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.