On this date in 1958, Sugar Ray Robinson won the middleweight title for the fifth and final time, when he edged Carmen Basilio by split decision in a brutal, 15-round war. It was Basilio’s first defense of the title after defeating Robinson the previous September.
Less than two months shy of his 37th birthday, Robinson was past his prime, yet remained an elite-caliber fighter. In one of his last moments of true greatness, he left nearly everything he had in the ring to get by the determined Basilio.
Known by the colorful nickname “The Upstate Onion Farmer,” Basilio applied relentless pressure throughout the bout. Robinson used his jab and exquisite footwork to control the range and batter the champion from the outside. By Round 6, Basilio’s left eye was swollen shut, but he continued to press the action.
Rounds 10 and 11 featured brutal, back-and-forth exchanges. Robinson rocked Basilio badly in Round 14 and pushed hard to finish him off in the 15th and final round, but the gutsy Basilio hung on to the bell.
The battle was named Fight of the Year by The Ring.
Robinson was nearly carried from the ring and the press were barred from his dressing room after the fight, while Robinson recovered enough to hold a press conference in his hotel room later in the evening.
In addition to winning world titles at welterweight and middleweight, an important part of Basilio’s legacy in the sport is the presence of The International Boxing Hall of Fame in his hometown of Canastota, New York. In 1982, the small town near Syracuse raised funds for a showcase to honor Basilio and his nephew, one-time welterweight champion Billy Backus. The project eventually developed into the larger museum.
Each year in June on induction weekend the town now hosts dozens of boxing’s greatest champions, who ride down Main Street in the back of convertibles, as part of the greatest town parade I’ve ever been witness to. Hardcore boxing fans should seriously consider making the pilgrimage at least once in their life.