Of Mink and Men

Middleweight Champion Gene Fullmer and Manager Marv Jenson, mink ranchers, prepare for a title fight
April 18, 1960

The mink-mating season, an event of absorbing interest to the world middleweight champion and his 250 mink, abated in West Jordan, Utah a few days ago. There was a perceptible diminuendo of minkish interest in Liebestraum. When the last shiny-pelted black diamond of the Gene Fullmer ranch turned jaded eyes from the last female of a luxuriously coated harem, Champion Fullmer tucked the beast into its bachelor dorm for another year, took off the leather gloves he wears for this dangerous work of love and put on boxing gloves for the coming defense of his National Boxing Association title against Joey Giardello. At the same time, his neighbor, Manager Marv Jenson, was separating his own male and female mink and turning his thoughts back to prizefighting.

Fullmer, whose hands are scarred by mink bites, his brows by human fists, will meet Giardello April 20 in the unlikely town of Bozeman, Montana, a scant 210 miles from the unlikely town of Shelby, Montana, where financial disaster struck 37 years ago with the truculent force of Jack Dempsey's fists and the subtle poison of Jack Kearns. In Shelby, prosperous once more, the Fourth of July is remembered with the proud bitterness with which Hamelin recalls the day the Pied Piper skipped town. It was on that Fourth that Shelby went illustriously bankrupt. Shelby had guaranteed Kearns $300,000 for the Dempsey-Tommy Gibbons fight but was unable to pay the final $100,000. While Kearns threw a diversionary party for Shelbians after the bout, two of his helpers, by means of liquor and bribes, got past local bank guards and made off with $60,000 in gate receipts. After paying off the station master and an engineer, the Kearns retinue skipped town by locomotive, leaving Shelby penniless.

For the Fullmer-Giardello fight, TV's Wednesday Night Fights will pick up most of the tab, not Shelby, and by no means Bozeman. Bozeman is supplying only the Montana State College's spang-new field house, which can seat 11,600, and a community fascination with prizefighting that extends throughout the Rocky Mountains, a region that proudly recalls that Jack Dempsey developed his brawling ring ways in this very locale. Dempsey had some of his early fights at the Copper King Saloon of Bingham, Utah, a few miles from Gene's home in West Jordan. The Copper King still stands, weathered now and afflicted with grand jury prejudices against open gambling, but proudly memorialized to every thirsty wayfarer as the scene of many a wild Dempsey fight. An abstemious Mormon elder, Fullmer never has sipped the Copper King's beer but he has soaked up its spirit. To him and to Manager Jenson, Dempsey is the idol of all boxing history.

The mystique of the fight with Giardello is founded on these long thoughts of bygone days and on the plush pelts of thousands of mink. Not only is Fullmer a mink rancher, Manager Jenson is one of the biggest mink ranchers in Utah. Jenson probably is topped in local ranch size only by Promoter-Furrier Joe Dupler, president of the Intermountain Boxing Club. Dupler will co-promote the fight with Norm Rothschild of Syracuse, New York, a man who would like to make enough out of it all to buy his wife a mink coat. And the fight was timed to coincide with the end of the mink-mating season.


Jenson is famous as originator of the cerulean-blue strain worn only by the likes of Ava Gardner and Paulette Goddard. His 1,200 mink are expected to produce 4,000 kits, and these, when mature, will be sold at prices ranging from $30 to $105 apiece. Jen-son's original cerulean-blue male was sold as breeding stock for $6,500. It cost him $12 to raise. Jenson deals only in the rare strains—black diamonds, pearls, autumn hazes and such—and so does Fullmer. Jenson has won the international mink-breeding championship in 10 of 11 years. Because he found it tedious to round up horses, slaughter and hamburger them for mink feed, he established a mink farmers' cooperative, which now takes care of the chore. He is rated the best mink grader in the West Jordan area. A mink grader evaluates mink in terms of its fur's color, texture and other desirable qualities, and can make $300 a day at it. Jenson performs the service free for his West Jordan friends. He does his fastidious grading under artificial lights designed to give the same natural light as would be found at 10 a.m. on a sunny November day at a distance of 20 feet from the north side of a building 20 feet high. Grading mink is that finicky.

But Jenson is also a country-style fight manager who first came to national attention in 1951 when he raised Rex Layne to the eminence of a losing fight with Rocky Marciano.

Six years later the country manager came back to New York and beat the city slickers with Gene Fullmer, a country-style fighter who won the middleweight title from slick Sugar Ray Robinson, only to lose it in their return engagement. Now Gene once more holds at least the NBA version of the title, which is unrecognized only in New York and Massachusetts. In those states Paul Pender is king, at least until his April 29 bout with Robinson at Boston.

Like his champion, Jenson is a devout Mormon elder. Neither will drink even tea, let alone whisky. Jenson is also a former mayor of West Jordan (pop. 2,100), president of the district's 20-town school board and a citizen of high practical consequence to his community. During the mink-mating season he was involved in such a busy tangle of civic, genetic and sporting pursuits that he had to call school-board meetings for 6 a.m. In this early rising he is topped locally only by Ned Winder, Utah Boxing Commission chairman, who called 4 a.m. meetings. Winder is a dairy owner, with dawn waking habits firmly fixed. He is also a baker and cemetery owner. His business motto: "Drink our milk, eat our bread and let us bury you after you're dead."

Jenson recently built a luxurious fight camp, which he hopes eventually will stable 40 fighters. The building's announced cost is $80,000. It could easily be more.

In its present unexpanded state the camp has six bedrooms for the fighters, each room with wall-to-wall carpeting. There is a similarly carpeted living room, fitted with TV and lounging chairs upholstered in rich fabrics and baby-blue Leatherette.

The gymnasium is equipped for boxing, naturally, but also for basketball, high jumping, pole vaulting and high school dances. These facilities are for neighborhood children.

It seats 600 for weekly fights ($2 a seat). Its ring eventually will be equipped with a hydraulic lift to raise it to the ceiling for dances and other events. The six punching bags are covered with tough, expensive kangaroo hide. There are a movie-projection booth and screen. In a shiny cafeteria fighters in residence eat free.

Any young fighter who wants to try himself under Jenson's appraising eye is welcome to join the camp, provided he passes physical and psychological examinations followed by a three-week trial period. To earn their keep while Jenson and Trainer Angelo Curley teach them, the fighters do chores—cooking, running a vacuum cleaner, making beds or feeding the mink penned near the gymnasium.

Five of these fighters are now in camp: Claude Hudson, 135 pounds, a good infighter who is capable of quoting from Thomas Wolfe at sonorous length; Don Adam-son, 127, a sleek boxer-puncher who is very hard to hit; Lamar Clark, a heavyweight who, until he lost to Bartolo Soni last Friday, had the sometimes suspect record of 44 knockouts in 45 fights; and Leo Owens, 160, and Nathan Ish, 165, sparring partners for Gene. The fighting Fullmer brothers, Gene, Don and Jay, live at their nearby homes. So does Jenson's newest heavyweight prospect, the powerfully muscled Truman Lucky (born Lukenbach). Lucky has won his first three fights by knockouts, emulating the record of the more numerically advanced Clark.

For all the raised eyebrows about Clark's record, those who know him best insist that this all-round high school athlete of a few years ago really can punch hard enough to gain top ranking. Before his loss to Soni, Jenson was about to launch Clark against tougher opposition, with an eye on an early Brian London fight. That would be followed, if all went well, by an Ingemar Johansson title shot in Sweden next September. Johansson's adviser, Edwin Ahlquist, has told Jenson that if Clark beats a recognized European heavyweight like London he will be an acceptable opponent for a Johansson home-town defense. A certain amount of Swedish camaraderie between Ahlquist and Jenson is involved. But the TKO by Soni may change all that.

Jenson runs a happily active fight camp. In one brief recent period he had rounded up the following fights:

April 6: Jay Fullmer vs. Gale Kerwin, at Miami Beach, a Wednesday night TV appearance.

April 8: Lamar Clark vs. Bartolo Soni, at Ogden, Utah.

April 20: Gene Fullmer vs. Joey Giardello at Bozeman, also a Wednesday night television affair.

May 11: Don Fullmer vs. Stefan Redl (a Wednesday nighter, too) at Jenson's gym in West Jordan. For this one the TV camera will peep out of the fighters' living room window, which overlooks the ring. It is one of the more extraordinary TV fight sites of the decade, but Jenson is one of the more extraordinary fight managers.

All these Wednesday Night Fights have led to suspicion that Jenson has patched up his feud with James D. Norris. He has not.

"I haven't spoken to Norris since Gene lost the title to Robinson three years ago," Jenson insists. "I deal only with Lester Malitz, who produces the Wednesday Night Fights and has dealt fairly with me. He has made me the best offers. My first obligation is to my fighters, to get them the most money. I can't sacrifice their financial welfare."

The fighters, in turn, respond with high regard for Jenson. They don't even mind, too much, their manager's constant horseplay experimentation with nerve-crushing judo holds, some of which he originated by dissection of horses.

"I've always been interested in medicine," he explained, while Promoter Rothschild writhed in an illustrative grip. "I dissected horses to follow the path of the nerves through the body. It's very like the human body. Wherever a nerve crosses over a bone you can get a grip that will subdue anyone. It's a great way to bring promoters to terms."

"I'll give you 98%," Rothschild volunteered.

Fullmer will, in fact, get at least $100,000 from the Giardello fight, for which a $125,000 gate is expected and a $100,000 television purse has been put up. Giardello gets $25,000, plus expenses, the most he has ever made.

A chunky 165 pounds with the fight only a few days away, the champion was not taking it lightly, in spite of Giardello's 1959 record, which included losses to Tiger Jones and Dick Tiger. He knows that Giardello redeemed himself in a return with Dick Tiger. He knows that Giardello can punch.

To fix his mind more firmly on fighting, Gene recently quit his welder's job at the copper mines. It was an official retirement, since he had actually not worked at welding for a year or so. He still picks up his welder's tools for small repairs around his and Jenson's mink pens, but it does seem that he will never need any other trade but mink farming. He is doing very well financially. Each year the size of his ranch increases, each year the future grows more secure. He owns a nicely appointed five-bedroom home, complete with basement trophy room, five hunting dogs (two Weimaraners and three mutts), and the respect of his community.

He is joined in that community regard by Jenson. They make a rare pair in the prizefight business, rarer than cerulean mink.

PHOTOJENSON DRAPES HIS FOUR-MONTH-OLD GRANDDAUGHTER CINDY IN EXPENSIVE FURS. HIS WIFE MARGARET ENJOYS THE BYPLAY PHOTOWELDER-CHAMP Fullmer still uses his torch in chores about the mink ranches. PHOTOJUDO NERVE-HOLD, perfected by Manager Jenson after dissecting horses, tames his heavyweight prospect, Lamar Clark.

Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)