Since retiring as a spokesman for Genesee Brewery in 1994, Carmen Basilio has been doing what he never did as a boxer: taking it easy. One of the fiercest fighters of the '50s, the 77-year-old former welterweight and middleweight world champion does crossword puzzles, bowls and golfs, and still occasionally makes appearances at boxing and charity events.
In October he was in England and Wales for eight days, signing autographs and shaking hands alongside Scotland's former lightweight champion Ken Buchanan and England's former welterweight champ John Stracey. "It's an honor to stay connected with other fighters and boxing fans," he says. "I'm just glad people haven't forgotten me."
The second of four boys born to a Canastota, N.Y., onion farmer who made his sons don boxing gloves to settle their disputes, Basilio boxed for his high school team before joining the Marines at 17, in 1944. He continued boxing while in the Corps for three years, then turned pro in '48. The first eight years of his career were grueling. "I struggled to survive," he says. "I'd run in the morning, then work all day in a factory making generators, clearing about $75 a week. I'd train in the evenings at the gym."
Basilio lost his first title shot, to welterweight champ Kid Gavilan in 1953, but won the crown two years later with a decision over Tony DeMarco--and was finally able to quit his factory job. The Canastota Clouter was a crowd favorite and a gritty, tough guy who had a 56167 record. Though he lost his title in a dubious decision to Johnny Saxton in '56, Basilio regained it and defended it in two subsequent fights with him.
His biggest bout came in '57, when he took on Sugar Ray Robinson for the middleweight title. "All my life I'd dreamed about fighting in Yankee Stadium," Basilio says. "That's one of the best memories of my life." In front of 38,000 fans, Basilio and Robinson battered each other for 15 rounds before Basilio won a split decision and a $221,000 purse, the largest of his career. He lost the rematch and the title the following year in Chicago.
After retiring from the ring in 1961, Basilio taught physical education at Le Moyne College in Syracuse for 20 years and started making appearances for Genesee. He had sextuple bypass surgery in '97. Basilio and his wife, Josie, split time between homes in Rochester, N.Y., and Deltona, Fla. A few times a year he drives the 95 miles from Rochester to Canastota, to visit with friends at the International Boxing Hall of Fame, which was established there 14 years ago in part as a tribute to him. --Luis Fernando Llosa
A two-time world champ who defeated Sugar Ray Robinson, Basilio taught phys ed and was a brewery rep before retiring.