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Death of Hall of Famer Gene Fullmer Lost in Media Frenzy of May-Pac Week

Bernard Fernandez

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It is Mayweather-Pacquiao week, which overshadows everything else that might be happening in the world of boxing.

But maybe that shouldn’t be the case, at least not quite so absolutely. There should at least be a tiny window of light open amid all the May-Pac buzz to shine upon an 83-year-old former middleweight champion whose Hall of Fame career has been woefully overlooked, and not just since his 12-year professional career ended with a loss to Dick Tiger for the WBA and vacant WBC 160-pound titles on Aug. 10, 1963, in Ibadan, Nigeria.

Gene Fullmer, who died of natural causes late Monday night in his West Jordan, Utah, home, posted a 55-6-3 record, with 24 victories inside the distance, in those dozen years of inelegant success. Even though he was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1991, and had a raft of quality wins (against Sugar Ray Robinson, Paul Pender, Gil Turner, Peter Mueller, Ralph “Tiger” Jones, Spider Webb, Florentino Fernandez and Benny “Kid” Paret, among others) during one of the golden ages of the middleweight division, he is perhaps best known for the only knockout loss on his record, which came in the second of his four clashes with the incomparable Sugar Ray on May 1, 1957, in Chicago Stadium.

Defending the championship he had wrested from Robinson on a 15-round unanimous decision four months earlier, Fullmer was slightly ahead on points when the aging but still dangerous master of the prize ring unleashed what many have called the single most memorable punch in boxing history, a short left hook which put Fullmer down for the count in the fifth round.

That exquisite shot is a fixture on any video compilation of the greatest knockouts of all time, right up there with the crushing overhand right that Rocky Marciano landed to the chin of Jersey Joe Walcott in the 13th round the night he captured the heavyweight title on Sept. 23, 1952, in Philadelphia’s Municipal Stadium.

“In the fifth, I moved in with my left hand maybe six inches lower than it should have been and he slipped that left hook over the top and caught me right on the chin,” Fullmer recalled during the IBHOF’s induction weekend in 2008. “All at once the lights went out. I had never been knocked out. I had no idea what it felt like and I can’t tell you what it feels like even now.”

The fact that Fullmer, whose style was as smooth as sandpaper and as flashy as a lead pipe, was kayoed just that one time speaks volumes about how tough the Mormon mauler was. Here was a guy who was as easy to hit as a tin can targeted by a Navy SEAL sniper shooting in his back yard, but who had enough heart and will to carry the fight to anyone, and the awkwardly effective style to flummox even technically superior boxers.

In Robinson’s autobiography, “Sugar Ray: The Sugar Ray Robinson Story,” written in collaboration with Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times sports columnist Dave Anderson in 1970, the man many consider to be the finest all-around fighter ever to grace the sport recalled his first points defeat and subsequent knockout of Fullmer, against whom he was just 1-2-1 in their four meetings.

“Fullmer’s style bothered me,” Robinson said of that initial loss. “He had a barroom brawler’s style, which I hadn’t expected because Mormons don’t drink.”

But Robinson said he was better prepared for the rematch, and the additional time he put into analyzing Fullmer’s headlong rushes paid off.

“For the return with Fullmer, movies were necessary,” he related. “I needed to study his style. I needed to know all I could about him. Suddenly, watching the films one day, I saw what I had been hoping to find. He liked to throw a right hand to the body and when he did, his jaw was open for my left hook.

“I feinted a left hook, leaving my midsection open. You’ve got to let a fish see the bait before it’ll bite, and Fullmer bit. He let got his right hand, exposing his jaw. His jaw looked as big as any of the jaws on the Mount Rushmore monuments. Snapping a left hook with all my strength, I nailed him as he moved toward me, adding to the impact. His head snapped back and he went down as if I had hit him with an ax. At eight, he attempted to get up, but his legs wouldn’t work for him.”

It is indicative of how gentlemanly Fullmer was in his personal conduct that he and his manager-trainer, Marv Jenson, visited Robinson’s dressing room afterward to congratulate Sugar Ray and compliment him on the soon-to-become-legendary hook. Such gestures of sportsmanship are not as common as one might think, but this one was especially notable because Fullmer, truth be told, was none too fond of Robinson’s self-absorbed persona.

“If Robinson is guilty of any sin, it’s the sin of selfishness,” Fullmer said years afterward. “He appears to have very little time for anybody but himself. He has caused considerable inconvenience to almost everybody he has dealt with in boxing. With him, it’s me, me, me. His disregard for the other fellow is notorious.”

It might or might not be true that Fullmer, a Korean War veteran, was born to fight, but his father’s name was Tuff, so draw your own conclusions. The eldest of Tuff’s three sons to box (the others were Don, who twice challenged for the middleweight championship, and Jay, who, ironically, died on April 22 of this year and was laid to rest the day Gene died), Gene was eight when he was taken by his dad to the West Jordan Athletic Club to learn how to defend himself. He did not, as his later career demonstrated, dazzle his first and only coach, Jenson, with nimble footwork.

“But he had three things I could work on: strength, a good mind and fast reflexes,” Jenson said of the same elementary skill-set that made Marciano one of the most celebrated heavyweight champions ever.

So crude was Fullmer, who won his first 29 pro bouts, that, upon seeing him spar for the first time, venerable Madison Square Garden matchmaker Teddy Brenner advised Jenson to send him home to Utah to learn a trade in which it was less likely for him to get hurt, like, say welding. (Which is one of the jobs Fullmer held even after winning the middleweight belt.) But beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, and Fullmer’s bull-in-a-china-shop approach obviously worked for him.

As a child watching the “Gillette Calvalcade of Sports” on Friday nights with my father in the late 1950s and early 1960s, I saw Fullmer fight often enough to appreciate his toughness, but I was more of a Carmen Basilio fan. Both were blue-collar tradesmen, but Basilio had a name that rolled over the tongue liked recited poetry, as well as the ultimate fighter’s face and an undeniable flair for the dramatic. Fullmer had few if any refined flourishes, and one had to look hard to pick up on any small nuances that separated him from the barroom brawler Robinson had imagined him to be.

Now he is gone, and the pool of mourners who actually saw him in action, if only on fuzzy, black-and-white TV, is becoming increasingly shallow. Today’s fight fans are fixated on Mayweather-Pacquiao, and rightly so. The past is the past and even those disposed to peek over their shoulders aren’t always keen-eyed enough to see that far back.

But it says here that Gene Fullmer would have been no picnic for any current fighter in or near his weight class, including Mayweather and Pacquiao, because he had a steely determination that, while not prettied up with finesse, is at the core of what true champions are made of.

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The Fight of the Century: A Golden Anniversary Celebration

Arne K. Lang

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In professional boxing, fights can be rank-ordered as generic fights, big fights, bigger fights, mega-fights, and spectacles. The first fight between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier wasn’t merely a spectacle, but the grandest spectacle of them all. This coming Monday, March 8, is the 50th anniversary of that iconic event.

Ali-Frazier I was staged at three-year-old Madison Square Garden, the fourth arena in New York to take that name. It drew a capacity crowd: 20,455 (19,500 paid). An estimated 60 percent of all the tickets sold fell into the hands of scalpers.

The fight was closed-circuited to more than 350 locations in the United States and Canada. At some of the larger venues, it established a new record for gate receipts, and this for an attraction that wasn’t produced in-house. In Los Angeles, 15,333 saw the fight at the Forum and 11,575 at the nearby Sports Arena.

Bill Ballenger, the sports editor of the Charlotte (NC) News, saw the fight at the Charlotte Coliseum. He reported that the audio – Don Dunphy did the blow-by-blow with Burt Lancaster and Archie Moore serving as color commentators – was loud enough to be heard outside the arena and that many folks, either unable or unwilling to purchase a ticket, loitered outside and followed the action in 30 degrees weather.

An estimated three hundred million people saw the fight worldwide. In England, by some estimates, half the population tuned in, watching either at home on BBC1 or at a theater where one could watch the fight unfold on a movie screen. Now keep in mind that in England the fight didn’t commence until 6:40 in the morning on a Tuesday!

Inside Madison Square Garden, the large flock of celebrities included many folks one wouldn’t expect to find at a prizefight. Marcello Mastroianni, Italy’s most famous movie star, made a special trip from Rome. Salvador Dali was there and Barbra Streisand and Ethel Kennedy, widow of Bobby Kennedy, seated next to her escort, crooner Andy Williams. Frank Sinatra was there working as a photographer for Life magazine. Lore has it that Sinatra wangled the assignment after failing to boat one of the coveted ringside seats.

The scene was made brighter by human “peacocks,” the label applied to Harlemites with an outrageous sense of fashion, and the electricity was palpable. When Ali appeared at the back of the arena, making his way from his dressing room to the ring, everyone had goosebumps.

The late, great New York sportswriter Dick Young once wrote that there is no greater drama than in the moments preceding a big heavyweight title fight and that was never more true than on March 8, 1971 at Madison Square Garden.

Ali (31-0, 25 KOs) and Frazier (26-0, 23 KOs) were both undefeated. Both had a claim to the heavyweight title, Ali because the belt had been controversially stripped away from him for his political beliefs. Opinions as to who would win were pretty evenly divided. In Las Vegas, Joe Frazier was the favorite at odds of 6 to 5. Across the pond in England, bookies were quoting odds of 11 to 8 on Ali.

Those that favored Ali were of the opinion that ‘Smokin’ Joe was too one-dimensional. That much was true. Joe was as subtle as a steam locomotive on a downhill grade. He ate Ali’s hardest punches, said Boston Globe reporter Bud Collins, as if they were movie house popcorn and he eventually wore Ali down. There was little doubt as to how the judges would see it after Joe knocked Ali down in the 15th round with a frightful left hook. When Ali arose, it appeared that he had been afflicted with a sudden case of the mumps. The decision was unanimous: 11-4, 9-6, 8-6-1.

This wasn’t the greatest fight of all time, but it was a fight that more than lived up to the hype. And, as several people have noted, the event took on a life of its own without the benefit of modern technology to push it along. The buzz was fueled in a large part by newspapers, the “antiquated” sort of newspapers that a fellow fished from his driveway or purchased at a newsstand on the way to or from work. If twitter and facebook had been around during Muhammad Ali’s prime, Ali would have blown the doors off the internet.

A cultural touchstone is an event that remains sealed in our memory. As we slide into old age, if we are lucky enough to live that long, we may not remember what we had for breakfast in the morning, but some long-ago events are as vivid as if they had happened just yesterday.

Boxing historian Frank Lotierzo has written poignantly about how overjoyed he was when he was surprised with the news that his father would be taking him to the fight. “To this day it remains the biggest thrill of my life!” wrote Lotierzo, who was then in the seventh grade. “And it’s not even close!”

I didn’t see the fight, but I can recall the faces of people that I overheard talking about it, people whose interest in the fight struck me as odd as I knew they had little interest in the world of sports. So, when the fight is replayed in its entirety on Sunday – it airs on ABC at 2 p.m ET and again at 6 p.m. ET on ESPN – I will be watching it for the first time. And it will be bittersweet as I will be reminded that I am in the twilight of my life and my thoughts will inevitably drift to my friends and loved ones that have left this mortal world in the years since that grand night in 1971 when Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier locked horns in the Fight of the Century.

I get misty-eyed just thinking about it.

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Yoka TKO 12 Djeko in France: Claressa Pitches a Shutout on Ladies Day in Flint

Arne K. Lang

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Yoka TKO 12 Djeko in France: Claressa Pitches a Shutout on Ladies Day in Flint

March 8 is International Women’s Day which is actually a formal holiday in many parts of the globe. It was somehow fitting that female boxers were on display on the Friday feeding into it, a weekend without a must-see attraction on the men’s side.

Today’s activity began in the French port city of Nantes where 2016 Olympic gold medal winners Tony Yoka and Estelle Mossely, husband and wife, kept their undefeated records intact, both advancing to 10-0, against European opponents. Yoka (10-0, 8 KOs) was matched against Joel “Big Joe” Djeko (17-3-1), a 31-year-old Brussels native of Congolese and Cuban extraction who had fought most of his career as a cruiserweight. Mossely, a lightweight who now goes by Yoka-Mossely, drew Germany’s Verena Kaiser (14-2).

At the Rio Olympiad, Yoka got by Filip Hrgovic in the semis and Joe Joyce in the finals to win the gold, winning both bouts by split decision. Both would be favored over the Frenchman in a rematch fought under professional rules.

Against the six-foot-six Djeko, Yoka controlled the fight with his jab, repeatedly backing his foe against the ropes. Very few of Djeko’s punches got through Yoka’s high guard. Had the fight gone to the scorecards, it would have been a rout for Yoka, but it didn’t quite get there as Djeko turned his back on the proceedings midway through the 12th round after absorbing a sharp jab and it went into the books as a TKO for Yoka. At stake was some kind of European title or a derivation thereof.

Mossely’s fight with Kaiser, slated for 10 two-minute rounds, followed a somewhat similar tack, save that it went the full distance. With only one knockout to her credit at the pro level, Mosseley, typical of female boxers, lacks a knockout punch. But she’s a good technician and had too much class for the German.

Flint

A Covid-19 limited crowd of perhaps 300 was on hand to watch hometown heroine Claressa Shields oppose IBF 154-pound title-holder Marie Eve Dicaire at a 4,400-seat arena in Flint. There were five bouts on the undercard, three of which were women’s bouts.

Claressa

Claressa Shields

Shields, a two-time Olympic gold medalist, was seeking to become a four-belt title-holder in a second weight class, having previously turned the trick at 160. Dicaire, a 34-year-old southpaw, brought a 17-0 record but she had never won a fight inside the distance and all of her previous bouts took place in French-speaking Canada.

The self-proclaimed GWOAT, Shields has no peer between 154 and 168 pounds. Heading into this contest, she had hardly lost a round since meeting Hanna Gabriels and tonight was another total whitewash, her fourth overall in 10-round fights.

Claressa Shields, now 11-0 (2) may be too good for her own good. Her fights are so one-sided that they are monotonous. Her TV ratings have actually been falling. Today’s show was a $29.99 pay-per-view on FITE when the established networks refused to meet her purse demands. It will be interesting to see how many tuned in.

In another fight of note, 2012 Olympic bronze medalist Marlen Esparza, in her first fight as a bantamweight, dominated Toronto’s Shelly Barnett en route to winning a 6-round unanimous decision. There were no knockdowns, but the scorecards (60-54, 60-53 twice) were indicative of Esparza’s dominance.

Esparza, who pushed her record to 9-1 (1), came in ranked #1 by the WBC in the flyweight class. Her lone defeat came at the hands of rugged Seniesa Estrada. Barnett declined to 4-4-3.

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Brandon Adams Bursts Bohachuk’s Bubble in Puerto Rico

Arne K. Lang

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Brandon Adams Bursts Bohachuk’s Bubble in Puerto Rico

Ring City USA, a new promotional entity, debuted on Nov. 19, 2020 with a show staged in the parking lot of Freddie Roach’s Wild Card Boxing Club in Hollywood, CA. Ring City stayed outdoors for their first offering of 2021, but the company was a long ways from California. Tonight’s card was staged on a roundabout near a municipal gym in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico.

The headline attraction was an attractive match between junior middleweights Serhii Bohachuk and Brandon Adams. The bout was originally set for Dec. 3, but had to be pushed back when Bohachuk tested positive for the coronavirus.

Bohachuk, a 25-year-old California-based Ukrainian, had stopped all 18 of his previous opponents. He had never gone past six rounds. Brandon Adams, a former world title challenger, represented a step up in class.

Bohachuk was well on his way to winning a unanimous decision when the tide turned dramatically in round eight. Fighting on a slick canvas, Adams suddenly found a new gear, unloading a series of punches climaxed by a thunderous left hook as Bohachuk retreated. The Ukrainian beat the count, but was teetering on unsteady legs and the referee properly called a halt.

Adams was without his regular trainer, 80-year-old Dub Huntley, who remained back in LA as a health precaution. In winning, he elevated his records to 23-3 (15). It was his best performance since defeating Shane Mosley Jr in the finals of Season 5 of the “Contender” series.

In the co-feature, an 8-round featherweight contest, Puerto Rico’s Bryan Chevalier improved to 15-1-1 (12) with a third-round stoppage of Peru’s Carlos Zambrano (26-2). Chevalier scored two knockdowns, the first a sweeping left hook that appeared to land behind Zambrano’s head, and the second a punch to the liver that left Zambrano in severe distress. The referee waived the fight off in mid-count.

The official time was 2:21. Chevalier, a tall featherweight (5’11”) made a very impressive showing; he bears watching. This was Zambrano’s first fight since April of 2017 when he was knocked out in the opening round by Claudio Marrero in a bout for the WBA interim featherweight title.

The TV opener was an entertaining fight between contrasting styles that produced a weird conclusion when Danielito Zorrilla was awarded a technical decision over Ruslan Madiyev. The bout was stopped at the 1:16 mark of round eight after Zorrilla sank to his knees after absorbing a punch to the back of the head. The ringside physician examined him for evidence of a concussion, but ultimately it was Zorrilla’s choice as to whether the bout would continue. He declined and was reportedly taken to a hospital for observation.

Madiyev, a California-based Kazahk, was the aggressor. He fought the fight in Zorilla’s grill, often bullying him against the ropes. In round five, he had a point deducted for hitting behind the head, squandering what was arguably his best round.

The fight went to the scorecards with Zorrilla winning a split decision (77-74, 77-75, 73-76), thereby remaining undefeated: 15-0 (12). Ironically, Madiyev (13-2, 5 KOs), suffered his previous loss in a similar fashion.

Madiyev’s new trainer Joel Diaz reportedly discouraged his charge from taking this fight for fear that he wouldn’t get a fair shake in Puerto Rico. Diaz’s apprehensions were well-founded.

Photo credit: Tom Hogan / Ring City USA

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