The House that Basilio Built

My first trip to the International Boxing Hall of Fame was my most memorable. I was greeted by its executive director, Edward Brophy, who gave me a historical perspective on the Hall’s origin. Mr. Brophy had recounted how the Hall’s location was purposely selected because two champions happened to hail from the very small town of Canastota, New York, Carmen Basilio, and his nephew, Billy Backus; a nice little story that made perfect sense. The Hall was completed in 1989, and saw its first inductees enshrined in 1990. Among its first class of inductees, was Canastota’s own, The Onion Farmer, Carmen Basilio.

On November 7, Canastota lost one of its hometown heroes, when Carmen Basilio passed away at Rochester General Hospital. He was 85 years old. According to Mr. Brophy, Mr. Basilio was being treated for pneumonia.

Mr. Basilio was an all action fighter, who fought in a crouching style, packed a vicious left hook, and would break down his opponents with relentless attacks to the body. This style won him championships in two weight divisions. “I gave them action; they loved to see action,” he would later tell the Associated Press in an interview from 2007.

Mr. Basilio’s boxing career reads like a movie script. A small town boy makes good on his promise to become a world boxing champion, despite some setbacks. Beginning his boxing career in 1948, Mr. Basilio’s opportunities to get a title bout were delayed, due to his refusal to cooperate with mob bosses that manipulated the sport. His first title shot would come in 1953 against Cuban great, Kid Gavilan but was lost by split decision. A rematch never materialized.

It was not until two years later, at Syracuse’s War Memorial, that Mr. Basilio knocked out the newly crowned champion, Tony DeMarco in twelve hard fought rounds, to win the welterweight championship. Afterwards, Mr. Basilio fell to his knees in his corner and repeatedly shouted: “I did it! I did it! I did it!”.  In 1957, he would go on to win a decision and upset the legendary Sugar Ray Robinson at Yankee Stadium, in front of a crowd of 40,000. In a rematch just six months after their first bout, Mr. Basilio lost a close decision. During the fight, a rupture above his eye would later swell to the size of a baseball. However, Mr. Basilio’s determination kept him in the fight till the very end. Mr. Robinson refused a third fight.

In what is commonly referred to as the golden era of boxing, Carmen Basilio was recognized by Ring magazine’s “Fight of the Year” for five consecutive years, from 1955 to 1959. This particular distinction, championships notwithstanding, could easily be the envy of any fighter from any era. The opponents from these fights were Tony DeMarco, Johnny Saxton, Sugar Ray Robinson 1 & 2, and Gene Fullmer. He retired in 1961 after three more unsuccessful bids for another championship title.

Because Mr. Basilio was drafted into the Marines to serve during World War II, he was unable to graduate from high school. However, this was accomplished when he received his diploma with Canastota High School’s graduating class of 2009. “This is another championship day for me,” said the proud Mr. Basilio. He was 82.

Carmen Basilio went on to teach physical education for twenty-one years at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, while marketing beer for Genesee Brewing. His boxing record stood at 56-16-7 with 27 knockouts. In retirement, he would attend many charity banquets, and was active in participating in the yearly induction ceremonies at the Boxing Hall of Fame. Mr. Basilio attended ceremonies this past June.

When one enters into the International Boxing Hall of Fame, they are instantly surprised at how relatively small it is, but amazed at how much history is contained within its walls. Thousands of people flock from all over the globe to attend the annual induction ceremonies that span over a four day period. Fighters, young and old attend, and make themselves available to chat, sign autographs, share stories, and even break bread with their fans. The tradition started more than twenty-three years ago, and we have Carmen Basilio to thank for its initial concept.

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