Carmen Basilio, the 'people's champion,' dies at 85

Boxer remembered as winner in ring, life

By Leo Roth, Democrat and Chronicle, November 7, 2012

The iconic framed photograph by Sports Illustrated’s Hy Peskin showed Carmen Basilio celebrating in the arms of his cornermen and Tony DeMarco down on the canvas.

Years later, before DeMarco was to pay a visit to his home in Irondequoit, Mr. Basilio took the photograph down off the wall so his friend and former combatant in the ring didn’t have to relive that 12th-round TKO in 1955 at smoke-filled Boston Garden in a rematch for the world welterweight title.

“I remember hearing about that,” DeMarco, 80, said Wednesday by phone from Boston. “It says a lot about him. Carmen was an exceptional individual, kind and considerate, you know? And so giving.”

Mr. Basilio boxed his way from the onion fields of Canastota, Madison County, to become the welterweight and middleweight champion of the world and one of America’s greatest sports figures of the 1950s.

But it was the championship way he lived his life out of the ring that fans, friends and family also remember.

Mr. Basilio, who was hospitalized twice in the past month, died Wednesday at 3:02 a.m. at Rochester General Hospital from complications associated with pneumonia. He was 85.

“Carmen was the people’s champion,” said Tony Liccione, president of the Rochester Boxing Hall of Fame and a close friend. “He never turned down an autograph. He had a tough beginning in boxing, but he persevered and he captured a part of the American dream.”

Mr. Basilio had heart bypass surgery in 1997 and received a pacemaker in 2000. But he remained an active and beloved figure in the sports community as an honored guest at dozens of banquets and fund-raisers each year, giving generously of his time and good nature. He was known for his sense of humor, practical jokes and greeting friends and strangers alike with playful punches.

“He was a great man whether he was a famous athlete or not,” said Josie Basilio, Carmen’s wife of 26 years. “He was just so personable and he loved everyone, he loved people.”

Mr. Basilio was born and raised in central New York but after becoming a spokesman for Genesee Brewery and remarrying, became part of the community fabric of Rochester. He was a resident since 1985.

In the ring, Mr. Basilio’s career record was 56-16-7 with 27 knockouts, but from 1954-58, he dominated, going 17-2-1 including 5-2 in world title fights. Twice he was voted Fighter of the Year by boxing writers and he took part in five Fights of the Year, two against the great Sugar Ray Robinson.

He was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame, located in Canastota, in its inaugural 1990 class. The championship careers of Mr. Basilio and his nephew, Billy Backus, inspired organizers to build the Hall in their hometown. On Wednesday, flags were lowered to half staff.

“During the 1950s and 60s, Carmen was everyone’s hero,” Hall of Fame executive director Ed Brophy said. “They talked about him in the coffee shops, grocery stores, gas stations and barbershops. And they still talk about him today. He was loved, respected and idolized.”

Brophy, a Canastota native, recalled the time Mr. Basilio came over and sat down in a coffee shop booth next to him and his parents. Brophy was around 9 years old at the time.

“Here’s this hero of boxing and hero of Canastota and he’s sitting in the same booth with us talking. Carmen was so nice and so friendly every time you would meet him,” Brophy said. “We fell in love with Carmen for the person he was and for what he represented. He was the can-do-spirit kind of person who represented his sport and his village so well. It’s a sad day but it’s also a day to celebrate a great life and a great human being.”

At the Rochester Boxing Hall of Fame Awards Dinner three weeks ago, Ray Ciancaglini of Geneva, a former boxer who lectures on concussion awareness, accepted an award on behalf of Mr. Basilio that recognized the 55th anniversary of Mr. Basilio’s Hickok Belt. Mr. Basilio was hospitalized and could not attend.

“In my era, there were two guys everyone wanted to be: Mickey Mantle and Carmen Basilio,” Ciancaglini said. “Carmen was an inspiration to so many.”

Liccione compared Basilio’s popularity to that of Muhammad Ali’s. Indeed, Mr. Basilio was receiving fan mail right up until the time of his death, said Josie Basilio. Mr. Basilio would respond to each piece of mail with a signed autographed picture.

“He was a fan’s delight,” Liccione said. “This was truly a great fighter, one of the last of a breed of boxers we won’t see again. He was synonymous with the word courage. He was a good man and a modest man.”

Who had one of boxing’s toughest chins.

Nicknamed the “Canastota Clouter,” Mr. Basilio was legendary for his ability to go toe-to-toe with opponents, which made for exciting bouts. His fights were described as near-death experiences and social commentators at the time questioned if boxing should be banned.

He captured the world welterweight title from DeMarco in 1955 in Syracuse and regained it in 1956 from Johnny Saxton after a controversial loss to Saxton six months earlier in Chicago where it was deemed a mob fix was made with Saxton’s managers.

In 1957, Mr. Basilio, trained by a young Angelo Dundee, jumped up a class and upset Robinson at Yankee Stadium by split decision in a savage battle over 15 rounds. Robinson is generally regarded as the best pound-for-pound boxer ever, winning scores of titles over three decades.

Mr. Basilio was a lifelong Yankees fan and defeating Robinson in front of nearly 40,000 fans at Yankee Stadium, well, “Those are boyhood dreams come true,” he said in a 2005 interview.

Robinson regained the middleweight crown six months later from Mr. Basilio, also by split decision, in an equal display of wills. While he respected Robinson’s talent, Mr. Basilio did not care for Robinson as a man.

“He had an arrogance about him that turned you off,” Basilio once said, “but he was a great fighter.”

Basilio’s life story made him a real-life Rocky. He was one of 10 children of an Italian immigrant onion farmer who became hooked on boxing listening to Joe Louis’ bouts on a crackling radio.

“You learn how to fight with five older sisters,” he once quipped.

It took Mr. Basilio 50 pro fights before he got his first title shot, that against Kid Gavilan, a loss by decision in 1953. But after becoming the first opponent to knock the cocky Cuban down, Mr. Basilio was on his way.

Five years later he defeated “Tough Tony” DeMarco for the welterweight crown in Syracuse and a rematch five months later at Boston Garden produced the same result, a Basilio win by TKO in the 12th. Both fights are classics and the two men would become close friends.

DeMarco, a guest at the Rochester boxing awards dinner last month, was able to visit one last time with Mr. Basilio in the hospital.

“We’ve been in touch and I knew it was inevitable,” DeMarco said.

How did the two former opponents become friends?

“Well, we shook hands before our first fight,” DeMarco said. “Respect goes a long ways. I admired him and he admired me. That’s basically it.”

During the height of his career, Mr. Basilio, who served in the Marines, appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated three times, made TV appearances on the Ed Sullivan, Steve Allen and Mike Wallace shows, and he was the 1957 Hickok Belt winner, the most prestigious award in sports at the time presented in Rochester.

In 1960, he appeared before a Senate subcommittee investigating boxing.

“People would tell me, ‘What are you boxing for, why don’t you quit that dirty rotten game?’ ” Basilio said on the 50th anniversary of becoming world champ. “I was working in a factory and getting a week’s pay but I’d still go to the gym and train. I’d tell (my boss), ‘I’m going to be champion of the world some day,’ and he’d tell me I was out of my mind. But I said ‘I’m not giving up. Quitters never win.’ ”

Mr. Basilio’s five Fights of the Year as named by Ring Magazine were: 1955 (DeMarco), 1956 (Saxton rematch), 1957 (Robinson), 1958 (Robinson rematch) and 1959 (Gene Fullmer).

“It’s a fabulous record, particularly for that era. It was a Golden Era,” said the late boxing historian Bert Randolph Sugar, who named Basilio one of his 100 greatest fighters of all time “not because I care for him and he’s a wonderful person, but because he damned well earned it.”

After boxing, Basilio worked 25 years as a physical education teacher at Le Moyne College in Syracuse.

He is survived by his wife, four children, eight grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren. Calling hours for Mr. Basilio will be 1-6 p.m. Sunday at Paul Harris Funeral Home, 570 Kings Highway South, Rochester, NY 14617. His funeral mass will be 11 a.m. Monday at Christ the King, 445 Kings Highway South.