The most determined little man ever to fight a big man, Carmen Basilio worked his furious will on wily Sugar Ray Robinson at Yankee Stadium Monday night and happily abandoned his hard-won welterweight championship for the glory of the middleweight crown that Robinson has hitherto worn whenever he really wanted it, which is to say four separate times.
It was a triumph of body over mind, of Basilio's will over Robinson's wile. The tough little Chittenango Choo Choo, looking like a toy train on a rough track, never deviated from his basic plan—a vicious, weakening attack on Robinson's waspish waist, varied with more than enough head blows to keep Robinson aware that he must protect himself everywhere. Robinson tried but couldn't. He turned then to his big punch, a natural resource that had won back the middleweight title from Bobo Olson and Gene Fullmer. He tried it on Carmen Basilio, outweighed by 6½ pounds, and found at last a man who could shake it off. The Robinson wile was not much good, either. You can't feint a freight train.
It did seem, for perhaps 30 seconds of the 12th round, that Robinson might score a knockout. Late in the round the preposterous Sugar man, 37 years old and still light on his dancing feet, put together a series of desperate punches that almost ended the fight. He crashed a right to Basilio's jaw, good enough to knock out an Olson or a Fullmer but good enough only to stagger a Basilio. He immediately followed it with a smashing left, another right to the jaw—the classic one-two, smartly done. Basilio reeled back, and Robinson was on him, cat-quick and bull-strong, crunching two more rights to the jaw.
Basilio was hurt, too dazed to fight back. He covered his head and took a right to the body, followed instantly as his guard dropped by a left hook to the jaw. He was a bleeding, groggy mess as he wobbled to his corner.
But his seconds patched him up and sent him out again. He fought brilliantly until, near the end of the round, he took a left hook that almost finished him. This time he had trouble finding his corner. In the 14th, Robinson threw another big hook at the end of the round, but it was clear that he no longer had the steam to put his man away.
But these brief episodes of mastery could not outweigh Basilio's sustained attack in round after round, hooking to body and head, digging his right under the heart, crossing it to Robinson's jaw. It was a split decision, though it seemed impossible that any score card could have given less than eight rounds to Basilio.
There will be a rematch, if Robinson wants it, and this prospect drew immediate cynical comment that Sugar Ray may lose a first fight but never lets a man beat him twice. The new champion, though, is one of the toughest fighters of his generation and at age 30 seems to be coming to his peak.
Robinson had talked of retirement, win or lose. If so, he could now retire with glory in defeat, for the crowd that roared its admiration for him at the end never has seen a champion lose more respectably. It was one of the great fights.