It is Mayweather-Pacquiao week, which overshadows everything else that might be happening in the world of boxing.
But maybe that shouldn’t be the case, at least not quite so absolutely. There should at least be a tiny window of light open amid all the May-Pac buzz to shine upon an 83-year-old former middleweight champion whose Hall of Fame career has been woefully overlooked, and not just since his 12-year professional career ended with a loss to Dick Tiger for the WBA and vacant WBC 160-pound titles on Aug. 10, 1963, in Ibadan, Nigeria.
Gene Fullmer, who died of natural causes late Monday night in his West Jordan, Utah, home, posted a 55-6-3 record, with 24 victories inside the distance, in those dozen years of inelegant success. Even though he was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1991, and had a raft of quality wins (against Sugar Ray Robinson, Paul Pender, Gil Turner, Peter Mueller, Ralph “Tiger” Jones, Spider Webb, Florentino Fernandez and Benny “Kid” Paret, among others) during one of the golden ages of the middleweight division, he is perhaps best known for the only knockout loss on his record, which came in the second of his four clashes with the incomparable Sugar Ray on May 1, 1957, in Chicago Stadium.
Defending the championship he had wrested from Robinson on a 15-round unanimous decision four months earlier, Fullmer was slightly ahead on points when the aging but still dangerous master of the prize ring unleashed what many have called the single most memorable punch in boxing history, a short left hook which put Fullmer down for the count in the fifth round.
That exquisite shot is a fixture on any video compilation of the greatest knockouts of all time, right up there with the crushing overhand right that Rocky Marciano landed to the chin of Jersey Joe Walcott in the 13th round the night he captured the heavyweight title on Sept. 23, 1952, in Philadelphia’s Municipal Stadium.
“In the fifth, I moved in with my left hand maybe six inches lower than it should have been and he slipped that left hook over the top and caught me right on the chin,” Fullmer recalled during the IBHOF’s induction weekend in 2008. “All at once the lights went out. I had never been knocked out. I had no idea what it felt like and I can’t tell you what it feels like even now.”
The fact that Fullmer, whose style was as smooth as sandpaper and as flashy as a lead pipe, was kayoed just that one time speaks volumes about how tough the Mormon mauler was. Here was a guy who was as easy to hit as a tin can targeted by a Navy SEAL sniper shooting in his back yard, but who had enough heart and will to carry the fight to anyone, and the awkwardly effective style to flummox even technically superior boxers.
In Robinson’s autobiography, “Sugar Ray: The Sugar Ray Robinson Story,” written in collaboration with Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times sports columnist Dave Anderson in 1970, the man many consider to be the finest all-around fighter ever to grace the sport recalled his first points defeat and subsequent knockout of Fullmer, against whom he was just 1-2-1 in their four meetings.
“Fullmer’s style bothered me,” Robinson said of that initial loss. “He had a barroom brawler’s style, which I hadn’t expected because Mormons don’t drink.”
But Robinson said he was better prepared for the rematch, and the additional time he put into analyzing Fullmer’s headlong rushes paid off.
“For the return with Fullmer, movies were necessary,” he related. “I needed to study his style. I needed to know all I could about him. Suddenly, watching the films one day, I saw what I had been hoping to find. He liked to throw a right hand to the body and when he did, his jaw was open for my left hook.
“I feinted a left hook, leaving my midsection open. You’ve got to let a fish see the bait before it’ll bite, and Fullmer bit. He let got his right hand, exposing his jaw. His jaw looked as big as any of the jaws on the Mount Rushmore monuments. Snapping a left hook with all my strength, I nailed him as he moved toward me, adding to the impact. His head snapped back and he went down as if I had hit him with an ax. At eight, he attempted to get up, but his legs wouldn’t work for him.”
It is indicative of how gentlemanly Fullmer was in his personal conduct that he and his manager-trainer, Marv Jenson, visited Robinson’s dressing room afterward to congratulate Sugar Ray and compliment him on the soon-to-become-legendary hook. Such gestures of sportsmanship are not as common as one might think, but this one was especially notable because Fullmer, truth be told, was none too fond of Robinson’s self-absorbed persona.
“If Robinson is guilty of any sin, it’s the sin of selfishness,” Fullmer said years afterward. “He appears to have very little time for anybody but himself. He has caused considerable inconvenience to almost everybody he has dealt with in boxing. With him, it’s me, me, me. His disregard for the other fellow is notorious.”
It might or might not be true that Fullmer, a Korean War veteran, was born to fight, but his father’s name was Tuff, so draw your own conclusions. The eldest of Tuff’s three sons to box (the others were Don, who twice challenged for the middleweight championship, and Jay, who, ironically, died on April 22 of this year and was laid to rest the day Gene died), Gene was eight when he was taken by his dad to the West Jordan Athletic Club to learn how to defend himself. He did not, as his later career demonstrated, dazzle his first and only coach, Jenson, with nimble footwork.
“But he had three things I could work on: strength, a good mind and fast reflexes,” Jenson said of the same elementary skill-set that made Marciano one of the most celebrated heavyweight champions ever.
So crude was Fullmer, who won his first 29 pro bouts, that, upon seeing him spar for the first time, venerable Madison Square Garden matchmaker Teddy Brenner advised Jenson to send him home to Utah to learn a trade in which it was less likely for him to get hurt, like, say welding. (Which is one of the jobs Fullmer held even after winning the middleweight belt.) But beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, and Fullmer’s bull-in-a-china-shop approach obviously worked for him.
As a child watching the “Gillette Calvalcade of Sports” on Friday nights with my father in the late 1950s and early 1960s, I saw Fullmer fight often enough to appreciate his toughness, but I was more of a Carmen Basilio fan. Both were blue-collar tradesmen, but Basilio had a name that rolled over the tongue liked recited poetry, as well as the ultimate fighter’s face and an undeniable flair for the dramatic. Fullmer had few if any refined flourishes, and one had to look hard to pick up on any small nuances that separated him from the barroom brawler Robinson had imagined him to be.
Now he is gone, and the pool of mourners who actually saw him in action, if only on fuzzy, black-and-white TV, is becoming increasingly shallow. Today’s fight fans are fixated on Mayweather-Pacquiao, and rightly so. The past is the past and even those disposed to peek over their shoulders aren’t always keen-eyed enough to see that far back.
But it says here that Gene Fullmer would have been no picnic for any current fighter in or near his weight class, including Mayweather and Pacquiao, because he had a steely determination that, while not prettied up with finesse, is at the core of what true champions are made of.