There came to mind the picture of Jack Dempsey at Toledo, with steel-hard fury in his fists, battering down the helpless hulk, Jess Willard. Johnny Saxton was no dull Willard, of course. He was a good welterweight ex-champion of high defensive skills. But Champion Carmen Basilio on this night in Cleveland was a 147-pound Dempsey, trained to perhaps the keenest fighting edge of his career, a vicious little man who came out of his corner like a sprinter off the starting blocks. With no thought of defending himself he devoted every second thereafter to an obsession, the destruction of Johnny Saxton. He ignored Saxton's jabs. He drove his gloved fists into Saxton's liver and heart, he rocked Saxton's head with lefts and rights and he never paused to consider what to do next. He just did it.
"Pace yourself," his mind warned him. "You can't keep this up all night." He believes he did pace himself, that he slowed down a trifle toward the end of the first round, but witnesses detected no special slackening in the speed of his attack. Regardless of what his brain advised, Carmen Basilio could no more ease up than a pit bull terrier could give quarter.
So the third of the Basilio-Saxton fights was the thriller of them all, not because there was much opposition from Saxton—there was practically none—but because Basilio had come to prove that subtlety and deviousness are no match for his kind of fighting.
Saxton had made it plain before the bout that never again would he stand and slug it out with Basilio, as he had bravely and foolishly tried when he was all but knocked out in the ninth round of their second fight. He would, he said, revert to type and try to win points with his normal jab-and-retreat style, a tactic that had won him a most dubious decision in Chicago.
The fans knew Saxton's plan, and many of the 8,500 booed him when he climbed the steps of the Arena ring. But almost from the opening bell they were cheering in frenzy as Basilio disclosed his own plan to counter what his challenger referred to as "science and skill." It was, very simply, to force his way past Saxton's jab and to punch as hard and fast and unrelentingly as superb condition would let him.
Basilio's bruised right hand, which had caused one postponement of the fight, was not altogether healed. At the weigh-in he tucked it protectingly into a jacket pocket and shook hands with his left. But in the ring there was no sign that he favored the right. He threw it hard and often.
"The hand was all right," he said afterward, peeling an orange in the dressing room. "When I'm fighting I don't notice pain."
So, in the very first round, the third punch that Basilio threw was a right to Saxton's hard head. And in the very first minute Saxton was staggered by another right to the jaw, a cross that was followed instantly by a left hook. The combination slowed Saxton so that he was unable thereafter to run backward fast enough to get out of the way. He was caught on the ropes three times and was groggy at the-bell. At least five smashing rights had landed on Saxton's head during those first three minutes. One of them set Saxton's-mouth to bleeding but in Basilio's opinion they were not so important as his body blows. These must have been among the most punishing any fighter of his weight ever delivered. Basilio is properly proud of his infighting.
"The head shots were all right," he said, "but those punches to the body, that's what takes it out of them."
They took so much out of Saxton that he was scarcely able to defend himself in the second round. Basilio battered him from rope to rope. At one point he hooked a left cleanly into Saxton's solar plexus and almost ended the fight. Saxton's big, staring eyes turned glassy and one of his legs jerked in a convulsive movement.
"I knew I had him," Basilio said. "I could see it in his eyes."
Saxton fought on with wonderful courage. He took more body blows, more head blows, and in the end Basilio was hitting him at will, a little wildly in his eagerness. Then a sweeping left hook found the button on Saxton's jaw. He went down, flat on his back, totally unconscious. Somehow he struggled to his feet at what may or may not have been the count of 10—the crowd was roaring so that it was impossible to hear—and as he did so Referee Tony LaBranche crisscrossed his arms to signal a knockout. He had to guide Saxton to his corner. Two minutes and 42 seconds of the second round had gone by, but to Saxton this brief period must have been an eternity of punishment.
"What I'd like now," Carmen Basilio said an hour or two later, opening a bottle of beer at the International Boxing Club's press headquarters, "is a shot at the middleweight title. I'll take Ray Robinson or Gene Fullmer, whoever wins. I like to fight."
"Thank God I wasn't hurt," said Johnny Saxton, suffering from a psycho-semantic condition.