Gene Fullmer: 1931-2015

For middleweight champion Gene Fullmer, no nickname really stuck. Some tried to give him the moniker of “Cyclone” or “The Utah Cyclone” or even “The Mormon Mauler,” but the two-time middleweight champion of the world didn’t care for such fancy stuff and when any nickname was mentioned he would politely ask to be called “Gene.” Such was Gene Fullmer, a no-nonsense, unassuming warrior and champion who died Monday at age 83.

For this fight fan, the proper nickname was already taken, fellow middleweight Jake LaMotta known as “The Bronx Bull,” but Fullmer was built more like one with all his muscles and his huge upper body, and he fought like one too. Incredibly tough and always aggressive, Fullmer simply overwhelmed opponents with his pressure and sheer strength. Not blessed with a particularly potent punch, he nonetheless scored 24 knockouts in his 55 wins, packing enough power to stop tough battlers like Benny Paret and Carmen Basilio inside the distance.

Fullmer in his prime.
Fullmer in his prime.

Born in 1931 in West Jordan, Utah, Gene was the oldest of the three fighting Fullmer brothers, all boxers but it was Gene who became a world champion. After the three brothers all retired, they opened their own gym in Riverton, Utah called Fullmer Brothers Boxing Gym. It is currently located in Salt Lake City and will continue to operate despite the deaths of all three brothers, Don in 2012, and Jay and Gene within a week of each other, Jay dying last week of leukemia.

Of course Gene is best remembered for his four fights with the legendary Sugar Ray Robinson. His points victory over “The Prince of Harlem” on January 2, 1957 in New York’s Madison Square Garden was a sizable upset. Fullmer had been regarded as a respectable challenger but not in the class of Sugar Ray. After 15 bruising rounds, everyone’s opinion of the young brawler changed as the tough Fullmer dominated on the inside, his greater strength allowing him to shrug Robinson off in the clinches and drive him to the ropes. He scored a knockdown in round seven and opened up a cut over the champion’s left eye. Some gave Fullmer as many as ten of the fifteen rounds.

Sugar Ray Robinson and Gene Fullmer
Fullmer pursues Sugar Ray in their first clash.

The rematch four months later was a different story with Robinson landing his famous “perfect punch” and scoring a stunning one-punch knockout in round five. It would be the only defeat of Fullmer’s career that didn’t involve the judges’ scorecards before his final fight in 1963 when Dick Tiger stopped him in seven.

Robinson vacated the title and Fullmer battled fellow tough-as-nails brawler Carmen Basilio for the belt. The Utah native’s advantages in size and strength allowed him to break “The Onion Farmer” down and score a TKO in round 14 in 1959’s Fight of the Year. Beginning with this win, Fullmer fought only championship fights for the rest of his career, and all of them were tough, bruising battles, the shortest ending in round ten.

Basilio takes a heavy shot from Gene Fullmer.
Basilio takes a heavy shot from Fullmer in their first war.

After holding tough Joey Giardello to a draw and stopping Basilio again, it was time for a third meeting with Robinson in 1960, which also ended as a draw, though a slight majority of ringsiders thought Sugar Ray deserved a close decision win. The score was settled once and for all in their fourth match, another 15 round war awarded to Fullmer. Said the champion after this final meeting with the great Sugar Ray, “I’m glad I was fighting this guy when he was over his prime.”

Fullmer rumbles with Dick Tiger.

All the grueling fights began to catch up to Fullmer not long after. In his next title defense he broke a bone in his arm and took a pounding in the late going against Cuban challenger Florentino Fernandez. His next match was a brutal affair, a slugfest with another Cuban, tough Benny Paret, that ended by KO in round ten. (Paret absorbed terrible punishment in that fight and would be fatally injured in his very next bout against Emile Griffith.) Ten months later a clearly declining Fullmer lost his world title by decision to Dick Tiger. He held the African to a draw in the rematch a few months later, but took a beating in their third meeting, the first world title match ever held in Africa. Following this defeat, Fullmer retired. Unlike so many successful champions, he never attempted a comeback.

The Fighting Fullmer Brothers: Gene, Jay and Don.

Gene Fullmer will always be remembered for his astonishing toughness and strength, his exciting all-action fighting style, and his legendary battles with Robinson and Basilio. Boxing fans revered him for his friendliness outside the ring as much for his ruggedness and heart inside it, and he was a popular visitor at the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, New York.

A devout Mormon and lifelong resident of Utah, he suffered from Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease in his final years but his grandson Kasey Winters reports, “He could still work the speed bag in his 60s and 70s. He was still strong and powerful.” With his brothers he helped keep their boxing gym going since 1978 and was known for helping scores of young people find purpose and self-discipline through “The Sweet Science.”

Gene Fullmer is survived by his wife of 31 years, Karen. He had two sons, Delaun and Bart, and two daughters, Marianne and Kaye, with his first wife, Dolores H. Fullmer, who died in 1983. Fight fans everywhere are in mourning for this great warrior.       

— Robert Portis

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