The Fabulous Fifties: Cyclone Gene Fullmer and Sugar Ray Robinson

By Norman Marcus on July 15, 2016
The Fabulous Fifties: Cyclone Gene Fullmer and Sugar Ray Robinson
Ten years earlier most argue, Gene Fullmer would never have laid a glove on Robinson.

Clifford Odets summed up the all consuming greed of professional boxing: “Everything is addition and subtraction, the rest is just conversation…”

Gene was a classic middleweight. He stood 5’8” tall with a 69” reach. He twice defeated champions Ray Robinson and Carmen Basillio. Gene was strictly a puncher, who could take a punch and then deliver his own power shot. Fullmer would just bull his way into a man and proceed to work on the body. As any trainer can tell you, work on the body and the head will die. Fullmer was to become a two-time world middleweight champion.

Ray on the other hand was bigger. He stood 5’11’’ and had a reach of 72½”. He was a boxer-puncher. Robinson could move in and mix it up with an opponent. Or he could dance around him, landing punches from a safe distance.

Robinson’s style was so fluid that during several periods of brief retirement, he appeared at clubs with his own song and dance act. His tap dancing skills were amazing to watch. But Ray’s voice wasn’t equal to his footwork. Bookings were disappointing. Often he was forced to return to the ring to earn more cash. Robinson once said about boxing, “Rhythm is everything in boxing. Every move you make starts with your heart, and that’s in rhythm or you’re in trouble.”

Fullmer was born in West Jordan, Utah, to Mormon parents. It wasn’t the first time three Mormon kids wound up in the square ring. In the 1920s a fighter named Harry Dempsey, later called Jack and his brothers had been keen on the sport too. In the 1950s Gene carried on where Dempsey left off. He didn’t have Jack’s class of course but Gene did have a big heart. He was a devout Mormon and always gave 10% of his winnings to the Mormon Church. He and his two brothers Don and Jay loved to step into the square ring. Brother Don twice fought for the middleweight title and Jay was a fair lightweight. Gene turned pro in 1951. People began to take notice of this puncher, who won his first twenty-nine fights in a row. Nineteen by knockout! A lot of Fullmer’s early success came because of his manager, Marv Jenson. Marv was an old school guy and knew how to bring along raw talent slowly. The Fullmer brothers were all followed closely in the Utah press.

It took six long years, but finally on January 2, 1957, at the Fairgrounds, Salt Lake City, Utah, Cyclone Gene Fullmer found himself facing Sugar Ray Robinson for the middleweight championship of the world. Gene came away with the title that night. It was a lopsided UD15 win over Ray. Just four months later on May 1, 1957 he lost the title back to Robinson at Chicago Stadium, Chicago, in a KO5. Gene had once again forced Robinson back early. But in round 5, as Ray backed up, he threw a left hook, catching Gene square on the chin. Fullmer dropped like a stone. He said after the fight, “People tell me it was a great left hook, but I wouldn’t know. I never saw it.”

Now Robinson’s situation at that time was far different than that of the Mormon Gene Fullmer. Ray was well past his prime by this fight. His skills and speed had slowed some. He was no longer the greatest fighter pound-for-pound in the game but he was still a great fighter. In addition Robinson was a womanizer and that can be expensive. Ray had bills to be paid and he also had a huge crowd of friends and family to support. In fact he was the first man to use a popular French word to describe these “hangers-on.” He called them his “entourage.”

Ray didn’t make his financial situation any better by bringing his wife, children and mother along with him to all his fights and on vacations. Neighborhood buddies who did little were also on the payroll to provide company while he trained, to say nothing of carrying his own golf pro and barber. Ray had a pink Cadillac convertible that he was crazy about. So much so that he always had it shipped on vacation with him. He even took it to Paris so he could drive it around Europe! To Ray, boxing was just a means to live the good life. He once said, “Fighting to me seems barbaric. I don’t really like it. I enjoy out-thinking another man and out-maneuvering him, but I still don’t like to fight.”

Two years later the NBA stripped Robinson of his title as middleweight champion. Fullmer and another former middleweight champion, Carmen Basilio fought for that vacant title on August 28, 1959. Fullmer knocked out Basilio in round 14. Robinson later lost his piece of the middleweight title to a mediocre Paul Pender. There was never a unification bout between Fullmer and Pender. Paul had the good sense to retire before that happened.

Fullmer was just twenty-six when he first fought Robinson. Ray was thirty-seven, an old man in this sport. It was youth against experience. Gene would go on to retain his titles in three out of their four meetings. Ten years earlier most argue, Fullmer would never have laid a glove on Robinson.

Along the way, Fullmer also fought and stopped the likes of Joey Giardello, Carmen Basilio, Spider Webb and Benny Kid Paret to name a few.

On December 3, 1960 at The Sports Arena, Los Angeles, California, Gene fought a draw with Ray Robinson, which all watching considered a robbery of the ex-champion. The newspapers had that fight for Ray, 11-4 and 10-5. On March 4, 1961 at Convention Center, Las Vegas, Nevada, Fullmer met Robinson for the title one last time. Gene beat Ray again on a UD15.

Fullmer finally lost his NBA title to Dick Tiger on October 23, 1962 at Candlestick Park, San Francisco, California, in a UD15. Four months later on February 23, 1963 in a rematch at the Convention Center, Las Vegas, Nevada, Gene fought Tiger to a draw. On August 10, 1963 at Liberty Stadium, Ibadan, Nigeria, Fullmer fought the rubber match with Tiger for the vacant WBC and WBA titles, Fullmer lost it in a RTD7.

That was it for Gene Fullmer’s ring career. After that fight he left the sport with a record of 55-6-2. More importantly he kept all his marbles and most of his money. Ray Robinson was not so lucky. He had too much mileage on his odometer. His record was 173-19-6. After retirement he suffered from CTE and slowly faded away. His wealth faded away too. He had tried to stay too long at the top of his game.

Playwright Clifford Odets, in his screenplay for the 1947 film “Body and Soul,” summed up the all consuming greed of professional boxing. “Everything is addition and subtraction, the rest is just conversation.”

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  1. Norm Marcus 07:52am, 07/21/2016

    Ok guys. I give up! I should have used the word draw instead of stopped.
    Gene was still a great fighter as was Ray. Nobody is perfect even Trump!
    Hope you still enjoyed the piece.

  2. gtrmon 01:18pm, 07/20/2016

    Norman, first off, nice article. Second, it’s a boxing article. It’s embarrassing to see the word “stopped” used so incorrectly in a boxing article. Please admit the mistake, no one else has ever used the word that way, with no reference to what specifically was stopped. We often defer to the past here, and you should too. You would need a specific object to use it in the fashion you defend, as in “he stopped their bids for the championship”. Stopped as you used it is so wrong here. You led me astray when I saw the word, I thought he actually stopped those guys, but you were just puffing him up a bit.
    So wrong.
    - gtrmon

  3. oldschool 01:19pm, 07/18/2016

    Very well written and informative article. I do admit to also being confused on the use of the word “stopped.” I’ve been following the sport for 60 years and “stopped” has always meant a TKO to me. Please do not take what I’m stating as an attack, because I thoroughly enjoy your writing and this article in particular.

  4. Norm Marcus 04:22pm, 07/15/2016

    I knew Joey. He was a great guy and a great champion.
    No disrespect to him. He was a south Philly guy and now finally has a beautiful bronze statue up in his old neighborhood.
    I’m glad you enjoyed the story. Don’t make them like Giardello anymore!
    I’m a story teller. Glad you liked the story as a whole.

  5. ch. 03:36pm, 07/15/2016

    Oh. by the way, I did enjoy your story.

  6. ch. 03:33pm, 07/15/2016

    Norm, thanks for spinning what the term “stopped” really means in boxing vernacular, after more than a hundred years of it being used as a term for being TKO’d and even knocked out. I reserve my right to defend Joey Giardello, who was my favorite fighter, who I saw box 8 times in person, and on the tube many times. Nothing personal, my friend.

  7. Norm Marcus 02:04pm, 07/15/2016

    You miss the point my friend. A draw occurs “when the bout goes to the score cards, and the officials cannot determine a winner.” If the officials cannot pick a winner the champion keeps his title. So the challenger was STOPPED from taking the title from the champion. To many fans a draw is a stoppage. We can argue over the exact meaning of “stop” but to most fans if the challenger cannot KO/UD/SD the champ, then the champ STOPPED him. He is still the champion.
    Instead of attacking a word or interpretation of a word in the story, perhaps just enjoy the story? Or point out in a friendly way where you feel the writer was wrong?
    Instead of attacking the author in an arrogant way and trying to show how smart you are?

  8. ch 07:27am, 07/15/2016

    Fullmer won the title from Robinson in ‘57 at Madison Square Garden, not Salt Lake City. He never “stopped” Spider Webb, although he did beat Webb twice on decisions. He never “stopped” Joey Giardello, in fact their fight was declared a draw after 15 brutal rounds and many witnesses both at Bozeman and national TV thought Giardello was robbed. Fullmer would never give Giardello a deserving return match claiming GIARDELLO “fought dirty.” That being said, Fullmer was a very tough man and would provide most middleweights in history a very rugged evening.

  9. Eric 06:53am, 07/15/2016

    “Gene was strictly a puncher.” I wouldn’t classify Gene as a big puncher at all, he probably had respectable power but his strength was his strength. Possibly one of the strongest middleweight champs of all time.  We know that Robinson leveled Fullmer with that left hook, but Fullmer had a chin of granite. Fullmer was in the mold of guys like LaMotta, Dick Tiger, Antuofermo, Hamsho, all stocky, relatively short middleweights, who just wore down guys with strength, tremendous toughness, and stamina. I would have loved to seen a prime vs. prime matchup of LaMotta vs. Fullmer. Jake would be the likely winner, but you can’t totally discount a Fullmer upset.

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