The great Carmen Basilio died yesterday and I should write a column about him, but hardly anyone remembers Basilio and hardly anyone remembers his era, the 1950s – a great era of boxing, and hardly anyone follows boxing anymore. So, I’m writing only a blog about Basilio and it just breaks my heart.

In 1989 I traveled around the country interviewing boxers I used to watch on TV with my father. My father died in 1988 and he and I talked all the time, and meeting the boxers was a way of keeping the conversation going and of keeping my father alive.  I loved talking to my father. He was wise and gave me life advice and I still could use his life advice. I combined my father’s story and the boxer interviews into a book but it never got published and I only go back to the manuscript when one of my boxers dies.

I visited Basilio and his wife Josie in their house in Rochester, NY on a snowy winter day. We sat in his basement and talked about his life and watched tapes of some of his fights. He was an all-time great welterweight (147), a two-time welterweight champ. And he also was middleweight champ (160), beat the incomparable Sugar Ray Robinson by split decision. He lost the rematch on a split decision when Robinson closed his eye with a left hook – Basilio fought from the seventh round on with only one eye.

He had moved up to middle because he no longer could make 147 pounds.

“I couldn’t get down anymore,” Basilio told me. “The last time I fought as a welterweight was against Johnny Saxton in Cleveland in 1957. Three days before the fight, I weighed 151 pounds. I had to go through dehydration. I had a cup of tea with my breakfast, a cup of tea with my dinner. That’s all I had all day long. I’m dying of thirst. I’m sucking on lemon drops. And you’re in a hotel. Guy upstairs flushes the toilet. Guy next door takes a shower. You hear all this water running. All you’re thinking about is a drink of water. And I said the hell with this. I’m not making 147 anymore.”

Basilio held a grudge against Robinson and he told me why and the story illuminates both their personalities. Basilio had taken his first wife to New York for the very first time and they were walking down Broadway past the old Astor Hotel when Basilio saw Robinson stepping out of a big convertible, surrounded by his entourage. For Basilio, this was something wonderful. He walked right up to Robinson with his wife on his arm, extended his right hand and said, “Hi, Ray, I’m Carmen Basilio. I just fought Billy Graham on TV.”

Robinson looked at Basilio as if he was a bug, mumbled, “Oh yeah,” and brushed past him into the hotel. Basilio said to himself, “Some day, I’m gonna fight that SOB and kick his ass.” Which is exactly what he did five years later.

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  1. Ian

    Even though, I’m a young man and I missed the glory days of boxing. I would pick that era, if I could, to time travel back to and watch some of these great fights. They sound like some incredible times. I wish boxing was still as prominent as it once was. I can’t get behind this UFC stuff. Mr. Cohn do you think boxing will ever come back?

    November 8th, 2012 2:54 pm

  2. CohnZohn

    Ian, No boxing won’t come back.

    November 8th, 2012 2:55 pm

  3. Tony

    Why don’t you consider publishing your book as an e-book? You can ask Jon Wilner about his experience (he has a Kindle e-book on Andrew Luck).

    November 8th, 2012 3:21 pm

  4. Ian

    Well that’s too bad. Bummed I missed it.

    November 8th, 2012 3:49 pm

  5. Marshall

    Do you think the decline of boxing is due to the sudden rise and popularity of MMA and UFC, or do you believe boxing was already dying out prior to that?

    November 8th, 2012 3:53 pm

  6. CohnZohn

    Marshall, I think boxing already was on the way out and MMA pushed it over the edge.

    November 8th, 2012 4:05 pm

  7. Robert Rubino

    Wonderful impressions of Basilio, Lowell. Thanks for sharing. Many of Basilio’s fights were on TV in the 50s, and he seemed like one of those guys who never gave less than 100 percent, a guy afraid of nobody.

    November 8th, 2012 4:34 pm

  8. Steve

    Wow, thanks for this piece; too bad it has to be an obit of sorts. Brings back a lot of memories. I was a boxing fan until the Mike Tyson era, when I believe the sport became totally corrupt (with the exception of a few like Emanuel Stewart, Andre Ward). When I was very young, I actually saw Basilio fight (can’t recall against whom) at the old Amphitheater in Chicago. My older cousins were in to boxing and wrestling and used to take me along. I saw many of the great wrestlers of their time: Dick the Bruiser, Gorgeous George, Pepper Gomez (who lived in the Bay Area and died within the past few years), Eduard Carpentier, Killer Kowalski and a bunch of boxers who never amounted to much. And who can forget the great boxing announcers: Don Dunphy and Howard Cosell? R.I.P. Carmen.

    November 8th, 2012 4:36 pm

  9. Phil Brown

    I remember watching him on the Friday Night fights with my grandfather.

    November 8th, 2012 4:39 pm

  10. MJ

    Boxing can definitely come back, its just not going to on itself. It needs a Dana White, a Rodger Goodell, a David Stern type to basically run it professionally, get the dirty promoters like Don King out of it, and unionize the fighters and the organizations.

    I just watched an interesting documentary on George Chuvalo leading up to his first fight with Ali and in it they covered the 2nd Ali-vs-Liston, well you could call it the first since he was Clay in the first one, and the aftermath that it brought about. They had some classic clips from media types and so forth of that era saying that boxing will never be the same, people saying that Liston took the dive with the phantom punch and that boxing would never recover. How wrong they were. Boxing went on to have a golden age of heavyweights in the late 60s and early 70s and then you had a golden age of the middleweights in the late 70s and into the 80s (Leonard, Duran, Hagler, Herns and the rest).

    So to me, boxing could most definitely come back if they get someone in there to clean it up, if boxers were to somehow unionize and demand uniformity from the commissions instead of having 4 or more different organizations. Will that happen, who knows, but I do know that anytime that Mayweather fights or anytime that Pacquiao fights those pay-per-views dwarf anything that UFC puts out, save for maybe this rumored GSP vs Silva fight.

    Boxing has been declared dead on many occasions and never has it been true. Boxing is still king, it just doesnt say much for long stretches of time.

    November 8th, 2012 4:56 pm

  11. Brian

    Carmen Basilio was one of the toughest warriors the sport has ever seen. He stopped Tony Demarco in two unbelievable slugfests. He was also just an awesome guy. Shame that you can’t write column.

    November 8th, 2012 5:37 pm

  12. RC

    Nice write up Lowell.

    November 8th, 2012 5:57 pm

  13. Jack Hammer

    Thank you for sharing that story.

    November 8th, 2012 5:58 pm

  14. Streetglide

    Back around 1954, I watched Carmen on the old black-and-white Philco with my grandfather in his 18th-century home in Stratford CT. He loved Carmen, thought he was the best Italian fighter he ever saw. Grandpa would smoke Chesterfield’s, I’d drink a soda and we would talk in the darkness about the bums on Gillette Friday Night Fights.
    Sometimes he’d talk about WWI. He was one of the first ariel photographers. Flew around in the back of a Jenny biplane taking shots with a huge camera strapped to the fuselage. He had a bunch of photos in a cardboard suitcase, all marked top secret; there where shots of Washington DC, New York, Chicago, all sorts of cities and forts.
    In 1967, he came to spend his last days on the farm in Ohio, came in on a Boing 727. He hadn’t flown in a plane since his last flight on that old canvas-and-wicker biplane. As they wheeled the husk of the best man I’ve ever known off the tarmac, I ran to help them. “Planes sure have changed,” is all he said. Just like boxing. Carmen and Grandpa Jewell will always be linked in my mind…

    November 8th, 2012 7:07 pm

  15. Tim

    Nice piece. I’d buy the book. Boxing is still the best when it’s good, everybody loves a great fight. There’s one we’re all still waiting for . . .

    November 8th, 2012 7:55 pm

  16. Neal

    I never heard of the guy, but interesting stuff.

    November 8th, 2012 9:25 pm

  17. Johnc

    I used to watch Basilio all the time on tv with my grandfather since he lived with us. Rocky Marciano, Sugar Ray Robinson, Gene Fullmer, Floyd Patterson, Emile Griffith, Bene Kid Peret are some of the other fighters I remember.

    November 8th, 2012 11:37 pm

  18. Dr. Feelgood

    I remember Carmen, in part because my earliest memories goes back to the 50′s, and my dad had Golden Glove bouts in his early years, so we watched the Friday Night Fights. Early years of TV, things not so overly commercialized and outrageously promoted- golden age for boxing.
    We were huge fans of Sugar Ray Robinson, and my dad of Marciano. Great memories.

    I think the decline of Boxing began with the birth of the various titling organizations and un-unified champions. What do you think?

    November 9th, 2012 9:48 am

  19. CohnZohn

    Dr. Feelgood, I agree. There are so many sanctioning organizations now and too many weight classes. I no longer can keep the sport straight in my head.

    November 9th, 2012 10:13 am

  20. tkh

    Great story…loved it…I was too young for Basilio but when I was young I always read The Ring magazine and I remember photos of his swollen eye from the Robinson fight…again, great story…btw, you can self publish books on the internet these days, I certainly would purchase your book about the boxers & your father, sounds like a great read…

    November 9th, 2012 12:15 pm

  21. Gopal

    I still watch a lot of boxing. In fact, there was a pretty great super-bantamweight fight last weekend between Abner Mares and Anselmo Moreno that took place at Staples Center in LA.

    Mares is from Hawaiian Gardens, and desperately wants to fight Nonito Doniare, the unified super-bantam champion who grew up in San Leandro and holds open workouts in San Carlos before each of his fights.

    There’s still a lot of great boxing to be found if you’re looking out for it. What the sport really needs is a transcendent heavyweight with an equally poised rival somewhere on the horizon.

    Unfortunately, I don’t know all that much about Basilio and the fighters of his era, outside of Sugar Ray Robinson, Archie Moore and Rocky Marciano. However, I wonder how things might have turned out differently for him had he fought in an era with a 154 lb division. He seemed like a smallish middleweight, but a big welterweight.

    November 12th, 2012 8:38 am

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