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Tri-Town remembers 1968 Winter Carnival King Carmen Basilio

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BRASHER FALLS - When Carmen Basilio passed away in November the boxing world lost of one of its greats, but the north country lost a bit of royalty.

Mr. Basilio, a Canastota native who was a three time world champion, served as the Tri-Town Winter Carnival king in 1968, spending a few days in the area checking out that weekend’s festivities.

“He was a super guy and one of the better kings we had,” according to long-time Brasher businessman John Ward. “We became good friends.”

To commemorate Mr. Basilio’s visit to the Tri-Town area, a photo of the boxer still hangs in Crapser Hall. It is signed by the champ with the inscription, “To my pal, Johnny Ward, Good Luck Always, Carmen Basilio.”

While having a former boxing champion visit a small community like Brasher Falls may seem odd, Mr. Ward said Mr. Basilio fit right in with the community.

“People knew of him and his fame, but he wasn’t one to gloat about it,” he recalled. “He socialized with everyone.”

Norval Bennett, who at the time was sergeant at arms for the Tri-Town Chamber of Commerce, said bringing Mr. Basilio to town wasn’t as difficult as one might think.

“We had a connection,” he said. “We got Carmen to come through Father Hannan. He was on the board for the college down there (LeMoyne) and Father Hannan was on the board too, so we got him to come up for nothing.”

Mr. Bennett recalled the weather that weekend was bitterly cold, but that didn’t stop Mr. Basilio from participating in the weekend’s events.

“It was 20 below zero the day of the parade, so we couldn’t have bands in the parade,” he recalled. “But we had the champion of the world. He was quite a guy, and he was really friendly.”

In fact, Mr. Basilio’s friendliness may have led to a bit of jealousy.

“My boyfriend at the time was a little bit jealous,” recalls Diane (Gokey) Brown, who served as princess that year in Mr. Basilio’s court. “He was such a sweet man.”

The prince that year was Randy E. LaGarry, who admitted to not knowing who Mr. Basilio, who was seven years removed from his final fight and 10 years removed from his reign as champion of the world, was.

“I didn’t know who he was until they made the announcement,” he said. “I was just a junior in high school.”

Mr. LaGarry said he enjoyed his weekend with the champ and remembers everyone else in town having a good time too.

“We got to spend some time together socializing,” he said. “He was a very likeable person and received well by the community.”

While Mr. Basilio may have been royalty in Brasher, in Massena, which at the time had a boxing club and was home to several other professional fighters, he was just one of the guys.

“He came in here one time with Andy Earl (a boxer from Massena), but he wasn’t looking for me. He was looking for Gus Fiacco (another boxer from Massena),” said Bob Smith, who owns and operates Bob Smith’s Barber Shop on Main Street in Massena. “They went down to Tiffany’s, but he wasn’t there and they told him Gus was probably here.”

Mr. Smith said he called up Gus who then came down to the shop and the trio of men then left, going to Violi’s for dinner and drinks.

Although that was Mr. Smith’s only encounter with Mr. Basilio in Massena, he recalled bumping into him several times at barber school in Syracuse, where Mr. Basilio owned a pawn shop that was just up the street from the school.

“I would see him and always say the same thing, ‘Hey Carmen, How are you doing?’ and he would tell me the same thing, I’m sure he told everyone else, ‘I know I know you from somewhere, but I don’t know where.’ Then when I told him I was friends with Dominic Violi, he let on like we were best friends.”

Dominic’s brother, Ross Violi, remembers hosting a banquet in Mr. Basilio’s honor at their restaurant in March of 1955 just prior to him winning his first world title. A caption appearing in what was then the “The Massena Observer” identifies Mr. Basilio as “Massena’s adopted professional fighter.” And even though, Mr. Basilio had yet to win a world title, Mr. Violi recalls, “The place was packed.”

“Our relationship with him goes back to the mid-50’s even before he was champion of the world,” Mr. Violi said. “Back then boxing was big in Massena. We had a club in The Grove, where the Armenian Club is now.”

While Mr. Violi readily admits his brother, Dominic, who was on vacation in Florida and unavailable for comment, was closer to Mr. Basilio than he was, Mr. Violi said when he passed away this past fall it felt like he had lost a friend.

Remembering back to Mr. Basilio’s visits to the restaurant, Mr. Violi remembers a man who was humble and always had time for his fans.

“He was a great storyteller, and he really knew how to work the crowd,” he said, adding when approached by fans, Mr. Basilio would often throw a fake punch in their direction.

“The day he died, his wife (Josie), called Dominic and they talked extensively,” Mr. Violi said. “He was a great guy. We lost a good friend.”

Mr. Basilio, who was 85, passed away on Nov. 7. He was a two-time welterweight champion of the world and in 1957 he became middleweight champion of the world by defeating Sugar Ray Robinson at Yankee Stadium in a bout recognized by “Ring Magazine” as its fight of the year, the third of five consecutive times Mr. Basilio would be involved in that fight.

Mr. Basilio, who was also known as the “Upstate Onion Farmer,” was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame’s inaugural class in 1990 with such greats as Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, Jake LaMotta, Rocky Marciano, Archie Moore, Jack Dempsey, Jack Johnson and his arch rival, Sugar Ray Robinson.

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