There was a time when you were nobody in boxing until you'd had your pocket picked by Carmen Basilio. This is a story about the day I joined that not-so-exclusive club and the man who initiated me, the great old fighter who died Wednesday at age 85.
It was October 2000 and I was killing time in my hotel room until the Rochester Boxing Hall of Fame banquet that evening. Then the phone rang. It was Tony Liccione, president of the RBHOF, with an offer no journalist or boxing fan could ignore.
"How would you like to have lunch with Carmen Basilio?" asked Liccione. He didn't have to ask twice. Within a few minutes, I was in a van with a small group of chattering fight freaks on my way to Basilio's home.
By the time I began watching Basilio on TV, he was washed up. I vividly recall the conclusion of his June 1960 rematch with Gene Fullmer. Basilio, blood streaming down his gnarled face, had taken a hideous beating, but he just kept coming forward because that's all he knew how to do. Finally, in the 12th round, referee Pete Giacoma had seen enough and stopped the fight. Basilio was enraged and shoved the ref away, yelling obscenities and demanding that he be allowed to keep fighting.
In his mind, Carmen was still the fighter who had captured the welterweight and middleweight championships during a legendary career. But that Basilio was gone, worn to a nub by more than 70 pro bouts against the very best fighters of his era. All that was left was a bag of guts and an indomitable fighting spirit.
The van pulled up to the curb of a modest home on a pleasant residential street in Rochester where Basilio had lived since 1985. His wife, Josie, met us at the door and showed us to the basement stairway. There in the pine-paneled recreation room was a bespectacled man in his 70s with a sly grin on his face and a sparkle in his eyes -- the man who had beaten the incomparable Sugar Ray Robinson.
Carmen greeted everyone as if we were old friends, and in a way we were. Those who love the sweet science feel a connection with its heroes, a bond forged by history out of admiration, respect and a certain kind of awe for what these larger-than-life men have accomplished. For an individual who had achieved so much in his fighting career (1949-61), Basilio was as unaffected and down-to-earth as he must have been as a boy, picking onions in the fields of upstate New York.
"Help yourself," Carmen said, indicating a long table filled with homemade food (prepared by Josie) and several jugs of wine.
What followed were several unforgettable hours. Carmen engaged each of us in conversation and at some point managed to remove almost all of our wallets, one by one, totally undetected. Then, before you knew it was missing, he would sidle up to you and innocently ask if the proffered wallet looked familiar. Carmen kept us laughing with a series of ribald jokes that grew funnier as the wine flowed. Finally, after a little prompting, he agreed to show us a film of one of his fights.
"I'm gonna show you my fight with Art Aragon," he said. "He had a smart-ass mouth, so I enjoyed beating the crap out of him."
As the black-and-white picture filled the screen, there was Carmen as he looked in 1958, muscles taut, his black hair dripping with sweat as he ripped into California's original "Golden Boy." He provided tough-guy commentary as we watched him punch Aragon around the ring, and he seemed to take great glee in reliving the moment. The uncompromising fighter who hadn't thrown a punch in anger in almost four decades was still alive inside of Basilio, and I liked him all the more for it.
As we reluctantly filed out of his house, Carmen sat at the kitchen table signing photographs of himself in his prime, making sure he spelled everyone's name correctly. He made an inexcusably crude joke about mine, but I instantly forgave him. That evening at the banquet, Carmen recited the same jokes he had told that afternoon in his basement, but even those of us who had heard them earlier that day couldn't help laughing again.
Thanks, Carmen. Thanks for everything.