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Carmen Basilio-Upstate Onion Warrior


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One of the fighters that epitomized the very word "ring warrior", Carmen Basilio was and will be remembered as a guy that fought against the odds and often won. In his 12 and a half year career as a prizefighter, he won the world welterweight title twice and world middleweight title once and beat the likes of Sugar Ray Robinson, Tony DeMarco, Ike Williams, Johnny Saxton, Art Aragon, Billy Graham and Gil Turner. He wasn't the most polished or technically gifted of that era welterweights (which was one of the strongest in history) but he made up for it with his grit, toughness, determination and workrate. He wasn't a particularly hard hitter but packed a decent punch and if he hit you right, he could knock you out. What also made him famous and respected is that he refused to be on the payroll of Blinky Palermo and Frankie Carbo, two mobsters who fixed fights back then. Both were Italian-American like Basilio, which made his stance even more admirable. He was involved in the fight of the year five years in a row, which is still a record.


Born 2 April 1927 in Canastota, New York state, to Italian-American onion farmers, hence his fighting nickname "Upstate Onion Farmer", his birth name was Carmine but he later changed it to Carmen. Standing just under 5'7, Basilio was sturdily built and had a chin of iron. He usually broke his opponents down with constant attack. He turned pro 24 November 1948, aged 21. He knocked out Billy Evans in 3 in his debut and then posted two more knockouts and a split decision before having two draws in 6-rounders. His first loss was also in a 6-rounder on points to 6-0-2 Connie Thies. He had a trilogy against Johnny Cunningham, first winning by KO 2, then losing by SD8 and finally winning by UD8. His early career was a mixed bag and he suffered 8 losses in all, all by decision, before his first pivotal fight against the 32-0-1 Chuck Davey, an excellent technician. It was 29 May 1952 when the two met in the ring and after 10 even rounds, the scorecards were first announced to be in favor of Basilio, who was fighting at home in Syracuse. But a moment later, two errors were discovered on one scorecard and the result was changed to a draw. A rematch was made on 16 July, this time in Chicago, which favored the Detroit-born and raised Davey. Basilio cut Davey over each eye but was outboxed for most of the fight and lost by a UD10. Only a month later, Basilio faced the very experienced and accomplished Billy Graham, whose record was 97-8-8. Graham was faster and he danced his way to a clear unanimous victory over 10 rounds.


Having lost two fights in a row but gained valuable experience, Basilio progressed and scored among others a UD10 over seasoned former lightweight world champ Ike Williams. On 6th June 1953, he rematched Billy Graham at the Memorial Stadium in Syracuse and this time he was dominant and forced the fight, while Graham bloodied his nose three times but was too listless and unable to take charge. Needless to say, Basilio was awarded the decision after 12 rounds. Their third fight happened on 25 July and this time, after dominating the first half, Basilio faded and took a beating for the rest of the 12 rounds, in the end having to settle for a draw. 1-1-1 ended that trilogy. Basilio was then chosen as the next opponent of reigning world champion, the fabulous "Cuban Hawk" Kid Gavilan, one of the greatest welterweights ever. The fight was again at the Memorial Stadium on 18 September and Basilio became only the second man, after Ike Williams himself, to drop Gavilan in the second round for a count of nine and had the better of the action in the early going before Gavilan came back and punished him in the 10th round while Basilio was pinned against the ropes but the tough and rugged Basilio didn't go anywhere. His eye was swollen shut by the 14th round and yet he gave Gavilan all he could take. He lost by a split decision, but won the popularity contest. After the fight, he said:"I licked him. I licked him good. I want to fight him again as soon as I can. He never hurt me but he stuck his thumb in my eye with one of those bolos."


After winning nine fights and drawing two, he was again given a chance to win the world title, now in the hands of Tony "Boston Bomber" DeMarco, who was a harder puncher but slightly shorter. It was 10 June 1955 at the War Memorial Stadium in Syracuse when the two waged an unforgettable war before Basilio prevailed and stopped DeMarco by TKO12. Before their rematch, Basillio decisioned the slick Philadelphian Gil Turner in a fight over the welter limit, winning by majority decision. He then faced DeMarco again 30 November and again stopped him him 12 rounds, after decking him twice in that round. It was the first The Ring FOTY for Basilio. However, soon he would turn out to be the victim of darker forces in boxing, those of its' underworld. For his second title defense, he faced the Blinky Palermo-promoted Johnny Saxton. As mentioned above, Palermo was one of the main forces of the boxing underworld, together with Frankie Carbo. Both were also members of the Italian-American mafia. Fight was also in Chicago, where Palermo was based. Even though he by many accounts deserved to win, after 15 completed rounds, the decision went to Saxton, to the boos of most in the audience, which lasted for five minutes. Saxton had earlier won the world title from Gavilan to the same kind of boos. Basilio realized that to win the rematch, he HAD to stop Saxton and not leave it to the judges! The rematch was slated 6 months later, 12 September 1956, this time in Syracuse. Basilio thoroughly dominated it and won 7 out of 8 rounds on all scorecards before stopping Saxton in the ninth by TKO and reclaiming his title. Saxton had to be helped back to his corner while Basilio celebrated. It was the second successive FOTY for Basilio. In the rematch, Basilio destroyed Saxton even easier, knocking him down with a left hook in the second round and after Saxton rose unsteady, the ref moved in and stopped it. After that, neither Saxton nor Palermo wanted any part of Basilio.


In 1957, he received an offer to fight Sugar Ray Robinson for the middleweight title. Robinson was making his first defense in his fourth championship reign and was a heavy favorite, at 5'11 four and half inches taller and a greater name of course, with greater punching power. Basilio however surprised everyone and defied the odds when he beat Robinson by a split decision on 23 September at Yankee Stadium and was then named Fighter of the Year. It was also his third fight of the year. Basilio then vacated his welterweight title, feeling that his days of making that weight were over. He rematched Robinson 25 March next year but this time was less successful, even though the fight was close and competitive, but his left eye was swollen shut and in the end Robinson was the winner and the champion again, again by split decision. Also this time it made the FOTY. He then scored a TKO 8 victory over the hard-hitting Art Aragon, taking everything he had to give and breaking him down. He received another world title shot, this time for the NBA title as it was now called, against the younger Gene Fullmer. It was 28 August 1959 in Daly City when the strong Utah-born Fullmer closed his eyes and forced a stoppage in the 14th round, which became Basilio's first loss by stoppage. That became his last FOTY. In the rematch on 29 June 1960, Basilio fared no better and the fight was stopped in the 12th round, after which Basilio protested violently and threatened to hit the referee for stopping it. He was led away to his corner by two policemen.


That was the end of the glory for the Upstate Onion Farmer and after beating Gaspar Ortega and Don Jordan by decision, he lost his last fight to the strong contender Paul Pender for the world title, on 22 April 1961. He was down twice, both times from left hooks and subsequently lost a clear UD15. He announced his retirement after the fight. After retirement, Basilio worked as a physical education instructor at LeMoyne College in Syracuse. His nephew Billy Backus later briefly became the world welterweight champion, between 1970 and 1971, after beating Jose Napoles. He was inducted into the IBHOF in its very first year in 1990, which lies in his hometown of Canastota. Basilio lived a modest and peaceful life in Rochester, New York, where he died on 7 November 2012, aged 85.

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