By Mark Felicetti
Hall of Fame fighter Carmine (Carmen) Basilio (the man who said “No” to the mafia) passed away on Wednesday morning, due to complications from pneumonia. He was 85.
Basilio helped define an era in boxing. His career spanned thirteen years (1948-1961) during which he won the Welterweight Championship, the Middleweight Championship, chalked up two wins against title holder Tony DeMarco, and fought Sugar Ray Robinson in a bout that is ranked among the top 10 fights in boxing history.
Carmine is also remembered for his integrity and honor as much as his skills in the ring.
This was in the old days.
The days of Marciano, and LaMotta, when all big fights, and most small ones, were televised.
It was in the days when Howard Cosell was alive … and had his own hair.
It was also during a time when the mafia had a stranglehold on the sport of Boxing.
A mook named Paolo Giovanni Carbo (aka: Paul John Carbo, Frank Fortunatti, Frank Tucker, Mr. Fury, “Jimmy the Wop,” and Mr. Gray) was the underworld commissioner of boxing.
It is rumored that Carbo orchestrated the hit on Bugsy Siegel.
Fresh out of the service Carmine Basilio looked like Bobby Darin … boxing would soon change that.
He had always wanted to be a boxer, so he jumped at the opportunity when offered a chance to make a few bucks in a bout.
He won by TKO.
From that moment on, he was dedicated to the sport.
Carbo saw dollar signs in this kid from Canastota N.Y. and “made him an offer.”
Basilio refused. “Integrity.”
Behind his back Carmine’s trainers made a deal with the devil, for a set of round robin matches between Basilio, Tony DeMarco, and a mob-owned champ named Johnny Saxton.
In a true “Rocky” moment, after demolishing DeMarco to win the Welterweight title, Carmine stood, crying in his corner, yelling, “I did it! I did it!”
His 4’ 10” mom made it up onto the apron of the ring, and struggled to lean over the ropes to kiss her son.
In the rematch, Basilio was beating DeMarco so badly the referee stepped in to stop the fight and caught DeMarco as he fell. He eased the unconscious fighter; face down, to the floor.
Carmen lost his first bout with Saxton in a rip-off match in Chicago.
Saxton was hurt badly in round 3, retreated for the rest of the fight, yet received a “decision victory” and took the title from Basilio.
Carmen said his heart was broken and stated, “It was like being robbed in a dark alley.” He swore never to fight in Chicago again.
In the rematch, Carmine went at it like he was chopping wood.
He hacked away at the trunk until the tree began to lean and was ready to fall.
Then he’d whack Saxton in the head (to straighten him up) and Basilio would go back to axing away at the body.
It was punishment.
The referee jumped in to call a halt to the competition in round 9, and Saxton literally fell into his arms.
The ref dragged him to his corner.
Basilio had his title back.
In a rubber match (immediate third bout when boxers have one victory apiece) Carmine was much more humane.
He dispatched Saxton in round 2 (by knockout) to retain the title.
Basilio’s biggest fight inside the ring was against an arrogant and greedy Sugar Ray Robinson.
At 37-years old Basilio went up from Welterweight to Middleweight and was thought to be too small to win this fight.
He gave up six inches in height … and 5% of the take before Robinson would make the match.
But Carmine was ready to climb the taller timber.
Basilio kept constant pressure on Robinson, moved him back to the ropes, and raked his ribs till Ray’s guard came down.
That’s when Carmine would trim the top of the tree.
After 15 rounds of relentless action, in one of the most acclaimed fights of all time, Carmine Basilio won the decision victory and took the Middleweight belt in an upset.
Carbo later tried to promote his own bout between the two.
Basilio declined. “Honor.”
Carmine “Carmen” Basilio (56-16-7, 27 KO’s) retired from boxing in 1961.
Also in 1961, Carbo was retired … by the feds.
He was convicted of conspiracy and extortion in connection with another fighter. He was sentenced to 25 years, served time in three different facilities, and was granted early parole due to serious illness … a fight he couldn’t fix.
In 1990 the International Boxing Hall of Fame was established in Canastota, New York, as a tribute to Basilio and his hometown.
Carmine was among the first 20 fighters to be inducted.
In their later years, DeMarco and Basilio attended many events together and became close friends.
At their 30-year reunion, DeMarco stated, “Over the years I have come to understand that I couldn’t have lost to a better fighter … or better human being, than Carmine Basilio.”
Carmine Basilio helped define an era in boxing … he also defined what it is to be a man of honor.