THE THEATRE: 'CARMEN DESCENDING'

Nearing the end of his career, Carmen Basilio tries once again to make it back to center stage
January 16, 1961

Prizefighters are not characters in a play, yet the public demands a theatrical curtain for its heroes. Type-cast, they hang around for one more exit line, the one that will top the last or make up for the missed cue.

As Act I of Carmen Descending opens, we find Carmen Basilio symbolically fiddling with a roll of Life Savers in his hotel suite. It is several hours before he is to fight Gaspar Ortega at Madison Square Garden and he is diligently pursuing the role of the prizefighter who cannot make up his mind. Four of his hunting buddies, down from upstate New York for the fight, troop sheepishly in and out of the bedroom like bewildered extras. Basilio is 33 years old, has been welterweight and middleweight champion; during the last two years he has had but two fights and, with obviously diminished talents, lost both of them. He is pondering retirement as a visitor enters.

Visitor: You seemed to be horsing around at the weighin this morning. Has your attitude toward fighting changed over the years?

Basilio: You get older; you get mellow. I find out that it's easier to relax. This way you're able to save energy. You learn all these things. That's experience.

Visitor: Do you still enjoy fighting?

Basilio (moody): It's a source of endeavor. I haven't found any other source of endeavor. When I quit it's going to be like saying goodby to an old friend. It hurts to get old.

Visitor: Looking back, are you content that you went into boxing?

Basilio: I was nothing before I was a boxer. Boxing made me. Anyone in my position who would knock boxing would be stupid, an ingrate. I don't enjoy getting hurt, waking up with a puffed eye and pain, stiff all over. But you have to take the bitter with the sweet. That's the bitter. The sweet is when guys recognize you on the street, say hello champ, know who you are. It will always be sweet for me. I don't say this to be egotistical but they'll always remember me and say hello. But if you can't take the bitter, you don't deserve the sweet.

Visitor: What do you think about the fight with Ortega?

Basilio: It isn't going to be easy. I'll have to fight tonight. But the only thing that's going to lose this fight for me is running out of petrol. If I don't I'll lick him. I'll take the first six rounds. I might dump him in the first round. I know I'm talking awful porky. That son of a bitch—that's a figure of speech; he's not a son of a bitch—will try to run but he don't know how to run.

Visitor: Why do you keep fighting?

Basilio: Where else can I make $10,000 on January 7?

Visitor: Do you find it harder to train than in the old days?

Basilio (cheerful): Going to the gym is easy. It's getting up in the morning that's tough. Man, it's hell to climb out of the sack, get hit with that cold air. There's all kinds of snow up there where I come from. You got to argue with yourself: get up or the guy will knock your brains in, the crowd will get sour. It gets harder and harder. Now, if I was going hunting I'd fly out of the sack. You try to think of a good logical excuse: headache, sore muscle in the calf of your leg. You know what makes a man lazy?

Visitor: No.

Basilio: Success. I've had success. But when you don't work as hard, you can't travel with the champions. Sound sensible?

Visitor: Yes.

Basilio (musing): I used to be like an automatic robot in the old days. It's different now. I got to go through that argument every morning. Now my brother has to wake me up. I need someone to come get me, pull me out. My wife can't con me out of bed no more.

Visitor: Does she approve of you continuing to fight?

Basilio: If she had her way we'd pack our bags, get the train and go home right now. She's 100% against it.

Visitor: I guess you're the boss.

Basilio: I bring home the bread, don't I?

Visitor: When are you going to quit?

Basilio: Tonight will determine a lot of things. We'll wait and see what happens.

Visitor: I hear the crowd is going to be pretty good.

Basilio: The more the merrier.

Act II is in Madison Square Garden some hours later. There are 8,000 people there, the largest fight crowd in the Garden in years.

The organist is playing La Golondrina. Basilio mounts the ring and blows everyone a kiss. Ortega has several freehand hearts tattooed on his arms, an Indian head on his thigh, a cabalistic symbol on the back of his hand. He wears a faint Cantinflas mustache. Although it is a vigorous, agreeable fight, neither fighter shows distinction. Ortega, a slugger who can't punch, usually plunges recklessly in as if on roller skates but he seems rather in awe of Basilio. ("He had respect," Basilio noted later.) Respect probably costs Ortega the fight, as Carmen, tenaciously dogging him, misses with many of his hooks, relies frequently on his jab for points and doesn't always get the best of the volleying. He sends home the hardest punches, however. The decision is close but unanimous and fair: one judge and the referee score it 6-4; the other judge has it 5-4-1. But the outcome, which Carmen had promised would provide a denouement for his dwindling career, reveals nothing more than that an elderly middleweight can beat a ring-worn welterweight. Basilio weighed 159½ pounds, Ortega, 149½. Since Basilio had agreed to come in at 155 he faces the absurd punishment of being suspended for a month or so.

When Basilio hears the decision he blows some more kisses and goes to the dressing room for Act III. Like other middle-aged fighters, he had inhaled oxygen between rounds. This fascinated one reporter.

Reporter 1: What were you taking?

Basilio: Oxygen.

Reporter 1: What does it do for you?

Basilio: What are you breathing in here? Air? All right, what does it do for you?

Reporter 2: What were you talking to your corner about between rounds?

Basilio: I was telling them the strategy. I was a little clumsy in spots but Ortega was like a little boy. I never knew they [welterweights] could be so weak.

Reporter 3: Well, are you going to go on fighting? What are you going to do?

Basilio: I'm going to go to my hotel, get a nice cold drink, have something to eat and go to bed.

Reporter 3: Don't get hurt, Carmen.

Basilio: I'm not going to get hurt. I'm a selfish guy. Every time I make a move, don't worry, it's best for me.

Curtain.

Not a very good ending, is it? Here's a better one. It is Sept. 23, 1957, and Basilio, at the top of his form, is licking Sugar Ray Robinson in Yankee Stadium for the middleweight title. A man, somberly drunk in a white-on-white shirt and a white-on-white tie, is roaring hoarsely, vibrantly, out of the crowd toward the distant ring: "Battilo, a vita! Battilo, a vita!" And then in an eloquent and gracious stage whisper, translating for his non-Italian friends (at the moment, all within a quarter mile of him): "Which means, 'Hit him, my son.' " And, as though heeding the imploring, parental summons shouted across the night, Basilio, like Lizzie Borden, gives Robinson 40 whacks and then 41.

But that grand old play closed a long time ago.

PHOTOHERB SCHARFMANGRIMACING after sucking on a post-fight lemon, Carmen mugs like vaudevillian. PHOTOHERB SCHARFMANGASPAR ORTEGA (LEFT) AND BASILIO TRADE PUNCHES WITH WAXWORKS SOLEMNITY

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)