THE CLEANUP BEGAN WITH THIS
The series of articles which won for SI the Headliners Club Award (see page 10) began with this lead story in the November 1, 1954 issue. It described how Welterweight Johnny Saxton, shown above in the fond arms of his beaming manager, Blinky Palermo, "won" the welterweight title for the first time. Since then much has been done, especially in New York and Pennsylvania, to clean up boxing's dirty business. But not in the state of Illinois. That state was picked, quite logically, for a fight, described on the following pages, which could not have been promoted either in New York or Pennsylvania, and which eloquently documents the fact that SI's effort to clean up boxing's dirty business must be continued
May the better participant emerge triumphant," was the standard and pious invocation that the old fight announcer Harry Balogh made famous in the Turbulent (but relatively innocent) Thirties.
These days it would have a hollow sound. And nowhere would it sound more like a halfwit bellowing into an empty beer barrel than in Chicago Stadium. There, the other night, Carmen Basilio, welterweight champion of the world and the better participant, emerged untriumphant and titleless from a fight with Johnny Saxton.
March 26, 1956
In the opinion of the crowd of 12,000, in the opinion of the great majority of sportswriters present (21 to 7) and in the opinion of Carmen Basilio, the titleholder had retained his championship. But, in the dissenting opinion of two judges and a referee of sorts, Saxton had won.
When Benny Bentley, the ring announcer, a fellow of no little courage, reported this to the world the shock wave trembled all along the coaxial cable from New York to San Francisco. A million TV sets teetered on their tables. In Chicago Stadium the crowd booed itself blue for 15 minutes, with only intermittent pauses to catch its breath. The booing may have set a new record for freestyle righteous indignation but it had no effect on the record books of boxing. Johnny Saxton, who had won the welterweight title from Kid Gavilan by a similarly spurious decision on the night of October 20, 1954, had regained his title, through what means no man may say for sure.
To essay a guess at the means one must know a little about Chicago Stadium, about the state of boxing in the State of Illinois, and about the stateless status of Blinky Palermo, Saxton's manager without portfolio.
The Stadium is owned by the bigwigs of the International Boxing Club (James D. Norris, president), which in turn owns that part of boxing outside the purview of Frankie Carbo. It is a building of imposing, sporting-type architecture, presenting a soot-stained face of relative grandeur above the slums of West Madison Street. Inside, its patrons have seen some strange goings-on.
Since last September 28, for instance, there have been eight fight-nights at the stadium. In every one of the eight main events the underdog—the fighter with the betting odds against him—won. Smart-money gamblers have been cleaning up. The most wondrously consistent performance in this scandalously inconsistent series was that of Bobby Boyd, the middleweight. Boyd fought three times there, was the underdog (12 to 5, 8 to 5, 2 to 1) each time and won each time. This is not to suggest that the last eight Stadium main events were crooked. (One of them was the Sugar Ray Robinson-Bobo Olson fight.) It is merely to suggest that there was something mighty peculiar about the way they all turned out. It is a rare thing to see an eight-horse parlay pay off, especially on long shots.
Sooner or later, one would have thought, those who bet on fights in Chicago would have caught on to the inverted Chicago system which, translated into reality, means that the fighter who is assigned the longest odds is actually the professional gamblers' favorite. Thus, on the night of March 14 when Basilio was listed as a 2-to-l favorite over Saxton, the smart money really expected Saxton to win. It made no difference that Saxton is a punch-and-clutch fighter, a master of the relentless retreat, or that it has been a long time since he scored a point for aggressiveness. Every conceivable honest figure from 1 to 0, including fractions, said he would lose.
The figures did not take into account, however, that Illinois is the only one of the four big boxing states (New York, Pennsylvania and California are the other three) that has done nothing whatever to clean its vineyard of the little foxes who spoil the grapes. The figures did not take into account that Illinois is the only state of the four still willing to do business, by subtlety and deviousness, with Blinky Palermo.
Blinky Palermo is a ruddy-cheeked man who looks out through hooded lids on boxing's dirty business and finds it profitable. It has, in fact, been his only resource in several years, since the numbers racket in Philadelphia became socially effete for him. He owns Johnny Saxton, now welterweight champion once again, and he has owned other more or less distinguished fighters like Ike Williams and Coley Wallace. But Blinky no longer has a license in his home state of Pennsylvania. As it was about to expire there, Blinky extended his feelers to test whether New York might welcome his application. New York warned him not even to try. Pennsylvania said it would go along with New York. Julius Helfand, New York boxing commission chairman, said he would refuse to stultify himself by sanctioning a Basilio-Saxton fight. He warned that letting Saxton sign for the fight would be a mere proxy arrangement, with Blinky lurking behind the scenes.
But Lou Radzienda, boxing commissioner for Illinois and president of the National Boxing Association, had no qualms at all. He let Saxton sign despite Helfand's warning that this was but a fraudulent device that would insure Blinky's cut.
Commissioner Radzienda, incidentally, is a friend of one of Chicago's biggest bookies and proud of it (SI, March 12). The commission is responsible for the competence and honesty of the judges and referees it appoints.
That is the way it was on Wednesday night when Basilio, togged in a champion's hooded robe of creamy silk and maroon trim, jigged in his corner waiting for the commercials to end and the bell to ring. That noon, in the same ring, he had weighed in at 146 pounds—somewhat tense, even a little surly, his battered face reflecting the strain of the training grind. And he may have remembered that he had twice lost fights in Chicago, one to Billy Graham, once even to that television morning-glory, Chuck Davey. He certainly remembered it later. So confident of victory were his managers, Joe Netro and John De John, that they announced a press conference would be held next day—"if," they added modestly, "Carmen wins." It was a fair guess that the conference would announce that Basilio wanted to fight Sugar Ray Robinson for the middleweight title and really important outdoors money in June.
Across the ring Saxton jogged too, his white turkishtowel robe flopping. His face was bland, impassive, as it had been when he weighed in at 146¾, pounds. He had been first in the ring, to little applause. There had been tremendous cheers for Basilio.
The fighters dropped their robes but there was still a long wait for the bell. They jogged some more, facing each other, looking into each other's eyes, because some fighters believe that is the way to face an opponent before the bell.
The first of the fight's three surprises was that Basilio won the first round by actually outboxing Saxton, though the officials did not think so. The theory had been that Basilio never looks good against a boxer, that he is a swarmer who takes three punches to land one. The second surprise was that Basilio, the strong, durable man who twice had worn down his fighting counterpart, Tony De-Marco, was far more tired than Saxton in the closing rounds. And the third surprise was, of course, the verdict.
In that first round Carmen Basilio, nonboxer, let only a couple of jabs give him pause, then surged in to attack the meat of the matter, Saxton's body, and pounded it with lefts and rights, precisely according to the plan he had announced days before. He scored with a solid right cross to the head. He took some jabs again, landed some of his own, and was rocked by a Saxton right. Moments later he was back again with his own right. He scored with a combination, a right to the body and a hook to the head. He outmaneuvered Saxton, bewildered him, pummeled him. He was fully in charge.
He won the next round by an even wider margin, though he fell back on the congenital weakness of the converted southpaw, a right-hand lead. He scored with the right-hand lead, slamming it to body and head, driving Saxton back, shifting opportunely from head to body. The orthodox Saxton was doing far less well with his lefts and resorted finally to his defensive maneuver, wrestling. They were wrestling as the bell rang, and when Basilio broke away Saxton hit him with a right. The crowd booed, clearing its throat for what was to follow. It booed quite a few times more as Referee Frank Gilmer separated the fighters repeatedly in a way which prevented Basilio from using his principal skill, infighting, for more than a few moments at a time.
Saxton won the third round on everybody's card. It was in this round that the padding in Saxton's left glove burst through the seams and forced a minute's halt while a new glove was substituted. Basilio managed to cross over some of Saxton's jabs with his right and he broke through to the body, too, but the incessant, head-snapping Saxton jabs piled up a lot of points. After the new glove was laced on, Saxton used it as part of a one-two combination and then, with more jabs, had Basilio retreating at the bell.
Scoring of the fourth round was a significant mystery. Referee Gilmer, who wound up the fight with a card showing Saxton the winner by two points, gave the round to Basilio. The judges, whose final cards had Saxton the winner by a preposterous seven points, gave it to Saxton. They may have been preoccupied. Here are the SI reporter's notes for the round: "Saxton [scores] with left uppercut. Basilio to the body. Basilio left hook. Basilio right cross. Basilio right to the body. Basilio begins body attack. Basilio beautiful right to the head. Saxton two lefts to head. Basilio gets him on ropes and pounds, winding up with left to head. Saxton right to head. Saxton left and right to head. Basilio drives to ropes." It was clearly a round in which Basilio was the effective aggressor, in which Saxton's defensive abilities were as nothing, and in which, if "ring generalship" means anything, Generalissimo Basilio was using his best field tactic—the furious, all-out attack—with the élan of a Patton slashing through France.
There would be little intellectual nourishment in a further round-by-round account of the fight. There is no question that Basilio, who twice outlasted DeMarco, tired himself chasing Saxton and, in the closing rounds, was much less potent than he had started out to be. Saxton paced himself better. As Basilio grew weary, Saxton's jab, run and clutch technique became more effective as a point-gainer and sometimes made the bloody-nosed, raw-eyed Basilio look like a futile fury, swinging round instead of straight, beaten to the punch, as frustrated and astonished as a beagle who finds himself chasing a backward-running, sharp-toothed rabbit.
But up through the 10th round, which everyone agreed he had won masterfully, Basilio was well out in front. He had discovered that Saxton sometimes ducks his head after throwing a jab and when the challenger did so Basilio's left would come crashing through. In the sixth he withstood a savage attack to the body and head, made Saxton miss with his lefts, drove hard to the body and at the end staggered Saxton with a right. In the seventh, with the crowd bawling "Come on, Carmie, let's go!" he took a few lefts to get Saxton against the ropes and was scoring heavily in infighting when the referee separated them. The crowd booed at this, but even so Gilmer gave the round to Basilio, and it was the judges who awarded it to Saxton. The eighth might have been considered even but the officials gave it to Saxton, perhaps on the basis of a left-right-left to the head shortly before the bell. The referee disagreed with the judges again on the ninth round, awarding it to Basilio, who had crossed and hooked effectively and twice had the retreating Saxton on the ropes.
But in the closing rounds Basilio was clearly weary, though by no means exhausted. His legs gave him less drive, his punches traveled in wider arcs and, when he drove Saxton against the ropes, as he did several times, it was a desperate onslaught in which his timing was off. Once, in the 12th, when he saw that Saxton's mouthpiece was red with blood, Basilio was inspired to charge head down and ran into a left uppercut. The realization that Basilio was losing his effectiveness gave Saxton brief spells of willingness to go on the attack, and when Basilio tried to change the tide he found himself walking into sharp, cutting jabs. There was blood on Basilio's trunks as he came out for the 14th round. Vaseline had been smeared on his left eyebrow and puffed-out lower lid. He advanced into a staggering right to the head and was himself driven back against the ropes. Both his hands were carried low, out of weariness. Saxton had dropped his right—most likely in the hope of drawing leads, for his counterpunching had become very effective.
The final round was nothing much to look at. Saxton was booed for wrestling and was punished in the infighting but he also scored to the head. He did not seem to be trying too hard, and that was strange, for the last round is a time when fighters try to show who is really in command. It could have been called an even round, and one of the judges so scored it, but the other two officials gave it to Saxton.
Then came the verdict. Few in the crowd believed that Basilio had won by a wide margin but scarcely anyone thought he had lost, and there was proper rage that an aggressive, hard-punching, courageous champion had been stripped of his title by mere cuteness, by the kind of fighter who infuriates those who have paid to see action and by a man whose original claim to the title was based on one of the worst performances ever seen in a championship bout.
While the crowd booed, while Johnny Saxton and his entourage celebrated in the ring, ex-Champion Carmen Basilio slipped downstairs to his dressing room to drink bitter tea from a paper cup, to weep as he tried to tell his indignation and to sit finally, a towel draped across his bony knees, in silent dejection, peering through puffed eyelids at the cement floor, as hard as the fate he had just been dealt.
"See," said Angelo Dundee, his cut man. "He isn't cut at all. Just slits. Those aren't cuts. Just little slits." There is a sensitivity in the Basilio camp about this matter of cuts. Carmen mumbled something.
"Double left hooks to the stomach," he was saying, choking on the words. "Don't they count for anything in this town? I didn't get credit for infighting. Don't you get credit in this town for left hooks to the body? Infighting, infighting!"
Joe Netro, his stout, gray-haired manager, put a hand on his shoulder.
"We'll have to have a rematch," he said. "We can't sleep until we do. Of course, it's up to Mr. Norris and the IBC."
Dundee put an ice bag to one of the purple eyes and Carmen began to talk about the referee.
"He insults the intelligence of millions of people watching this fight on TV," he said. As for Saxton, he was "tough, strong, in good condition." He put his bruised right hand-there was a streak of blue across the knuckles—into a bucket of ice.
"If you lose a fight," Carmen said, "you lose it. You don't mind. You know what's happening. But this? I'll never fight in this town again."
"Saxton was cute," Netro said. "He knows how to keep people from doing things."
"I made the fight," Carmen said. "I hit him with double left hooks to the stomach."
"Here's some more tea," Netro said, lifting a soggy tea bag from another paper cup. "The officials were incompetent. They were honest, I'm sure, but they were incompetent."
Johnny Saxton, his left eye slightly puffed, received the press with calm assurance.
"I had a little trouble in the seventh round," he said. (Surprising, since the two judges had given him the seventh, disagreeing with the referee.) "That Basilio's a bangbang fighter, but I was never in bad shape. He was throwing long ones. I was throwing short ones."
The chances are that, for all of Carmen's protestations about Chicago, he will fight Saxton there again. Boston is another possibility, since Massachusetts also holds that a fighter can sign if his manager is persona non grata. And, after all, who cares what happens to the purse so long as the appearances of decency are preserved? But the Chicago gate was $104,280, far above expectations, and there was a $60,000 fee from television. Result: $42,677 to each fighter. It was balm to Basilio and next day he was saying he would fight Saxton again "anywhere." Even in Chicago.