“Learn from the Fight” turned its attention to 1959’s Fight of the Year: Carmen Basilio versus Gene Fullmer.
Carmen Basilio versus Gene Fullmer NBA World Middleweight Championship 28.08.1959
The background for this event was very controversial. Carmen Basilio had lost his unanimous world middleweight title to the man he had won it from, Sugar Ray Robinson. The two matches had been a huge success with Basilio shocking everyone by defeating the great Robinson on a split decision and then losing also to a split decision. Both fights had won Ring Magazine’s Fight of the Year. If ever there was an argument for a rematch it was this one.
However, Sugar Ray Robinson didn’t want to defend his middleweight crown just yet. He wanted another attempt at the light heavyweight title currently held by Archie Moore. Moore had just beaten Yvon Durelle in one his career defining moments. However, his age was now a running concern and Robinson thought he could clinch the belt, making history as the first boxer to simultaneously hold the unanimous middleweight and light-heavyweight titles. Moore wrote in his autobiography, published in 1960, that he was just as keen to meet Robinson. However, this ended up becoming a money issue. Robinson said he and Moore were both promised $500,000 each, but this was then reneged on by the promoters who wanted to give them both half this amount. Moore was apparently fine with the deal but Robinson, writing in 1969, said he never forgave him. Archie Moore agreed to fight Yvone Durelle in a rematch for the reduced amount being offered.
Meanwhile, the International Boxing Club had just lost a Supreme Court hearing where it was declared the promotional outfit had an unfair monopoly over professional boxing. According to The Sweet Science:
“The ruling effectively said that the IBC was impeding upon free trade as they locked up the world champions under not just their own banner but under their roof as well. Some thought the IBC was squeezing the smaller guys so far out of the picture that it was part of the reason boxing gyms were on the decline. The Supreme Court ruled that the IBC had to relinquish its financial interest in Madison Square Garden and prohibited the organization from holding more than two title matches per year in New York and Chicago, diluting their biggest arms of the fight game as those were the biggest fight towns.”
With these new restrictions in place, the IBC were pushing Robinson to defend his title to guarantee a good pay day. Robinson, for his part, demanded $700,000 for the rubber match rather than the $500, 000 that was on offer. The IBC would also claim that Robinson was denying Basilio a $150,000 increase. Robinson was accused of being unfair and greedy. Robinson said that this wasn’t the case and when the New York State Athletic Commission demanded a hearing, he showed them the cheque he had written out to Basilio. In his autobiography, Ray said he didn’t blame Basilio for closing discussions down and said he was being controlled by Jim Norris, who had recently resigned from the IBC. In the end, the NYAC backed off and Ring Magazine also still recognised Robinson as the lineal champion.
Robinson had other problems. His beloved older sister, who had been like a second mother to him, had recently miscarried after 20 years trying for a baby. She was then diagnosed with cancer and died a few months later. It was a dark time for the world champion and he didn’t fight the NBA’s decision to strip him of the title, which they justified by the fact that he hadn’t defended it in 18 months. This worked out well for the IBC because the title fight did not take place in New York or Chicago and was instead held at the Cow Palace, Daly City, California.
A deal was quickly made to get the two men who were owed rubber matches by Robinson, as they had both beaten him once for the title, in the ring together to fight for the belt. This was no less of an anticipated match than either of them facing Robinson. As well as the comparison regarding their 1-1 records against the champion both men were famed for their aggressive and relentless styles. They were tenacious and had solid chins. Basilio had yet to be stopped in his 54–13–7 career so far and Fullmer had only been stopped once on his 49-4 record, which was when Robinson had timed his perfect left hook.
Since this fight Fullmer had won all eight of his fights, which had included Tiger Jones (the only man so far who had defeated Robinson and not been defeated in a rematch) and light heavyweight Ellsworth “Spider” Webb. Basilio, who had lost more recently to Robinson, had stopped Art Aragon in round 8 and Arley Seifer in round 3.
Basilio weighed in at 156 lbs to Fullmer 159 lbs. Basilio had to put on two extra pounds whilst Fullmer dropped four. The referee was Jack Downey, the judges were Jack Silver and Fred Bottaro. The fight had no mandatory 8-count and no three knockdown rule. It was scored on the 10-point must system: the winner of each round must receive 10 points and the loser 9 or less, a draw resulting in 10 points for both fighters. Fullmer fought in black trunks with a white contrast stripe and Basilio with the complete reverse. I had no contemporary betting odds but the commentator said that Fullmer was the slight underdog.
Round 1 – Both fighters came out aggressively but, after a few rough exchanges, Fullmer took to the back foot. Prior to the fight Gene told the press he had three plans of attack although he didn’t tell them what they were. He pressed in with his cross-guard and caught Basilio with a right to the chin. Basilio soon regrouped and came back with his own onslaught.
Round 2 – The two circled with Fullmer still slightly taking the out-boxer approach. His cross-arm guard came into play but he also backed off a lot using his jab as Basilio kept to his usual swarmer gameplan. The two eventually began trading hard in the middle of the ring and Basilio went in with his two-fisted attacks.
Round 3 – Fullmer circled and brought in a long hook. Basilio continued to stalk. Fullmer began to ease into counter-punching, matching Basilio’s charges.
Round 4 – Fullmer hurt Basilio with an overhand. He maintained the out-boxing style and Basilio stayed in the centre of the ring. Carmen appeared to be a stationary target as Fullmer manoeuvred around him with his effective jabs, setting up powerful rights. Early on in the round he caught Basilio with two hard rights. Towards the end of the round, Basilio came back and drove Fulmer into the ropes. Fullmer did well to get himself out of trouble.
Round 5 – Fullmer used lateral footwork to work around the ring, scoring points, covering when needed and never getting pinned against the ropes.
Round 6 – Fullmer came out more aggressively this time, baiting Basilio. Carmen doesn’t need to be asked twice and continued his forward pressure. Gene worked to keep outside of range, usually timing his counters after Basilio had poured on one of his two fisted assaults. He immediately attacked his opponent’s crouched position. However, as the round progressed Basilio successfully cornered Fullmer and was able to unload. Fullmer, for his part, used his cross-arm defence and fired back. He pushed his way out and began steering Basilio put to the centre of the ring. Then, for a moment, it was Basilio on the ropes. They fought out again but the round ended with Fullmer pushing Basilio into the ropes and landing his own punches.
Round 7 – Towards the beginning of the round, some issue with his gloves had Fullmer return to his corner for a couple of seconds. Fullmer was, yet again, moving to the outside and picking his shots. He landed some stiff jabs and did well to move away from Basilio’s lethal left hook. Fullmer switched angles with his evasive footwork but also soon had Basilio against the ropes. Basilio ducked under and tried to burrow inside.
Round 8 – Fullmer kept on the backfoot, circling and evading Basilio’s best punches. He kept up the action with a variety of punches upstairs and down as he nipped in an out. The style was extremely uncharacteristic of the swarmer and really seemed to be throwing Basilio who was looking one-dimensional. With seconds to go Basilio ran straight into a right-left combination to the head. Carmen’s legs looked weak as returned to the corner.
Round 9 – Fullmer missed with a big right hook. Basilio came back with an aggressive attack, driving his opponent into the ropes. Then midway, Fullmer showed more aggression and began landing more with his right. Basilio was looking tired. Fullmer did well to end each exchange.
Round 10 – Basilio was pressing the fight now. He seemed to feel the urgent need to make up for lost time and chased Fullmer around the ring throwing both hands. Fullmer kept to his footwork and even tied up his opponent a few times. Basilio was clearly having difficulty getting through Fullmer’s guard with his left hook to the body and head as well just about anything else. Basilio was leaving his chin open a lot but Fullmer seemed to be leaning towards a points victory.
Round 11 – The range exploitation was very evident at the beginning of the round. Fullmer was landing with his left jab and Basilio was hitting air with his own lefts. As the round progressed some of Fullmer’s cockier big rights sailed over Basilio’s crouching attacks. We were back to Basilio continuing to be relentless and taking the fight to his opponent.
Round 12 – This round began with a stiff exchange in the middle of the ring. Basilio began to use a small amount of out-boxing this time and avoided some of the more serious punches being thrown. However, he was soon back to trying to occupy the trenches and had Fullmer in a corner and then around the ring. Fullmer used his footwork and eventually took the fight back to his opponent, again looking to land that chopping right. He then forced Basilio into a corner post. Both men were beginning to look tired now as they wrestled on the ropes. At the 10 second mark Fullmer was bleeding from the nose.
Round 13 – Early on Basilio had Fullmer on the ropes. This would happen again after some out-boxing from Fullmer. Basilio just kept to his relentless swarming, relying on heart and aggression. Fullmer landed a few right shovel hooks to the body.
Round 14 – After some initial circling, Fullmer took advantage of the gaping hole in Basilio’s guards. He tattooed the left side of Carmen’s face with a one-two combination and swarmed in with a barrage of punches. By some miracle, Basilio was held himself up but he wasn’t defending and the referee stepped in to award the match and NBA title to Gene Fullmer. At that exact moment, Angelo Dundee, Basilio’s trainer, entered the ring to save his man.
Basilio immediately protested but the fight was over. Gene Fullmer was now NBA champion. However, he wouldn’t be granting Basilio an immediate rematch. Instead he would have to face Ellsworth “Spider” Webb for a second time in the defence of his crown.