Remembering Gene Fullmer

Graham Houston
06/07/2015 11:15am

To say there was nothing fancy about Gene Fullmer is a bit of an understatement. Fullmer was a rough-hewn battler, a mauler and a brawler. He was also very tough, very well conditioned and extremely difficult to discourage. Fullmer, who died on 27 April at the age of 83, must have been doing something right, because he twice won the middleweight championship and made seven successful defences in his second tenure. He also twice defeated Sugar Ray Robinson and drew with him once in a four-fight series.

Boxing can be, and often is, a cruel business, and some of the things written about fighters can be wounding. Fullmer came in for more than his share of callous comments.

As Fullmer was born and raised in the Mormon state of Utah, it was inevitable, given his style of fighting, that writers would bestow a “Mauling Mormon” nickname.

An article published in the 1961 True Boxing Yearbook, however, in which ex-champ Fritzie Zivic was asked his opinion of Fullmer as a fighter, was particularly unkind. “Beyond question, here is the worst fighter I have ever seen who won a championship,” Zivic is quoted as saying. “Can’t punch. Can’t box. Can’t defend himself.”

Fullmer was not known to be a particularly hard puncher, true, and his boxing ability was rather rudimentary, and he was hittable. He was, though, a rough handful for the top middleweights of the late 1950s and into the 1960s. We often hear the term “awkwardly effective”, and that certainly applied to Fullmer.

Video on YouTube shows that Fullmer wasn’t a come-forward slugger. Fullmer held up his hands up in a stance not unlike someone who has just started taking boxing lessons. He would back up and then lunge at his opponent with crude punches, some of which might land behind his opponent’s head. His jab was like a man pushing open a door; he threw the uppercut as if heaving a heavy object  onto a shelf. At times he would adopt a crossed-arms defence, out of which he would hurl hooks and swings.

It was this sheer awkwardness that gave more conventional boxers so much trouble - that and Fullmer’s great physical strength. Fullmer could be outboxed, but no one was ever going to out-bully him - well, perhaps not until he ran into the great Nigerian fighter, Dick Tiger, in 1962.

Floyd Mayweather’s “Hard work – dedication!” training mantra is well known. Fullmer knew all about hard work. Even while a leading middleweight contender, Fullmer continued his employment in a Utah copper mine. “I love to work and I like to fight,” Fullmer told the Associated Press news agency after his victory over Sugar Ray Robinson to become middleweight champion in January 1957.

Fullmer truly came from a fighting family. His father, Lawrence “Tuff” Fullmer, apparently used to be a boxer. Fullmer’s mother named him after the former heavyweight champion, Gene Tunney. Brothers Don and Jay boxed professionally - Don holds a win over the great Emile Griffith and fought Terry Downes in London.

“I always wanted to be a fighter,” Fullmer told AP. He started to dabble in boxing at the age of eight, frequenting a gym run by Utah boxing figure Marv Jensen (or “Jenson” as the name is sometimes spelled), who became his manager. Boxing, he said, got in his blood. His professional career began when he was 19, and was interrupted by a two-year stint in the army, which included 11 months in Korea during the Korean War.

When Marv Jensen took Fullmer to New York - then the world’s boxing capital - the fighter from the American West was somewhat ridiculed by savvy gym habitués, who saw him as a limited fighter, totally lacking in finesse. Jensen, though, had faith in the rough, tough and willing Fullmer.

Even when Fullmer lost to Gil Turner, a seasoned former welterweight title challenger, at the old Eastern Parkway Arena in Brooklyn in 1954, a loss that ended Fullmer’s unbeaten run after 29 wins in a row, Fullmer and Jensen saw it as a learning experience. Fullmer suffered a knockdown in the sixth round when the Philadelphian Turner caught him with a left hook, and he received what the United Press International news service described as a boxing lesson. (Both men were junior middleweights that night, with the 154-pound Fullmer having a three-pound weight advantage.) You could say that Fullmer was undaunted by defeat - he subsequently twice defeated Turner in tough fights.

This was in an era when protecting an unbeaten record wasn’t a priority and when contenders were matched in competitive contests almost on a fight-by-fight basis. Losses followed to the fine 1950s boxer Bobby Boyd - in Boyd’s Chicago hometown - and, just two months later, to a heavy-handed Argentinean middleweight named Eduardo Lausse, who knocked Fullmer down in the eighth round. (Lausse was on a run of 32 consecutive victories, and he was almost 3lbs heavier than Fullmer - Lausse looked much the bigger man in the ring, as shown in a blurry YouTube video.)

The expression “matched tough” certainly applied in Fullmer’s case, but he was nothing if not persistent, and a bloody win over the excellent French fighter Charles Humez - the European champion - earned Fullmer a shot at middleweight champion Sugar Ray Robinson. “With youthful vigor, strength and stamina on his side, the American punched his way through Gallic gore to a unanimous 10 round decision,” the New York Herald Tribune reported in the colourful writing style if the era.

A crowd of 18,134 packed Madison Square Garden for the Fullmer vs Robinson fight on 2 January 1957 - live TV had been blacked out in New York City, which would never fly today. Fullmer, at 25 a decade the younger man, was established as a 9-5 on favourite although the New York Times reported that betting at fight time was even money.

“Robinson was still the exquisite master of his trade, the picture book fighter with the beautiful style,” New York Times columnist Arthur Daley reported. “But his years and Fullmer caught up with him. Young Gene swarmed all over and never gave him rest.”

Robinson gained revenge when knocking out Fullmer with one of the greatest left hooks ever landed in the rematch at Chicago Stadium on 1 May, 1957. The two did not renew rivalry in the ring until December 1960, by which time Fullmer was the National Boxing Association middleweight champion (and considered superior to the New York and Europe-recognised Paul Pender, whom Fullmer had beaten by decision in an early New York appearance in 1955).

Fullmer’s NBA title-winning victory came against Robinson’s bitter rival Carmen Basilio, whom Fullmer halted in the 14th round in August 1959. This is widely considered to be Fullmer’s finest victory, a fight in which he showed surprising boxing ability. Harry Grayson of the long-gone Newspaper Enterprise Association news agency hailed “Fullmer’s remarkable transformation from an awkward club fighter into a boxer with a pattern and moves and combinations.”

Yet Fullmer will forever, perhaps unfairly, be remembered as a brawler and bruiser, and none of his fights was more brawling and bruising than his 15-round draw with future champion Joey Giardello in Montana on 20 April 1960. The fight featured flagrant butting by both boxers. Each man was warned to watch his head as early as the first round, and each was cut from collisions, with a bizarre incident in the fourth round when referee Harry Kessler stopped the fight, not so much to warn the fighters about butting as to try to calm them down - it was estimated that the clock was stopped for nearly a minute in this round while the fighters gesticulated angrily and Kessler made soothing motions. “By the fourth, blood streamed down the faces of both fighters,” AP reported. “Kessler’s gray shirt and trousers looked as if he had just stepped out of a slaughterhouse.”

Dick Tiger ended Fullmer’s second reign as champion by pounding out a unanimous 15-round decision outdoors at Candlestick Park, San Francisco, on 23 October 1962. “Fullmer fought the last four and a half rounds in a familiar Fullmer pattern,” AP reported. “He was cut and bleeding from gashes over both eyes, but he was still flailing away with both fists at the final bell.”

That was Fullmer - game to the last. He never won another fight. Although he fought a draw with Tiger in a rematch in Las Vegas - when Fullmer used a counter punching style - he was no match for Tiger in their third fight, in Nigeria on 10 August 1963. Fullmer suffered a cut over the right eye and retired after seven rounds, saying he couldn’t see due to the flow of blood, but this time, according to contemporary reports, he was never in the fight.

Under pressure from family and friends to retire, Fullmer, 32, was quoted by Boxing Illustrated as saying: “When has a fighter had enough? I guess it’s when he admits he can’t fight any more. But I haven’t admitted it yet.” But he never boxed again.

In retirement, Fullmer had an interest in a mink ranch and a quarter-horse breeding farm, and ran a boxing gym with his brothers Don and Jay. He was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1991.

“He was as rugged as the Wasatch Mountains that backdrop his native town of West Jordan, Utah,” Newspaper Enterprise Association columnist Bill McCormick wrote of Fullmer in 1963.

Rugged - that’s the word for Gene Fullmer. He wasn’t a great boxer as regards technical skill, he wasn’t a big puncher, but he was unyielding, and he got the best out of what assets he had - principally, strength, stamina, durability and determination. Even in the bouts he didn’t win, his opponents knew they had been in a fight. As Dick Tiger said of him after taking the title from Fullmer in 1962: “After three or four rounds, I knew I was tangling with the champion.”