CANASTOTA, NY – FEBRUARY 11, 2013 – Despite frigid temperatures in the mid-teens and fresh snow compliments of the nor’easter that blanketed the Northeast, the sun was shining brightly as hundreds braved the elements to say goodbye to Canastota’s world boxing champion Carmen Basilio at a memorial mass held at St. Agatha’s Church in Canastota on Saturday, February 9th.
1990 Hall of Fame Inductee Carmen Basilio
Basilio, who was born on Main Street in Canastota on April 2, 1927, passed away on November 7, 2012 in Rochester at age 85. He twice won the world welterweight title, first from Tony DeMarco in 1955 and then from Johnny Saxton in 1956 before defeating Sugar Ray Robinson for the world middleweight championship in 1957. With an aggressive, charging style and a powerful left hook, Basilio scored wins over Lew Jenkins, Ike Williams, Billy Graham, Gil Turner, Art Aragon, Gasper Ortega and Don Jordan among others during his career. He incredibly engaged in five consecutive fights of the year: 1955 (vs. DeMarco), 1956 (vs. Saxton), 1957 (vs. Robinson), 1958 (vs. Robinson) and 1959 (vs. Fullmer). His pro record reads 56-16-7 (27 KOs). In 1990, Basilio was elected into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.
With Carmen’s wife Josie and several generations of family and friends filling church pews, Father Kevin Maloney began the mass and recalled the life and times of Canastota’s most famous native son. Many members of Carmen’s sizeable family read religious passages in honor of their beloved relative and presented gifts – including a pair of boxing gloves – to the church alter.
Canastota resident Ross Stagnitti and Hall of Fame Executive Director Ed Brophy delivered the eulogy.
Stagnitti commented on the tough-as-nails brawler’s softer side. “…Carmen was not ashamed to show his emotions. He shed tears of joy during each and every one of the Hall of Fame parades. He cried upon receiving his Canastota High School diploma in 2009…and as his banner was raised to the rafters of the Syracuse War Memorial in 2008.”
Brophy touched on the tremendous sense of pride Basilio instilled in all of Canastota. “…Carmen was never one to boast, but we did it for him…When someone asked where are you from, you’d always respond by saying a small town next to Syracuse, called Canastota. Immediately they would look at you and say ‘Carmen Basilio.’ And the conversation would get started about the great Carmen Basilio of the 1950s…They would say ‘He was one of my favorites’ or ‘I remember watching him on TV with my father.’ It seemed that everywhere you went, everyone had a Carmen Basilio story to tell. Think of all those wonderful times.”
As the mass concluded, family and friends convened at the Rusty Rail Party House in Canastota for a reception in Basilio’s honor. While it was cold outside, nothing but warmth radiated from inside the local restaurant as remembrances about the man known as the “Upstate Onion Farmer” filled the banquet room. Stories ranged from humorous to serious. They told of Basilio, unchanged by fame, playing practical jokes, treating locals to breakfast at the diner, taking a youngster under his wing, or his unwavering friendship. He had the unique ability to inspire others through his actions and words. As story after story painted a loving picture of Basilio’s life, a common sentiment ran through each and every story…Carmen Basilio was a good and honorable man. He was thoughtful, caring, generous, feisty and proud.
After the last story was told and attendees began heading back into the cold that was awaiting them outside, it was obvious that Basilio, although no longer present in the physical sense, was very much alive. A part of him remains, and will carry on, in the countless lives he touched as a relative, athlete and friend.
Rest in peace, Carmen. You will always be Canastota’s hero.