Two Cops & A Boxer

By Jeffrey Sussman on January 24, 2015
Two Cops & A Boxer
Basilio held himself so low that the blows swooshed past his head. (Ernst Haas Studio)

Joe and Anthony invited me to attend the fights with them. It would be a fight between Carmen Basilio and Sugar Ray Robinson…

Joe, the cop, came home one day with a large bandage covering his right ear. “What happened?” I asked. “A son-of-bitch punk tried to bite off my ear. I cracked his skull with my nightstick.” Joe was like a character out of pulp fiction or film noir. He was a small, wiry, Italian who had decided to become a cop right after graduating from high school.  I loved him, his family, his son’s family, and their dog. Joe had hired me to walk the family’s boxer, Baron, every day after school. The dog and I were inseparable for one hour every afternoon.

One day while walking Baron, I was stopped by a big blue Schwinn bike that had blocked the sidewalk. A local bully costumed in a black motorcycle jacket, garrison belt, and engineer boots, sneered and said: “I don’t like your face. I’m gonna smash it.” As he raised his fist to hit me, Baron, growling, lunged at the bully’s leg. The kid quickly pulled it away, but not before Baron got a mouthful of dirty denim. “You’re lucky you got that mutt to protect you, otherwise you’d get it.”

“Yeah, sure,” I called after him. “You’re a punk and a coward.”

I arrived at Baron’s home, but Joe wasn’t there. Instead, there was Anthony, Joe and Marie’s son, who was also a cop. I told him what had happened.

“Come down into the basement. I want to show you a few things.”

And there, I saw a speed bag, a body bag, free weights, jump ropes, boxing gloves. The whole works.

“Wow,” I said. “I didn’t know you boxed.”

“Dad was a welterweight for the cops when he was in his twenties. He gave it up after three years, thinking he didn’t want to turn his brains to mush. He taught me to box, and I made it into the Golden Gloves semi-finals. Now, I coach boxing at the PAL when I’m not walking my beat. I’m gonna teach you how to defend yourself. Always remember, punch a bully really hard, aim for his nose or chin. Do it before he has a chance to hit you. Get him off balance, breathe fear into him. He’ll think twice about bothering you again. Bullies don’t like being hit. Once you stand up to them, they wither. And let me give you another piece of advice: If a kid comes at you with a knife, run. If you can’t run, pick up a stick and crack him in the head before he can reach you.”

“And then run?”

“You bet,” he said.

A week later, Joe and Anthony invited me to attend the fights with them. It would be a fight between Carmen Basilio and Sugar Ray Robinson for the middleweight championship. I had to ask my father if I could go, and he said as long as I was going with Joe and Anthony, it would be all right.

And so I went to my first professional fight. I was fourteen years old and could not have been more excited. Basilio had been the welterweight champion, after beating Johnny Saxton in two successive bouts. Their first one, which Basilio lost by a decision, was reportedly a fix engineered by Blinky Palermo and Frankie Carbo. Both of whom got time in prison. Of that first fight, Basilio said, “It was like being robbed in a dark alley.”

Robinson, who had been my favorite fighter, was no longer young. He was 37 and his power and grace were declining. Yet, he put up an impressive onslaught and defense. He kept jabbing and wrapping Basilio into clinches. Towards the end of each round, Robinson let loose with a fast flurry of hooks, most of which didn’t land, because Basilio held himself so low that the blows swooshed past his head. Throughout the fight, Basilio was the aggressor, though shorter and less muscular than Robinson. He never stopped going after Robinson. He fought like a hungry tiger, never giving an inch. He wanted that championship the way a tiger wants a gazelle. He had most of the fans cheering him on, and they hooted and hollered their approval when Carmen won the decision. It was a fantastic fight, one that made a fourteen-year-old boy stand on his seat and cheer like a drunk.

In bed that night, I kept reliving the fight. Other than the Dodgers winning the 1955 World Series, it was the most exciting sporting event of my young life.

The following year, my father died of cancer, a long drawn-out painful end to a good life. Joe and Anthony became my own private Police Athletic League. They took me to professional fights and to Golden Gloves matches. My youthful brain thought how terrific it would be to manage a pro. But at my age, I had to settle for being a spectator. I loved the sport as much as I loved baseball.

In 1959, just before my mother sold our house and moved us to a small apartment, Joe and Anthony took me to a heavyweight bout. (Whenever we went to a fight, tickets were always waiting for them. I don’t know why they were comp’d, and I never asked.) The fight was a title bout between Ingemar Johansson and Floyd Patterson.

“Floyd’s the favorite,” said Joe as we made our way to seats. “But you never know. Johansson’s supposed to have a powerful right.”

The favorite did not win that night; in fact, he went to the canvas seven times, before being knocked out. I found it hard to believe that Patterson had been the champ, but then he regained the title the following year. I did not get to the rematch, but watched it on TV at a friend’s house. I was pleased that Patterson had won and brought the title back to America.

Two years later, Joe died. I was told that he dropped dead in front of his precinct on a cold January morning. I attended the funeral at a Catholic cemetery in Queens, where a single bag piper played Amazing Grace and Joe’s widow, Marie, quietly wept. Later, we all went back to their house in Bayside, and I got to see Baron. The dog, now gray of muzzle, licked my right hand. His eyes, big and sad and watery, seemed to understand that Joe was not coming home again.

Jeffrey Sussman is the author of ten books and has a marketing/PR company,

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Sugar Ray Robinson vs Carmen Basilio (II)

Ingemar Johansson -vs- Floyd Patterson I 6/26/59

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  1. nicolas 03:19pm, 01/28/2015

    ERIC: I certainly agree that many weight classes should be dumped. The minimum weight and light flyweight certainly come to mind, as well as the super flyweight. These extra weight classes have devalued the bantam and flyweight championships. This would also include the super middleweight division. Note that both the light heavyweight, super middleweight, and all the weight divisions bantam and below each have less than one thousand fighters in the world fighting at those weights. I think the welterweight has the most at 1,700.

  2. NYIrish 08:44pm, 01/25/2015

    Having weigh ins on the morning of the fight day about 10 or 11am would realign some weight limits.

  3. Eric 02:10pm, 01/25/2015

    nicolas… Given how people are now bigger than they were in the fifties, a middlweight that weighs in at 170-175lbs on fight night, is a true middleweight in today’s world. I think MMA weight classes are far more realistic for today’s sized athletes. MMA has a middleweight limit of 185lbs, and when you compare that to 240lb heavyweights, that is indeed, a middleweight. Boxing needs to update their weight classes, and drop all those junior and super classes. There should not be anymore than the 8 weight classes, and that could easily be done by readjusting the weight limits.

  4. nicolas 01:37pm, 01/25/2015

    Middleweights today are far different from middleweights yesterday. One thing to remember when they often step into that ring today they are very rarely under 160, since now they weight in the day before the fight.

  5. Eric 11:36am, 01/25/2015

    Clarence… I think Basilio’s size probably hurts him in all time middleweight rankings. Carmen was more welterweight than middleweight. Basilio even weighed under the current jr. middleweight limit for his defense against Ray Robinson. Fullmer used his superior strength and size in stopping Carmen twice. I think Basilio would match up well with Graziano. Both were a little on the small side for middleweights. On paper it looks like a dream matchup at least.

  6. NYIrish 10:12am, 01/24/2015

    Re Amazing Grace and a Catholic burial; You probably won’t hear it sung in church but graveside by a “single piper” for an NYPD or FDNY member it happened.

  7. Jeffrey Sussman 10:09am, 01/24/2015

    Though I was only fourteen, I was let in to the fights because the two cops were known by the fight managers and promoters and were always given complimentary tickets.

  8. peter 09:42am, 01/24/2015

    An excellent read! Keep them coming Jeffrey Sussman! . “Joe and Anthony became my own private Police Athletic League.” That’s a nice line. This article brings me back to the mid 1960s when I attended my first pro fight—Emile Griffith-Jose Stable at the old Garden. But I never attended it! The guards didn’t let me in because I was too young.

  9. NYIrish 09:42am, 01/24/2015

    Second paragraph; “garrison belt.” Haven’t heard those words together since my ‘yout.’ Still carry a faded scar from a sharpened square buckle wielded by one of five guys my loud mouth friend started a brawl with on the Irish Riviera circa 1969. I dropped two but never caught up to the guy with the belt. Thanks for the memories. (The Irish Riviera was Rockaway Beach, Queens NY.)

  10. Clarence George 09:27am, 01/24/2015

    Eric:  I think it was in an episode with the great character actor, John Fiedler.

    Basilio is one of my favorite fighters.  I’m in the minority, but I think he should be rated much higher as a middleweight than he generally is.

  11. Eric 09:01am, 01/24/2015

    Clarence…I like the Felix Unger thing. Basilio always looked like he was carved from stone. What a tough little cookie. I always thought of him as a mini-me version of Rocky Marciano.

  12. Clarence George 08:53am, 01/24/2015

    I think you’re right, Eric.  And not only about dogs being God’s gift.  As Tony Randall’s Felix Unger once observed, dog spelled backwards is god.  But also about Basilio—I , too, think he was more muscular than Robinson.

  13. Eric 08:40am, 01/24/2015

    Poor Baron, I don’t think a there has ever been a species born that has the capability of genuine love and loyalty of man’s best friend. Had a dobie named Rommel, I was told he would start whining while hearing my voice on the answering machine. I wouldn’t say that Robinson was more muscular than Basilio, Robinson had a smooth almost delicate looking physique. Basilio, while not bulky, was a wiry little knot of muscle. I’ve read that perhaps no fighter ever trained harder than little Carmen, that the little onion farmer was capable of going 20 rounds or more.

  14. Clarence George 08:27am, 01/24/2015

    A nice tale, which reminded me of the wonderful story of Greyfriars Bobby and his master, John Gray.

    One thing, though:  It’s very unlikely that “Amazing Grace” would have been played at a Catholic burial in the early 1960s.

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