HOW good was former world middleweight champion Gene Fullmer, who died on April 27, 2015 at the age of 83? Well, he lost just one of four fights with the man most rate as the greatest ever, Sugar Ray Robinson – and if the latter was past his best by then, it was still a notable achievement.
Fullmer campaigned at a time when there were plenty of quality fighters and the world titles – in just eight weight divisions – were for the most part still undisputed. But true fight fans appreciate the achievements of a boxer who had only 64 pro fights (55 wins, including 24 inside the distance, six defeats and three draws) but who boxed 13 times for a world middleweight title.
The nickname “Cyclone” gives away the fighting style of the man from the small town of West Jordan, Utah.
The 5ft 8ins Fullmer was a pressure-fighter, a durable crowd-pleaser who got stuck in and punched away all night long.
It was a style for which he paid a price in later years. Gene spent his final few months at a Salt Lake County care centre, suffering from Alzheimer’s and dementia, although it was a bacterial infection that finally put him down for the count.
His brother Jay, a pro welterweight who boxed from 1956-60, had passed away just five days earlier. The youngest of these three boxing brothers, 1968 world middleweight title challenger Don, died in 2012.
Gene turned out to be the most successful of the lot, turning pro in 1951 after an amateur career that saw just four losses from 70 bouts. The former apprentice welder in a Utah copper mine made swift progress, not losing until 1955 when Gil Turner outpointed him in New York. He beat Turner twice in returns and by January 1957 was challenging Robinson for the world middleweight title at Madison Square Garden.
He was a big underdog, but in front of 18,134 fans clearly dethroned the 36-year-old champion on cards of 10-5, 9-6 and 8-5-2 in rounds. In the second a short right to the jaw caught the challenger but, this paper reported, “To Robinson’s amazement and Fullmer’s delight the blow had no effect, and it was obvious that the challenger was as durable as his reputation suggested.”
Emboldened, Fullmer kept taking the fight to the champion and in round seven a right-left to the body put Robinson down for a count of six. Ray was also cut on the left eye and lost without doubt, conceding of Fullmer: “He is good, though I have seen better – and worse – champions.”
But the return four months later in Chicago produced a dramatic reversal of fortune when a Robinson left hook put Gene down for the count in round five.
It was Fullmer’s first inside-the-distance loss and one of only two he would ever suffer (the other came in his last fight, against Dick Tiger in August 1963).
By 1959 the world middleweight crown was split and Gene won the National Boxing Association version with a 14th-round stoppage of former welter champ Carmen Basilio. He would retain seven times, including another stoppage of Basilio (two rounds quicker), draws against future champ Joey Giardello and Robinson, both in 1960, plus a points win over a 40-year-old Robinson in March 1961.
But when Tiger took the title off him in 1962 the ride was over, with Fullmer failing to gain his revenge in two rematches, a draw and a seventh-round retirement loss.
After boxing, he ran a mink ranch in Utah and gave financial support to his Mormon church. He was elected to the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1991.