SI Vault
Martin Kane
March 26, 1956
Welter Champion Carmen Basilio outfought and outpunched Johnny Saxton but he had no chance in Chicago Stadium, where favorites are fated to lose—as the smart money knows by now
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March 26, 1956

A Mighty Peculiar Fight

Welter Champion Carmen Basilio outfought and outpunched Johnny Saxton but he had no chance in Chicago Stadium, where favorites are fated to lose—as the smart money knows by now

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The series of articles which won for SI the Headliners Club Award (see page 10) began with this lead story in the November 1, 1954 issue. It described how Welterweight Johnny Saxton, shown above in the fond arms of his beaming manager, Blinky Palermo, "won" the welterweight title for the first time. Since then much has been done, especially in New York and Pennsylvania, to clean up boxing's dirty business. But not in the state of Illinois. That state was picked, quite logically, for a fight, described on the following pages, which could not have been promoted either in New York or Pennsylvania, and which eloquently documents the fact that SI's effort to clean up boxing's dirty business must be continued

May the better participant emerge triumphant," was the standard and pious invocation that the old fight announcer Harry Balogh made famous in the Turbulent (but relatively innocent) Thirties.

These days it would have a hollow sound. And nowhere would it sound more like a halfwit bellowing into an empty beer barrel than in Chicago Stadium. There, the other night, Carmen Basilio, welterweight champion of the world and the better participant, emerged untriumphant and titleless from a fight with Johnny Saxton.

In the opinion of the crowd of 12,000, in the opinion of the great majority of sportswriters present (21 to 7) and in the opinion of Carmen Basilio, the titleholder had retained his championship. But, in the dissenting opinion of two judges and a referee of sorts, Saxton had won.

When Benny Bentley, the ring announcer, a fellow of no little courage, reported this to the world the shock wave trembled all along the coaxial cable from New York to San Francisco. A million TV sets teetered on their tables. In Chicago Stadium the crowd booed itself blue for 15 minutes, with only intermittent pauses to catch its breath. The booing may have set a new record for freestyle righteous indignation but it had no effect on the record books of boxing. Johnny Saxton, who had won the welterweight title from Kid Gavilan by a similarly spurious decision on the night of October 20, 1954, had regained his title, through what means no man may say for sure.

To essay a guess at the means one must know a little about Chicago Stadium, about the state of boxing in the State of Illinois, and about the stateless status of Blinky Palermo, Saxton's manager without portfolio.

The Stadium is owned by the bigwigs of the International Boxing Club ( James D. Norris, president), which in turn owns that part of boxing outside the purview of Frankie Carbo. It is a building of imposing, sporting-type architecture, presenting a soot-stained face of relative grandeur above the slums of West Madison Street. Inside, its patrons have seen some strange goings-on.

Since last September 28, for instance, there have been eight fight-nights at the stadium. In every one of the eight main events the underdog—the fighter with the betting odds against him—won. Smart-money gamblers have been cleaning up. The most wondrously consistent performance in this scandalously inconsistent series was that of Bobby Boyd, the middleweight. Boyd fought three times there, was the underdog (12 to 5, 8 to 5, 2 to 1) each time and won each time. This is not to suggest that the last eight Stadium main events were crooked. (One of them was the Sugar Ray Robinson- Bobo Olson fight.) It is merely to suggest that there was something mighty peculiar about the way they all turned out. It is a rare thing to see an eight-horse parlay pay off, especially on long shots.

Sooner or later, one would have thought, those who bet on fights in Chicago would have caught on to the inverted Chicago system which, translated into reality, means that the fighter who is assigned the longest odds is actually the professional gamblers' favorite. Thus, on the night of March 14 when Basilio was listed as a 2-to-l favorite over Saxton, the smart money really expected Saxton to win. It made no difference that Saxton is a punch-and-clutch fighter, a master of the relentless retreat, or that it has been a long time since he scored a point for aggressiveness. Every conceivable honest figure from 1 to 0, including fractions, said he would lose.

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