It is often the case with dynamic brawlers who rely on physical strength, constant aggression, and a seemingly inhuman ability to absorb punishment that, like an engine habitually pushed beyond the red line, the physical toll accrues and the ability to perform abruptly and precipitously declines. A durable battler who just short years previous possessed the vigour and clout to defeat great champions like Sugar Ray Robinson and Carmen Basilio, suddenly slows, weakens, and becomes vulnerable. So it was for Gene Fullmer, who, at only 31 years of age, unexpectedly lost his middleweight championship to challenger Dick Tiger in San Francisco and in the process appeared a greatly diminished fighter.
That’s not to say a warrior as rugged and powerful as Tiger couldn’t have competed with a prime Fullmer. Tiger, whose real name was Richard Ihetu, is a two-time middleweight champion who defeated a long list of Hall of Famers including Joey Giardello, Rubin Carter, Joey Archer, Jose Torres and Nino Benvenuti, and no doubt had the goods to hold his own with virtually any middleweight in history. But it was obvious the Fullmer who lost to the Nigerian after fifteen one-sided rounds was not the same Fullmer who had scored big wins over Robinson, Basilio and Benny Paret.
Gene looked a bit better in the rematch four months later in Las Vegas, or at least good enough to salvage a draw, though yet another grueling, fifteen round battle did little good for the worn down springs in his legs and the fading sharpness of his reflexes. But the draw nicely set up a third Tiger vs Fullmer bout, one which became an historic event, the first ever world title match held on the African continent outside of apartheid South Africa. This was more than a decade before the famous “Rumble in the Jungle” between George Foreman and Muhammad Ali. Nigeria, a nation reeling from various political upheavals and internal strife, came together as one to cheer on their champion, with warring factions, temporarily at least, burying the hatchet.
The only real surprise of the night for American audiences was the enthusiastic reception given the former champion. “Fool-mah! Fool-mah!” chanted the massive throng as the “The Utah Cyclone” made his way to the ring. Evidently, his gallant stands against their countryman had made him the second most popular boxer in Nigeria.
The bout itself lacked drama, though not bruising action, albeit one-way, as Tiger’s advantages in strength and quickness were immediately apparent and soon blood was once again pouring down the side of Fullmer’s face. By the end of a brutal fourth round which saw Fullmer’s tenderized mug take a sustained beating, the former champ had cuts above and below both eyes, the gash above the right particularly nasty.
Tiger pursued his advantage, stalking his man, while Fullmer tried unsuccessfully to box from a distance, forced to adopt a style clearly unnatural to him. By the sixth the match had become a rout. Fullmer had no options; on the outside, when he jabbed and tried to protect the cuts around his eyes, he kept getting nailed by powerful right hands thanks to Tiger’s longer arms. On the inside, the champion pummeled Gene with heavy left hooks.
Spurred on by his countrymen, Tiger dished out a beating in round seven, hammering Fullmer from corner to corner. The challenger never stopped trying, never stopped fighting back, but all could see the contest had been decided. At the bell Gene walked haltingly back to his corner, as if uncertain of the floor beneath him, his expression one of weary resignation. Seconds later his manager signaled surrender. As the referee raised Tiger’s hand, joyous pandemonium erupted in Liberty Stadium and fans flooded through the ropes. It took half an hour for police to clear the ring.
“If you have to lose, it’s a pleasure to lose to a great fighter, sportsman and gentleman like Dick Tiger,” declared the gracious Fullmer, who was astonished by the tributes and adulation the Nigerian fans bestowed upon him. “There were at least a thousand fans waiting outside to cheer goodbye,” he marveled after his return to the United States. The poignant farewell could have been on behalf of the entire sport, for Fullmer, clearly one of the best middleweights of his time, never fought again. — Michael Carbert