It was the 15th round. Out of his corner came Sugar Ray Robinson with three minutes to go as middleweight champion of the world. Blood trickled from a deep, inch-long cut over his left eye. It had splashed down onto his white trunks, onto his thigh and shin. His hair, so carefully marcelled in Round One, was a disordered shock. This was a beaten fighter but a champion, too. He proved it during those last seconds.
He was 35 years old by his account, 36 by the record books, 37 by the reckoning of one of his five managers. By any calculation, he was old. Against him now, charging toward him once more as in every previous round, was a young man of 25, the bullnecked, heavy muscled, powerful Gene Fullmer, a welder's apprentice from West Jordan, Utah and, very likely, with more talent for welding than for boxing. Fullmer ended his charge by crashing a right into Robinson's body. Robinson sagged back, as he had done so many times before.
Suddenly the crowd screamed. There were 18,134 fans packed into Madison Square Garden and just about every one of them was howling in admiration. Few fans love Sugar Ray outside the ring but when he is working at his trade it is impossible not to respect him. He is a brave and skillful man. So the crowd howled. For Champion Sugar once more had cut loose with one of his fabulous flurries, a blinding fast combination to Fullmer's tough head, the kind that a few months before had crashed Bobo Olson to the canvas of a Los Angeles ring.
Fullmer, of course, is no Bobo Olson. With his 17-inch neck and powerful legs he has the durability, perhaps, of a Jake LaMotta and something of the crude insistence of a Rocky Marciano. The hardest punches merely shake him up a little. He has never been knocked out. But the crowd had not yet accepted this truth. It did seem, for a few wonderful seconds which revived memories of more youthful skills, that Sugar Ray's coldly furious combinations might work. His only chance was a knockout. He was trying desperately to achieve it.
He could not do it, of course, least of all after 14 rounds. Fullmer gave ground briefly, then he lunged back. Robinson caught Fullmer with a smashing right to the head, followed it with another, followed that with a right to the body. Everything about those punches reminded one of the young Robinson, whose grace and guile and power had made him welterweight champion and the only man to win the middleweight title three times. Everything, that is, but their effect.
The fight came to a close with Robinson, by some miracle of longevity, still fighting on his toes instead of in an old man's flat-footed stance, his miraculous dancer's legs still taking him wherever he wanted to go without ever a sign that age had weakened them. The boxing bromide has it that a fighter's legs abandon him first and his punch goes last. In the case of Sugar Ray Robinson the reverse may well be true.
So the last round ended, with Fullmer so confused that he continued to fight. He didn't hear the bell or see the red lights flash on the ring posts. Referee Ruby Goldstein stepped between the fighters.
It was Sugar Ray's round, last stand of a champion. It was Gene's fight.
It had been a grudge fight, so far as Fullmer was concerned, at times with the flavor of a Stag at Sharkey's. There had been moments filled with pure brawling energy as Robinson's defenses caved under the impact of Fullmer's bull-like rushes. The ring ropes couldn't take it. They collapsed. In one wild, sixth-round charge, Fullmer and Robinson tumbled to the canvas and into the ropes, unmooring them. In the next round Robinson went through the ropes alone, the result of a right-hand smash and a shove. Finesse took a holiday.
The grudge derived in part from the financial terms of the bout, in part from Sugar Ray's refusal to fight on the agreed date (Dec. 12), the 25th postponement of his procrastinating career. He had a virus, he said, and a commission doctor agreed he did, but to the Fullmer camp, which had been predicting for weeks that Robinson would postpone the bout, it was just another slick Easterner's trick. What rankled even more, in Fullmer's highly domesticated mind, was that he was thereby deprived of Christmas with his family. As to the financial side of it, Robinson had insisted on an outrageous split that gave him $139,050, Fullmer a mere $20,802.
So Fullmer came into the ring filled with bitter resentment. Normally a clean fighter, though wild, he heeled Robinson a couple of times and threw low ones that seemed more awkward than intentional. Afterward Robinson's multitude of managers screamed that Fullmer had rabbit-punched, but what they called rabbit punches looked like a feeble imitation of the real thing and were caused largely by Robinson's persistent clinching. A rabbit punch, properly so-called, is a downward, clubbing blow and delivered, for ultimate effectiveness, by the side of the hand applied to the base of the skull. By this definition it is a physical impossibility to inflict one on an upright, clinching opponent. What Robinson suffered from was not rabbit punches but an inability to solve two problems.
The first problem was that throughout the fight Fullmer kept his guard up, gloves protecting each side of his head. This made hooks and crosses ineffective. Jabs were blocked by a simple movement of either glove to the front of the face. Robinson was reduced to uppercutting as Fullmer closed in on him, but these shots were often blocked as Fullmer crisscrossed arms in front of his face. It took several rounds for Robinson to decide that his best opening was a body blow when Fullmer charged him, but even these were sometimes caught on Fullmer's elbows.
While he was puzzling this out, Robinson took to clinching, which gave him his second problem. Even here he was unsuccessful, for Fullmer often managed to keep his right hand free and, while his left was locked under Robinson's elbow, the right pounded Sugar Ray about the head and body.
This pattern of the fight was set by Marv Jenson, who owns a mink ranch and manages Fullmer. He restrained Fullmer from slugging it out toe to toe with Robinson. Instead, he ordered his man to charge in, scoring to the body and retreating when not held. This was repeated in every round.
At the same time Robinson was being held back by George Gainford, his oldest manager in point of service. It was not until the ninth round that Sugar Ray rebelled and put on an exhibition of skill and science that revealed he still possesses some of the timing and all the wisdom he once had. Those rights to the head during the infighting obviously had angered him.
Suddenly he drove a stinging left to Fullmer's body. Fullmer responded, as always, with another attack, but Sugar Ray countered this one. The counter opened up Fullmer for an instant and, in a flash, Robinson threw a solid right to the jaw followed by a crashing left hook. He drove Fullmer back but, as the bell rang, the unfazed Fullmer had fought away from the ropes and was forcing Robinson into retreat.
Robinson won perhaps three rounds thereafter, a couple of them by wide margins, but to pace himself for sustenance in the final rounds he had allowed Fullmer to gain such an early lead that the situation was hopeless.
Fullmer, indeed, had fought the smarter fight against a man renowned for his ring brilliance. It was not the kind of smartness that shows clearly on a TV screen—many TV viewers seemed to think the fight a dull affair, as spectaculars go, and some even thought Ray had won—but it made the most of Fullmer's simple talents. Gene's camp was aware that Robinson always has had trouble against opponents who do not respond to feints and draws but merely charge and crowd, depending on strength and toughness. Strength and toughness are Fullmer's qualities. He made use of them.
These two will meet again, most likely outdoors in June, though Robinson would prefer an indoor fight in March. Marv Jenson vetoed a March date because that is mink-mating time in Utah. He must be on hand then to supervise pelt-production's early stages. Meanwhile, Jenson is going to be busy arranging a couple of over-the-weight matches for his charge.
Fullmer will be a strange champion—by the standards of a high-living Robinson. He announced that his next step would be to return to his $17.56-a-day job at the copper mine in Bingham. In a little while, he explained quite seriously, he will have his union card as a full-fledged welder and then, no longer an apprentice, will be entitled to a journeyman's $20 a day. The prospect that he will make $75,000 or more in his next big fight and could make a quarter of a million dollars quite easily in the next couple of years does not impress him. It is not yet money in the bank.
So passes the brightly lighted Robinson era. It ended in the 15th round, when the plodding tortoise beat the flashy hare once again, as he always does in the fable. Sugar Ray Robinson had thought he was living another kind of fable, which is what the hare always thinks.