Never Give An
Inch: Robbie and Basilio at Yankee Stadium
By Mike Casey
are expected to be gracious and Carmen Basilio bit his tongue behind an impish
smile. With a patch over his left eye and eight stitches sewn into his tough old
brow, Basilio looked like a mischievous pirate as he spoke to reporters about
Sugar Ray Robinson. “He hit me low,” said Carmen, “but it didn’t matter in the
end, so why make an issue of it? Let’s just say he did it unintentionally.”
Oh, the sweet taste of victory! Everything was right in Carmen
Basilio’s world. In his typical, rock ‘’n’ roll fashion, the gritty onion farmer
from Chittenango in upstate New York had pounded out a split decision over
Robinson to win the middleweight championship. The icing on the cake was that
Carmen had carved his name in the great shine of Yankee Stadium, where his good
friend Mickey Mantle would become a baseball legend. Now Basilio was the king,
the man who called the shots. How he loved that! The early word was that
Robinson was undecided about a return match, so Carmen made it clear that he
wouldn’t wait too long for Robbie to make up his mind. “We’re driving now,”
Basilio said, gesturing at co-managers Joe Nelro and Johnny DeJohn.
Carmen believed he won the fight without question, despite the
handicaps of gashes and lumps around his eyes and a cut nose. Johnny DeJohn
chipped in and added, “If Carmen doesn’t get cut in the fourth, he knocks out
Robinson. The next time he knocks him out sure.”
A poll of 47 sports writers at ringside returned a 26-17-4 vote
“I have no squawks,” said Robinson. “There were two judges and a
referee. I abide by their decision. I don’t know whether I’ll ever fight again.”
Basilio never had much time for Ray Robinson and didn’t
particularly care who knew it. Even now, at seventy-nine years of age, Carmen’s
preferred term of reference for the long deceased Sugar Ray is ‘that bastard’.
It should be noted that Basilio has always had a hard-edged sense
of humour and a tough way of talking. But there was genuine resentment of
Robinson, whose lofty demands at the negotiating table ruffled the feathers of
Carmen never doubted or denigrated Ray’s fighting abilities, but
the respect didn’t go beyond the roped square. A straight and forthright man,
Basilio perceived Robinson as aloof and arrogant, claiming that Robbie once
snubbed him when they walked past each other on Broadway.
Then there was Ray the businessman, who could make some
eye-watering demands. He insisted on 45% of the receipts for defending his
championship against Carmen, which hardly endeared him to his earthy challenger.
After much haggling and bluffing, a bristling Basilio was forced to give up five
percentage points and accept a 20% slice of the cake.
Even at that stage in his career, the free-spending Robinson
needed the money. His take would amount to nearly $500,000, but that was still
fourteen thousand shy of what the Internal Revenue Service wanted from him.
Love, hate, respect and plenty of hard-hitting exchanges. Burton
and Taylor would give us many thrilling moments in the years ahead, but Robinson
and Basilio made for a much more exciting and turbulent marriage. Six months
later, after a trial separation, they would even have a second fling.
There is no condition that says you have to be a contemporary of
your favourite fighters. Sometimes it’s better if you’re not. I was just two
years old when Robinson and Basilio clashed for the first time on September 23,
1957. I learned of them and their two savage brawls from old copies of Boxing
News and Ring magazine and from the colourful stories my father used to recount
As I grew older, I would save my money to buy films and
historical books, dig feverishly into library archives and learn everything I
could about the great fighters of yesteryear.
If you collect old issues, take a look at The Ring’s middleweight
line-up for September, 1957. There was Gene Fullmer from West Jordan, Utah; Rory
Calhoun from White Plains; the ‘G’ men, Joey Giardello from Philadelphia and
Joey Giambra from San Francisco; Ellswoth ‘Spider’ Webb from Chicago; Charley
Joseph from New Orleans; Del Flanagan from St Paul; and Bobby Boyd from Chicago.
Frenchman Charley Humez was the only non-American contender.
Right at the top were Basilio, the new champion, and Robinson,
the deposed king, both men fighting out of New York. Their inter-state rivalry
was just one of the factors that made their meetings so explosive. As men and as
fighters, they were vividly contrasting characters, and their careers made great
reading for a young boy like myself who was just beginning to appreciate the
appeal of the sport.
Each had reached the pinnacle in their own way, and their
wonderful rivalry would demonstrate why the middleweight division has long been
revered as the most exciting weight class in boxing. Their first duel is
generally ranked as the more thrilling of their two 15-round classics, and it
presented a battle of courage, skill and power between two magnificent
Basilio was the king of the welterweights, about to indulge in
the age-old practice of stepping up a weight in an attempt to land a second
title. Robinson, brilliant beyond words and already a legend, was the man he had
How does one assess Sugar Ray Robinson without drowning in a sea
of superlatives? Ray was a natural, bestowed of so many gifts. Was he
incomparable? Well, ‘incomparable’ is a very powerful word which covers an awful
lot of territory, but one could certainly understand why the question was so
frequently posed. Grizzled old timers who wouldn’t hear a word said against Joe
Walcott, Stanley Ketchel and other heroes of their day, would sometimes forget
themselves and laud Robinson as the greatest fighting machine they had ever
A boxer’s record taken at face value doesn’t always reveal the
true story of the boxer. A simple fact of life so often missed by the amateur
statisticians is that points values accorded to wins and losses, irrespective of
the quality of opposition, do not paint the full picture. If they did, Young
Stribling would be up there with the greatest heavyweights. Yet we know that the
King of the Canebrakes doesn’t belong in that special company.
In the case of Sugar Ray Robinson, however, we can safely say
‘look at the record’ and know that we are not being deceived. His glittering
achievements against top quality opponents are stacked high for all to see.
Going into his fight with Basilio, Ray was a seventeen-year veteran of the ring
with nearly 150 bouts behind him. He had won the welterweight title in 1946 and
defended it five times before moving up to middleweight. As a 147-pounder,
Robinson had been a revelation, losing only once to perennial rival Jake LaMotta.
The complete technician, Ray possessed blinding hand speed,
one-shot punching power in either hand, deft skills and excellent durability.
His wonderful poise and balance became the focus for many instructional
articles. Even in distress, Robinson never seemed to look awkward or ungainly.
He had already established himself as one of history’s greatest pound-for-pound
fighters, yet he was to become greater, to the point where his career began to
read like fiction.
He had won the middleweight championship four times and had
nearly annexed the light-heavyweight crown from Joey Maxim at Yankee Stadium,
before a punishing heatwave and sheer exhaustion had forced Ray to retire after
What magnified the Robinson legend was that this incredible run
was punctuated by a spell of nearly three years out of the ring. Ray had quit
boxing after the Maxim defeat in December, 1952, and had looked anything but the
old master in his second comeback fight when he dropped a decision to Ralph
Robinson’s response to that setback was to win his next four
fights and then knock out Carl ‘Bobo’ Olson to regain the middleweight
championship at the Chicago Stadium in December, 1955. To put that achievement
in perspective, it is probably true to say that Ray was already marginally on
the slide when he first won the middleweight crown from La Motta in 1951.
Robinson was a class act outside the ring too, if only
superficially. He surrounded himself with the best that life could offer and was
faithfully followed by a sizeable entourage that included even a personal
manicurist. But the big money was leaking away as fast as Ray could earn it. By
1964, his only companions were two cornermen as he drove to a fight against
journeyman Clarence Riley in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.
Robinson was thirty-seven when he hooked up with Basilio for the
first time, yet still a dangerous and highly accomplished ring mechanic. The old
consistency had ebbed from Ray’s ageing body, but the old magic could still be
employed sparingly and to devastating effect. Just four months before, he had
unleashed a picture perfect left hook to knock Gene Fullmer into oblivion.
Nobody had ever put the tough Fullmer down for the full count. Nobody ever did
Crossing swords with a fighter of Robinson’s calibre and actually
relishing the experience was second nature to Carmen Basilio. Reputations didn’t
scare Carmen. He had paid his dues the hard way. If you know your boxing, you
will know of Basilio’s 15-round war with Kid Gavilan, his two stupendous brawls
with Tony DeMarco and the bad blood of his three meetings with Johnny Saxton.
Carmen, the craggy-faced, twenty-nine year old ex-Marine, seemed
incapable of having an easy and uncomplicated fight. The Gavilan defeat, in
September, 1953, marked Basilio’s first attempt at the welterweight crown, and
the disappointment of losing before his fellow New Yorkers in Syracuse only
served to harden his resolve. He was a big underdog that night, yet remained
convinced he had won the fight.
His desire to win sometimes bordered on the maniacal, and in
wresting the championship from DeMarco at Boston in 1955, Carmen walked through
a firestorm to reach his goal. The Basilio-DeMarco fights were brutal and bloody
tests of endurance, which showcased the quintessential Basilio: a slugger of
remarkable courage and resilience who fought as if his very life depended on the
To those who didn’t know the human being inside the fighter,
Carmen’s ritual of dropping to one knee after a fight and thanking the man
upstairs for protecting both combatants was strangely out of character for
someone who attacked his opponents with an unrelenting fury. Fighters who are
all fire and brimstone inside the ropes are often presumed to be naturally wild
and wayward men, but this was not the case with Basilio. Away from his violent
trade, Carmen enjoyed the quiet life, fishing and hunting and taking care of his
It took the sound of the bell and the roar of the crowd to change
Carmen Basilio’s personality, and then he was a demon. His indomitable spirit
was arguably his most important asset and it proved invaluable against the great
Robinson. Carmen wasn’t nearly as skilled as Ray and the tale of the tape was no
less daunting for the challenger. Robbie had significant advantages in height,
reach and weight. At 160lbs, he had a six-and-a-half pound pull on Basilio.
Yet writer Harry Grayson had a fascinated liking for what he saw
in Carmen: “Basilio is bandy-legged and anything but a stand-up boxer. The guy
from Chittenango gets hit more than is good for him. He’s a bleeder,
particularly about the eyes. He left hooks from the hip because he can’t
generate power from the shoulder, protecting his head by dipping it to the
right. But Carmen can fight and at the finish it is our idea that it will be
Basilio shocking the ageing Robinson with left hooks to the head, sapping his
strength inside, slowing his reflexes.”
New York, New York!
The ring was pitched near second base at Yankee Stadium on that
fall night of 1957 and Carmen Basilio didn’t have to worry about lack of support
from the folks upstate. On the eve of the fight, the boxing fans of central New
York began spilling into the great city, seemingly from everywhere. They came
from Chittenango, Syracuse, Canastota, Oswego, Binghamton, Ithaca, Seneca Falls
and Geneva. Hundreds more made their way from the north country towns of
Watertown, Alexandria Bay and Clayton.
From the opening bell the electricity in the air crackled as
their Carmen Basilio went to work, countering Robinson’s superior attributes
with dogged determination and ceaseless aggression. The pace set by both men was
torrid and it remained so. The repeated roars of the 38,000 crowd were
thunderous as Robbie and Carmen tested each other’s mettle, the advantage
constantly shifting as first one and then the other would suddenly erupt with a
big charge. So many punches were exchanged, often at a breathtaking rate.
One could see the concentration, the sweat and the strain, the
blood that suddenly trickled from Basilio’s left eye. Neither man knew how to
fall down. They hit each other to the head and body with their best blows and
still they remained standing. It was a desperately close battle throughout, in
which neither fighter held the dominant role for long.
In a bout of such marvellous quality it is normally difficult to
isolate the highlights, since every moment is a rushed and blurred delight. The
brain is unable to discriminate as it tries to keep pace. Yet there were periods
in this classic encounter when Basilio and Robinson surpassed expectations and
carried their battle for supremacy to an even higher level.
The eleventh round was simply magnificent, a round to watch over
and over, a kick in the pants for every cynic who grows to doubt the human
It started so well for Robbie. Weary, worldly and still looking
to pull the trigger, he began to jolt Carmen with powerful jabs and then
uncorked a right cross that somehow managed to look both lightning fast and
contemptuously casual as it crashed home to the jaw. Robinson began to fire in
earnest as Basilio wavered, whipping home lefts and rights and shaking the game
challenger with a big left hook. But Carmen wouldn’t or couldn’t go away. He
ducked and weaved and wobbled and swayed, but he kept coming in. Then he tipped
the scales dramatically. Like a boy tired of being hit over the head by a bigger
tormentor, Basilio almost broke into a jog as he seized his chance to get even
and tore at Ray with both fists. Trapping Robinson on the ropes, Carmen unloaded
with a volley of lefts and rights in a tremendous drive. Ray simply couldn’t
spring free of the trap as he tried desperately to block and parry the incoming
blows. Basilio’s ferocious assault capped a round of huge quality and
excitement, yet still the proud Robinson was lashing back at the bell after
finally hustling himself out of the firing line.
Robinson was renowned for his blazing rallies in the face of
adversity, especially when he was most tired and hurt. He would often take to
his stool after a hard round with the sudden collapse of a man who had taken a
bullet in the back, yet it was folly to ever assume that the master was at
Ray came again in the twelfth, another golden round that was a
story in itself. Robinson in full cry was a joy to behold. The punches would
come with speed and precision from all angles as he cut loose in a style that
was all his own, his straightened hair flying wildly. He ripped blows to
Carmen’s head and body with whiplash effect, forcing the challenger to duck and
roll as his head snapped back. A right to the head had Basilio listing, but Ray
couldn’t find the big knockout punch that had so suddenly terminated the hopes
of Gene Fullmer.
The marriage of styles was a constant fascination as chalk and
cheese continued to rage at one another in the home stretch. Basilio’s attacking
style was of a far more brutal nature than Robinson’s. Ray was such a special
artist that he could even make raw aggression look graceful. Carmen was his
classic counterpart, red of tooth and claw, raw and rambunctious, showing the
strain of every muscle and sinew. He would look awkward, he would miss with a
wild swing here and there, he would sometimes shunt himself onto the wrong
track. But always he would keep punching and pursuing, with a ferocity that
compensated for his deficiencies. It was impossible not to marvel at his courage
and perseverance and his capacity to absorb and overcome the controlled fury of
possibly the greatest all round ring mechanic the game has ever seen.
The crowd at Yankee Stadium roared its appreciation as Carmen and
Ray ignored their increasing weariness in those epic closing rounds and put the
finishing touches to a memorable brawl.
At one point in the thirteenth, the years seemed to catch up with
Robinson as he clutched Basilio around the waist, head down, close to
exhaustion. But legends don’t die easily and Ray brought the crowd to its feet
with a thunderous left hook to the jaw that jerked Carmen’s head back and dipped
his knees. There were those at ringside who felt that the challenger might have
been saved by the bell as Robinson manoeuvred him to the ropes and tried to
apply the kill.
Basilio had yet to pay his full dues, as Robbie launched another
fierce flurry in the fourteenth. A right hand smash to the ribs doubled Carmen
up, but again he weathered the storm and survived. Tough as he was, he knew that
even a spent Robinson had the guile and the power to take him out with a single
punch. Never did Basilio need to concentrate more than in the deep waters of
those closing minutes, when Ray’s slashing hooks and crosses were winging in
from every direction. Carmen crouched and weaved and fired back whenever he
could as his fans willed him home.
It was still anybody’s fight when the two warriors answered the
bell for the final round. Even though the grand battle had yet to run its
course, the names of Robinson and Basilio had already become forever linked.
In those last three minutes, the fighters drew on their remaining
reserves and slugged their way home, each trying to outdo the other and snatch
the vital round that would probably win the fight. Neither would be subdued, but
the irrepressible Basilio seemed to have the advantage as he kept boring in
relentlessly. All night long he had worked intelligently, switching his attack
as he punished Robinson with head shots and well placed body punches.
Those final minutes must have seemed an eternity to Carmen and
Ray, yet to the enthralled spectator they were fleeting seconds that were
terminated all too soon by the bell. Two wonderful fighters had given their all,
and now they had to suffer the tortuous minutes that bridge the end of
hostilities and the announcement of the decision.
Referee Al Berl cast his vote for Robinson by nine rounds to six,
but was outweighed by judges Bill Recht and Artie Aidala who scored the fight
8-6 and 9-5-1 respectively for Basilio. Carmen’s blood-and-guts heroics had
landed him his second world championship by a split decision.
The first instalment of the Basilio-Robinson story had been
written into the record books, but there would be another night and a different
Not that joyous Carmen was thinking ahead in the immediate
afterglow of that wonderful September night. He was the champion and he was
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