"THIS IS THE BABY...."
"Right here is the one that's going to do the real damage—the left hook digging up into the body, my favorite punch.
You've got to work inside with a big man—I'm 5 feet 6½ inches, he's six foot, that's a big difference." Basilio despises "head-hunters" who look so spectacularly aggressive and accomplish little.
The hands of Carmen Basilio are long and slender and, except for the lumps, skinned spots and bruises which are the stigmata of his fist-fighting trade, they suggest in no way the popular notion of what a fighter's hands should be like. Welterweight Champion Basilio takes extremely good care of these gentle-looking hands, padding them with foam rubber during training sessions. With them he intends to win the middleweight championship of the world from Sugar Ray Robinson at Yankee Stadium on the night of September 23.
Especially, he points out, with the left hand. Basilio is a hooker. His right hand is good, too, but it serves him primarily as a diversionary force, something to keep the opponent occupied while setting him up for a left hook. He is, furthermore, a body hooker—a truly fine infighter with the cold patience of the professional. He knows that while head shots delight the crowd, competent infighting is most discouraging to the opponent. Blows to the liver are painful, blows to the solar plexus are breathtaking, and a solid punch under the heart can make a flat-footed plodder out of a graceful, light-stepping boxer. Like, for instance, the graceful, light-stepping Sugar Ray.
September 15, 1957
This promises to be a magnificent fight. It will be a battle of champions, a good little man against a good bigger man and, so far as Carmen Basilio is concerned, a bit of a grudge battle. Sugar Ray once snubbed him. In pre-fight bargaining Sugar Ray forced him to take 5% less than Basilio felt entitled to. Then for 10 days Sugar Ray's histrionics and demands made it appear that the million-dollar fight might be off, after Basilio had spent weeks training for it, after he had passed up two $100,000 fights to get it. Sugar Ray is in for a rough night.
Basilio has been studying movies of Robinson's fights, just as Robinson has been studying Basilio movies. He has seen a few things and he has a plan. The plan will not, however, involve any radical change in his style. Basilio is an infighter, a crowder, a buzz saw, a man who wears his opponents down and outstays them. He is master of the war of attrition.
With this kind of attack Basilio does not, generally speaking, knock out his opponents in the early rounds. Each of his two knockouts of Tony DeMarco came in the 12th round. It was not until his third fight with Johnny Saxton that he-was able to put away the former welterweight champion in the second round. The first fight went 15 rounds, and Basilio lost on a mighty peculiar Chicago decision. The second ended in the ninth with Saxton knocked out.
Only when he has his man worn down with a body attack does Basilio turn to the head. Like most topflight professionals, he has contempt for the head-hunters who look so spectacularly aggressive and accomplish so little.
That will be the pattern of his fight against Sugar Ray Robinson. It is the pattern of a man who is wonderfully patient, even imperturbable, until a day or so before a fight. Then he becomes "mean." He will have something to be mean about in this fight.
It is most likely that a secondary consideration in the mind of Sugar Ray when he mounted his filibuster for a bigger share of theater television proceeds was the fact that such an act would unnerve any ordinary opponent. For nine days there was no certainty that the fight would be held at all. Most fighters would have ranted and fumed. Basilio did nothing of the sort. Announcement that the fight was off—at least temporarily—came to Carmen while he was holding three kings in a poker game at his training camp in Alexandria Bay, New York.
Ben Bentley, serving the International Boxing Club (James D. Norris, president) as camp publicist, got the fateful phone call.
"Hold it, fellows!" Bentley shouted at the noisy poker players. "We got trouble! It looks like the fight's off."
"Oh, my God," Basilio said, but softly. "That Robinson'll have to leave the country. Well, let's go. I've got three kings showing."
White the furies raged in New York, while Norris was stricken with what appeared to be food poisoning and taken to a hospital, while Julius Helfand, the boxing commission chairman, raged at Sugar Ray and threatened to take away his title, white Sugar Ray sassed Helfand, Basilio maintained the even tenor of his training schedule, fished in the St. Lawrence River for bass and pike, and played a little poker. His managers, Johnny De John and Joe Netro, did the fuming. Basilio relaxed. His contempt for Robinson as a person is deep ("He's arrogant and I despise him") but it is quiet. It was Robinson who got excited. It was Robinson who lost 10 days of proper training, though he did work out to some extent at a Harlem gym. It was Robinson who took sleeping pills.
It was also Robinson, to be sure, who got a $255,000 theater-television guarantee out of his tantrums to add to his 45% of the big gate and whatever is derived from movie sales and radio. But Robinson's act got Basilio a $110,000 theater-TV guarantee to go with his 20% of gate, radio and movies: Basilio is not altogether unhappy about this.
Except for his "mean" and taciturn prefight period, Basilio is a gentle and accommodating man. He will be meaner than ever for this fight. An admirer of Robinson as a fighting machine, Basilio once approached the mighty Sugar and bashfully held out the hand of friendship.
"Hello, Ray," he said shyly. "I'm Carmen Basilio."
Robinson looked at the fellow champion coldly, as if to inquire who this presumptuous upstart might be, then turned away, ignoring the outthrust hand. The snub will cost him a few extra licks on the night of the fight.
This is the way Basilio foresees the fight:
"During the first four rounds Robinson will be trying to take me out the way he did Fullmer in their second fight. I'll have to crowd him then. I can't give him punching room. It ought to be a fast four and I'll have to be very alert to keep from being hit too hard. But after that I'll have the advantage on him. I'm younger than he is. At 151 pounds I'm stronger than I ever was."
He intends to weigh-in at about this 151-pound level. A natural welterweight, he will be giving away nine pounds in weight and 4½ inches in height, but this does not disturb him at all.
Although he will not—and indeed cannot—change his style radically for Robinson, he has learned from a study of Robinson movies that some gambits must be avoided.
"For instance," he explained, "in my defense I'll have to remember that a low, low bob is not good against a tall man like Robinson because it gives him a chance to throw a right upper-cut, and in the Fullmer fights he landed a couple that way. He has good punching power and good leverage back here [pointing to the calf of his leg] and if he catches me coming up from a bob he can hit me with an uppercut to the pit of the stomach. If he does that it's going to hurt."
Preparing for this fight, Basilio seems to be thinking rather more of his defense than most fight fans would expect of him. Against relatively light punchers he does tend to ignore blows in order to score his own but he has the greatest respect for Robinson's punch. Working out on the speed bag, for example, he used a strange upward punch that most of those in the gym never had seen before. It's a dangerous exercise, for if he should miss the bag he would crash his fist against the steel swivel or the wooden board and perhaps break the hand. Basilio grinned when this was pointed out.
A GOOD STUNT
"I haven't missed but twice in five years," he said. "It's good exercise for keeping your hands up. You'll notice that lots of times after a few rounds a fighter will step back and let his hands drop to his sides. That means his arms are tired and he wants to give them a moment's rest. But this stunt is very good exercise for strengthening the arms."
Basilio keeps his hands up but does not hold them tight against his cheeks as Floyd Patterson does, or as Gene Fullmer did in the first Robinson fight. He holds them slightly lower and slightly away from his head—close enough to be protective but at such an angle that he can shoot a sudden hard punch when he is within range.
Basilio's rugged face gives the impression that he has been punched a lot. He has, indeed, been the victim of some bad cuts about the eyes, caused largely by the fact that his brow bones jut forward and are apparently quite sharp. (Frankie Ryff, a similar victim, has recently undergone an operation to round off his brow bones so that he can return to the ring with some hope that he won't have fights stopped because of cuts.) But Basilio's face in the main is surprisingly unmarked otherwise. His prominent nose, for instance, is quite straight. No one has ever bashed it in. Like any fighter, he can be hit and, like any fighter of his style, he is hit rather more often than most. But he takes these punches well. He has never been knocked out. He has been knocked down only once.
Facing Robinson, Carmen will be up against one of the great single-punch knockout craftsmen of our time. As Gene Fullmer discovered on the night he lost his brief championship, Robinson is a master at capitalizing on the opponent's errors. Sugar Ray does not need to wear his man down. He needs only an opening the size of a needle's eye. One punch can preserve the middleweight title for Robinson. One punch can force Basilio to remain king of the welterweights.
Basilio believes he can climb into the higher, more profitable division. Breaking camp at Alexandria Bay in order to complete his training at Syracuse, he was utterly confident.
This is a difficult fight to pick. But it does seem that Basilio's plan is sound, his style is right and that his gamester heart will give the middleweight division a new and very popular champion.
With a big man you have to stay in close, don't give him punching room, work the body. One way, though, for me to stop his long hook is just to cock my right like this (1). This low crouch (2) is characteristic of me, but Robinson may want me to do just this for his characteristic uppercut when I come out of it. He brings it right off the floor—with power. He gets great leverage from his calf muscles. Even if I've got my face covered he might catch me in the stomach, between my elbows. This (3) is the long left hook that finished Gene Fullmer in their second fight. A hard right to the body could beat it if, on the follow-through, I protect my chin with my shoulder. The simplest way for me to get close is (4) to get inside his jab and hook him. If he sends his long right to the head (5) I'll come under it with a hook to the body. Get Inside! He tends to carry his right hand low when he throws his long right to the kidney (6). I'll try to tear inside, block it with my left and catch him on the jaw with a short right, my shoulder guarding against his hook.
When I'm inside I'll keep my combinations to the body short, quick, hard. For instance, I'll duck in fast and take his left hook past my ear. Then, depending on whether his right hand is up or down, I'll hook him twice; either I'll dig up to the stomach (1) and hook to his head (2) or I'll reverse the combination. I'll follow with a short right to the head (3).
•TIME AND PLACE: Yankee Stadium, Sept. 23, 10:30 p.m. (EDT)
•FIGHTERS' RECORDS: Robinson: won 143, lost 4; Basilio: won 54, lost 12
•RADIO AND TV: NBC radio; closed circuit theater TV in 126 cities with about 500,000 seats available.
•FIGHTERS' PURSES: Robinson: 45% of the gate, plus 45% of radio, movie and TV receipts. He is guaranteed $255,000 of the TV receipts. Basilio: 20% of the gate, plus 20% of radio, movie and TV receipts. His TV guarantee: $110,000.