Basilio: Do not go gentle into that good night
One good crack in the mouth will give you a small idea of the mighty chasm that divides an ordinary man from a warrior…
There is probably nothing quite so poignant in boxing as the words and actions of a fighter who has reached the end of the line.
He makes every defiant gesture and reaches for every excuse to convince himself that the clock really hasn’t struck twelve.
Try persuading Evander Holyfield even now that he is through as a topnotch performer and he would likely give you twenty reasons why it ain’t so.
In an age where everything has to fit snugly into a convenient pigeonhole and be earmarked with an all-embracing term, this condition has come to be known as denial. As ever in this life, it isn’t as simple as that.
For every fighter who knows deep down that he is kidding himself, there is another proud brother who believes one hundred per cent that he is right and the rest of the world is wrong.
A well meaning lecture on the fruits of an alternative lifestyle is not the desired medicine at such a delicate time. Boxers do not care for being patronized.
Tell your dad he’s too old to climb a ladder and he is unlikely to thank you for being considerate. Tell a worn out fighter he’s finished and you might need to visit your dentist.
It is easy to climb into another man’s mind and make monumental decisions on his behalf about his mental state. Shrinks with fake diplomas on their walls do it every day and make a nice old living out of it. We are all occasionally guilty of rushing to judgment in the great urgency to find a definitive conclusion.
What is easily forgotten is that fighters measure themselves by their own exceptionally high standards. The prime years of their lives are all about raising the bar and going the extra mile. When the glory days are over, many find it infernally difficult to re-adjust their barometers to that cozy level at which the rest of us measure our tolerance.
One good crack in the mouth will give you a small idea of the mighty chasm that divides an ordinary man from a warrior.
When time was called on former middleweight and welterweight champion Carmen Basilio in his second match with Gene Fullmer at Derk Field in Salt Lake City, the demons were unleashed from Carmen’s normally kind soul. His craggy, swollen face ablaze with anger, he protested bitterly to referee Pete Giacoma, as eager ringside photographers jostled to capture the erupting volcano. Somewhere in the archives, there is a glorious picture of Basilio lunging at Giacoma with tired arms and a jutting face of bruises and welts.
Carmen didn’t stop there. Trainer Angelo Dundee, Fullmer’s manager Marv Jensen and even the local cops were in his firing line as the fury poured out. Beaten and trapped in the Mormon fortress of Fullmer’s native Utah, Basilio must have felt that God, Old Nick and anyone else who has a say in the great scheme of things were all out to do him in at the same time.
It was the twelfth round of a brutal battle in the summer of 1960, and a lot of people were saying that Carmen’s turbulent and exciting career was over and urging him to retire.
Basilio has never forgotten the day. Forty-five years on, the volcano is no longer spouting, although it continues to spit out the occasional defiant drops. It was still burning fiercely in the early seventies, when Carmen discussed his rivalry with Fullmer with his usual, admirable candor.
“Both fights I was stopped,” he told writer Peter Heller, during an interview for Heller’s marvelous book, In This Corner…!
“The first fight was in fourteen rounds and I said to the referee ‘Jeez, you let me lose the fight all the way through, then you stop it in the fourteenth. Why didn’t you just let me go for another round and lose the decision?’ And the same thing happened out in Salt Lake City.
“I was losing but this fight was stopped in the twelfth. I hit Fullmer with a good left hand, turned southpaw on him in the eleventh round just before the bell rang and I shook him. Now he comes out for the twelfth round and he throws a right hand. It just went over my ear, didn’t even hit me, and the referee stepped in between us and stopped the fight.
“I said, ‘Why, you son of a…’ I really started calling him names. I said, ‘He didn’t even hit me and you stopped the fight. What’s the matter, you afraid I’m going to do some damage to him because I turned southpaw on him and I just shook him at the end of the other round?’
“I was really hot about that. I thought the least he could have done was let it go on. He (Fullmer) didn’t hit me and I wasn’t hurt. I had all my senses. But that’s the way it goes. Even though I was behind on points, I could have finished the fight and just lost the decision. I was never knocked out. Nobody ever counted ten over me. And I was only down twice in all my career. I had a little bit of pride about not being stopped.”
Basilio had pride, period. And he had it in abundance throughout his roller-coaster career. Allied to courage, tenacity and an indomitable will to win, it made up the engine room of a fighter who was never top of the class at any one thing but still pounded his way to the pinnacle of the mountain.
Two savage wins over Tony DeMarco for the welterweight championship and a couple of five-star ring classics with Sugar Ray Robinson had confirmed Basilio’s reputation as one of the toughest pound-for-pound fighters of the age.
Carmen stormed through in his epic fights with DeMarco, winning both wars in grandstand fashion in the twelfth round.
When he stepped up a weight class to challenge Robinson, Basilio was never more of an irresistible force. It was a wonderful fight and a majestic performance by the fiery underdog.The fifteen rounds seem to race by at every viewing, each a master class in skillful boxing, power hitting and courage in the face of adversity.
There is a particularly unforgettable sequence in the eleventh round, where Basilio pins Ray to the ropes and drives home a fusillade that seems to last for an eternity.
When Robinson regained the title at the Chicago Stadium the following year, Carmen still gave him the fight of his life, despite battling with a closed left eye from the sixth round.
If the Robinson fights represented the apex of Carmen’s career, the brawls with Fullmer for Gene’s NBA middleweight title were effectively the last hurrah. It was somehow appropriate that they were marathon examinations of heart and soul. Basilio could never have bowed out quietly and he certainly could never have surrendered. The great scriptwriter in the sky wouldn’t have consented to that kind of ending.
Carmen tried everything he knew to outmuscle and outsmart a bigger and stronger bull. In many ways, he was trying to smash through a younger and more awkward mirror image. Gene was similarly rough, tough and infuriatingly dogged. He just kept steaming forward all night long, and only the great Robinson had derailed him with a left hook in a million.
In the Salt Lake City slugfest, Fullmer produced one of his greatest performances as he took charge from the early going. The two contestants barged and banged into each other throughout, trading shots and giving blood for the cause. Both suffered cuts that required stitches.
Basilio was too wired and too close to boiling point from the outset and quickly began to unravel in the underlying battle of psychology. Carmen complained to referee Giacoma about Fullmer’s butting, a ploy that tough men only resort to when their talent is draining away.
Basilio was further irritated by the antics of Gene’s manager, Marv Jensen, who kept priming his charge by calling out numbers that represented specific punches. It was bad enough for Carmen that this awkward so-and-so Fullmer couldn’t seem to miss him. It was even worse that the punches were pre-set and being triggered by a guy who fancied himself as a quarterback.
Basilio summoned enough of his old fire to make a contest of it for eight rounds, but Gene began to jolt him badly thereafter. Sensing that his opponent was weakening, Fullmer came on strong and fired in hurtful jabs to the face and punishing body blows.
Carmen wilted from a terrific right to the chin in the eleventh, and he was clutching desperately in the final frame as Gene tried to break free and land the decisive blows that would end the fight. A big right to the stomach and another right to the jaw convinced referee Giacoma that he had seen enough.
If Giacoma believed that Basilio was all done, he soon discovered otherwise. In the midst of the tirade that followed, Carmen waved a fist at the third man and cried, “I’ll give you one!”
Basilio was still raging when police officers led him back to his corner.
After the fight and the fracas, those who cared for Carmen encouraged him to call it quits. It was typical of the feisty man from Canastota, New York, that he chose his own path and stubbornly pressed on.
In 1961, he showed some encouraging return to his old form with successive points victories over Gaspar Ortega and former welterweight champ, Don Jordan. But a final fling at Paul Pender’s middleweight crown proved a step too far.
Basilio’s grit and perseverance were still there, but the magic had escaped the bottle and he was well outpointed.
He hung up his gloves and went back to his adored wife and family. No change of heart. No sad or tacky comeback. No spiteful swipes at the young tigers that were passing him in the fast lane.
It seemed that Carmen knew after all when the time was right to get out.
Mike Casey is the Founder & Editor of ALL TIME BOXING at https://sites.google.com/site/alltimeboxingrankings. He is a freelance journalist and boxing historian and a member of the International Boxing Research Organization (IBRO).