Carmen Basilio Interviewed
by Dave Iamele

Forty years ago in da Bronx at the house that Ruth built a young onion farmer from Canastota, NY shocked the boxing world. Carmen "the Canastota Clouter" Basilio won a razor thin split decision over one Walker Smith, better known as Sugar Ray Robinson after 15 gruelling rounds. That night (September 23, 1957) saw world welterweight champion Basilio take on Sugar Ray for his middleweight title. Carmen entered Yankee Stadium that night a 4 to 1 underdog but he left as the new middleweight champion of the world.

Fast forward 40 years and Carmen is back in his old hometown being honored on the anniversary of arguably his greatest victory by his friends and family at the International Boxing Hall of Fame. Basilio's achievements led him to be inducted in 1990 as one of the first group of fighters enshrined. In his 79-fight career spanning from 1948 to 1961 he won 56 (27 by KO), lost 16, and had 7 draws. He was a two time welterweight champion and also, as mentioned above, won the middleweight belt from Robinson. In Ring Magazine's 1997 Boxing Almanac Carmen is listed as #40 of the top 50 fighters from the last 50 years. He was also involved in 6 of the 100 greatest title fights of all time,(24,27,29,46,69,92). The Robinson bout was #24 followed by DeMarco II, Fullmer, Gavilan, DeMarco I, & Saxton II respectively. Basilio was also fighter of the year from 1955 thru 1959, the longest stretch ever consecutively held by any boxer.

I was lucky enough to get a few words with Canastota's greatest champion as he signed autographs for the hundreds of fans who came to meet, greet, and pay tribute to this gritty pugilist of the 50's. Carmen is a marvellous guy who underwent quadruple bypass heart surgery in June shortly after attending the annual Hall of Fame induction ceremonies.

DI: "When did you get out of the Marine Corp?"

CB: "November 22, 1947."

DI: "How did you happen to chose boxing as a profession?"

CB: "Well ever since I was a little boy, I always wanted to be a fighter. My father was a fight nut. The only time he ever let us stay up after 8:30 at night was on Friday nights to listen to the fights with him at 10:00. He bought us boxing gloves and we were always boxing. Not only that, but I boxed on the high school boxing team. That's the only reason I went to high school, because they had that boxing team. Without that, I wouldn't have gone to school. That's all I ever wanted to be was a fighter. Then I went in the Marine Corp. and I boxed in the corp., got out boxed (as an) amateur for about a year, then turned pro."

DI: "You turned pro in November of 1948 at the age of 21 and KO'd Jimmy Evans in your first bout. Can you remember anything about that night? How you felt? Were you nervous because this was your first pro bout?"

CB: "I felt great that I won, I was in good shape, and I was confident that I could beat him. I'd seen him fight before as a pro, he'd been around a long time, he was an old timer but he wasn't aggressive enough. I don't know whether he's still living or not, he was quite a bit older than me. I was 21 and he was about 33 or 34 years old. The fight was in Binghamton, NY. I was nervous before every fight. I don't care when it was. If you're not nervous, you're in trouble. If you're nervous, then you're sharp and alert."

DI: "On March 6, 1950, you beat former lightweight champ Lew Jenkins in your first 10 rounder. Do you feel this was your first bout against a 'name' opponent, being as he was a former champ?"

CB: "Well, I had been fighting quite often at that time and I was in great shape - there was no problem going 10 rounds. But I really thought I looked busy that night, I won the decision, but I wasn't at my best."

DI: "In January of 1953, you decisioned Ike Williams and you've stated that he was the hardest puncher you ever fought. Do you still feel this way?"

CB: "Well, no, Robinson was a harder puncher than him. But he was, at that time, the hardest puncher I had faced. He was a great puncher. I got in close with him and he hit me two shots in my forearms that picked me off my feet, I said to myself, 'he's not going to hit me again tonight'. He didn't, I took 10 out of 10 rounds from him. He just died last year. He was a great fighter, he was lightweight champion for about seven years, he fought a lot of great fighters. He even went 15 rounds with Sugar Ray Robinson."

DI: "After a couple of bouts with Billy Graham, winning the NYS title along the way, you fought Kid Gavilan in Syracuse. You were the first boxer to ever put him on the canvas when you knocked him down for a nine count in the second round. The fight went 15 rounds and you lost a very close split decision. Being that the bout was held in Syracuse, why didn't you get a hometown decision?"

CB: "Well, I'll tell you - they imported the officials, they imported the judges and the referee from New York City. They were there to protect him and they over protected him. That's what happened. Which is all right, in the long run, because I had to wait two more years but I had some good fights during that time and then I won the title. They bypassed me (Gavilan) and went down to Philly and fought Johnny Saxton. Saxton upset him and beat him. Now Saxtons group didn't want any part of me so they bypassed me and fought Tony DeMarco. DeMarco upset the apple cart by KOing Saxton in the 14th round. But the boxing commission said that the only way they'd approve that match (DeMarco/Saxton) was that the winner had to fight me within 90 days. Tony had to fight me, and I knocked him out in 12 rounds."

DI: "They called that fight, 'a wild, bloody brawl'. What are your thoughts on that?"

CB: "No. I didn't bleed. He did the bleeding. (laughs) No, it was a rough, tough fight. He was a good puncher and he was dangerous and we fought the full 12 rounds. Well, actually after about the ninth or tenth round, he started to slow down, and I started nailing him with good shots."

DI: "When you lost the title to Johnny Saxton on March 14, 195 in Chicago most ringsiders felt you won the bout easily but Saxton was awarded the victory. Was this some mob funny business conducted by Saxton's 'manager' Blinky Palarmo?"

CB: " Well - I don't know what that was but the thing was, that I had hit him on the chin and staggered him in the 3rd round, and when he came out in the fourth round, the stuffing was coming out of his glove. They had taken a razor and slit his glove and they stopped the fight for 20 minutes to get a new glove on him, and then he ran for his life the rest of the fight."

DI: "I think Angelo Dundee picked up on that trick. (laughs)

CB: "Angelo was in my corner."

DI: "He must've learned something that night."

CB: "I think he learned a lot working with me. (laughs) I remind him about it too because I was the first champion he ever worked with. He worked with me a lot of fights and he was a good cornerman but he never trained me. My manager was John DeJohn, and I trained myself. I'd had so many fights before that I didn't need a trainer, so there was no problem there, I knew how to train."

DI: "During your heyday, there was a lot of mob corruption in the fight game. Did anyone ever approach you to take a dive or otherwise throw a bout?"

CB: "No."

DI: "You were never approached?"

CB: "No, because I put the word out that if anyone was to approach me, I'd punch 'em in the mouth and have 'em arrested. So they never came near me."

DI: "You fought Saxton three times. If you knew he was a 'connected' guy with the wise guys why not avoid him?"

CB: "Because he had the title and he had us right by the balls so the only way I'm gonna get the belt is by beating the guy."

DI: "Then in '57, you moved up to middleweight to fight Robinson. How did this fight come about?"

CB: "He didn't have a legitimate opponent in the middleweight division at the time, and I had just fought my last fight with Saxton, and I was having trouble making 147 lbs. They were looking for an opponent, we got the opportunity and we thought it was a great idea. We drew a big, big crowd and it was a good pay day. So we went to Jim Morris and MSG and we set up the fight."

DI: "It's been said that you had an intense dislike for Ray, why?"

CB: "That's right."

DI: "Why?"

CB: "Because he didn't like me." (laughs)

DI: "Well, that's a good reason, I guess."

CB: "That's one thing. But in 1953, I was walking in front of the hotel right across from the Times Square building (NYC). I think it was the Statelier, but anyway, he pulled up with his entourage with his big Cadillac, right in front of the hotel, he got out and I was walking past so I decided to go over and introduce myself. I said, "Hi Ray, I just fought Billy Graham the week before, the #1 welterweight. I'm Carmen Basilio.' He gave me the brush off, and I felt about an inch high, and I said one of these days I'm gonna fight this guy and I'm gonna kick his ass. (laughs) It took me four years but I got 'im."

DI: "I want to read you a quote from the '97 Ring Almanac and get your reaction: 'In a huge surprise, welterweight champion beats middleweight champion by split decision. Robinson unexpectedly fights flat footed, guaranteeing plenty of action. Basilio, spotting Sugar Ray 6 1/2 lbs., relies on his unparalleled conditioning and steel chin. The punches fly for all 15 rounds, with both fighters absolutely certain they deserve the verdict."

CB: "He thought he won, but I chased him all night long. I was the aggressor, he could think what he wanted to at the time, but he knew I won that fight. He would never admit that he lost, naturally."

DI: "Now in the rematch in Chicago in '58, you said that you got 'stupid' that night and that Ray kept throwing the right uppercut and about the fifth time he hit you in the eyebrow your eye closed completely in about the sixth round. I've seen the pictures of you after that bout, and I'm amazed you could have went the rest of the distance with your eye like that. It's one of the worst eye injuries I've ever seen. Yet you lost a very close split decision with the referee scoring for you and the two judges giving Ray the nod. You stated that after the bout you walked to your dressing room but they had to carry Ray to his. Do you feel you won that bout?"

CB: "I thought I coulda won it, you know, but it was close. But I think that because my left eye was closed, it upset my timing and judgement of distance and that ugly eye swung the judges a bit. But I thought I won the fight and he knew it too. You know why? Because he would never fight me again."

DI: "Why?"

CB: "Because he was afraid of me, that's why."

DI: "He needed the money, he should have made the third bout."

CB: "He was stupid he see this guy never liked to be introduced as champion of the world. 'Ray Robinson, middleweight king’, he wanted to be a king see and.."

At this point Ed Brophy interjects and reminds Carmen that he has to sign about fifty more items yet for the Hall and that we had better wrap it up (Carmen being a true Italian, has trouble talking without the use of his hands).

DI: "You feel ok after the surgery? You look great."

CB: "Oh yeah, I'm feeling great. I had a great surgeon, great care at the hospital, and people were just fantastic to me."

DI: "Do you still watch the fights?"

CB: "Oh yeah."

DI: "Who do you like to watch?"

CB: "Gatti. He's an impressive kid. He's aggressive. I like his style, it's similar to mine."

DI: "You saw the Tyson fight where he bit Evander in the ear. What would've happened had that taken place in your heyday in the 50's? Would it have been such a big deal?"

CB: "Sure, why not? You can't bite a guy. He surprised me, I was disappointed in him. I was really pulling for him.."

My partner in crime, Joe "Canastota" asks Carmen if anyone ever bit him while he was active.

CB: "I had a guy bite my ear. He bit my ear, he bit my shoulder and I kicked the shit outta him. But I don't know what he (Tyson) was thinking. I really thought he was gonna win that fight if he fought a legitimate fight. I don't know what he had in his mind to bite the guy, but he intended to because he took his mouthpiece out to bite him good 'cause it would be kinda tough to bite him all the way through with the mouthpiece in. I still haven't figured out why or what he was thinking to do something like that. Maybe he didn't have confidence that he could win the fight legitimately. I thought he didn't happen that way."

I had a few more questions for the champ but IBHOF director Ed Brophy needed "the Canastota Clouter" to resume signing items and when Ed says, 'jump' at the Hall you better say, ‘how high?', or you'll find yourself across the street interviewing the kid flipping burgers at McDonalds!

I want to thank Carmen for being so generous with his time and also I'd like to apologise to Ed "pull the plug" Brophy for taking up too much time. I would also like to thank all the cyber boxing fans reading this. Keep that e-mail coming.

Record courtesy of Tracy Callis, Historian, International Boxing Research Organization



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