In the house Gene Fullmer paid for in pain, he wasn’t the world middleweight champ. He was just a country boy from West Jordan, the town where he was born and died. Decades after he rose to fame in 1957, his humility belied the heights to which he had risen.
But the proof was there in piles of yellowed newspaper clips and mementos he kept in his basement. Included was a pair of gloves signed by the opponent who made him famous, Sugar Ray Robinson.
At one time, the “Mormon Mauler” was among the toughest guys on the planet. Still, he never postured. He much preferred to be simply called Gene. Unerringly good-natured, he admitted to blocking too many punches with his forehead. But Benny “Kid” Paret knew the other side of Fullmer. He was on the receiving end of three knockdowns in the 10th round before mercy demanded the fight be called. Carmen Basilio, too, felt the force of Fullmer, who twice pounded him into submission. The Mauler beat Florentino Fernandez despite a fractured elbow and decisioned Wilf Greaves while nursing a broken jaw.
It wasn’t until the 44th bout of his career that Fullmer realized he could be knocked out. A shrieking left hook by Robinson sent him to the mat.
“After he knocked me out,” Fullmer said 40 years later in an interview, “I got up and walked to my corner. I said to my manager, ‘What is Robinson doing jumping up and down between rounds?’ I thought I was fine. My manager told me to count to 10. But when (Robinson) hit me, I never saw anything.”
The former champ died Monday after a years-long battle with Alzheimer’s. With his passing, Utah lost one of its greatest native athletes. Sadly, many Utahns don’t know his name. The Fullmer brothers — Gene, Don and Jay, all boxers — lived on land their grandparents homesteaded. But time and the rise of mixed martial arts combined to partially obscure a career that covered a 55-6-3 record, 24 of the wins by knockout.
In his day, Fuller was a celebrity. He won the first bout with Robinson by decision, in January 1957, claiming the title. Robinson knocked him out four months later. Fullmer subsequently fashioned a draw and a win in the other two meetings.
In the pair’s final bout, Robinson had been difficult even before they got in the ring. According to Fullmer’s nephew, Larry, Sugar Ray demanded to have the ring expanded from 18 to 20 feet — the night before the bout. The thinking was that a bigger ring would allow him to use speed to escape Fullmer’s brawling lunges.
But at that late date, a change was impossible. Robinson insisted, so Fullmer and trainer Marv Jenson secretly removed two feet of length from a tape measure, then spliced it together.
Robinson’s handlers saw the 20-foot mark when the ring was again measured, but didn’t notice the missing two feet of tape in the middle, so they approved the fight.
When Jenson died in 2007, family members found the missing tape in his safe.
Fullmer arrived in an era when fighting was wildly popular but not nearly as lucrative. He earned $10,000 the night he won the champion’s belt. This week, Floyd Mayweather is expected to earn $180 million to fight Manny Pacquiao. But Fullmer wouldn’t have cared. His plan wasn’t to get obscenely rich, but to introduce kids to the sweet science so they’d stay out of trouble. In large part it worked.
At least one of the Fullmer brothers attended state Golden Gloves competition every year from 1963 to 2014.
“They weren’t cocky and arrogant,” said Larry Fullmer. “I know boxers like to put it on, but for my dad and Uncle Gene and Uncle Jay, that was a no-no.”
The former champ was one of the honorees at the “100 Years of Utah’s Greatest Sports Memories” ceremony in 1996.
“Fact is I had a sister who could whip me and my two brothers. My father’s name was Tuff, so, you know, where ya gonna go?” he said.
Fullmer didn’t retire to luxury, just a nice rambler, where the city grew up around him. He once said if he had it to do over he “wouldn’t change a minute.”
“Well,” he added with speed bag timing, “I might have ducked Robinson’s punch in that second fight, but that would be about it.”
But it wouldn’t have been characteristic.
Whether staying true to his roots, or fighting for a title, he didn’t know how to duck.
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @therockmonster; Blog: Rockmonster Unplugged