It is one of the singular qualities of Gene Fullmer, whose heavy and swollen face gives him the appearance of a man ravaged by instant mumps, that he always looks like a beaten fighter yet he is almost never the loser. Last Saturday, as he defended his middleweight title (the NBA version, which is not recognized in New York, Massachusetts, Europe and assorted suburbs), he managed to exalt Challenger Florentino Fernandez from Cuba even as he defeated him. The fight was a virtuoso performance in the Fullmer genre in which appearance all but overcame reality.
Fernandez, a muscular boxer with the upper torso of a light heavyweight and the lower torso of a big welterweight, is a good example of what is happening in boxing. He had three fights as a middleweight, won them all on knockouts, and almost before he had a chance to settle comfortably into his new division found himself fighting Fullmer for the championship. He is a converted southpaw, with a strong left hand and a somewhat overdeveloped left side. "He's an inch bigger all down his left side," says Angelo Dundee, an enthusiastic mercenary who supplements Fernandez' Cuban handlers here in the U.S. "Even his left foot is bigger than his right."
Before the fight Fernandez was said to have two assets working for him. One was his powerful left hook. Fullmer was knocked out by Ray Robinson in May 1957 when a left hook caught him on the chin, and it has become part of an elaborate fantasy of the sport that he is particularly susceptible to left hooks on the chin. The flaw in this theory is that Fullmer is susceptible to any punch on the point of the chin. Sitting in the office of the West Jordan Lions Club last Friday night, his face puffed as usual, his eyes looking as if they'd disappear if he glanced out the corners, Fullmer said as much. "It was not because it was a left hook; it was because I walked right into the punch."
Fernandez' other asset was supposed to be his age. He is only 25, Fullmer is 30 and this fight marked a subtle change, a sort of continental divide, in his career. Heretofore he had been fighting older men; now, for the first time, he was in a title match against a decidedly younger man. ("There'll be a lot of them from now on," said Marv Jenson after the fight. "It's a new era.") As it developed, Fullmer's age—and experience—helped him while Fernandez' youth did him no perceptible good.
For his part Fullmer was thought to have the edge in stamina. Four of his last six fights went 15 rounds, and the other two involved knockouts of Carmen Basilio in the 12th and 14th rounds. Fernandez had never gone more than 10 rounds, and the last time he went as long as 10 rounds he lost.
Finally, the fight was to be held in Utah. "I am fighting in Fullmer's home state and home country. I will be fighting under the laws of the State of Utah and with officials the Utah Boxing Commission will designate. This is of no concern to me," Fernandez announced grandly. (Actually, in its efforts to find impartial officials, the Utah commission sometimes exasperates the Fullmer camp more than the visitors. On the night before the fight, Jenson protested the selection of Del Markham as one judge on the grounds that Fullmer had beaten Markham badly in an amateur fight some 15 years ago. The commission stood by Markham.)
The fight itself was held in the unreal turn-of-the-century atmosphere that television, mindful of the big 10 p.m. markets in the East, has forced on boxing. It was still daylight as the bell sounded and in the background was the renowned Wasatch Range. The setting was reminiscent of the old photographs of boxing. The script, however, was more familiar: in the first two rounds Fullmer moved away from Fernandez, keeping his left side toward the challenger (to make Fernandez' left hook less dangerous) and peeking out the corners of his eyes like a wary, wounded animal. Fernandez bore in, looking for a chance to land his left hook. He wanted to work on Fullmer's kidneys and stomach to get the champion's crossed-arm guard down from his head. Then when Fullmer plunged down and forward into close range, he wanted to belt him with a right uppercut. "But Gene upset the pattern," said Dundee after the fight. "He's a smart operator."
No body, no knockout
In the third, Fullmer began the tactics that endured for 10 rounds. On the theory that there was "a lot of arm in Fernandez' left hook but not much body," he maneuvered so that he could throw his right cross above Fernandez' arm when he got set to throw the left. At one point in the third round, Fullmer held Fernandez by the throat with his left hand while he belted him with the right. But the quick knockout, which was close, eluded him. "I knew he was hurt but I couldn't tell whether he was hurt in the head or the body or what," said Fullmer.
After that Fullmer clawed in behind Fernandez' left arm, held horizontally across his head, to pound at Fernandez in the clinches. The body punches, Fernandez said later, were his single most important surprise in the fight.
Through all this, Fullmer felt he was in control. Fernandez' pattern had been broken, and they were fighting Fullmer's fight—close-in mauling, fierce punching without style or mercy. But Fernandez was not tiring. "He's a strong young bull," said Fullmer, "but he's not a smart fighter. He needs experience." (Said Referee Ken Shulsen: "Fernandez was listening and watching his corner. Three times while he was listening to his corner, he got hit hard.") Fullmer was bloody from superficial cuts around the right eye, near the bridge of his nose and the right corner of his mouth.
Early in the 14th round, Fullmer shot a right hand at Fernandez' head—and stopped momentarily. A small, mirthless, self-deprecating smile passed over his face, as if he were meditating on his own idiocy. He had hurt the second knuckle in his right hand (a similar injury suffered in training delayed the fight for a month) and broken his elbow. Now the right arm was useless.
Fernandez bore in and took the initiative completely away from Fullmer. He caught him erect and backing away. Fullmer's arm was numb halfway to the elbow, although there was no pain, and he felt a surge of weakness. "I wasn't even strong enough to bend down and bull forward," he said later. To most, it looked like he was barely hanging on. But as he groped his way back to his corner, he saw his mother hiding her face and he flipped her a word of confidence. "What was you worried about?" he asked her later.
In the 15th round the gap between Fullmer's appearance and his view of reality widened. He reeled wildly around the ring, clutching at the ropes to keep from falling, yet he said after the fight that he recovered somewhat during the round and felt he broke about even with Fernandez. This is a view that none of the judges shared with him, but at the end Marv Jenson threw the satin robe over him with the gold side out. It is part of their private ritual—"If it comes on gold, it means that in my mind it's certain that we won it," says Jenson. The decision was close and it was split. The only judge who gave Fernandez the edge was Del Markham.
Long after the fight, Fernandez sat in the house trailer that served as his dressing room. Virtually unmarked, he held a bloody paper napkin to his ear which, Dundee explained, he had lanced to prevent cauliflowering. Dundee asked Fernandez if he felt pain. The loser thumped his chest near his heart and said, "Corazón [Only in my heart]."
STRIKING UNDER A LOWERING, SUNDOWN SKY, GRIM CHAMPION FULLMER REACHES FERNANDEZ WITH A LONG LEFT TO THE CHIN