The finest fight of Gene Fullmer's life, surpassing by far even his title-winning victory over Sugar Ray Robinson, was fought the other night in San Francisco's Cow Palace. With skill astonishing in one who hitherto had been disparaged as a mere clumsy brawler, the Mormon from Utah roundly trounced gallant Carmen Basilio, another ex-champion who had won and lost to Sugar Ray. In doing so, Fullmer girded himself with the National Boxing Association's middleweight championship belt—the first such trophy the NBA has ever awarded.
Fullmer did it with a style he has never before displayed—a retreating jab-and-shift, pause-and-hook rigadoon that the vainly chasing Basilio never was able to keep step with. Fullmer, to be sure, executed these moves not gracefully but only effectively, yet so well that one of the judges awarded Carmen only the sixth round. The end came in the 14th, with Basilio—his legs and wind all but gone, his fight-ravaged face ruddy from minor cuts, his left eye beginning to puff—supported by the ropes and only a punch away from his first trip to the canvas. Because he was resting on the ropes it was, in fact, scored as a knockdown, but Carmen still can quibble that he never has been truly floored.
A smashing overhand right did him in. At that point it was perfectly obvious, as it had been for several rounds, that Carmen had no chance to win, either on points or by knockout. For the steam was long gone from his punches. Carmen's corner knew it, and during the preceding rest period it had, in fact, decided to end the fight if its man got into serious trouble. Now the man was on the brink of the worst moment of his career, and Trainer Angelo Dundee started through the ropes, shouting at Referee Downey to stop it just as Downey began a count, then changed his mind and signaled the end of the fight.
Basilio, a champion in his soul forever, protested to the referee. Later, heartbroken in his dressing room, he insisted that he had only pretended to stagger under the blow in order to entice Fullmer into punching range. It was a brave man's rationalization, not to be laughed at.
There is every good chance that this was Basilio's last fight, though Champion Fullmer instantly offered a return bout. Basilio wants time to think the offer over. He has endured grave punishment in his fights with Robinson and Tony DeMarco, and again in this one. He is 32 years old. He does not need money. He has good reason to retire now.
Fullmer's best alternatives are fights with Sugar Ray and Spider Webb, but any Fullmer-Robinson fight must first be preceded by a bitter row over division of the spoils. It rankles Fullmer that Robinson forced him to fight for a mere 12½% of the gate, with no share in television money. Gene's manager, Marv Jenson, said grimly that he was willing now to give 12½% to Robinson. Fullmer suggested that, since he is recognized as champion in 48 states and Robinson only in New York and Massachusetts, they might divide the purse on a 48-to-2 basis.
This means that there will be no Fullmer-Robinson match. Besides, the probabilities are that Sugar Ray wants only an Archie Moore fight.
Thus, it seems that Spider Webb, even though Fullmer has beaten him, soon will have his try at the middleweight title. Webb was at ringside to study the situation. At one point he observed shrewdly that Fullmer was forcing Basilio to fight the way he wanted him to. Any fighter but Basilio might have shifted tactics, but Basilio, though he practices running backward in the gym, never has been seen to do it in the ring. In battle he knows only how to charge and slug. Fullmer's tactics took full advantage of this.
The Fullmer tactic was known in his camp as Plan A. Two other plans were available to him, but he never needed them. Plan A is a basic, classical design in which the jab fends off an oncoming foe, the feet retreat just enough to prevent a body assault, the right is cocked for lethal use when needed and the hook is always ready to counter an opponent's errors. Basilio wanted to get in tight to weaken his heavier (159½ pounds to 156) adversary with body punishment but, as it happened, it was Fullmer who scored the most telling body blow—a violent body hook in the ninth round that all but sickened Basilio. In this round the furious pace with which the fight began (few have ever seen a wilder first round in a championship fight) was clearly ended. What remained for Gene Fullmer was a systematic destruction of a fast-weakening opponent. Fullmer remained cool. He resisted the temptation to mix it with Basilio. Instead, he destroyed him according to Plan A.
If Basilio wanted excuses for his showing he had some, but he made none. At 156 pounds he was the heaviest he has ever been, and this may have slowed him. More important, perhaps, he was upset by public disclosure that his co-managers, Joe Netro and Johnny DeJohn, had been contributing a slice of his purses to Gabe Genovese, recently convicted of serving as an undercover manager, and that all hands had been in more than seemly touch with Frankie Carbo, boxing's underworld boss. (To which the Basilio corner replies, "But isn't everybody?") The tough and ardent California boxing commission denied licenses to Netro and DeJohn, declared them technically ineligible for a share of Basilio's purse, barred them from appearing in Basilio's corner and even ousted them from Basilio's dressing room an hour before the fight. This last was a bit too much for Joe Netro, a stout and rather sentimental man. He wept. "That was the worst thing," said Johnny DeJohn. "That was the lousiest. They could at least have let us stay with the kid until he went into the ring."
So the fight went on amid threats by Governor Edmund G. Brown, a candidate for the Democratic Presidential nomination, to ban boxing in California. It was not the healthiest atmosphere for a championship fight and the gate receipts showed it. What might have been a northern California record gate of $200,000 dwindled to a gross $140,535 paid by 10,397 fans. Strikes of teamsters and shipyard workers did not help, either. But there was a $175,000 fee from television, of which Basilio got 35%, Fullmer 25%, the percentages as applied to their ends of the live gate, and that will be balm for their battered faces.
It was a vicious fight to watch, but there was no viciousness in the fighters themselves.
"I love that guy," said Fullmer afterward. "I can't think of a better sport or a better friend to fight."