All-time great former welterweight and middleweight world champion Carmen Basilio, one of boxing's most revered action fighters, died of complications from pneumonia on Wednesday morning. He was 85.
The International Boxing Hall of Fame, where he was inducted as part of the inaugural class of 1990 at the Canastota, N.Y., shrine, announced that Basilio died at Rochester General Hospital.
Canastota, a small town outside of Syracuse, was Basilio's hometown and, along with his nephew, former welterweight champion Billy Backus, is the reason the Hall of Fame wound up there -- because his supporters founded it.
"Carmen put Canastota on the worldwide boxing map and gave the village's residents a sense of pride that couldn't be matched anywhere in the world," Hall of Fame executive director Edward Brophy said. "During the 1950s and 1960s Carmen was everyone's hero. They talked about him in the coffee shops, grocery stores, gas stations and barbershops all the time. And they still talk about him today. He was loved, respected and idolized. His career and memories will last forever in the Village of Canastota."
Brophy said the Hall of Fame flags would fly at half-staff in his honor.
Basilio, nicknamed "The Upstate Onion Farmer," was born in Canastota on April 2, 1927, and eventually carved out a career filled with exciting slugfests and significant victories, including his famous upset of the great Sugar Ray Robinson, who is the consensus pound-for-pound best fighter in boxing history. Basilio, who was 56-16-7 with 27 knockouts during a 13-year career from 1948 to 1961, was one of the most popular fighters of the 1950s.
In 1955, Basilio won the welterweight title by stopping Tony DeMarco in the 12th round in Syracuse. Later that year, he again stopped DeMarco in the 12th round of their rematch to retain the title.
In his next fight, in March 1956, Basilio lost the title by 15-round decision to Johnny Saxton. But Basilio faced Saxton in an immediate rematch and knocked him out in the ninth round to regain the championship. In the rubber match in February 1957, Basilio knocked Saxton out in the second round to retain the world title.
But then came Basilio's most significant and memorable victory when, in September 1957, he moved up to middleweight and won a 15-round split decision against Robinson to win the 160-pound world title at Yankee Stadium. It was a brutal battle and widely considered one of the great fights in boxing history.
In the immediate rematch in March 1958, however, Basilio lost a decision and the title to Robinson at Chicago Stadium, but showed the huge heart and great chin that was such a big part of who he was as a fighter.
Larry Merchant, the HBO analyst and 2009 Hall of Fame inductee, covered boxing for decades as a writer in New York and Philadelphia but the first major fight he ever covered was Basilio-Robinson I, and he also covered the rematch.
"As somebody who thought Robinson was as good as it got I was surprised by the first fight by how well and how tough and strong Basilio was moving up from welterweight to middleweight," Merchant said. "The image of the aggressive, warrior fighter of today is of a guy who goes in to take two punches to land one. Basilio was that kind of fighter but he was smart aggressive. He got hit and he could take a punch, but he knew what he was doing. He knew how to get inside and he really knew how to fight."
The Basilio-Robinson fights were as big as it got in sports during that time, Merchant said.
"The first fight was my first big fight," Merchant said. "(Ernest) Hemingway and (Joe) DiMaggio were at ringside. It was that kind of event. In the rematch, Robinson blew Basilio's eye up with his jab and he looked like a one-eyed ogre for much of the fight, but he somehow managed to survive and make a pretty good fight out of it, even though he lost. He was as tough as they come. You shook his hand and it was like shaking a steel bar.
"He was one of the iconic Italian stallions of that era with Jake LaMotta, Rocky Graziano and Rocky Marciano. People thought enough of him to make the Hall of Fame in his hometown."
Besides Robinson, Basilio also defeated top opponents such as Lew Jenkins, Ike Williams, Billy Graham, Gil Turner, Art Aragon, Gasper Ortega and Don Jordan. Basilio also won his share of awards. He was half of an astonishing five consecutive Ring magazine fights of the year: 1955 (DeMarco II), 1956 (Saxton II), 1957 (Robinson I), 1958 (Robinson II) and 1959 (Gene Fullmer I).
In 1957, Basilio was named Ring magazine fighter of the year. In 1953, he lost a decision in an unsuccessful challenge to welterweight champion Kid Gavilan, but the second round -- in which Basilio scored a knockdown -- was named Ring's round of the year.
Basilio challenged for the middleweight title three more times after his reign. In 1959, Fullmer stopped him in the 14th round and then stopped him in the 12th round of their 1960 rematch. In 1961, in his final fight, Basilio lost a decision challenging middleweight champion Paul Pender.
"Carmen was the best known and most famous native son in (Canastota) community history," said Mike Milmoe, Hall of Fame board member and the editor and publisher of the Canastota Bee Journal newspaper during Carmen's fighting days. "He gave credibility to the boxing Hall of Fame in its formative years with his participation and support. When he received the Hickok Award as Pro Athlete of the Year in 1957 after defeating Sugar Ray Robinson for the middleweight championship, he brought worldwide recognition to this community. Wherever he lived or visited his heart was always in Canastota. He was a wonderful individual and our best community ambassador."
After his retirement, Basilio, a former Marine, was a physical education teacher at Le Moyne College and a Genesee Beer spokesman.