By Richard E. Baker on October 24, 2020
Gil Turner stayed inside confusing Fullmer, who was usually a superb inside fighter.
It was fight night and we came in from the fields to the kitchen where the boxers would appear on the ten-inch screen as miniature black and white bits of fury. We had spent the day picking cotton: my grandfather who enjoyed a “good scrap,” his description for any boxing match; my uncle who had tried to capture Adolf Hitler; One Thumb Thomas, who had no fingers on his right hand and was a good-natured Mexican foreman for the Frasier Irrigation Company; and Jose, who had boxed as a young man in his younger days; and me, seventeen years old and treated just like any other man. I had worked with men since the age of five, the work becoming more difficult as I became older. There appeared to be little distinction between men and boys in those days.
We sat around the table on the linoleum floor that contained a tear shaped like Idaho. A bottle of Jim Beam was placed on the plastic tablecloth of farm animals, a tin of Prince Albert tobacco opened, and cigarette papers passed around. Since I was treated like a man the whiskey and smokes were always available to me. I never imbibed. My mother would not have approved and sometimes the best decision is not to run with the crowd. A man should make up his own mind about life and not be swayed by others.
The TV screen flickered. The tin-foil covered rabbit ears were driven in various directions until the lines thinned. The fighters were introduced. Suddenly, there he was—the biggest man in boxing, a giant of the ring. He was Thor, Zeus, Atlas, Hercules, a fighter so great that the likes of Achilles, Odysseus, and Beowulf all seemed like average mortals. He was my hero, a slayer of giants.
I may not have known much about boxers at the time, but, like some people say about art, I knew what I liked, and I liked Gene Fullmer. Besides Jimmy Wilde, I thought Fullmer (55-6-3) was the greatest boxer that ever lived. Maybe I should say fighter. He was not a boxer in a conventional sense. He was often slow, awkward, and used tactics that confused his opponents. He attacked and defended with his left arm horizontal across his body and face making hitting him almost impossible. When he moved in he unleashed that left like a snake’s tongue and flew the punch up and over an opponent’s defenses. The punch came in from above like a mortar round. He was a bit of a plodder. Occasionally he jumped slightly off the canvas and snapped his feet together. His incredible conditioning and endurance carried him through bouts, that and a trunkful of guts.
Unlike today, when champions may fight one or two evenly matched opponents, he went in against the very best and usually came out on top. Ray Robinson could never figure out his style. They battled four times with Fuller winning twice, drawing once, and losing once. There were no yearlong layoffs in those days. He beat Ray Robinson three months after drawing with him. A month after he lost to Robinson he beat Ralph “Tiger” Jones.
What a magnificent list of worthy opponents he fought: Rocky Castellani, Charles Humez, Spider Web, Carmen Basilio, Peter Mueller, Paul Pender, and Gil Turner. He gave Benny Kid Paret such a beating that Paret never recovered and many boxing experts claim that beating, from which he never recovered, killed Paret, not Emile Griffith.
Fullmer was not infallible and lost some tough matches while on the way up the ranks. In 1955 he suffered his first loss to Gil Turner (56-19-2) who was making a bit of a comeback at the time. Turner was a great prospect and managers had high hopes for him. Turner stayed inside confusing Fullmer, who was usually a superb inside fighter. Fuller went down in the 6th. Undeterred, he attacked Turner in the 8th, but could not pull off the win.
Bobby Boyd (54-14-3) should have been an easy win. Fullmer was rated 4th in the world and Boyd was more of an also-ran. He outweighed Fullmer, was taller and had a longer reach, none of which usually bothered Fullmer. Boyd earned his points by counterpunching and through a knockdown in round 3. Referee Tony Zale thought Fullmer had slipped and started to motion the two together. When he heard the time counter counting he held Fullmer back for the 8-count. Zale said afterwards that Fullmer going down was a combination of slip and punch. The knockdown was scored and Fullmer lost the fight on close decision.
Fullmer lost his very next fight against tough Argentinean Eduardo Lausse (75-10-2). Lausse was cut over the right eye in the 5th round, but never stopped fighting. He put Fullmer down in the 8th. This time things went Fullmer’s way. Mark Conn, the referee counted to 4, then changed his mind and called it a slip. The change did not sway the judges who gave the fight to Lausse.
On the television screen, Fullmer was now in the ring. He tapped his gloves together. He did not look at Dick Tiger. Referee Vern Bybee called the two fighters together. Just the contrast in color was beautiful: a very white man against a very black man. That often made television viewing difficult because one would either wash out or the other would fade into the darkness.
Much to my disappointment, Fullmer was on the downhill slide. Still, faith carried me on. We like our heroes to last forever and seeing someone like a fat, wrinkled Elvis Presley weighs heavily on our emotions. There was nothing fat or wrinkled about Fullmer. He always fought in top condition. No one ages faster than a fighter. Fullmer was smart enough to adapt his style. He was fighting differently, no furious punches and lunging shots. He threw single shots and proved he could box. He danced and moved in and out and took an early lead. Several times he clinched, holding Tiger as if in a waltz.
My uncle stripped off a rolling paper, furrowed it with a finger and sprinkled in the tobacco. He reckoned Fullmer would tire because of his age. The peak conditioning body of an aging fighter is not the same as the peak conditioning of a younger fighter. The body brings in diminishing returns with age regardless what is invested.
By round 3 blood started squirting from Fullmer’s left eye. Today a cut like that might end a fight. Back then blood hardly mattered. If it were allowed, cornermen might have used plasma between rounds to keep a fight going. What was a cut, anyway, to Fullmer? He had been cut many times before. Soon he was bleeding from his noise, head, and ear. Tiger was not unscathed. He could hardly see because of a pumping cut near his left eye. Both fighters were a bloody mess.
The Jim Beam flowed freely, the sweet smell filling the air. Thomas drank his from a coffee cup because he could stick his single thumb through the handle. My uncle did not drink and was content with the unevenly burning cigarette. As Alven predicted, Fuller started to tire. Tiger came on strong in the later rounds and was able to pull off a draw to save his title. Fullmer had lost to Tiger the first fight, and drew this time. I knew there would be another fight. There was. Fullmer lost, then retired.
The Buddhists say all sorrow lies in the past and dwelling there is not the best choice. We have a tendency to glorify such times. Still, I can’t help but remember such great fights in the time of men when the air smelled of sweat, tobacco, and whiskey.