Before television made it unnecessary for boxing to attract a paying gate, matchmakers strove for a contrast in styles to entice the customers in—and there was never a better billing than "Boxer vs. Slugger." It promised action, suspense and drama.
Well, there will be a contrast in styles on the night of Dec. 12 at Madison Square Garden, when Sugar Ray Robinson, world's middleweight champion, defends the title, finally, against Gene Fullmer, the Utah utility man. And the contrast will not be limited to fighting styles. A whole world of personality separates Sugar Ray, the man in the gray flannel Cadillac, from Gene, the simple Mormon copper miner. Sleek in dress and glib of speech, Ray has strolled the boulevards of Paris, staffed his entourage with a personal hairdresser and a personal physician, employed a court jester to amuse him, and in all other appropriate ways lived it up. They must have seemed appropriate, at any rate, to a fellow born to poverty in Detroit, forced to dance in the streets for pennies at the age of 8.
When George Gainford, his trainer-manager, first saw promise in the young Robinson he presented him with $25 worth of fighting equipment. Robinson, whose name was Walker Smith then, came back a few days later to report he had sold the equipment to buy food for his family. There is good reason for Robinson to prize the expensive and glamorous.
MAN WITH A MINK STRING
December 3, 1956
Gene Fullmer prizes nothing that Robinson loves. He likes his job as an apprentice welder in the Kennecott mines at Bingham, Utah. It pays him $16.37 a day. He has not made up his mind to quit the job if he wins the title, hesitating because idleness between fights starts boxers on spending sprees to relieve their boredom. He has lived on his wages as a miner and salted away all his ring earnings. Out of them he has a bank account, a five-room house fully paid for ($20,000) and the beginnings of a mink ranch. Marv Jenson, his manager and neighbor, owns 4,000 mink—palominos, pearls and other such fancy pelts—and Gene, working for him during the breeding and pelting seasons, has been learning the trade. He owns 25 mink now, belongs to the local ranchers' cooperative and believes that in three years he will have enough animals to assure him a fine income.
As a Mormon, Fullmer neither smokes nor drinks, not even coffee or tea, and in Korea, at times when the only available liquid was coffee, he just went thirsty. He addresses a Sunday school class a couple of times a month.
Sugar Ray, who likes to have insight into the character of his more formidable opponents—it was such a help in the Bobo Olson fights—tried some conversational gambits at the ceremonial signing in Commissioner Julius Helfand's chambers. He wanted to draw Gene out. Ray was a picture of social ease in a rust-colored, short-sleeved sports shirt; Gene looked stiff and much too country-boy formal in a powder-blue suit, white shirt and tie. The gambits didn't work until Ray remarked, "I hear your brother's fighting." Brother Jay, who is 19, weighs 137 pounds and has won 70 of 71 amateur fights, will make his professional debut at the Garden on the night Gene hopes to win the championship. At the mention of a family matter Gene brightened and delivered an animated report on his brother, wife and baby daughter, all doing just fine. To a sophisticate like Robinson it may have sounded corny but Ray made the proper response. He congratulated Gene and said he and his wife had always wanted a baby girl.
Now, as to other contrasts in style, Fullmer is a man of simplicity who prefers the good will of his neighbors and welding crew to public acclaim. Ray has tremulously sought popularity throughout his career and once hired a public relations man to get it. But he has been handicapped by a manner which suggests superslickness, a hail-fellow-ill-met demeanor and a reputation for crunching the bones of those he can get in a vise.
As, for instance, promoters and opponents. When it comes to contracts all Ray ever wants is everything he can get and in this fight he has almost all the money. He will take 47½% of the net Garden gate and 60% of the $100,000 radio-television fee. Fullmer will be forced to exist on a trivial 12½% of the net gate and nothing whatever from TV or radio. His income, Manager Jenson points out, will be about seven or eight percent of the fighters' take. From this you may deduct tithes for the manager, the income tax and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, to which Fullmer dutifully contributes.
Fullmer, in fact, will be fighting for next to nothing. He might have been willing to pay for the chance to win Robinson's title. He is that confident, so much so that he speaks about the future as if it were here.
"I'm 25 years old," he says. "That's about the right age for me to win the title and hold it for three years. By that time the mink ranch ought to be going well and I can retire to it."
There are solid reasons for this confidence. Fullmer is one of the strongest middleweights ever and his bruising style is bound to take its toll of Robinson, 11 years older. Seven years ago Robinson was brooding that he might be over the hill.
MAN BREATHING EASY
No one in the Fullmer camp gives much credit to Robinson for his comeback, which made him the only middleweight ever to win his title back after a substantial retirement. The comeback and the successful defense of the title, they point out, were made against Bobo Olson, whose number Robinson always had.
Still, Angelo Curley, training Fullmer, was impressed by Robinson's recent tune-up showing against Bob Provizzi at New Haven. Curley worked Provizzi's corner for closer observation of the champion over the 10 rounds.
"I didn't see Robinson take a single deep breath," he said. Which was significant, because Provizzi pressed Robinson as much as he could. But Fullmer will press far harder.
"Of course we gotta take the fight to Robinson," Curley explained. "We gotta go out there and win it big, otherwise we're not going to win it at all. There will be some strategy involved but we are not going to try to hamper Fullmer's natural strength and willingness."
Those are Fullmer's assets and they are formidable. Robinson at his best was hailed in paraphrases of the old accolade to the smallmouth bass: "inch for inch and pound for pound the gamest fish that swims." Historically he belongs somewhere up with the alltime greats, a master of boxing and a true gamester. He still has his boxing knowledge and his fighting heart, but Fullmer is a far more impressive challenger than Olson was. Prognosis: too much heat for Sugar.