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Appreciating Gene Fullmer, 1931 - 2015

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Appreciating Gene Fullmer, 1931 - 2015 Empty Appreciating Gene Fullmer, 1931 - 2015

Post by 88Chris05 Tue Apr 28, 2015 11:28 pm

Boxing was simply in Gene Fullmer's blood.

His father, simply known as 'Tuff' in West Jordan, Utah where Gene grew up, was a professional, as were both of his brothers; Jay Fullmer was a solid journeyman pro in his day, and Don Fullmer was one of the better and more consistent fighters of his era not to win a world title, good enough to beat some-time world champions of the stature of Emile Griffith, Virgil Akins and Carl 'Bobo' Olson in a career which saw him meet many of the era's leading men from Middleweight to Light-Heavyweight. But none of them could match the achievements of Gene, the oldest son of 'Tough.'

Born July 21, 1931, Fullmer looked anything but a natural athlete as a young man. Short, stocky and lacking elegance, he nevertheless caught the eye of a Utah mink farmer named Marv Jensen, who spotted something he liked in the youngster on his visits to the West Jordan Boxing Club. His amateur career was short and unspectacular, with not a great deal of information relating to it easy to find, but Jensen had no doubts having held the bag for Gene a couple of times. "He had it," Jensen said in later years. I knew it the minute I tried him out. He had three things I could work on. Strength, a good mind and fast reflexes. I took advantage of those three things."

It proved to be a relative rarity in boxing - a happy and successful relationship between fighter and manager which bore no acrimony and which lasted the whole course, with Jensen at Fullmer's side right up until his retirement.

While other rough-looking diamonds lacking in finesse predictably had an early career record littered with draws and decision losses as they learned the finer aspects of fighting and attempted to hone their skills (such as Carmen Basilio, whose name would go on to be forever linked with Fullmer's), Gene made a surprisingly smooth transition in to the paid ranks. He flattened his first eleven opponents, six in the opening round, and within months of signing professional forms he had already established himself as a Middleweight contender of note by beating the well-ranked and respected Garth Panter.

He was arguably ready for a world title fight by 1955, but with current champion Carl Olson taking a year off from his 160 obligations at that point to challenge Archie Moore for the Light-Heavyweight title, Gene had to play the waiting game. A points loss (in which he was decked for the first time in his career) against the all-action, dazzlingly-quick combination hitter Gil Turner in April of that year saw Fullmer lose his unbeaten record and threatened to derail his ascension to the top, but it proved only a small setback, as he outscored his vanquisher in a rematch two months later.

Two more unexpected points losses late in the year allowed Olson, by now dethroned by Ray Robinson in two short rounds, a scarcely-deserved instant rematch which Fullmer would arguably have still been a better candidate for (Olson lasted until the fourth this time), but by January 1957 Fullmer was finally presented with his crack at the world title. The only problem was, the title was held by none other than Sugar Ray Robinson.

When asked in 2008 if he agreed with the general consensus of Robinson being the greatest, an aged Fullmer could only bring himself to give the Sugar Man relatively faint praise. "Well, he was a good fighter, and his record is good. I don't know what else you go by. But he gave me all the competition I needed, I know that." Fullmer intensely disliked Robinson for his arrogance, manipulation of fellow professionals and their managers and attention-grabbing antics, but I suppose the only advice the wider boxing fraternity would have given him at that time would be to get in line - he certainly wasn't alone in that respect.

Despite a 38-3 record, and despite Robinson now being thirty-five and on the slide, Fullmer wasn't given much of a chance of usurping the great man. While Fullmer had kept winning, the knockouts had dried up as he'd stepped up his competition over the years. But having to go the long way around for a victory never bothered Fullmer, whose brute strength, rock-solid chin and superb conditioning made him an ideal fit for the old fifteen-round course. "When you fought Gene, you were in for fifteen rounds of nothing but banging" his brother Don remarked in his retirement. Fighting with an intensity that the jaded Robinson, who wasn't as well-suited or comfortable as Fullmer when it came to fighting at close quarters, couldn't match, the Utah man pulled out a deserved decision to become champion.

His first reign lasted barely three months, however, as Robinson did the nigh-on impossible by putting the Utah hard man away inside-schedule in their rematch with a single, devastating left hook. So outstanding and perfectly-executed was the punch, it had boxing scribes and historians scrambling around in a search to find a better one across all eras - and it's a search which still goes on to this day, a whole fifty-eight years later. "I don't remember that second fight" Fullmer remarked with a wry smile in 2008.

Robinson went on to fight a couple of barnstormers with Carmen Basilio over the next year, losing and then regaining his Middleweight crown yet again, while Fullmer entered a rebuilding process. Since entering the world ratings a few years before, fights in his home state of Utah had been rare, but that's where he returned to for five of his seven fights immediately following the Robinson loss. Knockouts were still a rarity compared to his early tear, but his stamina, conditioning and brutal body assaults remained intact, and by August 1959 a pair of decision wins over contenders Spider Webb and future Commonwealth title holder Wilf Greaves meant that Fullmer was right back at the front of the queue for a title shot.

By now, the curse of the alphabet boys was already starting to take a grip in the sport - when Robinson refused to defend his undisputed crown in a third fight with Basilio, the NBA (soon to become what we know as the WBA) stopped recognising Robinson as their champion, and matched Fullmer with Basilio for their vacant title.

Basilio, know as the 'Upstate Onion Farmer', was a fighter in the same mould as Fullmer. Rugged (though not totally without skill), fit as a fiddle and never afraid to take a big punch if it meant he could land one of his own, the ingredients for a barnstorming fight were there, and the pair of them duly obliged. It's a wonderful contest for anyone who hasn't seen it - in the early goings, Fullmer shows that he did own considerable fundamentals and skills which belied his crude-looking style, outboxing the on-rushing Basilio on the back foot while at the same time keeping the New Yorker in check in the inside exchanges with whipping uppercuts, as well as using the cross-arm defence also famously associated with the likes of Archie Moore, George Foreman and Azumah Nelson. Fullmer built up a lead, but through rounds nine, ten and eleven Basilio carved in to it, attacking with more urgency and shaking Fullmer up with a tremendous right uppercut. However, that final push didn't yield the knockout that Basilio was banking on, and it took whatever else he had left.

Basilio was hurt and caught on the ropes multiple times in rounds twelve and thirteen, and then almost instantly in the fourteenth was sent staggering to the ropes by an overhand right from the West Jordan man. Fullmer flurried to force a stoppage which Basilio bitterly disputed, but there was no doubt who'd been the better man on the night - Fullmer had simply out-toughed and out-muscled the fading Basilio.

Unlike with Robinson, Fullmer had no problem with lavishing praise on Carmen. "The toughest guy I've ever fought bar none. I'd like to fight him again and give him another chance - he's a fine sport" was Fullmer's post-fight comment after lifting his second world title. Fullmer did indeed give him another chance in June 1960, this time needing twelve rounds to halt Basilio's typically courageous effort, but the two similarly no-nonsense brawlers would remain on good terms right until Basilio's death in 2012.

This time, Fullmer's tenure as a world champion wasn't to be short-lived; he made seven successful defences of his NBA title, systematically clearing out the best opposition the division had available for him; he was perhaps a shade fortunate to receive a draw in his third bout against Robinson, but he put that right by clearly outscoring him in their fourth and final meeting in 1961; he also boxed a draw with Joey Giardello, himself a future undisputed Middleweight champion; Benny 'Kid' Paret, at the time the undisputed Welterweight champion, was vanquished via a tenth round knockout in October 1961.

Perhaps the only black mark on Fullmer's record as champion was his failure to accommodate a defence against the hard-hitting Argentine Eduardo Lausse, who had handed Fullmer a points defeat back in 1955 before Gene had become champion. Lausse, arguably the best 'career' Middleweight never to have got a title shot, was a viable contender right up until 1960, so the window for that rematch was there for a while. But alas, most champions - even great ones - have a name that can be thrown at them to one degree or another, and in Fuller's case it is the hugely underrated and too easily forgotten man from Buenos Airies.

Fighters of Fullmer's ilk seldom hold off the ravages of age like their more technical, evasive colleagues do, and in 1962 the Nigerian Dick Tiger took his title on a fifteen-rounds decision. Fullmer gave his final great performance to hold Tiger to a very impressive draw in their rematch, but it was his final fling and the last time he looked anything like a truly great fighter. Tiger halted him after seven rounds in their final bout - Fullmer's first inside-schedule defeat since that dazzling left hook he was wiped out by against Robinson - and Gene promptly announced his retirement.

A generally shy and low-key man, Fullmer wouldn't have taken pleasure in seeing any man down on his luck, I'm sure. But if he did resent Robinson's popularity and air of self-importance, he could at least comfort himself with the fact that he was appreciably a smarter man than Sugar Ray, even if he wasn't as charasmatic and good-looking a one.

Unlike Robinson and countless other fighters from his own or any other era, there were to be no ill-fated comebacks for Gene, no humiliating losses to fighters not fit to lace his boots had he been in his prime for the sake of a few dollars, no lack of joy or focus in his life now that prize fighting was gone. Fullmer was a shrewd man, as was Jensen, who had guided his career from the off. He invested his money wisely and was able to resist the idea of any kind of comeback, instead living out the rest of his days comfortably, breeding and riding horses as a pastime.

That's not to say that Fullmer, from a family of devout Mormons which was always a topic of discussion with the writers of the day, didn't have any interest in the sport once he'd hung up his own gloves. In retirement, he and his brothers Jay and Don decided to give something back to the sport which had made them, turning a vacant old fire station in West Jordan in to the Fullmer Boxing Gym. An older Fullmer was regularly seen down there, helping young boys learn the craft of the sweet science and trying to steer their energies in to something more positive than street crime. Interviewed from his home in 2007, Fullmer said, "I'd love to see a kid become a champion out of that gym."

Sadly for Fullmer, he never got to see that dream come to fruition. He passed away on April 27, 2015 at the age of 83, a mere five days after his younger brother Jay had passed on. He left two sons and two daughters, as well as a host of grandchildren.

Maybe one day the Fullmer gym will produce a world champion, and it'd be a fitting tribute and memorial for Gene, who has been a scandalously underrated Middleweight champion historically speaking. I've argued for a long time that Fullmer's record very possibly entitles him to a spot inside the top ten Middleweights of all time, yet unlike men such as Jake La Motta, whose record in my eyes doesn't compare favourably, Fullmer is sadly only known in-depth by obsessive fans of the sport. But take a look at the man's record, watch his fights against Robinson and Basilio and consider how remarkably consistent he was compared to many of his contemporaries, despite fighting such a wide array of great talents, champions and styles in the 160 lb division - surely Fullmer should be remembered as one of the died-in-the-wool, unquestioned greats at Middleweight?

Anyway, that's my tribute, but I'm also leaving a link below to a brilliant article on Fullmer by one of the best boxing writers going, Mike Casey. Well worth a read for anyone who even half-enjoyed (or simply put up with) my offering. But if anyone wants to comment, feel free. Cheers.

http://www.boxing.com/brawls_and_bruises_gene_fullmer.html
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Post by TRUSSMAN66 Tue Apr 28, 2015 11:36 pm

Absolute legend.. Was he ever in a boring fight??

"I thought he must be in great shape (Ray Robbo) jumping up and down between rounds until they said they counted to ten.... I thought it must have been on me because I didn't remember any of it"..

Great warrior......Great champion..

God bless you Gene .

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Post by John Bloody Wayne Wed Apr 29, 2015 12:55 am

Brilliant article on a significant part of middleweight history. Rest In Peace.

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Post by Rodney Wed Apr 29, 2015 8:16 am

Brill article thanks Chris, Fullmer fought in a remarkably tough era, I still feel he is mistakenly thought of as simply crude and clumsy fighter but Gene was actually more clever than he is given credit for being, as proven by his two tko victories over Basilio where he reverted to different plan types.

Terrific fighter, hard as nails. Don't make many like him anymore. RIP champ.

Cheers, Rodders
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Post by hogey Wed Apr 29, 2015 8:53 am

One of the most underrated, but truly great fighters in history.

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Post by 88Chris05 Wed Apr 29, 2015 9:37 am

Thanks for the comments, lads.

True Rodney, Fullmer showed he could mix it up a bit with regards to how he approached a fight. As I said in the article, the first Basilio fight in particular is a decent indicator of his abilities in that respect. He was no Miguel Canto of course but he used some good movement, a nice jab on the back foot and uppercuts to keep Basilio off balance and honest as he went after him. Obviously there were a lot of brutal inside exchanges as well, which was more Gene's bread and butter.

He almost got the verdict in the second Tiger fight by implementing a similar gameplan as well. In the others Tiger was just a bit too strong and robust for him and didn't let Fullmer avoid those strength-sapping exchanges. Tiger was two or three years older than Fullmer, easy to forget that, but at that stage of their careers he was probably still the fresher man despite that. Fullmer had basically been in there with everyone in a seriously tough Middleweight division over the previous decade whereas Tiger was a late bloomer who still had most of his biggest and toughest fights ahead of him by 1962 / 1963.

There's one worth pondering, as it goes - Fullmer or Tiger, who rates higher at 160? Tiger's improbable Light-Heavyweight title gives him a decisive edge over Gene in pound for pound terms, for me, but despite being 2-0-1 against Fullmer there's an argument that he got Fullmer at a decent time and that his overall record doesn't quite have the names that Fullmer's does.
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Post by Rowley Wed Apr 29, 2015 9:42 am

Good read Chris, might not be the best era for the middles ever, although it could well be, but it is comfortably the most entertaining. The last knockings of Robinson's genius, Basilio who was pretty much incapable of being in a dull fight and the likes of Fullmer, Saxon and Tiger in the latter days to make up the numbers. An era when a loss did not mean the death knell for your career and so fighting each other with regularlity was just what you did.

Like Spinks with Tyson, Gene is predominantly remembered for the Robinson KO, but like Spinks he was so much more than that, as such anything that redresses the balance is a welcome corrective.

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Post by TRUSSMAN66 Wed Apr 29, 2015 9:46 am

He reckoned the first Robbo fight was one of the easiest he ever had.......and he was over confident in the 2nd....

Better man's Juan Roldan............very limited but strong as an ox..

Real character though..

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