The first welterweight championship fight between Carmen Basilio and Johnny Saxton cost Carmen his hard-won title and bred one of boxing's angriest postmortem rows. The row smolders even now, almost a year later, and intermittently flashes into flame at the drop of a heady remark. Only the ring officials, the Saxton camp and a small sprinkling of the press thought the verdict for Saxton fair, or professed to think so. The great majority of the sporting press, an enraged Chicago Stadium crowd and millions of the television fancy thought differently and screamed for justice for weeks afterward.
The mills of the gods have been grinding since then and, in one way or another, a rough measure of justice has been slowly filling. One of the fight judges, a banker, has gone to prison, though for quite another crime than misjudging fights. The referee has been appointed chairman of the Illinois boxing commission, punishment enough for any man's sin. For a time he hailed the appointment as some vindication of his work in the fight, but lately he has vainly tried to persuade the Illinois legislature to appoint a press agent to ease his present pain. Some people, he has discovered, have lost confidence in boxing's integrity, and he felt that a public relations man could win it back. The third official of the fateful fight seems to have escaped any form of retribution. But his is an impregnable position. He sells cars. Give the gods a split decision.
Basilio had to win his own justice, as befits a fighting man. He did it last September in Syracuse, when Saxton chose to stand and punch it out with him, abandoning his natural stab-and-run style. (Tony DeMarco had tried that game twice because he knows no other, and what happened to him should be a lesson to all Basilio opponents.) The referee stopped the Syracuse fight in the ninth round to save Saxton from being knocked senseless, perhaps permanently hurt. Thus Carmen Basilio regained his title.
He risks it once more this week in Cleveland against a much wiser Johnny Saxton. After two tangles with Basilio, Johnny has decided that his Chicago style of jazz is the only sensible counterpoint to the welterweight champion's bopping rhythm.
Looking hard, lean and fast—he has been training since December 10—Saxton foresees the fight as a repetition of his Chicago strategy which, after all, did win him the decision, however disputed.
"I don't want to sound cocky," he says, just as if he doesn't always sound cocky, "but I'm confident I'll win. It's just that I'm sure I can take Basilio. First time we met, I boxed him. The last time, I tried to give the fans the kind of fight they wanted, and I banged with him. That was a dumb thing to do. From now on I'm forgetting the fans and thinking of Saxton. One thing I learned in my last fight with Basilio is I got to box him.
"Basilio is a good, tough boy but he's a banger. Me, I'm not a banger. I'm a boxer. This time I'm going back to the style I used in Chicago. I have to fight my own fight, not Basilio's."
Carmen Basilio did most of his training in Miami to escape the rigors of the northern winter. His bruised right hand, which caused a postponement from the originally scheduled date of January 18, has healed nicely but has handicapped his training.
"I've got my fingers crossed," says Johnny DeJohn who, with Joe Netro, is Basilio's manager. "We have bandaged the hand real good for his workouts, and we haven't let him box so much. He thinks he hurt the hand in the last Saxton fight but, to tell the truth, he don't really know when he did it. You know, he never used that right much until the DeMarco fights. He was a hooker."
As to the extreme probability that Saxton will try to outpoint him, Carmen says: "Let him try."
"I can outbox Saxton anyhow," he declared. "He can run or he can fight. I'm prepared no matter what he does. I don't think I will get the worst of it in Cleveland like I did in Chicago, so why should I worry?"
Both fighters have been doing heavy roadwork, Saxton three to four miles a day, Basilio as many as five miles around the Miami Beach Kennel Club dog track. It did seem that at the close of the Chicago fight Basilio's pursuit of the elusive Saxton lagged for lack of wind and the roadwork should build up his endurance. Saxton, in turn, believes he has done more roadwork for the Cleveland fight than for any in his career.
The fight could be a road race, then. But if Saxton hopes to win an undisputed decision he must stand from time to time and fight, at least long enough to persuade the judges and referee that his defense is not merely passive, the type that properly scores no points.
If Saxton stands and fights he will get what he got in Syracuse, a dreadful body beating that eventually opened him up for head shots, cut his lip and left him finally a helpless, drooping figure who could be saved only by a merciful referee. If he runs as much as he did in Chicago, even though he stabs Basilio with his very effective jab, he can't hope to win, save by another Chicago decision.
It's a hard choice either way—for Saxton. The choice here is for Basilio by another TKO.
AND ANTICS ELSEWHERE...
In Atlantic City, better known for babes than boxers, the Sweet Science showed a face last week that Carmen Basilio would scarcely have recognized. As the dessert for an evening of frolic put on by a manufacturer of formal wear, Chico Vejar and Pat Manzi delivered a fine 10-round bout (for the "Gentleman Championship of the World") but still took a back seat to some of the 500 guests assembled at the 500 Club. Familiar figures in unfamiliar attire, these notables paraded around the ring before the bout, joined the fighters on the canvas afterward for a red-hot mambo.