Carmen Basilio, a renowned boxer best known for ousting Sugar Ray Robinson as the middleweight champion and later losing that same title to him, died Wednesday in a hospital in Rochester, N.Y. He was 85.
According to Edward Brophy, executive director of the Boxing Hall of Fame, where Basilio ranked among the first class of inductees in 1990, Basilio died from complications of pneumonia. His family said his health had been deteriorating since 1992, when he underwent heart bypass surgery.
A resident of the upstate New York village of Canastota, proudly advertised as the “onion capitol of the United States,” Basilio earned a nickname as the “the upstate onion farmer” early on in his career. It was no coincidence that the same town was later chosen as the site of the Boxing Hall of Fame, as fans of Basilio and his nephew Billy Backus, a welterweight champion, founded the institution.
Brophy added that the showcase would fly their flags at half-mast in Basilio’s honor.
Born to Italian immigrants – his father really was an onion farmer – Basilio grew up working in onion fields, but always dreamed of becoming a professional boxer. Although he already had made a name for himself by the 1950s, the biggest moment in his career came when he received a snub on the street from Sugar Ray Robinson, then touted as the best in the sport.
“He pulled up with his entourage with his big Cadillac,” Basilio recounted in an interview with Cyber Boxing Zone. “I was walking past, so I decided to go over and introduce myself. I said: ‘Hi, Ray, I just fought Billy Graham the week before, the No. 1 welterweight. I’m Carmen Basilio.’ He gave me the brushoff, and I felt about an inch high.”
The rebuff steeled Basilio and in September of 1957, in front of a crowd of 38,000 at Yankee Stadium, Basilio challenged Robinson for his middleweight title. Basilio himself was a weight class below Robinson, but he raised himself up a class just to compete in the event, and went on to make history by claiming the title from Robinson in a split decision.
"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," said Brophy. "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."
Known as much for taking punches as he was for giving them, Basilio was nonetheless regarded as a ferocious opponent. “There was no one with more determination than Carmen,” his trainer Angelo Dundee once said of him.
“I don’t enjoy getting hurt, waking up with a puffed eye and pain, stiff all over,” Basilio said in an interview with Sports Illustrated. “But you have to take the bitter with the sweet. The sweet is when guys recognize you on the street, say, ‘Hello, champ,’ know who you are. It will always be sweet for me.”