AMERICAN headline news in 1970 was dominated by anti-Vietnam war demonstrations and the spread of race riots. Advances in aviation witnessed the maiden flight of the Boeing 747 and Concorde’s inaugural supersonic journey. The spectre and perilous frequency of international nuclear testing continued unabated. In music the Beatles announced their last ever recording session and Paul McCartney left the group. Meanwhile the world of boxing awaited the return from exile of Muhammad Ali. In absentia rival Joe Frazier became the top dog among the heavyweights and the fearsome Argentinian Carlos Monzon ruled the middleweights. On December 4, Syracuse, New York Billy Backus from nearby Canastota stopped the imperious Cuban-born Mexican Jose Napoles to capture the world welterweight title in a massive upset.
Napoles, a smooth ring mechanic armed with an explosive knockout punch entered the contest, an optional title defence, on the back of a four-year unbeaten winning streak and a record that included 44 stoppages out of 65 wins. He was right at the top of his game. In contrast Backus was a solid journeyman who had quit the ring for two years to focus on his construction job. Unemployment forced Backus to return. His record showed 10 losses but Backus never gave up and under the guidance of his legendary uncle Carmen Basilio he got into shape putting together a good string of results including a hard fought points’ win over number one contender Manny Gonzalez.
What the stocky, square-jawed southpaw bleeder lacked in finesse and refinement, he made up for in pluck, endeavour and persistent slugging. Still, he wasn’t expected to pose any problems for the champion reflected in the betting odds with Backus a 9-1 underdog. Spurred on by the 5,500 crowd at the Onondaga War Memorial Arena, Backus used the adrenaline rush of home advantage to take the fight to the champion. In an action-packed fight Napoles, who was prone to cuts, sustained a deep laceration of his left eyelid. His corner tried frantically to staunch the injury but their efforts came to nothing as the referee stopped the contest in the fourth round with an unsporting Napoles claiming the nasty cut was caused by a headbutt. It mattered not to Backus as the underdog was now sitting proudly on top of the world.
Following two non-title bouts Backus succumbed to Napoles in their rematch staged in Inglewood, California in June 1971. He fought for the world title on three other occasions and was twice outpointed over fifteen rounds by Hedgmon Lewis of Detroit. And in May 1978, in the final match of his career, the veteran Backus was stopped in two rounds by Mexican WBA champion Pipino Cuevas. Backus closed out his career on 49-20-5 (23). Now 73, and living in South Carolina, Boxing News caught up with the good-natured and spirited former champion.
Forty-six years on, what do you recall about the night you won the world title from Jose Napoles?
It doesn’t get better than being champion of the world. I was 100 per cent ready for him and I was 100 per cent willing. I respected him but I didn’t fear him. I knew what I had to do to beat him. I had set up what I was going to do. I did it well. In the first round we felt each other out. In the second, third and a few moments of the fourth it was a boxing battle. There was a lot of action. I hurt him in round three and I got there. That’s the way I felt. I had no intention of cutting him but I did.
Following the stoppage [my uncle] Carmen [Basilio] went over to Napoles’ corner and he came back and said, “It’s a real nasty one. I could see his eyeball right through the cut.” I threw a right hook. That’s what did it. It was not a headbutt as Napoles said after the fight.
Of course the newspapers picked Jose Napoles to win. They called him ‘Superman of the welterweight division.’ He was Mr Cool supposedly. Looking back I can’t think of anybody better. He was very comfortable in the ring until I whacked him a couple of times. He got mad at me because I whacked him. We were hoping to fight Curtis Cokes but ended up fighting Napoles. When Napoles took the title off Cokes we got him. When somebody smacked him back it was all new to him. He gives you that grunt. I knew I hurt him. I knew I had done something to upset him. Nobody hit him to the body like I did. When something unexpected happens, you lose track of your programme and you lose focus on what your programme is and what you should be doing.
Napoles always appeared in control in the way he threw his punches and combinations. He was very artful and smooth but with me I went for him and I whacked him back. Each time he threw his combinations he would get hit. I threw him off his stride. Napoles didn’t talk too much but after we fought he sent me a picture of himself and on the back he wrote the words, ‘You’re one of the hardest punchers I’ve faced in the ring.’ I thought that was nice of him to say that.
Do you have any regrets about your boxing career?
Yes. The biggest regret was not getting a third fight with Napoles. We had a contract to fight a third time but he reneged on the deal. I regret not pushing harder to make the third fight. In the second fight I was told by [George] Parnassus that I was going to have a cut guy working alongside Tony [Graziano] my trainer. [Backus’ team were Graziano, Basilio, Benny Black and George Vazquez] I never really told anybody this before, not in detail, and it doesn’t really matter anymore because nobody can do anything about it now. Somehow liquid ether and caustic acid got into my mouthpiece. Liquid ether makes you drowsy and caustic acid burns. This happened around the fourth round [footage shows Backus spitting out his mouthpiece but he is instructed to return it by the referee]. By the sixth, seventh and eighth round I couldn’t even see what was going on.
After the fight I returned to New York and I visited my doctor for a check-up. I told him to look at a shoulder scar I got from the fight. He ran some tests and he put it through the lab to find out what caused the burn. I’ve got all the paperwork. I could kick myself in the ass. I talked to a few people. I found myself whining. I was looking around for help. I was trying to convince them but I didn’t want to appear like I was a cry-baby. It’s too late now. I said to myself, ‘No matter what I say or do they’ll never give me back the title.’ Then I thought ‘Maybe they can give me another shot at the title.’ You gotta remember that at the time George Parnassus [boxing promoter] was a top dog in the boxing game. Whatever he said at the time people backed it up. Maybe we were waiting for something to happen. We should have yelled louder. On the night I should have bitched about it but I didn’t. I have played the film over 1,000 times.
The thing is when I spat my mouth guard out the liquid fell onto my shorts. There were a couple of spots on my shorts. We now know that it was caustic acid. Two days later after the fight I had the first test done in Syracuse following a visit to my fight doctor. He got hold of the New York state troopers. They have a bigger lab and they ran more tests. The sample was then sent to Colgate College and they retested it confirming that the trace sample contained caustic acid and liquid ether.
It took between six to eight months before I could shave on that side of my face without it tingling. I can’t blame Jose Napoles. He was just a pawn. I have never gone public before about this. Anybody who knew me kept telling me, ‘Billy it didn’t look like you in there. It wasn’t you.’ Look the fight over and see if you notice anything? One person who knew me better than anybody is my mum. She asked, ‘What happened to you? You looked like you were sleeping. You stopped throwing punches and you looked slow.’ The doctor called me up because he knew I was worried about losing my mouth or the side of my face. The doctor then sent the sample for further tests to Colgate College. Those two items shouldn’t be in boxing.
I was given no medicine to recover. I was told that the effects of both the liquid ether and caustic acid needed to wear off by themselves. I was told to use a hot pack and ice pack to relieve the pain. In time the shoulder pain scabbed and healed. To this day the only people who know about this is me, my doctor, the state troopers who ran the initial lab tests and Colgate University testers, my manager Tony Graziano and Carmen [Basilio].
You and Carmen Basilio are the only world champions hailing from Canastota, the spiritual home of the Boxing Hall of Fame. What are your feelings about not being inducted into the BHOF?
It upsets me. From what I understand my name has never been brought up. I have never even been considered. That upsets me because these are people from Canastota. I have told my children who are in their fifties if my name comes up to be inducted into the Hall of Fame when I’m gone I don’t want anybody going there. What’s the point? I won’t be there to enjoy it. Why not do it while I’m still alive? I don’t know why it is. I don’t know who puts the names up. I go every year, I talk to the inductees. Some get in who are no more deserving than me. I don’t know how it works. In fact, my godson [Ed Brophy] is in charge of the organisation. I’ve never mentioned it to him. I go every year and I will continue to go every year.
How did it make you feel to be constantly referred to in the newspapers as the nephew of Carmen Basilio?
My uncle Carmen Basilio was the first from Canastota to win a world title. Yes, there is that feeling. Some people think that I only did it, I only became champ because my uncle was Carmen. It did get a little tiring to hear that but after so many times I would laugh it off. All I had for Carmen were feelings of love and family. Nothing could ever change that. The newspapers always introduced me as the nephew of Carmen Basilio. His name was always up there. After a while I got used to it. It burned a little bit at the time. Whenever I won and was interviewed it was always as the nephew of Carmen Basilio.
Even in the gym whenever Carmen would show up me and the boys always let it ride and made a joke about it. There’s no question Carmen helped me. He was 110 per cent all of the time. He would always say to me, ‘You gotta be in shape! You gotta be in condition!’ He always helped out. ‘You have to do it, not this guy or that guy, only you can do it. Once you’ve got in shape you can do everything else.’ He would stress the importance of getting your breathing right, arms have to be strong and your balance right. The whole programme has to be right. He was a person who continued to be in shape all of the time. He would even argue with himself. I learnt from Carmen to be a dedicated trainer. I listened to Carmen, his brother Joe [Basilio] and Tony, my manager. I knew that by listening to them I would learn and get better. I followed through on the programme.