I am not a big fan of boxing, but I am a huge fan of Carmen Basilio.
The former world welterweight and middleweight champion died Wednesday at age 85 in a Rochester, N.Y., hospital near his home, a home he welcomed me into 20 years ago to share stories of his life.
Together with photographer and friend Frank Ordoñez, I experienced his kindness, his humor and his frighteningly close fake jabs. At the time, a film production company had planned to make a movie of his life story. It never happened and that’s a shame.
I am sadden by his death and my heart goes out to his wife, Josie, and the rest of their family. But I am honored that I had chance to know him.
Rest in peace, Carmen Basilio.
Here is the article, which appeared in the (Syracuse, N.Y.) Herald Journal on May 18, 1992:
BASILIO’S STORY STILL INTRIGUES
THE CANASTOTA NATIVE’S RISE FROM THE MUCKLANDS TO WORLD BOXING CHAMPION COULD BECOME A MOVIE.
Promoter Herb Stark sat at a picnic table in his client’s family room, rifling through papers strewn before him. Which actor should portray his client in a television movie?
“Tony Danza or Robert De Niro,” Stark said.
This provoked a nod from his 65-year-old client, Carmen Basilio. Out came a recent photograph of Danza with his arm around Basilio’s shoulders. Danza, an ex-fighter, sought out Basiliowhen word spread that he was eating in the same Las Vegas diner.
It’s that kind of reaction that makes the former world welterweight and middleweight champion movie material nearly 31 years after his last fight.
“People haven’t forgotten me so I guess I’m one of the lucky ones,” Basilio said, squinting through his swollen eyes. “There’s so many things that happened in my life. We didn’t have much money. Times were tough. It’d make a good movie, exciting.”
Basilio and Stark, an agent for former athletic champions, have talked for years about making a film or documentary on the retired boxer’s life. Lou Buttino who, like Basilio, grew up in the Madison County village of Canastota, is working with them.
“I think it would break new ground, to show how Carmen Basiliohas been able to adjust after the glory days are over,” said Buttino, a journalism professor at St. John Fisher College in Rochester. “He has a real appreciation for life.”
Their chance came last summer when Michael Derrick, president of Film Producers International at Universal Studios in Orlando, Fla., attended a charity banquet in Rochester. Derrick was impressed.
He sees Basilio’s rise from the mucklands to world welterweight and middleweight champion as a made-for-television movie or film for the international video market.
“Enough with the naked women and the drugs and blood and that stuff,” Derrick said during a telephone interview from his Orlando home. “He’s the kind of guy that can give us the … story people want.”
No contracts have been signed, the film has no title and no actors have been cast, but production should begin this summer, he said.
“It’s very conceptual now,” Derrick said. But “it’ll happen one way or another. These things just take time.”
They haven’t talked money yet either, but Basiliosaid he isn’t concerned.
“Ah, I got what I need,” he said.
Parts of the $7 million to $8 million movie probably will be filmed in Canastota, Derrick said. Buttino hopes Derrick will let him write the screenplay. He will be contributing editor and creative consultant for the movie.
“There aren’t many people who have the opportunity to write about their heroes,” Buttino said. “Usually when boys meet their heroes they become disappointed. I was never disappointed with Carmen Basilio.”
Buttino already has started piecing the film together in his mind. He imagines a black and white opening, set in the 1930s and staged in the onion fields, where Basilio worked with his eight brothers and sisters.
Ordered to bed each night by 8:30, Basilioremembers Fridays when his father would wake him up at 10 p.m. to listen to the fights on the radio. He remembers his first pair of boxing gloves, ones his father bought for the family.
Because Basilio fell between his two brothers in age and weight, he boxed one after the other. But the brothers were featherweights compared to the sisters.
“If you want to be a fighter, all you have to do is have five sisters older than you. I learned how to defend myself,” he said, exhaling a gruff chuckle. “We didn’t box. We fought.”
The film is Basilio’s chance to boast of his determination. Ask him who deserves credit for his boxing success. The pessimists, he’ll say. Many doubted the power of his 5-foot, 6-inch frame. Each punch he packed was fueled by stubbornness.
“Just tell me I can’t do something,” he said.
Everybody told him he was too small to box. At 13, he had his first and only high school bout when another school finally dug up another 80-pound boxer to fight him. He won.
“I used to dream about these things, being a world champion,” he said. “The teacher, she’d ask a question. I wouldn’t hear a thing. I was busy dreaming.”
After his high school match, World War II forced Canastota to cut the sport from its budget. Soon after, Basilio dropped out of high school. He boxed for fun around the neighborhood.
His next refereed bout was in the Marine Corps in 1947, where he was paid $10 a fight. Basilio turned pro in 1948 after he left the military and won the Golden Gloves amateur tournament sponsored by the Herald-Journal. He supported himself, his then-wife, Kay, and two adopted children by assembling generators at a Syracuse Autolite plant.
“I worked my way up to $150 a fight,” he said.
The dream was threatened in 1950 when Basiliowas stricken with mononucleosis. He told no one but his doctor and his wife. During the six months he spent recovering, the pessimists returned. They told Basilio his glory days were over.
Enter trainer and friend John DeJohn, the man whose coaching landed Basilio in the ring with reigning welterweight champion Tony DeMarco at the Onondaga County War Memorial on June 10, 1955. The two fighters gave the audience its money’s worth. Basiliowas badly hurt, but he pounded on, knocking DeMarco out in the 12th round.
Here the picture fades to Canastota, where Buttino, his two brothers and his father gathered around the radio in the family’s living room. The fight was over. The announcer’s words triggered the village fire alarm.
“From Canastota, New York. The welterweight champion of the world, Carmen Basilio.”
The high school band began its march down Peterboro Street. Tavern owners gave out free beer and soda in honor of the Italian onion farmer’s son. Proud villagers shouted, “We did it! We’re the champion of the world.”
“People were coming out of their houses,” Buttino said. “Everybody was really celebrating. That night had a tremendous impact on my life.”
Flash through two years of matches and rematches – victories and defeats – most of them against DeMarco and Johnny Saxton. Basiliowas gaining weight. Though he tried to sweat it off, he was finding it more and more difficult to remain a welterweight.
Weak from dehydration, Basilio left the ring and headed for Alexandria Bay. There he trained for the most important fight of his career – a match against reigning middleweight champion Sugar Ray Robinson.
Fade to Sept. 23, 1957. Basilio stands in the center of a packed Yankee Stadium. The match between Basilio and Robinson would be the first non-heavyweight match to gross more than $1 million.
Robinson danced and Basilio stalked. Every chance he got, Basilio took an inside jab. Basilio won.
Flash to 1958. The onion farmer’s son takes the $10,000 Hickock belt, the Pulitzer prize of athletics. The Boxing Writers Association names him “fighter of the year.” His picture appears regularly on the cover of “Ring” magazine.
His second wife, Josephine, keeps the covers with the photographs, the plaques and the gold ring Basilio received in 1989 when he was inducted in the International Hall of Fame, located in his hometown.
“She likes all that stuff,” he said.
Basilio ended his boxing career in 1961 after tendinitis set in, preventing him from fully extending his right arm. He was 34 years old and Le Moyne College was building a new field house. The administrators would be honored to have the former world champion on their staff, they said.
At Le Moyne, Basilio quickly earned a new title, “the toughest physical education teacher on campus.” The boxer was as hard on his students as he was on his opponents in the ring, said Athletic Director Richard Rockwell, who was hired as the college’s physical education director in 1967.
“It became almost a status symbol if he slapped you around,” Rockwell said. “If you tried things like that now you wouldn’t have any kids here. The 60s and 70s were different times. The things we did then, we’d get fired for now.”
Rockwell wasn’t surprised to hear about Basilio’s fondness for his Le Moyne days. The students respected him, he said. Basilio frequented their dorms with reels of his championship fights tucked beneath his arm. The films drew standing-room only crowds, he said.
“The best times of my life were when I was teaching phys. ed.,” Basilio said. His elbows rested on the picnic table. “Yeah, those were the days.”
Basilio retired from the school in 1981 to become a district sales representative for the Genesee Brewing Co. in Rochester, where he has worked part-time promoting the company’s products since 1981. He moved to Rochester in the mid-1980s when he divorced and remarried. That’s when Buttino ran into the boxer for the first time since Buttino was a teen.