The melancholy fact of last week's Carmen Basilio-Gene Fullmer middleweight championship match was not that Basilio lost. It was how he lost that was so dismaying and disheartening. As a champion of two divisions, a man who has fought 10 title fights and more than 60 others, Carmen Basilio has given the prize ring some of its most memorable battles. "He would fight a lion if you just pointed him at one," an admiring handler once observed proudly.
But against Fullmer in Salt Lake City, Carmen seemed to feel he was fighting not a lion but a pack of hyenas. Faced with the certitude of defeat for the first time in his career, he yielded to a combination of vexation, exasperation and just plain futility and gave a demonstration that was shocking and unworthy.
He shouted at the crowd, cursed the referee, stuck his tongue out at a lady spectator and—unhappiest of all to report—made obscene gestures at his opponent, an elder of the Mormon Church, who methodically beat him to a pulp for his discourtesy. He even committed the cardinal sin of prizefighting: threatening a defenseless referee. Those who were ashamed for him were ashamed because they knew this was not the real Basilio but a desperate competitor who was really railing against the fact that his fine career is all too obviously at an end.
Why couldn't Basilio accept the finality of defeat more gracefully? It is doubtful if even he knows the whole answer to that. But there are portents. The main one is Fullmer himself. A trying man to fight under the best of circumstances, he seemed to Basilio to be an affront to Carmen's skill. Fullmer looks clumsy and easy to hit. For Basilio, he wasn't. Fullmer is a swarmer, a clincher, a dervish of awkward fury who throws punches from all angles of unorthodoxy and is as hard to swat as a fly in a hot room.
Moreover, he is bigger than Basilio. From ankle to chest to biceps to neck size, Fullmer is middleweight. It is the tragedy of Carmen Basilio that he is not. He is a natural welterweight who graduated into the middleweight division for a big-money crack at Ray Robinson and then could not reduce his way back to his natural habitat.
When he was savagely beaten by Fullmer in San Francisco last August, Basilio persuaded himself he had been the victim merely of a tactical error: he had, as usual, carried the fight to Fullmer.
This time he planned to let Fullmer come to him. He would even switch to his childhood style of southpaw fighting at the critical moment. This would be when Fullmer would start one of his characteristic rushes. Carmen intended to intercept him with a left hook, the one that had dumped Kid Gavilan and kayoed Tony DeMarco and Johnny Saxton.
Basilio's hooks fail
The basic flaw in the plan was that Basilio could not hurt Fullmer. And he found this out early in the fight—in the second round, when he caught the onrushing Fullmer flush with a brace of left hooks that exploded out of the classic Basilio crouch. Fullmer did not even blink. It was then that Carmen began to lash out at his environment, to blame everybody for his frustration except the one man responsible—Fullmer. When the referee, Pete Giacoma, cautioned Carmen about a low blow in the third round, Carmen succinctly told him "Go to hell." It was the start of his temporary loss of dignity and was rooted in his disappointment in himself.
There is a grandeur about a man hurling himself upon an opponent who is sure to beat him badly for his pains. And there was a grandeur about Basilio, with his face bloodied, his body reddened, and his shoulders and chest a mass of lacerations from glove laces, carrying the fight to his tormentor. It was a kind of forlorn Pickett's Charge that saddens but raises admiration and respect in the hearts of men.
Unfortunately, Carmen was too fiery a competitor to accept martyrdom uncritically. His moral disintegration became noticeable to the crowd in the fifth round, when Basilio heard Fullmer's manager, Marv Jenson, shouting one of his (probably meaningless) signals at his fighter, "Seven-four." Carmen broke off the fight to shout "Six-two" in derision. In the ninth round, when he heard Jenson shout, "Watch the low blows," Basilio roared, "Watch these." In his extremity, he developed a near-fatal case of rabbit ears. He was, at the last, an angry man and not a professional prizefighter.
In the eighth round, bulled through the ropes, Basilio loosed a few epithets at the roost of photographers perched on the ring apron. Preoccupied with this distraction, he found himself catching a good left hook on the chin moments later and he went down backwards. Furious at himself, his face working, he promptly turned the legitimate knockdown into a burlesque by doing a quick back somersault. His camouflage worked and the referee was fooled. The clean knockdown was ruled a slip even though it was the most elaborate "slip" ringsiders had ever seen.
By the 10th round, Basilio was lurching to his corner on flat feet and with eyes grown glassy. The fight had degenerated into target practice for Fullmer. Basilio was only vestigially dangerous and soon he wasn't even that. With six seconds to go in the 12th, Giacoma stopped the fight. Carmen's rage really spilled over. "Waddaya mean?" he screamed. "Ya can't do this, I'll—" and he pushed the referee and drew back his fist as if to smash him in the face. Fullmer stared at him in disbelief. Police poured into the ring. Carmen was led to his corner. He drew back his fist again but his handler, Big Mike De John, a heavyweight contender himself, enveloped him.
A late press conference
That night Basilio's good friend, the press agent emeritus of the fight game, Murray Goodman, became concerned over the damage done to the Basilio image by the final scenes in the ring and the wirephotos flooding the country showing Basilio screaming and squaring off at a referee. Goodman set up an unprecedented postmidnight press conference in the loser's hotel room. A calmer but unreconstructed Basilio sat, barefoot, in slacks and a windbreaker.
"Retire?" scoffed Carmen. "When it comes to retire, you got to think about it. You gonna get me a job paying $20,000 a year? I got to fight just to pay my taxes." He was asked about his gestures in the ring. "You gonna print that?" he asked derisively. Someone passed a picture around. It showed a Basilio of 10 years ago. "Ya see," commented a friend, "ya talk about his 'craggy' face and what fighting's done. But his face looked the same even then, before he used to fight." "Carmen was born beat up," cracked a newsman. Carmen laughed heartily. "You'll collect $54,000," he was told. Carmen grew serious. "A good pay night. But I earned it," he murmured.
It was little enough for what Carmen had lost.