Sugar Ray Robinson, regarded by many as pound-for-pound the greatest boxer of all time, rarely found himself the underdog, but that’s exactly what he was heading into his return with “The Onion Farmer,” the ever tough and tenacious Carmen Basilio. The previous September, champion Robinson, having regained the middleweight crown in shocking fashion from Gene Fullmer, defended against welterweight titlist Basilio in Yankee Stadium. An epic, hard-fought, fifteen round war was the result with the smaller man taking a close decision. It had been the obvious choice for 1957’s Fight of the Year.
Now they were set for the rematch and the sense was that the almost 37-year-old Robinson, with 148 pro fights to his credit, had to be on the downslide while Basilio, six years younger, a two-time welter champ with big wins over Tony DeMarco and Johnny Saxton, was still in his prime. There appeared little reason to expect the aging Robinson to reverse the outcome of the first battle. The boxing scribes and pundits about the ring in Chicago Stadium that night prepared to wave a fond farewell through the cigar smoke to the peerless Sugar Ray, without question one of the greatest to ever lace up the gloves, a ring legend now ready to step aside and take his place next to such luminaries as Joe Gans, Harry Greb, Benny Leonard, and Joe Louis.
But instead of an ending, Robinson vs Basilio II proved another exciting chapter, not to mention a fresh plot-twist, in the long legend of the Sugarman. Instead of waving goodbye, the boxing tribe could only shake their heads in wonder at both another scintillating, back-and-forth war, and another great triumph for Ray, though it would prove to be one of his last.
From the opening bell Robinson vs Basilio II was a brutal firefight between highly-skilled pugilists who, good sportsmanship aside, didn’t particularly like one another. An aggressive, flat-footed Robinson started fast and worked to impose himself on the smaller man, while Basilio consistently evaded Ray’s jab, getting past it to strike to the body; the resulting exchanges in the pocket were prolonged and nothing less than vicious. Basilio’s most potent weapon was a jolting left hook to both body and head; Robinson’s was the right uppercut, which he swung with abandon, like an iron clapper in a huge bell.
However, as early as round four the champion’s left eye began to trouble him. Robinson wasted no time taking advantage, opening up and scoring heavily in rounds five and six, by the end of which the optic had shut as tight as a clam. This impairment, as much as anything else, decided the outcome.
“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.”
Despite his handicap, the champion refused to concede anything to his rival and fought back like a cornered wolverine. While Robinson solidified his lead in rounds seven and eight, Basilio surged in the ninth, setting up a pivotal struggle in the next two rounds, the most intense of the battle. The master boxer lacked the energy now to avoid fierce exchanges of power shots and the champion, despite being half blind, began hitting the target more frequently, at times buckling Ray with heavy shots from either hand.
It was a grueling and intense battle all the way, but as they came down the stretch it was Robinson who picked up the pace, outworking his adversary in the final two rounds. Sugar Ray’s aggressiveness sealed the victory by a slim margin, though in fact the referee scored the match for Basilio. The two judges, and most ringsiders, saw Ray getting the better of it in a brutal, back-and-forth war that took plenty out of both men. Indeed, the new champion was so exhausted and hurting that his handlers needed a stretcher to transport him back to his dressing room where he refused entry to the press.
Despite the historic win, it was clear Ray was nearing the end. And yet he refused to quit, going on to compete for another eight years and battling such tough customers as Gene Fullmer, Denny Moyer, Paul Pender and Joey Giardello, among many others. He clearly never wanted to retire and did not until he was 44 years of age and taking losses to B-level competition.
Basilio would later receive three chances to regain the middleweight belt, dropping two losses to Fullmer and one to Pender. Perhaps showing more sense than Robinson, he retired immediately following that third defeat, at the relatively young age of 34.
No opponent was more significant to Basilio than the great Robinson and despite losing, his performance in their second battle stands among his bravest. Displaying astonishing heart and toughness, he never stopped pressuring Robinson, never stopped slinging leather, despite a significant size disadvantage and a serious injury. Robinson’s performance that night also stands as one of his finest achievements as he regained the middleweight crown for a record-setting fifth time. Both Robinson vs Basilio clashes were magnificently savage wars, contested at the highest level between now legendary champions, and clearly deserve their status as two of the greatest fifteen round struggles in middleweight history. — Michael Carbert