Without a doubt, the hero of this piece is the one and only, the incomparable, the super-special Sugar Ray Robinson. Yet Robinson’s dance partner, his co-star if you will, sure deserves plenty of applause and immense respect for the part he played in the epic (an often overused word, yet one that is nothing but apt here) ring battle that went down on this day in March back in 1958. In fact, it could be argued that the return fight, as in return WAR, between Sugar Ray Robinson and Carmen Basilio, was the last truly great fight from the golden era that was the 1950s; this a decade that saw such incredible fighters as Robinson, Rocky Marciano, Archie Moore and Willie Pep in action.
It was historic, in as much as the astonishing Robinson, at age 36 (almost 37) after almost 150 fights, won the middleweight title for an unprecedented fifth time, yet the 15 round battle Sugar Ray and “The Onion Farmer” engaged in was also brutal. As in savagely brutal.
The previous September, Robinson had dropped a close 15 round decision to former welterweight champ Basilio, this not too long after he’d lost the middleweight title to Gene Fullmer – only to then throw the greatest left hook ever captured on film to KO Gene and regain the title (to become a four-time middleweight boss). Now, going into the rematch with Basilio, perhaps the only man throughout his ring career that Sugar Ray ever really disliked, and vice versa, the greatest to ever do it found himself in the wholly unfamiliar position of underdog. And Sugar Ray didn’t like it one bit.
The fight in Chicago started off at a hot pace and not once did it slow. Both men went at it, Robinson opting to stand flat-footed as he fired out hurtful shots to head and body. The two men tested one another’s midsection and the war was on. Basilio, who had tipped-in at a lowly 153 pounds, to Sugar Ray’s 159 and three-quarters, fought on even terms with the ex-champ over the first quarter of the fight, but then he found himself fighting a great fighter as well as a serious handicap. One that would have seen the fight sopped today.
Basilio’s left eye began to swell in round four, and by the sixth it was as tightly shut as a locked door. Basilio couldn’t see a thing out of his left eye, yet never did the notion of quitting enter his mind. Nor did the notion of stopping the fight seem to enter the minds of the officials. It really is amazing this fight was permitted to go on. In fact, you could argue that never, before or since, has such a badly compromised fighter in terms of sight been allowed to fight on.
And fight on hard Basilio did. Sugar Ray tagged his chin with everything, and often his hard shots connected flush (remember, these are the shots that took out tough and talented guys like Fullmer, Jake LaMotta (a TKO) and Bobo Olsen), yet Basilio went nowhere. How the defending, half-blind middleweight champion was able to fight as well as he did, almost giving as good as he got despite his ruined eye (thankfully not a permanent injury), nobody can ever know. Both men were close to exhaustion in the later rounds, the championship rounds, yet the sheer drive and pride each man possessed saw them to the final bell. Robinson was awarded a split decision and he was king of the world once again. But what a price he had paid.
Robinson had to be stretchered back to his dressing room and there was no energy left for anything like a celebration. This was the time, the perfect time, for Sugar Ray’s retirement from the sport to which he had added so much glamour and excitement. Yet he never took it; instead fighting on for a logic defying seven-and-a-half years. As for Basilio, he had just seven more fights after going 1-1 with Robinson and he was unable to regain the crown; being stopped in two fights with Fullmer and, finally, losing a 15 round decision against Paul Pender in his last fight.
Basilio lived onto old age, his health intact. Sugar Ray was not as fortunate. Yet on this day in 1958, Robinson and Basilio gave the world a fight that will live forever.