Today’s “Learn from the Fight Lesson” stuck with Sugar Ray Robinson and Carmen Basilio’s careers as they collided in two middleweight title bouts that were declared fights of the year in 1957 and ’59.
Sugar Ray Robinson versus Carmen Basilio Undisputed World Middleweight Championship 23.09.1957
After winning back his title for a record fourth time and knocking Gene Fullmer out for the first time in his career with the “perfect left hook” Robinson took his first title defence of this latest reign just under five months afterwards.
In his autobiography, Robinson spoke highly of Gene Fullmer and his manager, Marv Jansen. He said both were complete gentlemen who actually came into Ray’s dressing room after the fight to congratulate him on the knockout win. Robinson apparently said to the press “The punch was-” and Fullmer interrupted with “Was beautiful”. However, he said that while Fullmer and Jansen were being gracious the IBC were behind the scenes scheming to deprive the former middleweight a shot at the world title. Despite the clause in the contract, they somehow persuaded Fullmer to step down and allow a fight with Basilio to go ahead.
Carmen Basilio took just one more fight after his knocking out former welterweight champion Johnny Saxton in round 2 of their rubber match and in defence of the welterweight championship. He knocked out Harold Jones in round four of their non-title match. Having won the Fight of the Year two years in a row and now the welterweight champion again, the draw for the fight was the two champions against one another angle.
Basilio said of the fight:
“Well, we were in a position where he was looking for an opponent and I was looking for an opponent so we thought a Robinson vs Basilio fight would be a good thing for the people. So that’s what happened. They were big world championship fights and I moved up from welterweight into middleweight, to the upper class. One of my great thrills was that I fought him in Yankee Stadium.”
Robinson demanded 45 per cent of the gate. He argued he was the defending the title and needed it to help pay off his back taxes. The match, held outside at the Yankee Stadium, The Bronx, drew an audience of 38,072. This generated a gross gate of $566, 467 producing a net gate of $481,417. 170 theatres in 39 states showed the fight and Canada ran it on closed circuit television. Robinson ended up with a purse of $483,666 and Basilio’s received $211,679.
There was a lot of intrigue and battles between lawyers regarding payments from theatre-TV deals. BoxRec stated:
“The federal government filed a notice of levy on $514,000 of Robinson’s income to collect anticipatory taxes.”
Robinson said as soon as the bell for the first round sounded the IRS ordered the IBC hold all of Robinson’s money. He owed the government $80,000 from the previous year in disallowed expenses. It was the tip of the iceberg for Robinson who had negotiated a four year plan on repaying his ’57 taxes and then been told by the IRS that it was illegal. Worse still, they would end up holding over half million of Robinson’s earnings and Sugar Ray was forced to hire a special tax lawyer.
Although Robinson had no personal gripe against Carmen Basilio he resented the fact the man had been given Ring Magazine’s Fighter of the Year in 1955, the year he had made his comeback. Basilio would also earn this accolade for a second time in ’57.
Carmen Basilio came in at 154lbs and Sugar Ray Robinson weighed in at 160lbs. Basilio’s record stood at 51–12–7 and Robinson’s was 141–5–2. Only one stoppage loss stood between them, which was Robinson losing more to extreme heat than his heavier opponent he had been out-pointing up to this stage.
The fight proved to be a battle with both fighters seemingly bringing their best game to the ring. We watched just over 15 minutes of highlights of the bout that went the full 15 rounds. Most of the action reviewed occurred in the latter third of the fight.
Round 1 – Both fighters circled the centre of the ring not giving much ground either way. They both adopted their familiar styles. Robinson, the boxer-puncher, was going to run things from the outside by using his jab whilst Basilio, the pure swarmer, looked for his opening.
Robinson took the first few seconds working his jab. A la Gene Fullmer’s first fight with Robinson, Basilio did not hang around too long to launch his counter-assault. The champion’s punches found their mark but Basilio was on him with two-fisted combinations to the head, hooks to the body and eventually transitioning into single-arm clinches. The first round, on balance and from what we saw, seemed fairly even.
Round 2 – During the last minute we saw a terrific, if short, to and fro with Basilio pummelling his way in only to receive a vicious series of hooks from Robinson. The champion took to the back-foot and worked his jab whereas the challenger covered the distance and burrowed in with his his hooks.
Round 5 – Basilio now had a cut above his left eye but otherwise the match appeared to be quite even. So far it had been a war between Robinson’s sharp jab that was homing in on the cut and Basilio’s impactful body shots. The challenger took Sugar Ray to the ropes but they didn’t stay there long.
The champion remained working from the outside and back-pedaling whilst throwing jabs. Whenever they collided in the centre of the ring, Basilio seemed to take charge. However, Robinson gave back plenty and fired off his own combinations to the body.
Round 9 – The previous three rounds had seen some hard exchanges that looked they might end the fight. However, both men emerged for Round 9 still looking full of energy. Robinson appeared to be scoring more out of the two at this stage. Having shown he could mix it up with Basilio he was now sniping with deadly accuracy. However, the challenger, although markedly slower than we had previous seen eventually made his way in and was clearly forcing the fight.
Robinson snapped straights from his lead and rear upstairs and downstairs as he circled off Basilio. Still the Upstate Onion Farmer came forward and it even looked like he threw Robinson off from a single arm-clinch just seconds ahead of the bell.
Round 11 – Declared by many to be the best round of the fight. Basilio came in hard determined to take control of the fight. Robinson went to the clinch as the challenger remained active. However, his circling now became tighter and he seemed intent to go back into the trenches with Basilio, his jab snapping back the challenger’s head with regularity. The Onion Farmer seemed to eat them up and was undeterred. As the exchanges wore on he got his purchase and returned fire with vigour, first going to the body and then upstairs. He pushed Robinson onto the ropes and poured on the pressure as the champion covered up.
The champion came out and clinched briefly before resuming his jabbing position, leading into his own sharp combinations. The round ended with Basilio clinching and throwing rights to the ribs.
Round 12 – Although still feeling the impact of the previous round’s onslaught on the ropes, Robinson took the early initiative. He began with jabs that soon cleared the path for a sharp one-two but he missed with some heavy over-hands. Basilio came forward hard and forced the inside the fighting, landing some heavy shots to the body. He pounced with a near gazelle punch left hook. However, Robinson moved out and tested a bolo punch that glanced off Basilio’s elbow. Then he found an opening with a light jab. This was followed by another single jab, setting up for a clean double-jab/overhand right that detonated on the challenger’s face.
Yet, despite reeling off the shot, Basilio was back without barely missing a beat. Robinson saw another opening and let fly with his devastating left hook. It was Basilio now moving out of range as the champion tried to follow up with the bolo punch. The challenger moved back into the trenches, using his left shoulder and Robinson continued with his left hook, his jab and his bolos. He was bringing all his best weapons onto his opponent to finish this dangerous opponent inside the distance and Basilio took them all.
Round 13 – Most of this round went to Basilio who looked the least tired of the two. He patiently moved in with his swarming attacks, working to get that left hook in whenever and wherever possible. We witnessed the challenger doubling up to the body and then head. During the last minute Robinson rallied again and the round finished with him unloading a series of hooks onto a covering up Basilio.
Round 14 – Both fighters now looked tired yet traded from the opening bell onward. Basilio worked his body shots in, especially his left hook that connected with Robinson’s ribs. However, the champion was not out of juice yet. He fired back in with head shots that got the challenger bobbing and weaving out of the way. Although Robinson’s slower jabs might have missed the mark his infamous savage right hook to the kidneys landed with thunderous undeniability. As the bell rang it seemed this round was more Robinson’s.
Round 15 – The final round saw Robinson adopt more of an out-boxer’s strategy. This took the time-honoured form of regular jabbing from the outside and tying up the swarmer in clinches. His gameness to engage, the good number of rallies he had won and the crispness of his jabs had convinced him the fight was in the bag by this stage. However, to most onlookers it appeared to have been a tightly fought contest with many even rounds. Regardless of the damage he had taken to the face – pretty much par for the course for Basilio – the challenger had never ceased to press the fight. Round 15 was no different in this respect. As the Onion farmer continued to charge and Robinson to clinch, the bell rang. Sugar Ray put out his right glove and Basilio touched in mutual admiration of the war they had just fought.
The fight went to a split decision. Al Berl scored the fight 9-6-1 Robinson, but Ait Aadi scored it 9-5-1 Basilio and Bill Recht scored it 8-6-1 Basilio.
Robinson believed the fight was crooked and remarked years later that the IBC appeared too happy with Basilio’s win. He believed the decision should have gone his way and this was demonstrated by the wounds sported by his opponent. Basilio had received two cuts above his left that had to be stitched. The press were split on who they thought won the bout with 26 going for Basilio and 17 for Robinson, four scored it even. The fight won Basilio his third Ring Magazine’s Fight of the Year credit in a row to go with his Fighter of the Year.
Robinson considered retiring again. He said there was too much “intrigue” in boxing. However, he still owed a lot of tax and his money was being held by the IRS. He was also being sued by two of his advisors he had sacked prior to the Basilio fight.
The rematch was just six months later and only three days after Robinson had attended a hearing to negotiate his tax repayment. He had been allowed to release monies to pay his team but Robinson was sceptical by the fact that the person hearing his case was a southerner.
Knowing that Jim Norris, one of the fight’s promoters, owned a Chicago bank, Robinson demanded that he pay him two-hundred thousand dollars in cash the day before the fight. He declared that he would call off the fight if this was not arranged. In truth, Robinson had contracted a virus and it had been leaked to the bookies. Robinson’s own team wanted him to postpone the fight and the ex-champion would have a legitimate reason to pull out. The money was delivered.
Carmen Basilio versus Sugar Ray Robinson Undisputed World Middleweight Championship 25.03.1958
The fight took place at the Chicago Stadium. According to BoxRec:
There was a crowd of 17,976.
The gross gate was $351,955 and the net gate was $278,108.
Each fighter collected 30% of the net gate, an estimated $300,000 from closed circuit TV and $30,000 from the national radio broadcast.
The 30 percent was something Robinson’s team had negotiated in the contract for the first fight. Win or lose, Robinson was to get the same in the rematch.
Robinson had asked for delays before fights and always felt he needed to be in 100 percent condition before fighting. Tonight, however, he felt confident. This was despite the fact that the virus was still lingering and during the weigh-in his temperature was too high. Robinson pleaded with the chairman of the commission and the official doctor to give him more time to get his temperature down. They gave him until 5pm that day.
When Robinson weighed in, he just tipped the scales at 160lbs. This time it had been particularly difficult to make the weight. He had gone without food for 20 hours before the fight. Basilio was now at 1
With the rumour of the virus already ahead of the medical, Robinson was slated as the 8-5 underdog. Those odds changed to and were confirmed at 2-1 on the day of the weigh-in as the virus was not officially confirmed.
Dr Nardiello, against his better judgement, lied to the commission after Robinson pleaded with him. His temperature was down only a little. Nardiello gave him a shot of penicillin and Vitamin B12 before the fight.
Boxing experts generally believed that Basilio was now in his prime and Robinson was clearly on his way out. Sports writers had all but written his career orbituary before the fight.
Round 1 – Robinson adopted a different strategy from the outset. Whereas last time he favoured the out-boxer side of his boxer-puncher persona this time he was going to channel the slugger half, imposing his extra seven pounds on his younger adversary. We would see him use his rear uppercut like a wrecking ball whilst Basilio would rely on his ever effective left hooks to the body and head, often in sequence.
Both men clinched early and gave it their all with the referee struggling to prize them apart. They immediately went back into the trenches and exchanged hooks to the body. Inevitably they ended up in clinches again. Robinson was noticeably very active here, more so than we are used to seeing and clearly intent not to give an inch. Basilio happily obliged. The referee routinely forced them apart and the round ended with both men throwing punches after the bell.
Round 3 – The pace Robinson had sent continued as he shot out his jab viciously to the head and body. Basilio caught some, absorbed others and slipped more as he tried to work his way inside. However, he wasn’t facing a circling, backpedaling Robinson this time. The challenger/ex-champion fought the smaller man toe-to-toe.
Basilio looked lively between exchanges, using a mixture of over-hands, lead hooks and chopping hooks to the body.
Round 4 – Basilio’s left eye began to give him trouble again and was clearly beginning to swell. Robinson zeroed in on it like never before, leaving nothing to chance.
Round 5 – Basilio moved in with looping shots, taking damage all the time. Robinson’s plan seemed to be centred on closing the champion’s eye.
Round 6 – Despite best efforts from his cuts team, Basilio’s left eye was now closed to a slit.
Round 7 – Robinson was clearly in the lead at this stage.
Round 8 – Robinson maintained his advantage.
Round 9 – Basilio fought back hard, his face deformed by the bulbous swelling of his left eye. With the fight in the trenches, Robinson probably had not anticipated his opponent would still be there willing to trade shots. He hadn’t been taken out by Fullmer, another swarmer who had both beaten him and never been stopped until the two had last fought. The new champion clearly had found a second wind.
Round 10 – Basilio maintained the new pace he set in the previous round and the 37 year-old challenger was now too slow on his feet to move outside the danger zone.
Round 11 – Still the war continued with Basilio continuing to take the fight to Robinson.
Round 14 – Robinson knew he was in with what I call a “Mordred” comparable to Jake LaMotta. He could not afford to coast. Having set a slug-fest pattern from the outset and taken charge in the middle rounds, he had been surprised that his enemy had not gone down. In this round, the masterful boxer had to dig deep beyond his skillset to demonstrate he could carry the fight. This is exactly what happened.
Round 15 – Robinson kept his foot firmly on the pedal, continuing to take the fight back to Basilio to play the man at his own game.
Although another closely fought war, this time 28-1 sports journalists scored the fight in favour of Robinson. The split decision still wasn’t extremely popular with a portion of the audience reportedly favouring Basilio. The fight was another split decision with referee Frank Sikora scoring the match 69-66 to Basilio whereas judges Frank Spike McAddams and John Bray scoring it 64-72 and 64-71 respectively.
As reported in FightCity:
“I just couldn’t get my distance right after the eye closed,” Basilio later told reporters. “If you can’t get distance, you find yourself off balance.”
Robinson would quote journalist Bob Considine in his autobiography regarding the state of Basilio’s eye and his vision after round 6:
“Basilio had to get in close and feel for his man, like a fighter in a dark closet. He had to sense where to aim, what to throw. It was a fight between a mole and a hawk.”
Meanwhile Robinson would have to stretchered back to his dressing room and would refuse entrance to the press for two hours, when he was in his bed at the Conrad Hotel.
Basilio and Robinson would never get their rubber match due the monetary demands made by both fighters.
Like their first fight, their second bout would also win Ring Magazine’s Fight of the Year for 1958. Sugar Ray Robinson would beat his previous record by becoming the first boxer in any division to win back a world title five times. This was also a record for Basilio being the fourth time in a row he had been in Ring Magazine’s Fight of the Year. It is notable that each time Robinson had won the world middleweight title it was from a future hall of famer.