By Ernie Palladino
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Word of the death Wednesday of the great welterweight and middleweight champion Carmen Basilio brought a bit of a tear to this aging writer’s eye.
I never knew the great Basilio. Not really. I met the man only once, briefly, at a sports function in my home town. Shook his hand, said hello, and that was it.
But I knew plenty about him, mostly from my dad, who watched some of his championship bouts on TV in the 1950s. I always knew he was an aggressive fighter who, in 1957, had taken the middleweight crown from history’s best fighter, pound-for-pound, Sugar Ray Robinson. But it was through a friend of a family friend that I garnered an everlasting vision of Basilio’s true power.
Amazing what an obituary can do. They let you know somebody died, and at the same time spur a happy memory from more than 40 years ago. That night, in our living room, began the long line of professional athletes I’d meet on the highways and byways of a lifetime in journalism. I was just a teenager, years from a paycheck for putting words down on paper or computer screen. Still, I count Carmine Fiore as the first real athlete I ever “interviewed.”
An old battler from Brooklyn, Fiore once stood atop the list of welterweight contenders. He fought Basilio in 1953 and ‘54, before Basilio became a welterweight champion later in ‘54. But it was that 1953 bout that taught Fiore all he had to know about the great puncher, and a lot of what I had to know about the fight game.
He talked about that fight up in Basilio’s stomping grounds of Syracuse, me sitting on the floor before him in rapt attention as the now punchy Fiore stumbled through his reminiscences of that fight.
“I come out for the first round and, bang, I hit him right on the chin,” Fiore said. “Rocked him back into the ropes.
“That was my first mistake.”
The bout ended in a ninth-round knockout.
“By the time he got done with me, madone. My eye was out to here, my face was swollen, three busted ribs. What a mess.”
The future Hall of Fame champion putting Fiore down was actually merciful. The great puncher wasn’t really a knockout artist. He threw a good punch, as 27 of his 56 career wins came by KO. Mostly, though, he’d maul his opponent and leave him with plenty of bloody and swollen souvenirs of his encounter.
Fiore was a tough guy, too. But he’d was no stranger, either, to the bad end of a combination. So, young brazen guy that I was, I asked him what it was like to get knocked out.
“You ask what it’s like,” Fiore said. “It’s like, like, going to sleep. You just go to sleep.”
The vision stuck. Fiore’s words came into my mind every time a club kid at the White Plains County Center went down for the count, or when the old ex-con and local legend Bobby Halpern laid somebody out, or that night at the Garden when Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini reached all the way back to Eighth Avenue and leveled the evening’s victim with that looping overhand right of his.
“You just go to sleep.”
Basilio may not have taught Fiore that initially, but he certainly reinforced the theory.
I never knew Basilio. One handshake, and that was it. But for a young guy soaking up everything I could, knowing a first-hand witness to the great champion’s handiwork was plenty.
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