Let us journey back, boxing fans, to a time when the best fought the best and did so not once every couple of years but whenever the occasion arose, anxious as those champions were to prove themselves, their fistic careers now glistening marble monuments rising above the mists of time, testament to their glory and unassailable standing as true ring legends. Alas, my friends, we were born too late.
In 1955 a 34-year-old Sugar Ray Robinson became the first fighter in boxing history to regain the middleweight championship of the world when he emerged from retirement to knock out Bobo Olson in two rounds. Over the next few years he would regain it twice more after losing it in thrilling duels with fellow middleweight greats Gene Fullmer and Carmen Basilio.
Robinson vs Fullmer became a heated rivalry as the two men simply did not like each other, their antipathy translating into vicious clashes in the ring. Their first set-to in January of 1957 saw the aggressive Fullmer prevail by unanimous decision, “The Utah Cyclone” scoring a knockdown in round seven and generally having things his way in a bruising battle. In the rematch four months later, the legendary Sugar Ray scored one of the most memorable wins of his incredible career when he tagged the iron-tough Fullmer with a perfectly timed left hook in round five and put him down for the count, Gene’s only knockout loss.
Robinson then split two grueling wars with Basilio before taking a long layoff, but great champions can do that when they’ve given boxing fans some of the greatest performances in ring history and amassed a record of almost 150 pro bouts. (Robinson would eventually retire with 200 fights to his credit.) Meanwhile, warriors Fullmer and Basilio had fought for the vacant title, stripped from Ray due to inactivity. Fullmer stopped Basilio in round 14 and stopped him again in the return. Thus, the stage was set for a rubber match with the aging Sugar Man.
The third Robinson vs Fullmer fracas was the most closely contested of the series. There were no knockdowns in a bloody and violent 15 round struggle that appeared to be going the older man’s way until he ran out of gas in the final few rounds. With his late rally the champion just barely saved his title by a disputed draw, despite the fact the bout was contested in an 18 foot ring, the smaller dimensions clearly an advantage for the rough, tough, brawling style of Gene Fullmer.
Just three months later they met yet again, but this time Robinson insisted beforehand on a 20 foot ring and threatened to walk if he didn’t get what he wanted. He also demanded six ounce gloves and the privilege of entering the ring last. Fullmer was not impressed.
“If Robinson is guilty of any sin, it’s the sin of selfishness,” said the champion. “He appears to have very little time for anybody but himself. With him, it’s always me, me, me. His disregard for the other fellow is notorious in boxing. When a fighter is training to meet Robinson, he sits on a hot coal waiting for the first postponement.”
Just hours before the fight, as the story goes, Robinson and his people burst into the office of Fullmer’s manager, Marv Jenson, and told him he had a very serious problem to deal with, one that put the next night’s main event in jeopardy.
“You better get yourself a brand new ring. And fast,” shouted a furious Sugar Ray. “Because we just went and took a look and that ring down there ain’t but 18 feet!”
Jenson, sitting at his desk, sighed and tossed Robinson a tape measure. “I don’t have time for this nonsense. That’s a 20 foot ring, ordered to your specifications. Go measure it and see for yourself.”
A short while later Robinson returned with both the tape measure and a puzzled expression on his face. “I coulda swore that ring ain’t 20 feet,” the legendary champion muttered, shaking his head.
“You better get ready for the fight,” growled Jenson. “Unless you got any other complaints.”
The fourth and final Robinson vs Fullmer match, while action-packed, proved the most anti-climactic of the series, Fullmer winning a unanimous decision. After being staggered by a right hand and then pasted with numerous solid blows in round three, Robinson faded, while Fullmer went on to batter and bully the 40-year-old Sugar Ray about the ring. A ring which, in truth, was precisely 18 feet by 18 feet.
Decades later, after Marv Jenson died, his family found inside his steel safe a length of coiled metallic measuring tape. It was exactly two feet long. — Michael Carbert