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Carmen Basilio rejected mob influence

Dr. Lou Buttino went 15 rounds with his keyboard.

Twenty years of thinking about writing a screenplay about his friend and boxing legend Carmen Basilio, many more pulling it together, until finally, he could raise his sore fingers in triumph.

Shadowboxing the Mob is the little-known story of how organized crime controlled boxing in the 1950s but couldn’t control Carmen Basilio.

Buttino, a communications professor, author and filmmaker who taught at St. John Fisher College, completed the work last year, and it has already won many screenwriting competitions, which bodes well for it reaching a Hollywood producer someday.

Sadly, Carmen, who died Wednesday at age 85, won’t be around to see it made into a film. He made Irondequoit his home for nearly 30 years.

“I feel badly it wasn’t done in his lifetime, but to tell you the truth, he wasn’t that kind of guy looking for everyone to pat him on the back. He was so humble,” Buttino said. “But I sure would’ve liked going into the premiere with him.”

I sure hope we all get to see Carmen’s story on the big screen someday, because, as Buttino noted, “America needs to hear about someone like Carmen Basilio.’’

Because we need to be reminded that honor and integrity are always worth fighting for. Because we need to remember Carmen’s championship legacy: courage wrapped in kindness.

For younger generations wishing to appreciate just how large a figure Carmen Basilio was, just know that in his era, baseball and boxing were king. It meant Carmen, and boxers such as Rocky Marciano, were right up there with Ted Williams and Mickey Mantle. He was the Manny Pacquiao, LeBron James and Derek Jeter of his day.

To be playfully punched by Carmen — and the guy wielded sledge hammers into his old age — was to be touched by greatness.

But while we all know how Carmen rose from the onion fields of Canastota, Madison County, to win the world welterweight and middleweight titles, and while we know he was an underdog who fought with a ferocity that guaranteed he would never have to return to the field and the factory, muted by time is that this beloved man helped save the sport of boxing.

In the 1950s, the mob exerted fierce control over managers, fighters and arenas and fixed fights for gambling profits. Title shots came to those who turned over percentages of their purse or took dives. Carmen’s response to this insidious game: “No, they can’t deny me. Eventually I’ll get my title shot.’’

And he was right. Thanks to Carmen’s defiance, the fans, the sports writers and the politicians stepped in, congressional hearings were held and mobsters went to jail. He had changed the conscience of a nation.

“Doing the right thing cost him time, money and glory but he stood by his convictions and by the galvanizing power of good example, compelled others to stand up and speak out,’’ Buttino wrote in a moving tribute to Carmen this week.

Buttino, who teaches today at UNC-Wilmington and is also a son of Canastota, told me Carmen was in conflict but inner good won by a knockout. “Remember, these were mobsters but also Italians,’’ he said. “Despite the corruption, Carmen loved the sport and he didn’t want to see it banned.’’

In 1999, ESPN produced a documentary, Fighting the Mob: The Carmen Basilio Story, in which Buttino was a consultant and interviewee. Buttino said Carmen expressed fear for his family’s safety some 40 years after his ring career ended if he went ahead with the project. In the end, though, he felt it important to make a historical record. Again, courage won out.

And there was also something that Carmen told Buttino on why he refused to take a dive for the mob, something so simple, that speaks right to the heart of the man. “He told me if he didn’t do the right thing, he wouldn’t be able to look his father and mother in the eyes again,’’ Buttino said.

After his victory over Sugar Ray Robinson at Yankee Stadium in 1957, Carmen was interviewed by Mike Wallace, who asked him, “Isn’t fighting a degrading way to make a living?’’

Carmen, as if staring at a left hook, never flinched.

“The boxing world has given me everything I’ve got, so I can’t say I dislike boxing,” he said. “People look at the boxing game with dislike, but I’ve met a lot of honorable people in the boxing game and I don’t feel I’m dishonorable.’’

Carmen Basilio brought honor to himself, his family, his people and his sport. He was a sweet man of the Sweet Science. Rest in peace, champ.

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