Classic Fight Series: When Carmen Basilio Beat the Greatest of All-Time


James Foley returns today to look back at another great moment in his Classic Fight Series. This week, it's Carmen Basilio's win over Sugar Ray Robinson in 1957.

"Sugar" Ray Robinson is one of boxing's immortal icons, widely considered the greatest fighter ‘pound-for-pound' to ever don a pair of gloves. A quick summation of Robinson's powers is that he was good at everything and great at most things. He was a superb technical boxer, blessed with preternatural gifts of speed, athleticism, and power. In this case, where there was sizzle, there was plenty of steak: Robinson's toughness and impenetrable chin are well documented. Robinson was never on even terms with his peers until he slowed down more than a decade into his career. The tally of 128-1-2 from 1940-1951 is a testament to that superiority. The lone loss, against Jake LaMotta in 1943, was avenged four times. For most of the rivalry, Robinson was a welterweight and LaMotta a full-fledged middleweight, and a good one. Robinson went 5-1 in the series. It was only in the last meeting on February 14, 1951, that Sugar Ray was regularly fighting as a middleweight when he battered the hell out of his old nemesis, stopping LaMotta on his feet in the 13th round. The fight, or more accurately the beating, is known as "the St. Valentine's Day Massacre".

With that win, Robinson became the bona-fide middleweight champion of the world, having spent most of the decade prior as the welterweight champ, though he routinely tangled with heavier men in non-title fights throughout that reign. Over the next five years, the aura of invincibility surrounding Sugar Ray began to fade. He dropped a fight to Randy Turpin on a European tour in late 1951, a loss he would avenge. He challenged the light heavyweight champion Joey Maxim at Yankee stadium in 1952, looking to conquer another weight class. Robinson was beating the bigger man but eventually succumbed to the one-hundred degree heat and collapsed in his corner before the fourteenth round. That TKO loss was the only stoppage of Robinson's 198 fight career. Remember that thing about him having a good chin? Exhibit A.

Robinson retired for a few years in an ill-fated pursuit of a show business career. He returned to the ring in 1955 and dropped a decision to Ralph ‘Tiger' Jones in what can best be described as a ‘serious off-night' from Sugar. Robinson then reeled off a few wins on the way to challenging Bobo Olson for the middleweight title. Olson had beaten Turpin for the vacant title when Robinson retired. Sugar Ray obliterated Bobo in two rounds and did it again in four in a rematch. He was, once again, the middleweight champion of the world.

Robinson briefly ceded the crown to Gene Fullmer on a points-loss to open his 1957 campaign. A rematch produced one of the greatest knockouts of all time: Robinson caught Fullmer with his signature left hook and put his lights out in the fifth round. The "perfect punch" made Robinson the champion once more. Robinson was set to face his next challenger in September of 1957, the welterweight champion of the world, Carmen Basilio.

Basilio was an effective boxer, trained by Angelo Dundee. He was deceivingly slick, with good defense and head movement, and a strong combination puncher. But that's probably not going to be the legacy of Basilio. The man could take a punch. Two wars with Tony DeMarco in 1955 are among the bloodiest affairs ever waged. They began as boxing matches. They ended as "I'll punch you in the face, you punch me in the face and we'll keep going until one of us can't take it anymore". Basilio could take it all day.

Beneath the savage façade, there was a lot of subtlety and craft in Basilio's game, which is why he so often emerged the better man in those brutal exchanges. He knew when to move, when to duck, when to throw and what to throw. And when he was hit, he barely flinched. He absorbed monster shots like it was nothing and kept weaving in and out with his own potent mix of jabs and hooks. Basilio won the championship from DeMarco. He lost it to Johnny Saxton, a competent boxer, in 1956. He punished Saxton in a rematch to reclaim the title, crushed him again in a third fight and beat the hapless Harold Jones before challenging Robinson for the middleweight championship.

Robinson was riding the high of his classic Fullmer knockout. He entered with a record of 140-5-2. Basilio brought a more pedestrian 51-12-7 into the contest, a bit misleading. Most of those losses were in the early years of his career, which began in 1948. In the five years prior to the fight, Basilio was 23-2-3, the only losses to Saxton and a debatable split decision to then-champion and Cuban legend Kid Gavilan in 1953, a fight where the champ was given every benefit of the doubt. The Saxton slip-up aside, Basilio was fighting at a world-class level for years going into the Robinson bout. Robinson, 36, was still the best middleweight in the world, but he had shown plenty of vulnerability of late, even in the fight he won against Fullmer. Nonetheless, Robinson was expected to roll over Basilio. The "good big man beats good little man" cliché apparently trumped "guy in his prime vs. guy in the twilight". After all, Robinson had just knocked a bruising middleweight into oblivion. How could a welterweight possibly stand up to that kind of punch? Two things were known: Robinson still packed striking power and Basilio seemed to like getting hit. Robinson by knockout was the general consensus.

Basilio weighed in at 153.5 while Robinson hit the 160 lb. limit. Basilio, giving up five inches in height with a wiry frame, was visibly diminutive. Robinson, on the other hand, was a chiseled Adonis, perfectly proportioned, every appendage bulging with muscles. A simple glance at the physiques didn't bode well for the challenger. But if you could measure heart the way you can height, weight, and record, Basilio would be every bit of Robinson's equal.

What unfolded was a back-and-forth boxing match turned slugfest, with many exciting exchanges and the underdog more than holding his own. Robinson reacted in astonishment at some of the shots Basilio was taking. Robinson caught him flush on several occasions and leapt in for the kill only to find an opponent who hadn't been remotely staggered tagging him on the inside. Basilio fired away with sharp left hooks to the body and head. Robinson exhibited many of the qualities that embody his greatness: ring generalship founded on a snapping jab, quickness in both hands, and an all-time adamantium jaw.

Ultimately, it was an even better showcase for Basilio; his weaving defense made him a more elusive target than Ray had counted on and when Basilio was caught, his unimpeachable beard never wavered. He was gobbling up monster shots from one of the hardest hitters of all time and making them look like the feather-fisted slaps of an impotent puncher. Robinson popped him with stiff jabs all night, but when they traded power shots, it was usually Basilio landing the more telling blows. Basilio was awarded the middleweight championship of the world on a split-decision, widely acknowledged as the right call in a very close contest.

The fight was a sublime display of courage, willpower, and stamina from both men. Ring Magazine named Basilio-Robinson the Fight of the Year for 1957. The rematch was the 1958 Fight of the Year. Basilio went the distance with a grotesquely swollen eye in another throw-down, only this time Robinson earned the nod by split-decision. This was effectively the end of both men's primes. Two fights later, Robinson was losing to Paul Pender. Basilio lost a brutal war to Fullmer in 1959. Neither man would ever win another major fight.

Basilio didn't beat the best version of Ray Robinson. A match-up against the unbeatable welterweight Robinson of the 40s probably would have resulted in a lopsided defeat. Of course, that version of Robinson against any other 147 lb. fighter in history would likely end up the same way. The 1957 Robinson was still the best middleweight at the time and would have been among the best of any era. Anyone have Matthew Macklin or Felix Sturm beating the '57 Robinson? Not me. Well, "little" Carmen Basilio did beat that guy to become the undisputed middleweight champion of the world, if only for a moment. It was the crowning achievement of the pugnacious Basilio, forever enshrined in the boxing hall of fame in his hometown of Canastota, New York.

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