Thursday, September 1, 2011

Victoria aut Mors - Carmen Basilio

"The Onion Farmer" was tough enough to make onions cry. 

Perhaps serendipitously from Canestota, New York, home of the IBHOF, Carmine Basilio grew up on an onion farm run by his father, who wasn't shy about making hard workers of his children - he would frequently have them rush home from school to help on the farm. 

Carmine, who later changed his name to Carmen for heretofore unknown reasons, farmed alongside his father while reportedly fighting often for a few bucks as a youngster. 

Basilio joined the marines out of school, and had a few amateur exhibitions while serving. After being honorably discharged in 1948, Basilio turned pro at the age of 21.

At only 5'6 and change, Basilio's style was said to initially be fairly crude - Carmen would simply bull forward and club away. He would go 19-2-2 before facing aged and rarely sober former lightweight champion Lew Jenkins in March of 1950, taking a 10-round decision. 

From the Jenkins win through 1952, Basilio went 12-8-2, and it wasn't uncommon to see him getting outboxed and cut or swelled up. But by that time Carmen's name became a familiar one in the state of New York, and he had developed quirks to his style, like slipping right hands to deliver left hooks downstairs, and timing an opponent's left hook and deliberately trading and relying on his absolutely cast iron chin to win him the exchange.  

Losses to Chuck Davey and Billy Graham in Chicago only seemed to strengthen Basilio's case for being billed as a can't-miss fighter, as he relentlessly pursued both men in bouts where the blood flowed freely.

Carmen then defeated lightweight great and fellow Hall of Famer Ike Williams in a welterweight fight in January, 1953 before decisioning his former conqueror Billy Graham and seizing the New York State welterweight title in June. He defended the title against Graham in a draw. 

A memorable battle with welterweight all-timer (and then welterweight champion) Kid Gavilan then took place in September. A heavily favored Gavilan was knocked down hard in the second round by a left hook, but rallied later in the fight to take a 15-round decision. Basilio would say after the fight that his closed left eye was a result of being thumbed during one of Gavilan's signature "bolo punches." 

As Basilio awaited a rematch, Gavilan had sights set on the middleweight crown before losing the belt to Johnny Saxton in '54. 

Staying busy, and winning in the meantime, Basilio was then matched against new champ Tony DeMarco in an entertaining affair that saw Carmen drop Tony twice in the 10th round and stop him in the 12th, in June, 1955. The two rematched in November, producing a Ring Magazine Fight of the Year winner, with Basilio roaring back from a points deficit to floor DeMarco twice in the 12th and stop him brutally. 

Carmen lost the welterweight title Saxton the following March, by a decision that was nearly investigated at the behest of Basilio and his handlers. In the rematch six months later, Saxton uncharacteristically chose to bang with Carmen, producing another Fight of the Year affair that Basilio eventually won by TKO9. 

The rubbermatch ended in round 2, and in favor of Basilio. 

As rumors surfaced that Carmen was unable to make the 147 lb. limit anymore, he moved up to middleweight to face champion "Sugar" Ray Robinson. 

Basilio skipped after Robinson and mauled away at Ray inside for much of the bout in September, 1957, absorbing some absolutely wicked shots to narrowly outpoint one of the best fighters who ever lived. In the win, the AP said Basilio "shook off punches that would have knocked down a horse." 

The rematch was another rough and grueling fight that saw Basilio fight from the 6th round on with his eye completely shut. Though Robinson regained his title, he had to be helped from the arena and vowed never to fight Basilio again.

Both fights were back-to-back Fights of the Year. 

He slowed down considerably following the Robinson fights, both physically and in terms of career activity. Carmen would go on to beat West Coast welterweights Art Aragon and Gaspar Ortega, but lose two bouts by stoppage to Gene Fullmer (albeit on terrible cuts in the rematch), and one by decision to Paul Pender in his final bout. 

All in all, Basilio finished with a record of 56-16-7 (27 KO), and in his last 20 bouts faced Robinson twice, Fullmer twice, DeMarco twice, Saxton thrice and Pender, Ortega, and Aragon. His only two stoppage losses were at the end of a great and giving career, both to thumping bruiser and middleweight great Gene Fullmer. 

A few years ago, Basilio said of his career, "I wasn't afraid of nobody."


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