Carmen Basilio, the welterweight and middleweight boxing champion of the 1950s who fought two brutal bouts with Sugar Ray Robinson, winning his middleweight title and then losing it to him, died on Wednesday in Rochester. Basilio, who lived in Irondequoit, a suburb of Rochester, was 85.
They called him the Upstate Onion Farmer — his Italian immigrant father worked the onion fields near Syracuse — but from the time he was a youngster, Basilio wanted nothing more than to be a pro boxer. He became a champion with an unrelenting style of attack, willing to take punishment as well as dish it out.
“There was no one with more determination than Carmen,” his trainer Angelo Dundee, one of boxing’s most renowned cornermen, was once quoted by The Boston Globe as saying.
In September 1957, Basilio, who held the welterweight championship, stepped up a weight class when he challenged Robinson for his middleweight title before a crowd of 38,000 at Yankee Stadium.
Basilio had resented Robinson ever since their brief encounter four years earlier in Midtown Manhattan.
“He pulled up with his entourage with his big Cadillac,” Basilio recalled in an interview with the Cyber Boxing Zone Web site. “I was walking past, so I decided to go over and introduce myself. I said: ‘Hi, Ray, I just fought Billy Graham the week before, the No. 1 welterweight. I’m Carmen Basilio.’ He gave me the brushoff, and I felt about an inch high.”
Basilio won the middleweight title in a split decision over Robinson, who, pound for pound, was widely considered the best boxer in history. Robinson almost floored Basilio with a left hook near the end of the 13th round, and he delivered a right hand to the body near the close of the 14th round that left Basilio reeling. But Basilio, displaying his customary grit, pressed forward in the 15th round, punching away steadily.
Basilio’s craggy face was a mess when he met with reporters in the locker room. He had a heavy gauze bandage protecting a cut along the outer edge of his left eyebrow, and his eyes were slits from large welts on his cheek bones. He was rubbing a chunk of ice in a towel across his bruised lips.
“I figured my aggressiveness gave me the edge,” he said.
Basilio was required to give up his welterweight title when he won the middleweight crown, but he was awarded the Hickok Belt as the top professional athlete of 1957.
He lost the middleweight title to Robinson at Chicago Stadium in March 1958 in another split decision after fighting with his left eye virtually closed from the seventh round on, a victim of Robinson’s right hook. Basilio rallied with left hooks to the body in the 9th and 10th rounds, but it was not enough to keep Robinson from winning the middleweight championship for a fifth time.
Carmen Basilio was born on April 2, 1927, in Canastota, about 25 miles east of Syracuse, and was one of 10 children. His father was “a fight nut,” he recalled, who bought his sons boxing gloves. Basilio boxed in the Marine Corps during World War II, then made his pro debut in 1948.
His first title fight came in 1953, when he scored a second-round knockdown of the welterweight champion Kid Gavilan but lost a 15-round decision.
He won the welterweight championship in June 1955 with a 12th-round knockout of Tony DeMarco, then stopped DeMarco again in Round 12 of a rematch. He lost the crown on a decision to Johnny Saxton in March 1956, then regained it and defended it against Saxton, knocking him out each time.
After his second match with Robinson, he fought only occasionally and made three unsuccessful bids to win a middleweight title again, losing twice on knockouts to Gene Fullmer and on a decision to Paul Pender in 1961, his last fight.
He had a career record of 56 wins (27 by knockout), 16 losses and 7 draws.
The International Boxing Hall of Fame was built in part as a tribute to Basilio and his nephew Billy Backus, who held the welterweight title in the early 1970s. The Hall contains bronze busts of Basilio and of Backus, who is not an inductee.
After retiring from boxing, Basilio, a high-school dropout, taught physical education at Le Moyne College in Syracuse. He also worked in public relations for the Genesee Brewing Company. Basilio’s wife, Josie, traced his decline in health to heart bypass surgery in 1992, The Associated Press reported. A magnetic resonance imaging scan revealed no brain damage from his prizefighting days, she said.
In May 2009, Canastota High School, where Basilio was once a member of the boxing team, presented him with a diploma in recognition of his achievements.
Basilio is survived by his wife, four children and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren, The Rochester Democrat and Chronicle said.
Basilio said he had no regrets, despite all the tattooing his face and body took.
“I don’t enjoy getting hurt, waking up with a puffed eye and pain, stiff all over,” he told Sports Illustrated as he neared the end of his career. “But you have to take the bitter with the sweet. The sweet is when guys recognize you on the street, say, ‘Hello, champ,’ know who you are. It will always be sweet for me.”