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Former middleweight champ Gene Fullmer dead at 83

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Underrated champ won seven world title fights and defeated 'Sugar' Ray Robinson twice. Find out why he deserves his due as Kyle McLachlan takes a quick look at the late champ.

Gene Fullmer remains one of the most underrated middleweight champions
Gene Fullmer remains one of the most underrated middleweight champions
Publicity Shot--Wikipedia

Some fighters are remembered for their losses more than their victories. Knockouts are what many fans crave, and beautiful--or brutal, or both--one-punch knockouts stick out in our minds more than scientific trade offs of skill or lengthy wars of attrition. The minds eye can recall a clean knockout as quickly as the punch itself.

Gene Fullmer--who passed away today at the age of eighty three--usually comes up in conversation when boxing folk discuss the greatest knockouts of all time. If not, it's one of the first things to come up if you happen to be discussing who the greatest fighter was of all time.

'Sugar' Ray Robinson was arguably just that, and when you think of Robinson you think of the left hook that left Fullmer without the use of his legs long enough for referee Frank Sikora to register the only ten-count of Fullmer's career.

The knockout would not resonate nearly as much if Fullmer was not lauded for his toughness. And that he was.

Bear in mind that he survived the devastating blows of Florentino Fernandez, Dick Tiger, Eduardo Lausse, 'Spider' Webb and--on three other occasions--'Sugar' Ray Robinson. That is a list of destroyers that could all feature in a list of the hardest punchers to ever grace the 160lb division.

But Fullmer had more than just sheer toughness and deserves so much more than to be remembered as being on the wrong end of a one-punch knockout.

Raised as a Mormon in West Utah alongside two brothers--fellow pros Don and Jay--Fullmer brought a stocky physique and a natural ruggedness that may have been more suited to amateur wrestling than the sweet science. His style was without grace, and showed a lack of natural athleticism. He muddled around the ring, and didn't seem to know--or be able--to deliver a straight punch.

But that is what made Fullmer so formidable. In a sport where you are taught how to evade punches as they are supposed to be thrown Gene Fullmer was an awkward customer, a gunslinger with a hand cannon.

The great 'Sugar' Ray Robinson had a machine gun. And yet--although it's that knockout that most boxing fans remember--it was the only victory Robinson managed in four contests.

Fullmer was a blood and guts warrior, as cliched as that sounds. And it was a man after his own heart that proved Fullmer's most natural dance partner.

If a bear and a gorilla tried to tango anyway.

Carmen Basilio and Gene Fullmer were bleeders who marked up at the pre-fight stare down. In two epic battles--the first selected 'Fight of the Year' in 1959 by The Ring Magazine--Fullmer and Basilio shared blood, leather and a mutual unwillingness to back down. In both fights Fullmer outlasted the all-time great Basilio--a two-weight world champion--in the trenches.

The last round of their first fight shows Fullmer's awkwardness. A slow, push of a jab that shoved rather than stung. A right hand that came in faster than it looked having been masked by that same ponderous left. Basilio sagged--and that never happened--and although he stayed upright Fullmer's relentlessness forced a stoppage.

Basilio protested then as he would in their second fight a year later. He had more of a case in their rematch, but he had been mauled for the duration. He famously offered to continue the fight with the referee instead. Fullmer had already ended it for him.

Fullmer would have no such luck with Richard 'Dick Tiger' Ihetu. A true iron man, Tiger was arguably the strongest middleweight of all time. If Fullmer had found a carbon copy in Carmen Basilio, he had met his match in Tiger.

In writing about the bout for British magazine Boxing News in their bookazine 'The 100 Greatest Fights of all-time' (in which Fullmer made two appearances) I wrote,

With both men able to absorb each other's worst, they openly traded for 45 minutes. With Tiger's jab the only difference it was up to the claret-faced Fullmer to pile it on in the late going, culminating in a ferocious 15th round.

Tiger won the decision and took Fullmer's middleweight title. Fullmer seemed resigned to his fate after the bout when asked whether he felt he could beat Tiger in the rematch,

"Right now I don't feel I can."

Fullmer was correct. He managed a draw in the rematch, but was trounced in the rubber match. Fullmer retired with a 55-6-3 record, scoring 24 knockout victories.

Gene Fullmer was the greatest of the boxing brothers.

Don--eight years younger--was a perenniel contender in the 60's, battling with the likes of Nino Benvenuti, Emile Griffith, Sandro Mazzinghi, Jose Torres and Virgil Akins. He fought just as many all-time greats as his older brother--including Dick Tiger--and was just as well known, ending his career in the 1970's with a record of 54-20-5. He was the youngest brother and the first to go, passing away in 2012 aged 72 after suffering with leukemia.

But the middle brother is far less celebrated. That was Jay, who boxed as a lightweight to far less success than his younger siblings, but with just as much tenacity. He retired with a professional ledger of 20-5-2, and passed away just last week at the ripe old age of 78.

Gene Fullmer was one of the most stubborn and durable men to ever step foot in the ring. It took a combination of Alzheimers, dementia and a bacterial infection for the final bell to be tolled.

Fullmer hasn't heard that sound since the night in 1957 when Ray Robinson nearly took his head off. But let's not remember Fullmer just for that knockout. Let's remember him for the times he won, including seven successful world title defences.

Fullmer's Greatest Showing?

Gene Fullmer was on a ten fight winning streak when he made the first defence of the NBA (world) middleweight title he had won in his second bout with Carmen Basilio. His opponent was one of the classiest and toughest contenders in a stacked division.

Ellsworth 'Spider' Webb'--despite his chosen moniker--was more a big cat than an arachnid. He could pounce on his opponent and tear them apart, with precise combinations honed as an Olympic-level amateur and a dangerous, avoided contender in one of boxing's greatest middleweight eras.

Yet Gene Fullmer--as ungainly as ever--did the unthinkable. He outboxed Webb, his awkwardness allowing him to get off first as Webb tried to gauge the champions (lack of) rhythm.

Even Fullmer's supporters in Utah booed the decision when it was announced--a wide decision in the champs favour--but a poll of ringside writers had 11 of 12 picking the same winner as the judges.

Perhaps Fullmer going against type had surprised the punters expecting a slug fest? The bout was not without excitement, with both men down (slips according to the official) and Webb chasing down Fullmer, who responded in trademark fashion whenever the challenger got close enough.

But a reassessment of the bout showed that Fullmer--for all the thought of him as an unskilled caveman of a stylist--was not without brains. He could fiddle his way round the ring well enough to outbox one of the most skilled fighters of his generation.

Gene Fullmer was much more than the victim of Ray Robinson's greatest punch. Watch and see for yourself.

Fullmer the Warrior

As the above write-up suggests, his impressive victory over 'Spider' Webb was Fullmer going against type. For a fighter as supposedly one dimensional as Fullmer to try something different and succeed against such a tough opponent (who Fullmer had previous dealings with) shows us that he is worthy of reevaluation as a champion.

But let's not forget what made him great. Although his savage display over then world welterweight champion Benny 'Kid' Paret is perhaps the best showcase of Fullmer's two-fisted assault, Paret should never have been challenging for the middleweight title, and the bout was too one-sided to be an impressive victory.

So let's go back to 1959's fight of the year. This is where the musing ends. Watch the fight. Remember the man.

Gene 'Cyclone' Fullmer 1931-2015