In suite 605-A of Chicago's Conrad Hilton Hotel there was genteel sipping of drinks in the parlor and a man running about with his head shaved so as to leave a crew-cropped "S" of hair on an otherwise naked poll. "S for Sugar," he explained, bowing to display it. "Like a tribute." In the adjoining bedroom the winner of this citation, Sugar Ray Robinson, was being put to bed by tender-handed aides who stripped off his street clothing, then drew silk blue-striped pajamas onto his well-pummeled body, which two hours ago was a thing of grace and power. Sugar Ray made no unnecessary move to help them. He had stiffened up in the Chicago Stadium dressing room in an hour of postfight ministrations and had to be half-carried out of the arena and into the hotel. "Even the soles of my feet hurt," he said in a whisper of exhaustion. To regain his middleweight championship of the world he had endured terrible punishment at the hands of Carmen Basilio, who won the title from him last September. The punishment was mostly about the body, where it does not show but where it hurts much more than a punch on the jaw. Basilio had taken severe punishment too, but his showed dramatically, like Oedipus's blindness, in one horribly closed eye puffed to the size of a pullet egg, dyed purple and green, with a pink slit where the lid had been cut.
That eye cost Carmen Basilio his middleweight title, gave Robinson his fifth winning of a championship he had won, lost, rewon, resigned and rewon, lost and rewon and lost again in a pattern unprecedented in boxing history. Now he had rewon it once more.
While Robinson lay tucked in bed, eyes half-closed, looking like a well-composed corpse with a beige telephone propped against its ear, the voice of George Gainford, his most permanent manager through the years, a man of imperious mien and thereby known as "The Emperor," resounded through the room.
"What are you going to call him now?" big George boomed, savoring the chance to taunt a sporting press which, like the gambling odds, had favored Champion Basilio 2 to 1. " 'The Amazing Mr. Robinson'? Or 'The Miracle Man'? What are you going to call him?"
April 7, 1958
The sporting press tried not to blush and stood looking fixedly at Robinson.
Sugar Ray whispered some words of reassurance to his mother and the telephone was hung up for him. He murmured some noncommittal answers to questions about the fight and his future, seemed to wish that everyone would please go away. He was clearly exhausted. Only once did he spark brightly to a question, as he might have responded to a jab.
"When did you think you had the fight won?" a reporter asked.
"When the man raised my hand and said 'Winner and new champion,' " he answered.
He managed to add a small smile to that. Then he closed his eyes, and all but the members of his entourage were shooed out of the suite. One got the impression of leaving a decorous wake rather than the celebration of a triumph.
Oh, death, where is thy sting? The sting was stuck in Carmen Basilio's left eye, from which bloody tears were to drip during the night.
To understand the handicap under which Basilio labored from the fourth round on, stand in a bobbing, weaving fighter's crouch and close your left eye. With both eyes open you can see a point high on the opponent's chest, which is where fighters concentrate their gaze because they depend on peripheral vision to signal them the starting of an opponent's punch from either side. (You can't look at both hands simultaneously any better way.) The left eye is a major factor in detecting these starting punches because the crouching fighter's head is cocked to the right, left eye upward. The left eye, therefore, provides elevated as well as lateral vision, to include the right hand. Thus with his left eye closed the handicapped fighter is forced not only to turn his head to the left—he must rise from his crouch in order to compensate for the loss of the top third of his field of vision.
But when he rises from his crouch with left eye closed he cannot even take the classical upright stance, which has the left side slightly presented to the opponent. He must face him head on, an awkward situation.
Basilio is no straight-up fighter of the classical style. He is a bobber and weaver. By an accident of the ring he was required in this fight to stand like a preliminary boy facing, indeed, an opponent of such high skills as to be alone in his generation.
Basilio was at a further disadvantage and recognized it soon after the injury, which was caused by blood seeping into the eye from a mid-brow bruise incurred in the third round. When the eye closed he lost his depth perception.
"I couldn't gauge my distance," Basilio explained.
Two good eyes provide a stereoscopic effect that tells us how far away an object is, tells a fighter how to time his punches for impact at the moment of its greatest effect.
So now Basilio, though never a figure of easy, natural elegance in the ring, was forced into a totally clumsy stance and at the same time deprived of a sight faculty that would give fullest authority to his punching. Furthermore, he is at his best as a hooker and he could no longer see to throw his left hand adequately.
The significance of the closing eye was recognized instantly in Basilio's corner. It touched off a tense drama of decision quite as stirring as the drama in the ring, though not as visible. A closed eye can be opened, but by methods that are unsanitary, ugly and dangerous to eye and brain. The trick is to slit the lid and suck out the accumulation of blood, lymph and what-all. The slit is then seared shut (sometimes by means which are so dangerous as to be illegal) and an ice pack is applied.
To accomplish all this in less than the minute between rounds is a skill to be admired with disgust. Good cut-men know how, and many have steeled themselves to it at one time or another. Thus it was that Whitey Bimstein, a cut-man of distinction, gave Rocky Graziano his chance to win the middleweight title from Tony Zale, which Graziano then did.
For this operation, Carmen's trainer, Angelo Dundee, one of the finest of corner men, carried a sterile (finicky fellow) razor blade in his kit on the night of March 25. He debated the question in his own quick mind, and he might indeed have used the blade, with the permission of Basilio's co-managers, Joe Netro and Johnny De John, except that these three are men who cherish their fighter more than as a source of wealth.
So between the fifth and sixth rounds there came the fateful moment of decision. There was a brief weighing of the risks, including a practical realization that lancing the eye might start a flow of blood that would stop the fight. They decided in favor of Basilio's ultimate welfare, win or lose. Only ice packs were used. The eye was now fully closed, having had some acceleration from a Robinson uppercut in the fourth round.
Dr. Richard A. Perritt, eye specialist at Wesley Memorial Hospital, Chicago, complimented the co-managers and Trainer Dundee on their restraint a few days after the fight, when surgical examination disclosed that neither the eyeball nor the retina had been injured.
If Dundee ("I made a split-second decision not to") had lanced the lid, Dr. Perritt said, he would have risked infection of veins leading to the brain, with cerebral thrombosis (brain clotting) and permanent eye damage as possible results.
"We are being criticized for not cutting the eye," De John said, "but the doctor says we did the best thing when we did not cut. And like Angelo says, 'If it's something I can't handle, I won't handle it.' So it was best we didn't cut.
"It was in the third round he got a bump between the eyes. He got to moving around in the fourth and all that blood began to seep down into the eye and it was beginning to close. Robinson, naturally, he sees this and, naturally, he hits it again. But it was closing by itself anyhow."
So Champion Basilio, by the grace of good, warm consideration for his well-being, was permitted to come out for the sixth round with an eye so closed and swollen and so clearly useless that the crowd of 18,000 in the stadium gasped in horror. With two-thirds of the fight to go, it was a cruel handicap. It had been a handicap in the fifth but the crowd didn't see it clearly then.
Handicap, to be sure, and at the same time handicap, my eye. To Basilio it was a challenge. He punches harder when hurt than when things are going his way. Basilio, who had won three of the first five rounds on this scorecard, raged off his stool and into a Robinson jab in that ominous sixth while Sugar coldly considered this crystallized situation. His man was not totally blind on the left side. While Robinson thought it over, Basilio fought his way inside and hooked to the body in the very way that had twisted Robinson's face into a mask of lip-contorted pain in the first and second rounds. Basilio slammed a right uppercut to the head, an upper-cut of a very special kind that he had developed for use against taller fighters like Robinson, who stands 5 feet 11 inches against Basilio's 5 feet 6½ inches or thereabouts. (The official records are sometimes exaggerated.) It is not a looping uppercut of the usual sort, but a straight right delivered upward in tight quarters. It landed on the chin, and Robinson's head snapped back. Basilio returned to the body attack, then back to the head. Robinson retired to jab and study. He decided to shoot at the blind side. He landed a right to the head, missed a right uppercut, crashed a hard straight right to the head. Basilio discovered again that he could not see right hands. He backed away. Robinson followed, jabbing tentatively, seeking his chance. He paused, and seemed thereby to sucker Carmen into another charge. He caught Carmen coming in. With one of his old familiar combinations, Sugar Ray crashed lefts and rights to blind and sighted sides with beauty and precision. Basilio retreated again and lost the round, though by very little.
That was pretty much the whole story of the fight, except that it had its many high moments in round after round. Robinson fired no less than seven straight perfect jabs to start the seventh, tested Basilio's ability inside and found that, as much by feel as by sight, Carmen still could punish the liver and spleen. It was a painful lesson, and Robinson backed off from it. He missed with three lefts but he landed with four blind-side rights to the head. It was another round for Robinson. It put him ahead for the first time in the fight. (This is personal scoring. The referee and judges were so at variance that the official round-by-round picture is an inextricable muddle.)
Basilio won the eighth round. He started it by landing lefts, straight rights and right uppercuts to Robinson's head, shifted to the body and dominated the entire three minutes except for a big Robinson right that crashed against his jaw. This was one of Sugar's four or five tries at a knockout during the fight, and, though a couple of them staggered the little fellow (153 pounds against 159¾), it was clear that Basilio can take whatever may be left of Robinson's best. In this eighth round Robinson first showed signs of age and weariness. His right hand missed time after time. He clutched more often, leaned on Basilio, began to use his weight in a way that he had hitherto disdained.
From there on he began, as expected, to save himself in the early portions of the rounds, to concentrate his fury and finesse on the closing minute, which is the minute official and unofficial scorers are most likely to remember. You could give him a little credit for that, too. It is, in its way, ring generalship.
But most of all he fought as a champion—not steadily, but in marvelous spurts of sweet symmetry in motion. Basilio is a slugger with the heart of a marine but he does not make you think of figures on Greek vases. Robinson does.
Robinson won the fight. Referee Frank Sikora has been meanly assailed for voting 69-66 for Basilio (on the five-point system) but he was not much further from the truth than Judge John Bray (71-64 for Robinson) or Judge Spike McAdams (72-64 for Robinson) who erred, it seemed in the second press row, on the other side of the line. The vote here was 68-67 for Sugar. It was a tight fight.
This fight meant far more than who won and what you think about the scoring. The millions who saw it in the stadium and on closed circuit TV were privileged to pay for a vision of gallantry not commonly seen in our time. It restored to boxing some old values. Men like Robinson and Basilio do not fight just for a purse. Not when they must go from the ring to a bed of exhaustion and pain, like Robinson, or a hospital, like Basilio. There is honor and bravery in it.
Boxing is a dirty business in some of its aspects but it is a lovely sport, for spectators, anyhow. Where else can you pay for a heart-lifting view of two valiant men like these?
Ophthalmologists say that each eye sees two-thirds of the total field of vision but that Basilio, having deep-set eyes and a prominent nose, lost slightly more than a third of his vision when his left eye closed, the right eye providing not quite its usual two-thirds. (Shaded area indicates loss.) The loss forced him to shift from his normal stance. In addition, Basilio lost depth perception, which is of vital importance in judging the precise distance a punch must travel.
The fabulous Sugar Ray Robinson, the man in the light fuchsia Cadillac, has illuminated 19 brilliant years of boxing history. His record of titles won, lost and regained, and his ability at the age of 37 (or 38) to go through 15 rounds to victory against one of the ring's most damaging sluggers—these are feats without precedent in boxing, unlikely ever to be equaled.
Sugar Ray falls only just short of being a national institution. The better to judge his career and marvel at the length of its span, consider the events of world history it paralleled:
1939 Hitler signs love pact with Stalin. Ray wins Golden Gloves featherweight title.
1940 Leon Trotsky assassinated. Floyd Patterson enters kindergarten. Sugar Ray wins Golden Gloves lightweight title, turns pro.
1941 Japan attacks Pearl Harbor. Sugar wins 20 fights, beating Fritzie Zivic.
1942 First nuclear chain reaction at University of Chicago. Robinson beats 14, including Jake LaMotta.
1943 Pay-as-you-go income tax inaugurated. Robinson loses one to LaMotta, his first defeat. Three weeks later he beats LaMotta, then Henry Armstrong.
1944 Roosevelt elected to fourth term. Sugar Ray wins five small fights.
1945 Year of Roosevelt's death, Mussolini's assassination, Hitler's suicide, A-bombs over Japan and war's end. Ray wins eight, and draws against José Basora.
1946 Lord Haw Haw hanged. Goering commits suicide. Sugar Ray wins welter-weight championship from Tommy Bell.
1947 Truman Doctrine established, Henry Ford dies. In first title defense Sugar defeats Jimmy Doyle (who was so injured he died soon after the fight).
1948 Gandhi assassinated. Robinson retains welter crown in defense against Bernard Docusen.
1949 Russia explodes A-bomb. Ray wins 12 fights, including welterweight title bout with Kid Gavilan.
1950 Korean invasion, Brink's Express robbery. Sugar Ray wins 19, beating Robert Villemain, Charley Fusari and Bobo Olson.
1951 Truman fires MacArthur. Robinson KOs LaMotta in winning world middleweight title, loses title to Randy Turpin, wins it back.
1952 Farouk abdicates, Eisenhower elected president. Ray beats Olson again, KOs Rocky Graziano, loses to Joey Maxim in try for light heavyweight title, announces retirement.
1953 Stalin dies, Mau Maus rise, Mt. Everest scaled. Sugar Ray stays retired.
1954 Supreme Court rules racial segregation in schools unconstitutional. With Olson holding middleweight title, Ray decides to fight again.
1955 Eisenhower has heart attack. Sugar loses to Tiger Jones. Experts plead that he retire. Sugar wins title from Olson.
1956 Khrushchev repudiates Stalinism, crushes Hungarian revolt. Sugar retains title against Olson.
1957 Army deactivates mules. Khrushchev praises Stalin. Ray loses title to Gene Fullmer, gets it back, loses it to Carmen Basilio.
1958 Khrushchev KOs Bulganin for title. Sugar Ray wins his title back from Basilio in return match. Here we go again.