John Gallagher, chairman of the Pennsylvania Boxing Hall of Fame, didn't need much time to consider the question.
Is Sunday's group of inductees at Romano's Caterers the most accomplished ever to be enshrined at the same time?
"Oh, absolutely," Gallagher said of the eight-fighter, nine-member class that includes five former world champions. "You've got three heavyweight champs [Larry Holmes, Tim Witherspoon and the late Sonny Liston]. You've got an Olympic gold medalist [Meldrick Taylor] who won two world titles as a pro, and another fighter [Charles Brewer] who won a world title. And the other two inductees [Curtis Parker and the late Percy Bassett] both were world-rated at one time."
Joining this august group is the late Jack McKinney, who loved boxing and opera and managed to cover those seemingly disparate beats for the Daily News with skill and passion.
But while most of the attention at the awards dinner will be rightfully focused on the living inductees in attendance - Holmes, who also will be enshrined in the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, N.Y., on June 8, is out of the country and has sent his regrets - perhaps the most compelling, and tragic, story belongs to a man who has been dead since 1993, had his last bout in 1955 and never got a deserved shot at a world championship.
West Philadelphia native Percy Bassett's boxing legacy is not what it might have been because he never wore a jeweled belt around his waist. But his integrity, during a time when the sport was controlled by shadowy underworld figures, stamps him as a champion of another sort.
Bassett and his trainer, Quenzell McCall, paid dearly for not playing ball with the mob. Even if they might have been tempted to acquiesce at some point, Bassett's career prematurely ended when, after suffering a detached retina in a knockout victory over Seraphin Ferrer in Paris on April 24, 1955, he was deemed to be legally blind. He was just 25 at the time.
"The story that Quenzell McCall told me was that they would have had to give up half of Percy's contract to [mobster] Frankie Carbo to get a shot at the title," longtime Philadelphia promoter J Russell Peltz said. "They refused to do it. That's why they kept putting Percy in all those eliminators until Teddy 'Redtop' Davis beat him again [on Nov. 26, 1954].
"When Percy suffered that detached retina, that was it. In those days, you couldn't get a detached retina repaired like you can now."
How good was Bassett? After turning pro with a second-round knockout of Tommy Trout on Oct. 16, 1947, he sprinted to a 50-2 record, with 29 victories inside the distance, in fewer than 4 years. Bassett was a boxer-puncher, skilled enough to dance along with the cuties, powerful enough to swap bombs with the blasters.
"Percy would have had a good shot to knock out Sandy Saddler," Peltz said. "He beat Ray Famechon for the interim [featherweight] title in 1953, when Saddler was in the Army."
Saddler, ironically, retired in 1956 because of vision problems stemming from injuries he suffered in an automobile accident.
If his own stalled ambitions weren't discouraging enough, Bassett (65-12-1, 42 KOs) also spent the last portion of his career haunted by memories of the death of one of his opponents. In a bout against Sonny Boy West on Dec. 20, 1950, West began to complain of double vision between the sixth and seventh rounds. Floored in the seventh round by a Bassett body shot, West landed hard on his head. He died the next day of an intercerebral hemorrhage.
Romano's Caterers is at 1523 East Wingohocking St. in Juniata Park. Tickets are priced at $50, with cocktails at 4 p.m. and the program to begin at 6. For information, call 215-465-1778. *