Carmen Basilio, the former welterweight and middle weight boxing champion of the world who has lived in Irondequoit since 1985, died early Wednesday morning, November 7, 2012, according to Tony Liccione, president of the Rochester Boxing Hall of Fame. Mr. Basilio was 85.
Carmen Basilio was born and raised in central New York in Canastota, Madison County, but became part of Rochester’s fabric when he became a spokesman for Genesee Beer. “We’re devastated,” said Liccione, who was a friend of Basilio’s for many years. “Carmen was the people’s champion. He never turned down an autograph.
He had a tough beginning in boxing, but he persevered and he captured a part of the American dream. It was bigger back then to become a world boxing champion. It was huge in our society.” Basilio had heart bypass surgery in 1997 and received a pacemaker in 2000. But he remained an active and beloved figure in the local sports community as a frequent and honored guest at dozens of banquets and fundraisers, giving generously of his time and good nature.
He was known for greeting friends and strangers with playful punches. “He was a great man whether he was an athlete or not,” said Basilio’s wife of 26 years, Josie Basilio. “He was just so personable and he loved everyone, he loved people.” Josie said Carmen received fan mail up until his death and he’d take the time to read them and respond back with an autographed picture. “He was good to everybody,” she said. “If someone wanted an autograph, he’d stop in the middle of the street to sign something. And he loved children. He did a lot with Camp Good Days.” His career record was 56-16-7 with 27 knockouts, but from 1954-58, he dominated, going 17-2-1 including 5-2 in world title fights. Twice he was voted Fighter of the Year by boxing writers and he took part in four Fights of the Year, two against the legendary Sugar Ray Robinson. He was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame, in Canastota, in its first class in 1990. His career helped inspire organizers to build the Hall in his hometown.
He retired from boxing in 1961, but left a legacy as having one of the toughest chins in boxing. He worked 25 years as a physical education teacher at Le Moyne College in Syracuse and as a spokesman for Genesee Brewery. Nicknamed the “Canastota Clouter,” Basilio was a fan favorite for his ability to go toe-to-toe with opponents, which made for exciting bouts. His fights were described as near-death experiences. He captured the world welterweight title from Tony DeMarco in 1955 in Syracuse and regained it in 1956 from Johnny Saxton after a controversial loss to Saxton six months earlier in Chicago. In 1957, Basilio jumped up a class and defeated the great Sugar Ray Robinson at Yankee Stadium by split decision in a savage battle over 15 rounds. Robinson is generally regarded as the best pound-for-pound boxer of all time, winning scores of titles and engaging in 201 pro bouts in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s. Robinson regained the middleweight crown six months later, also by split decision, in an equal display of wills at Chicago Stadium. While he respected Robinson’s talent, Carmen did not care for Robinson as a man. “He had an arrogance about him that turned you off,” Basilio once said, “but he was a great fighter.” Basilio’s life story made him a real-life Rocky. He was one of 10 children of an Italian immigrant onion farmer who became hooked on boxing listening to Joe Louis’ bouts on a crackling radio. “You learn how to fight with five older sisters,” he once quipped. His career record was 56-16-7 with 27 knockouts.
He was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame, located in his hometown, in 1990. He was involved in four fights that were named Ring Magazine’s Fight of the Year: 1955 (DeMarco), 1956 (Saxton rematch), 1957 (Robinson) and 1958 (Robinson rematch). “It’s a fabulous record, particularly for that era. It was a Golden Era,” said the late great boxing writer Bert Randolph Sugar, who named Basilio one of his 100 greatest fighters of all time “not because I care for him and he’s a wonderful person, but because he damned well earned it.” It took Basilio 50 pro fights before he got his first title shot, that against Cuba’s Kid Gavilan, a loss by decision in 1953.
During the height of his career, he was on the cover of Sports Illustrated, made TV appearances on the Ed Sullivan, Steve Allen and Mike Wallace shows, and he was the 1957 Hickok Belt winner, the most prestigious award in sports at the time presented in Rochester. “People would tell me, ‘What are you boxing for, why don’t you quit that dirty, rotten game?’ ” Basilio said in a 2005 interview on the 50th anniversary of becoming world champ. “I was working in a factory and getting a week’s pay but I’d still go to the gym and train. I’d tell (my boss), ‘I’m going to be champion of the world some day,’ and he’d tell me I was out of my mind. But I said ‘I’m not giving up. Quitters never win.’ ” He is survived by his wife, four children, eight grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren from two marriages. By Leo Roth and Jeff DiVeronica, Rochester Democrat & Chronicle.