Mike Terry, Deseret News
WEST JORDAN — Utahs gentleman bruiser, Don Fullmer, 72, who fought some of the world's most famous boxers and came within a single fight of a world title himself, died peacefully Saturday morning surrounded by the prize he valued most — his family.
Fullmer and his boxing brothers, Gene, the oldest and a world middle weight champion in 1957, and Jay, second oldest who left the sport with a 20-5-2 record after an eye injury, put Utah on the international boxing stage in the 1950s and ’60s. Don Fullmer had been battling his toughest opponent, lymphocytic leukemia, for the past 15 years. In November, doctors told him an infection had damaged his spine and a valve in his heart and that he had a few days, maybe a few weeks. He lived another two months.
The one that got away
One punch, thrown 43 years ago at a world champion, haunted Fullmer's dreams. What if it had been harder? What it if was better placed? What if he'd had the strength to follow it up with the kind of energy that would have turned the fight and maybe, just maybe, changed the life of this bricklayer and firefighter from West Jordan, Utah.
Instead of being listed as one of Nino Benvenuti's conquests, maybe the man who fought nine world champions in his 79 fights would have been inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame himself. In the seventh round of the 15-round title fight, Fullmer, who was weak from weeks of fighting the flu, landed a punch that sent Benvenuti to the canvas. But it wasn't enough, and in the end he lost that fight by decision.
"About 10 years ago, he told me that a day never goes by that he hasn't thought about that fight," said one of Fullmer's five sons, Hud Fullmer. Adds his youngest son, Kade, "He told me he dreams about it every night."
On the 43rd anniversary of that fight, the Fullmer boys gathered at the South Jordan home of their dad and mom, Nedra, to talk about their father, his life and his legacy — inside and outside the ring. They discussed Fullmer's second fight against Benvenuti, an Olympic gold medalist and Italian superstar, on Dec. 14, 1968, which was for the world middleweight title.
Brad Fullmer quietly voiced the sentiment that has haunted his father. "Maybe our lives would have been a lot different from one punch," he said. And then Don Fullmer, who sat in a recliner to ease the constant pain in his back, responded with his simple, dry humor for which he is so well-known and loved: "Mine would have been. I don't know about yours, but mine would have been." The reaction sparked an eruption of laughter, followed by a lot of ribbing. And then the conversation shifted from the world they never knew to the world in which they lived.
Sons of a brawler
Growing up a Fullmer was both a blessing and a curse. But it didn't begin with Don, Jay or even Gene. It began with a man so adept at fighting that his fisted feats became the stuff of legends in a rough and rowdy mining town. The Fullmers are boxing royalty in Utah, but the trio of boxers was born to a man who preferred to go by an adjective that described him rather than his given name of Lawrence Fullmer.
"His real name was Lawrence, but everyone knew him as Tuff," said Hud Fullmer. "In fact when I was growing up, I never knew his real name. Even his mail came (addressed) to Tuff Fullmer." To understand why Don, Gene and Jay Fullmer developed such skill and passion for boxing, one must understand a little about the man who raised them.
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