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Original Issue

Exit Art, laughing

Life was a gag, despite Basilio and a Texas process server

Some years ago the prizefighter Art Aragon delivered himself of the blistering opinion that his chosen profession was a cruel and dirty business and he would quit it in a second if he could think of some other way of making a living without working.

The fight crowd held its sides and laughed hollowly. That Art was a great kidder, always making with the funnies, was the interpretation. Everybody knew Art was living the rich, good life. He had a fancy home, a wife, a car, three kids. He even had his own radio show.

Nobody liked to bask in the glory of the ring more than Art. He loved to swagger in front of the crowds between fights when he would be introduced as "Golden Boy," his curly locks carefully coifed, his hard young body swathed in silk, and his wrists and neck dangling enough bangles to keep a Ubangi tribe happy.

Art had it made, had everything a man could want, in the view of his associates. He liked a few drinks of expensive whisky before dinner and a few after, for that matter. Some of his most spectacular fights were refereed by bartenders. The opponent once turned out to be a cop—which took a lot of the fun out of it.

Art loved show people and show business, of which he considered himself a part. He loved the fast banter of the borscht circuit comedian and soon picked it up and became expert at it. He would rather make a joke than win a fight, and he could always talk faster than he could punch. Unfortunately, the contests in the ring weren't debates or "can you top this?" but elemental struggles of strength. Art was not completely hopeless at this but, all things considered, he would rather play it for comedy, and on the occasions he was called upon to practice his craft legitimately one of two things would happen: a) he would get knocked half senseless by someone more proficient than he—a description applying to more than half the prizefighters extant; or b) he would wind up so badly cut that his classic profile looked more like a Polynesian death mask than a matinee idol.

But Art shrewdly babied his reputation along by having fights in between where neither eventuality was in prospect. He did this often in out-of-town dates, places like Albuquerque, N.Mex. where he was born, or San Bernardino, where he had driven through in his gaudy Cadillac. He took these bouts on condition that he could bring his own opponent. It's usual in such cases for fighters to bring their own brothers—or their mothers if they can get away with it. Art usually brought an old school chum name of Joey Barnum. Art even loved the joke when the wags suggested he should change his name to Bailey.

Art's antics inevitably cost him his marriage when he began indiscreetly showing up at sporting events with young ladies who were definitely not sparring partners. Then, a year and a half ago his good life almost came crashing down around his cauliflowered ears when a judge sentenced him to one to five years for trying to bring his own opponent, fully briefed and rehearsed, to Texas for a fight. Art was up to his cut eyebrows in debt when the appellate court reversed the decision and the district attorney's office did not press for a rematch.

Art then knew he was stuck with the fight game at least until he could bail out. He desperately needed that one more big pay night. Time was running out, alimony was imminent, and Art had to cash in at least one more big pot before leaving the game.

Aragon's matchmakers came up with a daring plan. Carmen Basilio, a swarthy brawler with a face like the sharp edge of a machete and fists to match, needed a fight. He had just had two ferocious meetings with Sugar Ray, he had got an "eye" in the last one, and (they told the public) he just might be exhausted as a front-line contender. Even his style, wide-open, wild-swinging, might be made to order for Art. On a note of high optimism, the fight was made. Art promptly moved out to the desert of San Jacinto to train and promised faithfully to stay away from the fleshpots for the six weeks before fight night. Characteristically, when he slipped into town he didn't do it quietly. He was observed trying to warm up pitchers in the Dodgers' bullpen one night, and he dropped in at a watering place where he ran into his lawyer-manager on another. All his friends doubled up with laughter.

Art lived it up with the press. What especially was he working on in camp, one writer wanted to know. "Self-defense!" Art told him artlessly. "If you were going to fight Basilio, what would you be working on?" When he met Basilio at the weighing-in, Carmen asked him idly how things were going. "Not so good," groaned Art. "Both my wife and my girl friend are here."

Only one thing went according to plan. Despite the fact the fight went on at 7 p.m. to satisfy eastern televiewers, Wrigley Field was nearly full, 22,500 fans paying a record California gate of $236,521.10.

Art was in the ring a full 15 minutes before the main event. He wasn't nervous; there was a process server from Texas hovering around the dressing-room area. Art is being sued for not going through with the fight which ultimately brought him in court on bribery charges.

The crowd had come not in the hopes Aragon could beat Basilio but hoping he could give him a fight. Alas, Aragon, never very good, was just a shell of his former mediocre self. His timing was off. His left hook, which he can deliver only after taking a stance like a batter waiting for a pitch, bounced harmlessly off Basilio's face. And Basilio was relentless. A man who disdains a jab when a roundhouse hook will do, he was belting Aragon to the body with a back-swing as long as Sammy Snead's off the tee, and his fists were sinking wrist-deep in Art's middle. Two girls in row four were wincing with Aragon. "But Art's in shape," ventured one hopefully. The other girl was derisive. "You can't overcome 14 years with 6 weeks of training," she said significantly. In the ring the bell rang and Art paused, blinked and swayed to his corner. He looked at his handlers as though to say, "Well, you got me into this. What now?"

There was no out. Aragon, his back arched like a Gila monster, sought to defuse Basilio's bombs by working inside. This suited Carmen fine. He gave Art no respite until one of the wild cluster of blows Basilio was aiming fell low. Art promptly declared a holiday himself and assumed the duties of the referee, waving Basilio off while he grimaced in a corner. Basilio, unused to a character like Aragon, was under the impression for a minute his opponent had quit. The referee rushed in and, to Aragon's evident lack of enthusiasm, the battle was joined again.

As the rounds went on, Aragon assumed more and more the role of punching bag. His face was torn and bleeding. The girls in row four and, a little farther down, Cheryl Crane, daughter of Lana Turner, couldn't look. "But look at Basilio's face!" cried one. "It's got bumps on it." "Basilio's face was born that way," disillusioned the other.

Occasionally, Aragon lashed out and tried to drive his tormentor off him. But it was useless. Basilio was pitching a shutout. Aragon was just catching it. And he wasn't missing a pitch. Basilio couldn't have hit a bag more accurately. "Yah! Robbie took the fight outta that guy!" jeered one spectator. "I'd a hated to see him before." Joe Louis, at ringside, was one of those who joined in the laugh.

Art went out in the eighth round with neither a whimper nor a bang, just a sense of inescapability. A towel fluttered in the ring but caught on the ring ropes. It didn't matter. Referee Tommy Hart stopped it anyway. Art didn't even permit himself the theatrics of protest but wandered wearily to his corner.

In the dressing room afterward, Basilio explained: "In that last round, I wasn't trying to take him out with a punch. He was cut real bad and he was hurt plenty. I felt kind of sorry for him. Besides he was all elbows then and I didn't want to hurt my hand. He's a tough boy and he's got guts, but he just wasn't as fast as I thought he was."

In his dressing room, the ex-Golden Boy sat relaxed on a table, fully dressed, dark glasses over his cruelly cut eyes. When told what Basilio said, he grinned at the press. "I wasn't as fast as I thought I was," he joked. His trainer, Lee Boren, held forth. "I told Art at the end of the seventh round, I wanted to stop it," he explained. "And he said no." Art looked up, idly curious. "I wonder why," he said wide-eyed.

The reporters laughed. "Actually," quipped Art, "he said, 'Could we stop the fight?' and I said, 'Please do. Be my guest.' " The press laughed again. Did Art think he could go 12 rounds? was the question. "I was all right," shot back Art. "Only I kept wondering why they had let it go 47 rounds." Boren shushed him quickly. "These are eastern writers," he said reproachfully. "Oh, all right, 45 rounds," sighed Art. He added, "Maybe I should stick to welterweights. They don't punch as often."

At that, Art's battles weren't over. "Anybody got the time?" he asked quickly. "8:15," came the answer. "The night's young," said Aragon brightening up. "Anybody know where there's some action?" What did you say before the fight, Art was asked. "I left home and said I thought I'd go take in a fight," said Art. "But it was lousy. I should of stayed home."

He surveyed the reporters. "Will you guys do me a favor?" he suddenly demanded. The reporters looked uncomfortable. "What do you want us to do, Art?" asked one. "I want you to commit yourselves first," commanded Art. The press nodded miserably. "O.K.," said Art. "There's a knothole from Texas outside and need I say more? He's gonna serve me with papers which will hold up $20,000 of my end of the purse. I want you guys to block for me while I heel-and-toe outta here. Actually, he's only a bantamweight."

The reporters shrugged and crowded out of the room. It was impossible to tell whether they were really aiding Aragon or whether the quarters were so cramped no other course was possible. Aragon rushed out behind his interference.

"Art Aragon, summons and complaint!" bellowed the process server, lunging for the fighter. Aragon fled down the stairs from the dressing room to the ball park concourse. A knot of a couple of hundred fans began to cheer. Then their jaws gaped open. Here came their hero flying down the stairs in wild flight from a fattish, hysterical man, waving papers. What made Artie run was not decipherable to his fans. But run Art did. Out into the night, between parked cars, weaving through the crowds of fans streaming out of the park. "Hey, Art," said one baffled observer, "Basilio's gone." But Art didn't stop to joke. He fled. The summons-server was in hot pursuit. But Art's footwork was improved. He disappeared into the night, coat-tails flying in undignified rout.

In another part of the park, Telecaster Gil Stratton spotted Mrs. Aragon. "How did you like the fight?" he asked innocently. Georgia looked at him. "Fine," she said evenly. "Just fine."