I was fortunate to attend the governor’s State of Sports Awards this past Tuesday night where athletes and coaches from around the state were honored for their excellence. I believe in every instance these athletes bring goodwill and honor to Utah, their respective schools and sports, and their families.
Those honored included basketball, football, soccer, volleyball and baseball players, skiers and snowboarders, gymnasts and other athletes. No boxers were honored. Perhaps that is fitting because boxers are used to the role of underdog. They are typically hardscrabble kids scratching out their way the best way they can.
This was top of mind for me the following morning when I learned that Utah had sadly lost the second of the three Fighting Fullmers. Jay Fullmer, younger brother to Gene and older brother to Don (who died in 2012), passed away surrounded by family and loved ones, leaving Gene the last of the legendary Utah fighting trio.
The three brothers were showcase boxers across the U.S. and the world in boxing’s golden age, fighting for world titles in venues from the old Derks Field in Salt Lake to Johannesburg, Rome, Las Vegas and New York’s Madison Square Garden. Twice, Gene was the world middleweight champion and won two of three contests against boxing great Sugar Ray Robinson. A fourth match ended in a draw. Don and Gene are both enshrined in the Utah Sports Hall of Fame.
But while their careers in the ring were undeniably stellar, the reason I call your attention to these men today is because of their other longstanding legacy as champions of Utah’s youths.
My introduction to the Fullmers came at just 5 years of age when my older brother, Nick, was badly beated up by three older kids at a weekday church activity. At the time, Don Fullmer, who had his final professional fight just a few years prior, was on the Salt Lake County Fire Department with my dad. Nick began learning how to fight in their basement and backyard. Eventually, we turned one of my grandpa’s old chicken coops in Riverton into a make-shift boxing gym and at 6 years old, I found myself also a student of the sweet science under the tutelage of Don, Jay and Gene.
Boxing is a rough sport and it attracts tough people — often people with nowhere else to go. You might expect then that the Fullmer brothers were tough guys. They commanded respect and attention. The sport of boxing has a way of giving you a certain determination in your gut. But Gene, Jay and Don were also kind and unselfish, giving their time nearly every weekday night at the boxing gym and never asking or expecting anyone to ever pay them anything. Imagine your kids’ soccer club, dance studio or piano teacher doing the same.
Their time and their expertise wasn’t the most valuable thing they gave. It was their love, concern and structure for every kid that ever walked through the door: the kid with drug and legal problems looking to get on the right track; the kid who couldn’t quite fit into other circles; and, on one occasion, the kid who was orphaned after his father killed his mother and then committed suicide.
Speaking several years ago in a BYUtv documentary, Jay said, “We’re not saying everybody’s going to end up being a champion, but I guarantee you, if they keep coming down, they’ll be better kids and they’ll be better citizens and that’s all we can ask.”
Amateur boxers don’t enjoy the resources and structured training systems that so many young athletes do. So, when three notable athletes give thousands of hours over the course of four decades, calculating the positive impact of that becomes impossible, except to consider each story and each kid — each one a living memorial. There are thousands of them. I’m grateful I was one.
David Butterfield is an executive at USU and Goldenwest Credit Union. He served in the Utah House of Representatives from 2011–2012. He was an amateur Golden Gloves and Junior Olympics boxer beginning in 1976.