toes, and Basilio, the relentless, plodding aggressor, always willing to absorb punishment and to return it in kind, as his battered face evinced at the end of both matches.
“I don’t enjoy getting hurt,” he would later say. “But you have to take the bitter with the sweet.”
Nevertheless, beating Robinson wasn’t his only accomplishment in 1957: Basilio was named Boxer of the Year by The Ring magazine and was also awarded the Hickok Belt as Professional Athlete of the Year.
Although Basilio, whose career paralleled what ring historians consider the “golden age of boxing,” would have three more title fights (twice with Gene Fullmer, both losses by KO, and another by decision to Paul Pender in 1961, his last fight), his career was seminal in the formation of the International Boxing Hall of Fame in his hometown of Canastota. Begun as a local project to honor its two champions, Basilio and his nephew Billy Backus—who took the welterweight title from the Mexican champion Jose Napoles by TKO in 1970 in what The Post-Standard called an “Epic Ring Upset”—the indigenous effort grew into the institution that now celebrates and honors all boxing champions, with induction ceremonies every spring.
“Carmen put Canastota on the worldwide boxing map and gave the village’s residents a sense of pride that couldn’t be matched anywhere in the world,” according to Hall of Fame executive director Ed Brophy.
With a record of 56-16-7 including five consecutive “fight(s) of the year” (against DeMarco, Saxton, Robinson and Fullmer), Basilio, a high school dropout whose statue stands in the Hall of Fame, would be further honored in 2009 when his alma mater, Canastota High School, granted him an honorary diploma in recognition of his work ethic, dedication to his craft, and what virtually everyone agreed was a genuine humility of character.
Finishing the reminiscence he made earlier, the champion
observed, “The sweet is when guys recognize you on the street, say,
‘Hello champ,’ know who you are. It will always be sweet for me.”