ROCHESTER -- Carmen Basilio, a genial onion farmer's son who wrested the world middleweight boxing crown from Sugar Ray Robinson in 1957 and lost an equally epic, razor-edge rematch six months later, died Wednesday at age 85.
Edward Brophy, executive director of the Boxing Hall of Fame in upstate New York, said Basilio died at a Rochester hospital where he was being treated for pneumonia.
Basilio lived in the Rochester suburb of Irondequoit and was among the first class of hall of fame inductees in 1990.
His ferocious battles with the likes of Billy Graham and Kid Gavilan riveted a nation during the age of black-and-white television. Hindered on his ascent by a reluctance to deal with mobsters, he took the welterweight title from Tony DeMarco in 1955 and added the middleweight belt near the close of a 13-year career.
In his later years, Basilio still could conjure up dates of championship fights, the size of a purse, the name of a referee he loathed. But his mental agility had eroded, and his recollection of the round-by-round combat he waged in his climb to the top was mostly blank.
Basilio's wife, Josie, traced his decline to heart-bypass surgery in 1992. An MRI scan revealed no brain damage from his prizefighting days, which Basilio acknowledged went on too long.
With his crouching style, the 5-foot-61/2-inch slugger bored relentlessly into opponents, wearing them down with body blows. He had a straight-up, knuckle-rimmed uppercut all his own, a vicious hook and an ability to withstand terrible punishment.
"I gave them action; they loved to see action. I moved in on fighters all the time," he said in 2007.
The two savage, seesaw 15-rounders against Robinson formed the capstone of his fame. But in the early 1950s, Basilio endured a bitter wait for a breakthrough in a sport then dominated by organized crime.
Basilio's storybook journey began on an onion farm in upstate Canastota as one of 10 children of Italian immigrants.
After a stint in the Marines, he turned pro in 1948. His early career was littered with setbacks, but he honed his skills and drew his first title shot in 1953 against Gavilan. He floored the Cuban great for the first time in his career, only to lose on a split decision. A rematch never came. Basilio ran into two years of gangland roadblocks.
Helped by a political outcry, his second chance finally arrived against the newly enthroned DeMarco in 1955. He stopped DeMarco in the 12th round. In their next duel, Basilio KO'd him in the 12th.
Basilio stepped up to the middleweight class against Robinson on Sept. 23, 1957. He won on a 2-1 vote by the judges.
In the rematch in March 1958, Robinson regained the title on another razor-edge decision.
Robinson's refusal to fight a third time undermined Basilio's drive, and his career (56-16-7 with 27 knockouts) petered out in 1961.
When DeMarco's son died in a car crash in 1975, Basilio showed up for the funeral in Boston. "You don't forget things like that," DeMarco said in 2007.
Their first bout, considered by many one of the century's finest, "made us closer," DeMarco said. "I lost my championship and the guy I lost to happens to be not only a great fighter but a great human being."