Flags are flying at half-staff at the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, N.Y., in memory of legendary middleweight champion Carmen Basilio, who passed away last week at the age of 85.

They should just keep those flags flying at half-staff in memory of the sport of boxing, which dies a slow death every time one of the legends of the sport passes on. All that's left is the tattered remnants of what takes place in the ring these days.

Basilio had not fought for more than 50 years, yet he was revered and remembered as a great middleweight champion who engaged in the kind of battles that are staples of ESPN Classic broadcasts -- including two memorable fights against the great Sugar Ray Robinson. In 1957, Basilio won a split decision over Robinson, who is considered by many to be the greatest boxer in history.

Basilio had been a regular for many years at Fight Night, the annual charity fundraising boxing show started by the late Joe Robert in the District. He would show up with another former middleweight champion, Gene Fullmer.

Fullmer and Basilio also fought two classic brawls in 1959 and 1960, with Fullmer winning both of them. The two men were close friends and inseparable at Fight Night.

"Just because we fought each other doesn't mean we didn't like each other," Fullmer once told me. "I never went into the ring against someone I didn't like. I came out a few times not liking them. But we've been friends for a long time."

They were friends in part because the two of them forged something special in the ring in their two epic battles. It's how we measure greatness in fighters -- by their opponents. And when two fighters face each other in a series of memorable bouts, it becomes a separate chapter in the history of the sport.

Some names are linked together forever, like Riddick Bowe and Evander Holyfield.

Those two forged perhaps the last great heavyweight chapter in boxing history. The first and greatest of their three historic fights took place 20 years ago on Tuesday.

This was a time when boxing was still relevant in America. The anticipation of the match between Bowe, the 6-foot-5 undefeated powerful heavyweight who had come to live in Fort Washington, Maryland, and Holyfield, the undersized fighter with an oversized heart, was the big story in sports.

The toe-to-toe fight included one of the best rounds of all time -- the 10th, when Holyfield appeared ready to fall yet responded back to put Bowe in trouble as the bell sounded. Bowe would win the decision and, after losing the rematch a year later, won the finale in 1995.

Fights like this one -- and fighters like Carmen Basilio -- are now just reserved for exhibits in the Boxing Hall of Fame.

Examiner columnist Thom Loverro is the co-host of "The Sports Fix" from noon to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday on ESPN980 and espn980.com. Contact him at tloverro@washingtonexaminer.com.