Carmen Basilio won the world middleweight title from Ray Robinson by split decision on September 23, 1957. It was an absolute war that Ring Magazine called the Fight of the Year. Most boxing fans already know this and they know about “The Upstate Onion Farmer’s” rematch with Ray Robinson. But most don’t know the details leading up to the rematch or the genius behind Robinson’s success throughout his career.
Just six months after their first battle, Basilio was scheduled to fight Robinson again in what was expected to be yet another barnburner on March 25, 1958. Basilio, just a month from the rematch, took a plane to Havana, Cuba to watch lightweight champion Joe Brown fight Orlando Echevarria on February 25. Basilio had been working hard in training in Miami and figured he could use the entertainment. One of his managers, John DeJohn, made the remark, “This warm weather takes too much out of him. He can lose too much weight.” So they figured Carmen could use the break. Basilio took a long trip for a short fight—Brown won early in the first round. Earlier in the month of February, while Basilio was working out with his sparring partner Lee Owens in front of a 100-person audience who paid 50 cents a pop, a crowd of equal size was gawking outside the gym doors. Mickey Genaro, an ex-prizefighter who was one of the spectators, had become ill, which had caused a scene. An ambulance and a police car waited out front for him with the concerned audience watching on. Genaro, however, was said to have been just fine the following day.
Basilio moved his workouts closer to Chicago Stadium as the fight drew closer. During the last week of Basilio’s workouts, and as he was tapering off, he had another notable spectator who thought he looked great. Joe Louis watched Basilio go through two fast rounds with middleweight Archie Whitfield, a sparring partner that suffered a broken jaw in Basilio’s preparation for his first fight with Robinson. Louis remarked, “He’s strong as a bull and I like his combinations. He doesn’t throw just one punch and quit, he throws two or three at a time.” If Louis knew anything about boxing, and he definitely did, then Basilio was prepared for another war.
Ray Robinson, like Basilio, would watch the Joe Brown vs Orlando Echevarria fight but would do so on his TV while in his Greenwood Lake training camp. A week before Robinson would settle down to watch Brown knock the Cuban cold in one heat, he got a special delivery that played a big part in his training—even if Robinson didn’t admit it. Leslie Winik who planned to pay to have the rematch filmed sent the uncut footage of Robinson’s first fight with the Upstate Onion Farmer to Ray’s camp at the request of Harry Wiley, Robinson’s trainer. Robinson was never a fan of watching the fights or going to them. He had made the remark before that going to watch a fight was like a mailman going for a walk on his day off.
Robinson explained why he wanted the film when asked, saying, “I wanted it for the sparring partners. I looked at the picture the first time George Gainford showed it in camp. Once was enough as I am not using it personally in preparing for the fight. I never go into the ring with a set plan. Each fight is different, and it is better to improvise as it progresses. I want the sparring partners to learn Basilio’s style. Then they will know what they are doing when they are trying to impersonate him when we are working out. I don’t have to look at the picture, I know Basilio’s style.”
Basilio, however, was all for watching the first fight on film and did so often for his preparation.
The sparring partners that Robinson was referring to were Lee Williams, Otis Woodard, and Lee Atosta, as well as others. Any sparring partners that were used in Ray’s camps throughout his career were picked by his trainer, Harry Wiley, who was the brains behind the muscle. Before the film study came to camp, Robinson and company had to remove five feet of snow from a 30-foot path leading into his training camp. Robinson would lose two days of road work but made up for it by doing an extra two rounds of sparring in his sessions. The bad weather seemed to have another effect on Robinson. He would claim to have had a fever before the fight with Carmen who also said he had a fever before the bout. Like preparations for any fight, sparring, bag work, roadwork and all other physical aspects of the sport were very important to get Robby in shape, but that special delivery was more important than most people realized.
Even Basilio didn’t see how Robinson could be any better. When asked by reporters, Basilio stated, “How could he be any better? The guy will be at his best. He’ll be good. But how can he be any better?”
So how could Robinson, who was past his prime and going through his workouts with full dedication get any better? The answer was Harry Wiley. Wiley, who was described by one New York paper as the Clark Gable type, was cool and calculated—a master of ring strategy. Wiley was a cerebral assassin who didn’t look to jump in the limelight, unlike Robinson’s manager, George Gainford. Gainford was the face and the mouth of the Robinson camp and was sometimes given credit as the brains behind Robinson, but that was all for show and not true. Gainford, of course, played a part in Ray’s corner but the mastermind was Wiley.
Wiley sat every night watching the film of Robinson in his first fight with Basilio to see what needed to be fixed, like a general looking over battle plans before sending his soldiers to war, he wanted to be prepared. When one reporter asked Wiley what he was watching the films for, he replied, “I’m checking on what I thought happened in a couple of rounds.” Curiosity was getting the better of the reporter so he asked, “Which rounds?” Of course, a general doesn’t tell his strategy of battle to anyone that doesn’t need to know, especially someone with a pencil and pad ready to note every detail. “I’m not going to tell you, but I have been puzzled about something since the last fight. What that is I’m not going to reveal. What I’m looking for, in fact, what I’ve found, is going to make a difference in the next fight.”
Gainford’s area of expertise was stirring up the reporters for publicity purposes. His antics showed during the medical examinations at the Illinois Athletic commission and during pre-fight preparations. Gainford asked Frank Gilmer, commission chairman, that an investigation be made on what substances were used in Basilio’s corner. Gainford claimed the substances that were used to heal a cut on Basilio in his last fight with Robinson got into Ray’s eyes and had contained “chloroform and other stuff.” Gainford knew there was nothing illegal used and using chloroform to heal a cut wouldn’t make sense anyway. The antics he used were in an effort to rile up Basilio and his team and maybe bring some more interest from the fans when it hit the papers.
Gainford would also tell the papers that they were running Basilio out of Johnny Coulon’s gym in Chicago where the champ had done his workouts as the fight drew closer. Again, this wasn’t true, it was just another accusation by Gainford to draw a bigger crowd the night of the fight and to rattle the Basilio camp. Basilio’s manager, Joe Netro, explained why they had changed gyms: “Carmen will finish up at the Midwest Gym as we had planned all along. It’s closer to his loop hotel.” Although that was one of the reasons, part of the reason the Basilio camp changed gyms was because of the low number of spectators that came to see the champ spar, which meant less revenue. Although its effects may have been temporary, Gainford’s accusations did have the Basilio camp fuming.
Robinson’s team decided to stay at Louis’ gym instead of going to Coulon’s gym, which didn’t make the people happy who showed up to see Ray workout at Coulon’s gym. Robinson had looked rusty in his workouts at Louis’ gym. His timing was off, he seemed slow, and he didn’t show the snap in his punches that had put so many opponents into unconsciousness. This caused the odds to be set as high as 11-5 in favor of Basilio. Robinson’s performance during that time had many spectators thinking it was from issues he had with cutting weight, which had been a rumor floating around. What they didn’t know was that it was one of Robinson’s many tricks to pique the fans’ curiosity. Robinson wanted the odds in favor of the champion to rise as high as possible so when Ray or any of his entourage made a bet on him to win they could cash in big. Everything in Ray’s camps had a purpose and was all part of a well thought out plan.
However, two days later Robinson would cause the odds to drop down to 8-5 in favor of Basilio when he showed his normal form in sparring. During one of Robinson’s workouts it was estimated that one thousand spectators gathered to watch him spar. Robinson dropped one of his sparring partners, Lee Williams, with a left hook to the body in that session. This was the motive to the odds shifting closer, something Ray was hoping wouldn’t happen. With so many people in attendance, Robinson joked with IBC president Jim Norris, “How about a percent of this gate, too?” With all these things going on, Harry Wiley faded into the back of all the newsmen and fans’ minds. All they saw was Robinson skipping rope, sparring, and cracking the occasional joke while Big George Gainford was talking a mile a minute to anyone willing to listen.
Robinson and Gainford liked the attention and excitement from those around them while Wiley was less talkative and more focused on his preparations. Wiley liked the peace and quiet. In fact, one of the most important things he believed should be present in a fighter’s corner was peace. When Ray finished with a round filled with carnage and bloodshed, he would come back to a corner of tranquility. Wiley believed in the calm before the storm approach for his fighters. His fighter’s time in the corner was to be a cool-headed conference of strategy before they started on a seek-and-destroy mission at the sound of the bell.
The fight itself was another thriller set at a high pace. Basilio’s eye by the start of the sixth round looked like an 8-ball and he could no longer see even the smallest glimmer of light through it. When it was all over, judge John Bray scored it 71-64 for Robinson, judge Franklin Spike McAdams scored it 72-64 for Robinson, and referee Frank Sikora scored it 69-66 for Basilio, which resulted in a split decision win for Robinson. The fight had one of the largest press rows in Chicago since Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney had faced off there with twenty-eight sportswriters declaring Robinson the winner, one favoring Basilio and another having it even. One writer gave Robinson 11 rounds, Basilio 3 and had one scoring it 72-58. Some fans who were asked ringside gave Robinson 10 of the 15 rounds while some others favored Basilio. One thing that everyone could agree on was the courage and determination of the Onion Farmer. One sportswriter said he may have fought with one good eye for most of the fight but he was equipped with two hearts.
After the bout, Basilio sat in his dressing room on his rubbing table with his shoes off and his head lowered. As he answered questions from the reporters, blood dripped down on his white sox when he would pause to collect his thoughts before answering. He kept a bucket beside him so he could spit the blood from his busted mouth into it. During the questioning, Basilio’s manager, John DeJohn, was asked if there was ever a thought of stopping the fight when Basilio had lost his sight in the left eye. DeJohn said, “No. He never complained.” Basilio was asked later if he was hurt during the fight, Basilio said, “There was nothing wrong with me, just a bad eye. I couldn’t see him after the fourth round on, and I wasn’t able to get the distance. I was always off balance.”
When Robinson was interviewed the next day he had nothing but high praise for the former champ. “I feel like 10 guys jumped on me last night. Fellas, all my bones all over me hurt. I’ve never been this sore and tired after a fight,” said Robinson. Another reporter mentioned Basilio saying although he was banged up he could have gone another 15 rounds. “If he could he’d have beaten the hell out of me. I know I couldn’t. I did all I could to pace myself. Anybody that tells you he isn’t hurting after 15 rounds is crazy. I think I had him hurt several times and I know he had me hurt too. You can’t take all those blows and not feel it. Why, man, it hurts me when my little boy hits me,” said Robinson.
Robinson was back at his hotel room resting the next day and other than being sore and having a busted lip, he was doing fine. Basilio was being looked over at Chicago’s Wesley Memorial Hospital for a massive hemorrhage around the eye. What Basilio never could figure out was how Ray had improved so much since their first fight. The same questions he had asked a reporter before the fight was the same ones running through his head when the fight was over. How could Robinson be any better? The answer was Harry Wiley, the master strategist. Wiley had figured out just what was needed for Robinson to make history by becoming a five-time world middleweight champion when he conquered Basilio. Wiley paved the way to success for one of the greatest fighters of all-time and provided the strategy for him to win one of his biggest fights in Ray’s career. It’s about time the brains of the Robinson camp got his name in the International Boxing Hall of Fame, don’t you think?