By Dan Hanley
I always felt for Billy Backus. Here was an honest pro, plying his trade in a sport that can be as unforgiving as it is violent, while under a media microscope. Billy fought under a pall of great expectations everytime he climbed into that four-cornered cauldron, for there was an incredibly long shadow cast over him from his uncle, former champ Carmen Basilio. And, it seemed, he would be forever dogged by this as the press never let him forget it as he was making his own mark on the game.
DH: Billy, first of all, that’s not your name, is it?
BB: (laughing) I was born Harold William Backus in Canastota, New York. But my father was Harold and my grandfather was Harold and because of all the Harolds in the house I got Billy. Christ, I didn’t even know my name was Harold until I started school.
DH: It’s well known you had boxing in the family but, tell me what interested you in the sport?
BB: Well, my uncle Carmen’s younger brother JoJo Basilio was closer to my age and I just began tagging along with him to the gym.
DH: When and where did you get started?
BB: I was maybe about…14 and a gentleman named Tony Graziano had a restaurant in town and let us train in a back dining room set up as a gym. Well…let’s be straight, there was a bag hanging in the dining room. We graduated from there to a Marina in Oneida Lake used to hold fight shows. The ring ropes were actually bales of hay that we had to climb over. (laughing) As you can see we didn’t have any rules or regulations back then.
DH: How did you progress in the formal amateurs?
BB: I won the ’58 Novice Golden Gloves championship in Troy, NY. At this same time I was playing halfback on my high school football team when the coach found out someone named Backus just won the Gloves. He frowned on this and confronted me but I denied it, saying it wasn’t me. I liked playing football and wanted to do both. Well, the following year I entered the Schnectady Golden Gloves and had to fight Open – after winning Novice the previous year – and won that championship as well, but I used the name ‘Joe Graziano’ so the coach wouldn’t find out. Well, I come home with the trophy and my Dad threw a fit. “Who the hell is Joe Graziano? If you’re going to box you’re going to fight under the name Backus!” So, the following year I came home with an identical trophy from the Schnectady Golden Gloves with the name Billy Backus. In ’61 I wrapped up the amateur career by competing in the National AAU tournament held in Pocatello, Idaho, representing the Adirondacks, losing to the eventual champion Ralph Ungricht.
DH: Your decision to turn pro in late ’61, was it a love of the sport by this stage?
BB: It was. I got a taste of things and I was enjoying the game by this time.
DH: Who was your management team when you went pro?
BB: Tony Graziano. He was my manager throughout my career and at first was also my trainer. But eventually Irv Robbins came in as our trainer and later it was Billy Harris.
DH: How did they view your southpaw style?
BB: Oh, they hated it and tried to convert me. But I gotta tell you, I’m actually right-handed. I tried to fight orthodox and ended up with all kinds of pulled muscles. The southpaw style just worked for me, so they left me alone.
DH: From ’61 until ’65 you compiled an underwhelming record of 8-7-3 before going on hiatus. Were you just disillusioned with the game at this time?
BB: I’ll tell you what it was, see, I got married very young and had a couple of kids and was trying to support a family working construction, training and trying to be a fighter. It was too much. Everything was suffering, so I packed in the boxing.
DH: In all fairness to you, your opponents, guys like Genaro Soto, Davey Hilton, Colin Fraser and Dick French were not bad fighters for a relative novice, which you were. But what convinced you to comeback?
BB: I got laid off from my construction job. I was collecting unemployment, so I went to Tony Graziano again and asked him if he had anything coming up and if he could get me some fights just so I could pick up a couple of extra bucks. The thing was, with nothing to do, now I was putting everything into training and I just kept winning. It all started to fall together as a full-time fighter.
DH: Billy, this question begs to be asked. I don’t believe I ever read an article on you without the tagline. “Backus, the nephew of former world champion Carmen Basilio…” You had to have felt like you were under constant scrutiny. Like you were obligated to succeed. Is this the kind of pressure you felt?
BB: (laughing) I know exactly what you’re talking about. And to tell you the truth, I really didn’t realize it at the time. But years later I became more aware of the angle and wished they had just laid off a bit and had let me do my job.
DH: In the beginning of ’69 Percy Pugh was the #2 contender in the world for the welterweight title. Tell me about your 4-fight series with Pugh.
BB: Percy Pugh was a good guy and a good boxer. He was so quick and could really fly around that ring. The thing is with Percy (laughing), was that he had a head on him about the size of a boxing glove. It was so small that he was hard to hit. They appreciated his style in his hometown of New Orleans and they appreciated mine in Syracuse. We split the series accordingly.
DH: After your third fight with Pugh it was reported that the Canastota Boxing Club was attempting to sign a title fight for you with world champion Curtis Cokes. Can you tell me about that?
BB: They did try, but George Parnassus of the Forum Boxing Club on the west coast came in with bigger money for Cokes to defend against Jose Napoles.
DH: In 1970 you were ranked solidly in the top ten ratings and the #1 contender was Manny Gonzalez out of Houston. The two of you were signed for the War Memorial Auditorium for July. Tell me about that fight.
BB: Manny Gonzalez was a good fighter and it was a great fight, but I chased him down all the way in that fight and won the decision.
DH: You were now the top contender at 147 and you were signed for the world welterweight title to take place in December of ’70. What did it take to bring Jose Napoles to Syracuse?
BB: Well, Napoles signed to fight a non-title against Pete Toro in NY and we went to the fight to have a look see. What happened was Napoles’ people had two offers on the table. One was to fight me and the other was to fight Eddie Perkins. We figured they looked up my record and thought I would be easier. My guys with the Canastota Boxing Club were inexperienced and George Parnassus stuck it to us good. Napoles ended up with $70,000, the CBC lost money and I received absolutely nothing for the fight, except, of course, his world title.
DH: Tell me about your title-winning fight.
BB: Napoles was the Superman of the welterweights. That’s how feared he was. And I’ll admit, before the fight I was shaking. But when that first bell rings you lose all that. The 1st round was a feel-out round. The 2nd round I’m paying more attention because he’s getting close. In the 3rd round I saw an opening and ripped in a right hook. I believe he thought it was a fluke because I’m still seeing the opening and repeated the shot twice more. Three solid hooks and he was now bleeding from his left eye. He went at it hard when he tasted his blood and so did I. That 3rd round was named the round of the year for 1970. In the 4th round I nailed him with the same hook again and the fight was stopped. I was the new world champ.
DH: How severe was the cut?
BB: Carmen was working my corner with Tony and he went over to Napoles’ corner to have a look. He came back to us and said, “Wow! I could see his eyeball through the cut.”
DH: Was there a rematch clause in effect or did the Forum Boxing Club just come up with the right monies for a Napoles rematch? I ask because I recall Tony considering a Marcel Cerdan, Jr. title defense when you were in Paris for a non-title bout.
BB: I think Tony may have been saying that for the press. In reality, we did have a rematch clause, so we were obligated for a Napoles rematch in the Inglewood Forum in California. But now I was champ and in the driver’s seat and Parnassus had to come up with the right money for us. That was my career high-purse of $93,000.
DH: Tell me about the fight.
BB: Okay…I can only tell you so much about this. I was doing well early and had Napoles cut again. But when the bell rang for the 4th round and my mouthpiece was put in I tasted something burning and immediately spit out the mouthpiece and spit out what was in my mouth. In California you can’t fight without a mouthpiece so they rinsed it and put it back in but there was still something there and I wasn’t the same after that. The fight was stopped on cuts in Napoles favor in the 8th round.
DH: Was there any followup on that?
BB: We were in his hometown so, no. But, I’ll tell you this. Remember when I said I spit out what was in my mouth? Well it got on me when I did. And at the end of the fight my skin and my trunks were burned where it landed.
DH: Several months after the second fight with Napoles, Edwin Dooley, the chairman of the New York State Athletic Commission withdrew recognition of Napoles as world champion and set up a title fight between you and Hedgemon Lewis for the NY version of the world title. What was the cause of this?
BB: When we signed for the rematch with Napoles, we too inserted a rematch clause into the contract and Napoles refused to honor it. The NYSAC then stripped him of recognition.
DH: Tell me about the first fight with Hedgemon Lewis.
BB: It was 15 rounds. I thought I won it. The newspapers thought I won it. I took Lewis to a place he was never used to. I really worked his body over but he got the decision.
DH: I gotta ask you this, Billy. What happened between rounds between Carmen and Tony?
BB: (laughing) I forget which round it was, but the bell rings ending the round and I turn to go back to my corner and apparently there was some dispute on who was going to give me instructions, so they had a bit of a physical altercation. I stopped in my tracks. I wasn’t sure if it was safer to stay in the middle of the ring.
DH: Despite a second loss to Lewis, you were still the top contender. But you received no favors in Baltimore against Jack Tillman for the North American title. Tell me about that fight.
BB: Oh, man, what a robbery! I dropped him twice, pressured him the whole fight and they give it to him in his hometown. Tony, my manager went nuts. He pushed the referee, he called out the judges to come up into the ring. He was going to kick their ass right there. That’s how bad it was.
DH: After a good twelve years of slinging leather, cuts were really plaguing you by this time. Stoppage losses on cuts to Zovek Barajas in L.A. and Eckhard Dagge in Germany had to have had you considering packing it in.
BB: It didn’t really because it was the same cut everytime. Under the right eye. And It wasn’t helping matters what they were doing to me on the road, such as in Germany. I swear, that doctor must’ve used an 8-penny nail on me to stitch me up. You should have seen the shitty job he did on me. It wasn’t until after the Papo Melendez fight in Albany that a doctor told me to come and see him. He removed all the scar tissue I had around the eyes, which was breaking open.
DH: You seemed to have had a real love affair going with Paris. You beat Robert Gallois, Roger Zami, Jacques Kechichian and lost a highly disputed decision to Roger Menetrey over there. Did the French just take to your style?
BB: Yes, they did. See, over in Europe they’re taught this very straight upright stance. I think I was just so different to them with the way I fought and of course, I loved banging the body. They liked my style and they paid very well over there. As for the Menetrey fight, yeah, I beat him by at least two points, but he was their boy, so what can you do? But I’ll tell you a funny story about the Kechichian fight. It was only Tony and myself over there and we needed another cornerman so Terry Lawless of England helped us out. I knocked out Kechichian in six and when we get back to the dressing room Lawless looks at me and says, “Billy, you’re a great guy and I like working with you but, I’ll never let you fight John Stracey.” I looked at him and said, “Who’s John Stracey?” (laughing) I must admit I wasn’t really following my competition at the time. Now, having said that, I’ve gotten to know John Stracey over the years. He’s not only a great guy but he wouldn’t have avoided anyone. But Lawless was his manager and I found it complimentary that he wished to avoid me.
DH: After the Rocky Mattioli loss in Australia you embarked on another comeback reminiscent of 1967. Ten straight wins and a draw with Everaldo Azevedo – who was coming off a disputed loss to Carlos Palomino for the title – placed you back in the top ten where you received that call once again at the age of 35. Tell me about your title shot at Pipino Cuevas for the welterweight title in L.A.
BB: Well remember, this was back in the day without the attached thumb on the glove. I mean, you could grip an object with this glove. It wasn’t intentional, but it did happen. I moved one way in the 1st round and caught the full thumb in my right eye. My vision was gone and they wouldn’t let me out for the 2nd round. I went straight to the hospital where they operated on me – successfully – for an orbital blowout of the right eye. I was told in advance that that was the end of my career.
DH: Almost 17 years of climbing through the ropes and now it was done. What did you get into now that it was over?
BB: I had been working for Pabst Blue Ribbon for about a year at the time and went to work for them full time doing PR and sales. I was with them for about 12 years. I was also working for the NYSAC as an inspector and as Deputy Commissioner for the Albany-Buffalo-St. Lawrence area. And finally I went to work for the Mid-State Correctional facility in various positions. I worked for them for 17 years until I retired.
DH: In your lengthy career was there any fighter out there whom you missed out on, whom you really wanted?
BB: There was three I regretted not getting in there with actually. I would have liked to have fought Clyde Gray from Canada, a title fight with Carlos Palomino, and of course, that third fight with Jose Napoles.
DH: At almost 70 years of age, what have you been doing with yourself these days?
BB: I’m simply enjoying life. As a matter of fact, my wife and I are on our way this weekend up to Belfast, NY, to attend the Bareknuckle Boxing Hall of Fame banquet. Carmen was inducted in ’09, I was inducted in ’10 and Tony Graziano is being inducted this year for what he’s contributed over the years for upper NY state boxing. I’ll be accepting on his behalf.
DH: I take it, Tony’s too frail to make it?
BB: (laughing) Oh, no! He just avoids the spotlight. Let me tell you a crazy story about that old guy. Recently, he was out in his boat doing a little fishing and another boater fell into the water and started drowning. Well, Tony runs his boat over to him, fishes him out and runs him to shore, saving his life. Everyone on shore can’t believe it. They’re calling the papers to get over there with their cameras because they have a hero on the shore that just saved someone’s life. You wanna know what Tony did? He gets in his boat and takes off. And he’s 90 years old!
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To say they raise them tough in Canastota, NY, would be as redundant as saying boxing can be a bit gruelling. A fitting epitaph to the boxing career of this 74 fight veteran of the fistic wars was bestowed by none other than Harold Lederman. In a recent conversation with Harold I mentioned I would be interviewing Billy Backus. Harold’s response was succinct and to the point. “Billy?! Oh, Danny, that was one tough bastard!”
See ya next round,