SOUTH JORDAN — Jay Fullmer fought more than 125 fights in his life, but the toughest blow he ever took didn’t come in a boxing ring.
It came from a doctor.
When he was just 23, he started to see double during a fight in Utica, New York. He went to a doctor, who told him that if he kept boxing, he’d very likely lose his eyesight.
And while it broke his heart not to attempt to follow in his older brother Gene's famous footsteps by winning a world championship, Jay found his own way to leave his mark on the sport the three fighting Fullmer Brothers — youngest brother Don died at 72 in 2012 — loved so much.
“That killed him when it happened,” said Chet Fullmer, the second youngest of Jay and Marilyn Fullmer’s seven children. “He didn’t know that was his last fight.”
Jay Fullmer never complained about the hand he was dealt; in fact, he never complained about anything. He simply embraced a new role — coaching any young man willing to live by his rules and commit to his workouts.
When Jay Fullmer died peacefully Wednesday morning at Huntsman Cancer Institute, countless young men lost the one man who never lost faith in their ability to be better boxers and, most important, better men.
“As a young kid, trying to figure out who I was, I got into a little trouble,” said Nick Butterfield, 53, who was coached by Jay and Don Fullmer and now helps him run the Fullmer Brother’s Gym. “I was sat down by him and Don and told what I needed to do, how I needed to act. And, you know, in large part, I am who I am today because of him.”
The younger brother of 1957 World Middleweight Champion Gene Fullmer, the 78-year-old father of seven passed away at 2:35 a.m. Wednesday surrounded by the only prize he really cared about — his family.
“The one thing that really stuck with me was (his) most important title was father and husband,” said Butterfield. “Those were more important than any other title you could have.”
Like his younger brother Don, Jay Fullmer battled chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CCL). An infection caused by the leukemia resulted in his death. As friends and family gathered to say goodbye, Fullmer continued to exhibit both the gratitude and humor that defined his life.
“He treated everybody he met like they were his best friend,” said his youngest son, Cody. “It didn’t matter if they were strangers, by the time you were done meeting him, he was patting you on the back, saying, ‘Hey, bud.’ Watching him the last few days, whenever anyone did anything for him, he’d say thank you. He’d stick his fat (swollen) little hand out there, shake their hand and say, ‘Thank you.’”
As visitors tried to find the words to say goodbye, he comforted children, grandchildren and life-long friends with an almost constant stream of jokes.
“He was a comedian,” said his nephew, Larry Fullmer. “He always had a joke.” Fullmer and his brothers, Hud and Brad, erupt into laughter remembering their uncle’s antics.
“He’d be Crazy Guggenheim (a character from the The Jackie Gleason Show) for Christmas,” Larry said laughing. “He’d wear an old fishing hat, pull weird faces and start telling jokes.”
For Chet Fullmer, his father’s sense of humor is one of the things he will treasure most.
“The guy is the wittiest, funniest,” he said smiling. “Comebacks, even on his deathbed, he’s still flipping something funny out there. The guy makes me laugh to no end.”
To his children and their cousins, he was a playmate, mentor and their first boxing coach. He began coaching even before he had a gym in which to work.
“Dad would train them in the basement, the garage, in the backyard,” Chet said. “I still remember some of the kids he’d bring over were a little bigger and he’d throw them in there to spar with me, and I’d think, ‘I hate it when that kid comes over.’”
One of his most dedicated students was Butterfield, who started working out with Jay after getting into trouble in the mid-70s.
“My dad finally said, ‘That’s enough,'” Butterfield said. “'If you want to fight, we’re going to find you a place to fight.’” Butterfield’s father went to Don and Jay Fullmer, who all lived within a stone’s throw of each other, Gene Fullmer and the trio’s parents.
After a few years, Butterfield was getting pretty good, so they started talking about trying to find a better place to spar than Jay’s backyard.
“We needed a place to spar when the weather was bad and where we could not twist our ankles on the grass,” Butterfield laughed. “We put together a ring in my grandpa’s old chicken coop. It was pretty archaic. We had a make-shift ring, some bags everybody kind of threw together, and we started training in there.”
After a few years, Jay, Don and Gene opened a gym in Riverton, which moved to West Jordan and then to its current location in South Jordan. Because they don’t charge any of the boys who work out, they rely on donations or support from local government to keep the gym open.
“That was his life,” Chet said. “He spent Monday through Friday, 5:30 to 8:30 (p.m.), you knew where he was at. He was down at the gym. And the kids knew he’d be there. He was never paid a dime, and he wouldn’t have accepted it if they offered.”
Unassuming and self-effacing, Jay Fullmer believed a person didn’t need to win a lot of trophies or titles to glean the most important lessons boxing offers: discipline, sacrifice and perseverance. He was fond of saying even the best boxers in the world got knocked down. It was the fact that they got back up and kept fighting that made them successful.
Boxing became a lifeline to the young men who found their way to the Fullmer Brothers Gym. And very often the man holding onto the other end of the rope to which they clung was Jay Fullmer.
One young man, Miguel Pena, was featured in a video about the Fullmer brothers produced by BYUtv. He said that when he was locked up in juvenile detention the only letters he received outside of those from his family came from Jay Fullmer.
“He gave me hope,” Pena said.
On Monday night, many of the young boys who currently train at Fullmer Brothers made the trek to Huntsman Cancer Institute to say goodbye to a guy who cherished nothing more in life than working the corner for a committed fighter.
In fact, last Wednesday, he told Chet about a dream he’d had in which he was working the corner for one of his fighters in a big, fancy hotel. “He was so excited, so elated,” Chet said. “He said, ‘Then I woke up before he fought.’ I told him maybe it was the preliminaries and when he went to bed tonight it would be the finals.”
Fullmer knew the value of a good corner man. Usually, it was his brothers, their father or their childhood coach, Marv Jenson, working his corner. He fought more than 100 amateur bouts before he decided to turn pro on Dec. 12, 1956. By 1960, his professional career was over and he owned a record of 20-5-2.
He turned to coaching, officiating and helping his brothers establish a Golden Gloves franchise in Utah. In fact, it was Gene, Jay and Don Fullmer joining with others like, Harry Miller, Chick Paris, Angelo Curly and Jake Westbrook, that allowed them to form the Rocky Mountain Golden Gloves Franchise in 1964. After that, Golden Gloves tournaments became a family affair with at least three generations working the most recent events, in just about every capacity possible.
“He’s been on the board ever since,” Chet Fullmer said. “He’s been a vital part of the Rocky Mountain Golden Gloves.”
He admitted that the reason he got into officiating was to spend more time with his dad and his uncles.
“I love it,” he said. “I think it’s a fun sport. But honestly, when I got involved, it was so I could spend time with the three of them. The stories you would hear on the way to and from the fights, they were classic. They were priceless. That’s really where it started for me.”
Last month’s state Golden Gloves Tournament was the first time none of the original Fullmer brothers were in attendance. Both Gene and Jay were hospitalized during that tournament, but Jay Fullmer had been home a couple of weeks and was planning to officiate at this weekend’s Rocky Mountain Regional Golden Gloves tournament at the South Town Expo, as well as at the national tournament in Las Vegas next month.
In fact, Jay Fullmer had been notified that he will be inducted into the National Golden Gloves Hall of Fame in May, an honor he didn’t discuss much, but was deeply moved by, his children said.
That was typical of their dad, said daughter Shellie Crowther, 54. In fact, it’s his humility that will resonate with her, and something most people who knew Jay mention when describing him.
“I think that’s the way it was with all three of the brothers,” Crowther said. “As tough as nails as they were with boxing, every one of them was kind, giving, humble. You wouldn’t expect that out of a boxer.
Added Chet, “How many guys who were world class boxers like those three were would you see two or three hours early setting up chairs, setting up the ring and then after the fight, going around picking up trash.” Cody Fullmer fights back tears as he points out that the brothers did that into their 70s.
“If he was healthy, he’d be setting up the ring at regionals this weekend,” Cody said.
“It was in his blood,” daughter Shareen Neff added.
Chet Fullmer said that while they knew their uncle Gene was a world champion, they figured the brothers were mostly just small-town heroes.
“We’d go back to these national tournaments,” he said, “and you’ve got a two and a half hour line of guys with pictures waiting for your dad to sign their autograph. That’s what was so cool. You could sit across from them in a sandwich shop and you wouldn’t have a clue because they would come across as your everyday Joe Schmoe. They would never put themselves above you in any way.”
Added Crowther, “Worldly awards have never mattered to him. He didn’t want any accolades, any hero worship. But he deserves every bit of it.”
What did matter to Jay was helping young men. He believed boxing gave a person self-esteem like nothing else.
“He’s made such a difference in so many lives,” Crowther said. “Kids have been here the last three days, saying, ‘Jay, you’re like a dad to me. You’re the biggest man we’ve known.’ There is just story after story of the effect he’s had on kids.”
Cody Fullmer let’s the tears fall as he talks about Monday’s visit from young men currently training at the gym.
“They weren’t just kids who came to fight for him,” Cody said. And then Chet finishes the sentiment, “They knew he loved them.”
Jay is survived by his wife of 56 years, Marilyn, and six of his children: Shellie Crowther, Shareen Neff, Kevin Jay, Shane Lamar, Chet Lane and Cody Chad. He was preceded in death by his younger brother Don and his oldest daughter, Tamera Ballard.
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