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Carmen Basilio – The Onion Farmer

By Matthew Hurley

Back in 2003, I attended the induction ceremonies at the International Boxing Hall Of Fame in Canastota, New York.  The highlight of this weekend event is meeting the fighters, particularly the old timers and making your way into a photo opportunity, or coming away with an autograph.  

All the fighters in attendance that year were favorites of mine, but looking back I think meeting welterweight and middleweight king Carmen Basilio was of the most personal significance.  Basilio has always intrigued me and meeting him presented me with a touchstone for an era of boxing I had never been privileged to witness.  Other than grainy films, some certainly better than others, and transcripts of legendary bouts by legendary writers such as A.J. Leibing, Damon Runyon, Dan Parker and Jimmy Cannon, it is a time – much like it’s political and cultural history – lost in the ether.  Shaking Basilio’s hand brought it all into a clearer sense of reality for this young boxing scribe.

Carmine Basilio was born on April 2, 1927 in New York. {This little side note always makes me smile because both myself and Basilio were born one day after April fool’s day}.  He later changed his first name to Carmen.  He’s never really explained why but it was as Carmen that he entered the boxing world after receiving an Honorable Discharge from the Marines.  He was the son of an onion farmer and the young Basilio suffered through that trade in characteristic silence as a boy.  But his father’s profession and Carmen’s respect for it and him, and the hard working class people who toiled for minimum wages, left a significant imprint on his spirit and “The Onion Farmer” became his boxing nickname.

He began his professional career on November 24, 1948 in Binghamton, New York against Jimmy Evans.  He knocked his opponent out in the third round and then, five days later, he defeated Bruce Walters in the first round.  The hectic schedule of boxers in the early to mid part of the century often kept them in the ring on an almost weekly basis.  The consistency honed their skills and toughened their resolve.  Also, the money and the backroom politics of the fight game were such that in order to make a living a fighter had to fight and fight often if he wanted to eat and provide for his family.

Basilio fought most of his early career in New York.  Ironically it was three fights that he did not win that pushed him into prominence in the boxing world.  He suffered tough losses to Billy Grahm and Chuck Davey and also drew with Davey.  These bouts provided the blue print for Carmen’s fistic style – unrelenting, always coming forward and the willingness to suffer through pain to break his opponents will.  

That impenetrable toughness nearly broke through in yet another tough loss to welterweight champion Kid Gavilan.  After dropping Gavilan and nearly stopping him in the second round Basilio lost a close fifteen round decision.  Heartbroken but undeterred he finally claimed his championship on June 10, 1955.  In a classic brawl with newly crowned welterweight champion Tony Demarco he won the belt on a twelfth round knockout.  In the return match Basilio turned the trick again with another twelfth round stoppage.  

He then lost the title in fifteen rounds to Johnny Saxton but his popularity never diminished.  His style and his warrior’s heart led him into the collective embrace of boxing fans across the country.  He regained the title by knocking Saxton out in the ninth and then he closed out their trilogy by knocking him out in the second round.

His resume intensified in the ensuing years and bouts with the likes of Sugar Ray Robinson (W15, L15) and Gene Fullmer (TKO by 14, TKO by 12) led the way to “Fighter of the Year” honors for his step up against Robinson to take the middleweight belt (he won this award twice).  All of this finally led to his induction into the Hall of Fame which was built in his hometown.  His final bout was a losing effort against Paul Pender for the middleweight championship at the old Boston Garden.

As I stood only a few feet away from Basilio that day in 2003 I looked down at the red boxing glove I held in my hands and I knew exactly where I wanted him to sign it – right on the top, in the center.  He was sitting next to Gene Fullmer and these two aging men politely signed anything that was put in front of them under the watchful eyes of their adoring wives.  

At one point Carmen’s wife nodded to me and asked if I would like to have her chair so I could sit next to the champion.  I politely refused, but a rather obnoxious sort standing next to me quickly plunked himself down in an embarrassing breach of etiquette and left the gentle woman standing there as he had Basilio sign dozens of magazines and popped the flashbulb of his camera in Carmen’s face over and over again.  I stood there, more than slightly annoyed, but I marveled at the calm dignity the fighter and his wife displayed.  At one point Basilio leaned over to Fullmer and nodded his head at the intrusive autograph hound as if to say, “Can you believe this jerk?”

Finally, when this man produced a scrapbook of pictures he wanted signed it became obvious that he was memorabilia hack and Basilio took my boxing glove and with it waved the man off.  From beneath his glasses the eyes of the champion blazed ever so slightly.  I was waiting for him to say to Fullmer, “I should have kicked that bum’s ass.”  No doubt, even at age seventy-six, he probably could have.  Instead, he signed my glove, shook my hand and gave me a wink.

With my signed glove in hand and a photograph of myself with my arm draped around the champion, I walked off into the hearty embrace of one of Carmen’s toughest foes, Tony Demarco.  Then Demarco, Basilio and Fullmer created a wizened triumvirate of fistic glory as they reminisced with one another over their battles in the ring.

Although his health has been slipping a bit in recent years you can still find Carmen Basilio on the grounds of the Hall of Fame during induction ceremony weekend in June and if you’re not careful he may playfully throw a jab at you when you aren’t looking, just to keep you on your toes.  Being aware at all time in the ring with Basilio was something none of his opponents ever took for granted.  They couldn’t afford such a mistake against a fighter known as “The Onion Farmer.”

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