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Wednesday, November 7, 2012
Rest in peace, Carmen Basilio

By Michael Woods

Basilio
Basilio bears down on Sugar Ray Robinson during their 1957 epic in the Bronx.

The Chittenango Choo Choo's ride is done.

Hall of Famer Carmen Basilio died of pneumonia in a Rochester hospital Wednesday at age 85. The man who won Fight of the Year honors in 1955 (for a win over Tony DeMarco for the welterweight crown), 1956 (a rematch win over Johnny Saxton), 1957 and 1958 (for his battles with Sugar Ray Robinson) was described by Sports Illustrated once as a "vicious little man." In a good way, of course.

Basilio, a former Marine who turned pro in 1948, called boxing not a sport, or a racket, or the fight game -- he called it a "profession." Today's crowd can look back at this man and marvel at how it once was, and now rarely is, done.

Basilio, long a resident of upstate New York,  was proud of his Roman heritage, and showed it with his fighting style; he could box cleverly, but most often preferred to fight. He did so in the ring, and outside, such as when he served as a prosecution witness against mobster/fight-fixer Frankie Carbo. It must have felt good; Basilio refused to play ball with the fixers and thus had to wait longer for more meaningful fights than his talent warranted.

Basilio was the best-known resident of the town of Canastota, billed as the onion capital of America, and was tagged "The Upstate Onion Farmer." That nickname wasn't just a tag from a PR pro; he worked his family's onion fields from the age of 5. One of 10 children born to Italian immigrants, he bore forward, minute after minute, round after round, ripping you to the body, offended at the thought of going backward.

His two wars with the original Sugar Ray will stick in fight fans' memories for the ages. They clashed Sept. 23, 1957, at Yankee Stadium, Basilio as the welterweight champion and Robinson as the middleweight titleholder. Basilio won a 15-round split nod and Robinson's crown. In March 1958, Robinson won the re-do, also by a split decision. Basilio soldiered on with his left eye glued shut, not letting something as pesky and minor as being half-blind hold him back.

As the years and the scar tissue piled up, Basilio grew more weary of the sport. "It's a source of endeavor," he said. "I haven't found any other source of endeavor." But he maintained a fondness, or maybe a grudging respect, for boxing. "I was nothing before I was a boxer. Boxing made me," said Basilio, who retired in 1961, off a decision loss to Paul Pender, with a 56-16-7 record.

"He would fight a lion if you just pointed him at one," one of his handlers said admiringly.

Basilio was, by the way, the first champion for trainer Angelo Dundee, who was with him for eight years.

Post-fighting, he did promo work for a beer company, tended some business, taught phys-ed, cornered for his nephew Billy Backus.

Any young pro would do well to study film of the work Basilio did in close, where his short shots did maximum damage with minimal windup; his work rate; his continuous head movement; and, perhaps most importantly, his demeanor.

Rest in peace, champ.