go gentle into that good night: Carmen
Basilio’s day of
rage at the Battle of Derk Field
By Mike Casey
is probably nothing quite so poignant in boxing as the words and actions
of a fighter who has reached the end of the line.
every defiant gesture and reaches for every excuse to convince himself that the
clock really hasn’t struck twelve.
persuading Evander Holyfield even now that he is through as a top notch
performer (as if you’d ever dare) and he would likely give you twenty reasons
why it ain’t so.
In an age
where everything has to fit snugly into a convenient pigeon-hole and be
earmarked with an all-embracing term, this condition has come to be known as
denial. As ever in this life, it isn’t as simple as that.
fighter who knows deep down that he is kidding himself, there is another proud
brother who believes one hundred per cent that he is right and the rest of the
world is wrong.
meaning lecture on the fruits of an alternative lifestyle is not the desired
medicine at such a delicate time. Boxers do not care for being patronised.
dad he’s too old to climb a ladder and he is unlikely to thank you for being
considerate. Tell a worn out fighter he’s finished and you might need to visit
It is easy
to climb into another man’s mind and make monumental decisions on his behalf
about his mental state. Shrinks with fake diplomas on their walls do it every
day and make a nice old living out of it. We are all occasionally guilty of
rushing to judgement in the great urgency to find a definitive conclusion.
easily forgotten is that fighters measure themselves by their own exceptionally
high standards. The prime years of their lives are all about raising the bar and
going the extra mile. When the glory days are over, many find it infernally
difficult to re-adjust their barometers to that cosy level at which the rest of
us measure our tolerance.
crack in the mouth will give you a small idea of the mighty chasm that divides
an ordinary man from a warrior.
was called on former middleweight and welterweight champion Carmen Basilio in
his second match with Gene Fullmer at Derk Field in Salt Lake City, the demons
were unleashed from Carmen’s normally kind soul. His craggy, swollen face ablaze
with anger, he protested bitterly to referee Pete Giacoma, as eager ringside
photographers jostled to capture the erupting volcano. Somewhere in the
archives, there is a glorious picture of Basilio lunging at Giacoma with tired
arms and a jutting face of bruises and welts.
didn’t stop there. Trainer Angelo Dundee, Fullmer’s manager Marv Jensen and even
the local cops were in his firing line as the fury poured out. Beaten and
trapped in the Mormon fortress of Fullmer’s native Utah, Basilio must have felt
that God, Old Nick and anyone else who has a say in the great scheme of things
were all out to do him in at the same time.
It was the
twelfth round of a brutal battle in the summer of 1960, and a lot of people were
saying that Carmen’s turbulent and exciting career was over and urging him to
has never forgotten the day. Forty-five years on, the volcano is no longer
spouting, although it continues to spit out the occasional defiant drops. It was
still burning fiercely in the early seventies, when Carmen discussed his rivalry
with Fullmer with his usual, admirable candour.
fights I was stopped,” he told writer Peter Heller, during an interview for
Heller’s marvellous book, In This Corner….!
fight was in fourteen rounds and I said to the referee ‘Jeez, you let me lose
the fight all the way through, then you stop it in the fourteenth. Why didn’t
you just let me go for another round and lose the decision?’ And the same thing
happened out in Salt Lake City.
losing but this fight was stopped in the twelfth. I hit Fullmer with a good left
hand, turned southpaw on him in the eleventh round just before the bell rang and
I shook him. Now he comes out for the twelfth round and he throws a right hand.
It just went over my ear, didn’t even hit me, and the referee stepped in between
us and stopped the fight.
‘Why, you son of a….’ I really started calling him names. I said, ‘He didn’t
even hit me and you stopped the fight. What’s the matter, you afraid I’m going
to do some damage to him because I turned southpaw on him and I just shook him
at the end of the other round?’
really hot about that. I thought the least he could have done was let it go on.
He (Fullmer) didn’t hit me and I wasn’t hurt. I had all my senses. But that’s
the way it goes. Even though I was behind on points, I could have finished the
fight and just lost the decision. I was never knocked out. Nobody ever counted
ten over me. And I was only down twice in all my career. I had a little bit of
pride about not being stopped.”
had pride, period. And he had it in abundance throughout his roller-coaster
career. Allied to courage, tenacity and an indomitable will to win, it made up
the engine room of a fighter who was never top of the class at any one thing but
still pounded his way to the pinnacle of the mountain.
wins over Tony DeMarco for the welterweight championship (pictured) and a couple
of five-star ring classics with Sugar Ray Robinson had confirmed Basilio’s
reputation as one of the toughest pound-for-pound fighters of the age.
stormed through in his epic fights with DeMarco, winning both wars in grandstand
fashion in the twelfth round.
stepped up a weight class to challenge Robinson, Basilio was never more of an
irresistible force. I can only urge my fellow East Siders to hunt far and wide
for the video of that wonderful 1957 fight at Yankee Stadium if they don’t
already have it in their collection. The fifteen rounds seem to race by at every
viewing, each a master class in skilful boxing, power hitting and courage in the
face of adversity.
There is a
particularly unforgettable sequence in the eleventh round, where Basilio pins
Ray to the ropes and drives home a fusillade that seems to last for an eternity.
Robinson regained the title at the Chicago Stadium the following year, Carmen
still gave him the fight of his life, despite battling with a closed left eye
from the sixth round.
Robinson fights represented the apex of Carmen’s career, the brawls with Fullmer
for Gene’s NBA middleweight title were effectively the last hurrah. It was
somehow appropriate that they were marathon examinations of heart and soul.
Basilio could never have bowed out quietly and he certainly could never have
surrendered. The great scriptwriter in the sky wouldn’t have consented to that
kind of ending.
tried everything he knew to outmuscle and outsmart a bigger and stronger bull.
In many ways, he was trying to smash through a younger and more awkward mirror
image. Gene was similarly rough, tough and infuriatingly dogged. He just kept
steaming forward all night long, and only the great Robinson had derailed him
with a left hook in a million.
Salt Lake City slugfest, Fullmer produced one of his greatest performances as he
took charge from the early going. The two contestants barged and banged into
each other throughout, trading shots and giving blood for the cause. Both
suffered cuts that required stitches.
was too wired and too close to boiling point from the outset and quickly began
to unravel in the underlying battle of psychology. Carmen complained to referee
Giacoma about Fullmer’s butting, a ploy that tough men only resort to when their
talent is draining away.
was further irritated by the antics of Gene’s manager, Marv Jensen, who kept
priming his charge by calling out numbers that represented specific punches. It
was bad enough for Carmen that this awkward so-and-so Fullmer couldn’t seem to
miss him. It was even worse that the punches were pre-set and being triggered by
a guy who fancied himself as a quarterback.
summoned enough of his old fire to make a contest of it for eight rounds, but
Gene began to jolt him badly thereafter. Sensing that his opponent was
weakening, Fullmer came on strong and fired in hurtful jabs to the face and
punishing body blows.
wilted from a terrific right to the chin in the eleventh, and he was clutching
desperately in the final frame as Gene tried to break free and land the decisive
blows that would end the fight. A big right to the stomach and another right to
the jaw convinced referee Giacoma that he had seen enough.
believed that Basilio was all done, he soon discovered otherwise. In the midst
of the tirade that followed, Carmen waved a fist at the third man and cried,
“I’ll give you one!”
was still raging when police offers led him back to his corner.
fight and the fracas, those who cared for Carmen encouraged him to call it
quits. It was typical of the feisty man from Canastota, New York, that he chose
his own path and stubbornly pressed on.
he showed some encouraging return to his old form with successive points
victories over Gaspar Ortega and former welterweight champ, Don Jordan. But a
final fling at Paul Pender’s middleweight crown proved a step too far.
grit and perseverance were still there, but the magic had escaped the bottle and
he was well outpointed.
He hung up
his gloves and went back to his adored wife and family. No change of heart. No
sad or tacky comeback. No spiteful swipes at the young tigers that were passing
him in the fast lane.
that Carmen knew after all when the time was right to get out.
> The Mike Casey Archives