The melancholy fact of last week's Carmen Basilio-Gene Fullmer middleweight championship match was not that Basilio lost. It was how he lost that was so dismaying and disheartening. As a champion of two divisions, a man who has fought 10 title fights and more than 60 others, Carmen Basilio has given the prize ring some of its most memorable battles. "He would fight a lion if you just pointed him at one," an admiring handler once observed proudly.
But against Fullmer in Salt Lake City, Carmen seemed to feel he was fighting not a lion but a pack of hyenas. Faced with the certitude of defeat for the first time in his career, he yielded to a combination of vexation, exasperation and just plain futility and gave a demonstration that was shocking and unworthy.
He shouted at the crowd, cursed the referee, stuck his tongue out at a lady spectator and—unhappiest of all to report—made obscene gestures at his opponent, an elder of the Mormon Church, who methodically beat him to a pulp for his discourtesy. He even committed the cardinal sin of prizefighting: threatening a defenseless referee. Those who were ashamed for him were ashamed because they knew this was not the real Basilio but a desperate competitor who was really railing against the fact that his fine career is all too obviously at an end.
Why couldn't Basilio accept the finality of defeat more gracefully? It is doubtful if even he knows the whole answer to that. But there are portents. The main one is Fullmer himself. A trying man to fight under the best of circumstances, he seemed to Basilio to be an affront to Carmen's skill. Fullmer looks clumsy and easy to hit. For Basilio, he wasn't. Fullmer is a swarmer, a clincher, a dervish of awkward fury who throws punches from all angles of unorthodoxy and is as hard to swat as a fly in a hot room.
Moreover, he is bigger than Basilio. From ankle to chest to biceps to neck size, Fullmer is middleweight. It is the tragedy of Carmen Basilio that he is not. He is a natural welterweight who graduated into the middleweight division for a big-money crack at Ray Robinson and then could not reduce his way back to his natural habitat.
When he was savagely beaten by Fullmer in San Francisco last August, Basilio persuaded himself he had been the victim merely of a tactical error: he had, as usual, carried the fight to Fullmer.
This time he planned to let Fullmer come to him. He would even switch to his childhood style of southpaw fighting at the critical moment. This would be when Fullmer would start one of his characteristic rushes. Carmen intended to intercept him with a left hook, the one that had dumped Kid Gavilan and kayoed Tony DeMarco and Johnny Saxton.
Basilio's hooks fail
The basic flaw in the plan was that Basilio could not hurt Fullmer. And he found this out early in the fight—in the second round, when he caught the onrushing Fullmer flush with a brace of left hooks that exploded out of the classic Basilio crouch. Fullmer did not even blink. It was then that Carmen began to lash out at his environment, to blame everybody for his frustration except the one man responsible—Fullmer. When the referee, Pete Giacoma, cautioned Carmen about a low blow in the third round, Carmen succinctly told him "Go to hell." It was the start of his temporary loss of dignity and was rooted in his disappointment in himself.
There is a grandeur about a man hurling himself upon an opponent who is sure to beat him badly for his pains. And there was a grandeur about Basilio, with his face bloodied, his body reddened, and his shoulders and chest a mass of lacerations from glove laces, carrying the fight to his tormentor. It was a kind of forlorn Pickett's Charge that saddens but raises admiration and respect in the hearts of men.