Robinson’s New Rival (diary entry)


Today’s lesson looked at the titanic beginning to a new rivalry for Sugar Ray Robinson. Not since Randy Turpin or even Jake LaMotta had Robinson faced such a tough opponent as the one that kicked off 1957. Like the other two, Gene Fullmer was the antithesis of Robinson. He had taken hard knockbacks and engaged in demanding brawls to earn his chance to win the middleweight crown.

Sugar Ray Robinson versus Gene Fullmer Undisputed World Middleweight Championship 02.01.1957

After beating Bobo Olson for the fourth time and successfully defending the title he had won from him, the three-time middleweight champion took on Bob Provizzi in a non-title match. Robinson won the bout on a unanimous decision. However, having lost $90,000 from the $105,000 purse he had earned after fighting Olson, it was clear Sugar Ray needed another title match. He defended it for the second time against new rival Gene Fullmer. This was an IBC sanctioned match and originally set for 12th December 1956, but Robinson caught a virus and it had to be postponed.

After beating Rocky Castellani, Fullmer battled his way through the contenders to Robinson. He beat Gil Turner on a split decision. This was a man who had beaten Fullmer on a previous occasion. Gene won the rubber match, but it was a tough bout by all accounts. Fullment then beat the one man who had defeated Robinson on his comeback trail, Tiger Jones, on a unanimous decision. Charles Humez also lost on a unanimous decision and Moses Ward was knocked out in round three.

Fullmer’s record was 37-3 (and hadn’t come close to being stopped). Robinson’s record was 140-4-2, his only loss by stoppage coming against an outboxed Joey Maxim in a light-heavyweight championship that had seen him collapse from heat exhaustion. Since his return from retirement he had a record of 8-1. The single loss coming from Tiger Jones.

The match was held at Madison Square Garden, New York. An audience of 18,934 brought in a gross gate of $194,696 ($166,422 net). Robinson received 47 1/2 percent of the net gate in addition to $60,000 from television and radio, giving him a total purse of $139,050. Fullmer was given 12 /12 percent of the net, which gave him $20,802. He did not receive anything from the television and radio. Robinson was came in 160 lbs to Fullmer’s 157 lbs. The bookies made Robinson the 6-5 favourite despite being 10 years older than Fullmer. The referee was Ruby Goldstein with judges Frank Forbes and Harold Barnes.

Fullmer’s plan was to take a leaf out of Tiger Jones’s book and lean hard into his swarming style. Fullmer had a reputation for being a very awkward fighter with an iron chin.

Round 1 – The bout began with some back and forth in the centre of the ring. Robinson stuck to the outside as Fullmer launched inside flurries. Robinson tied him up each time, but Fullmer maintained the aggression. The first round edged to Fullmer.

Round 2 – Robinson began fighting off the back-foot but soon was swarmed and resorted to clinching. Fullmer paced himself, setting up his charges. Robinson brought in his swarmer tool: the right uppercut. It caught Fullmer in the body. However, it didn’t stem his aggression.

Round 3 – Fullmer swarmed in early. Robinson continued to tie him up whilst not being able to control his overhand rights. The champion continued to box cautiously before finally putting the pressure on and driving Fullmer into the ropes. The challenger tied him up and the fight went back to the centre of the ring.

Round 4 – Fullmer pursued Robinson around the ring and kept the pressure on him. Robinson’s uppercuts came into play again, but he was clearly having problems setting up his combinations. He started to work his jab but Fullmer gave him little time and moved in.

Round 5 – Early on Robinson under-hooked Fullmer’s clinch and turned him away. A second clinch sent them both into the ropes and Robinson seemed more aggressive this time. It appeared that the champion was upping his game now, working to break his clinches and coupling jabs with right hand uppercuts. However, it was very obvious Robinson was having problems with Fullmer’s style.

Round 6 – The round began with Robinson over-hooking Fullmer’s arm and driving him into the ropes, but Fullmer persisted with his overhand rights all the way. The champion used his footwork to gauge and take advantage of the distance. He kept to the outside and Fullmer was content to maintain the forward pressure. Just prior to the bell the two fighters went to the ground during a clinch. A rope also came down in the ring. Robinson later reflected on it and said that was an example of him leaning on the ropes too much. He never usually let a fighter put him on the ropes.

Round 7 – After some cagey circling, Fullmer charged yet again and a familiar pattern ensued. Robinson began to look better, boxing from the outside and putting his combinations together. However, it was short-lived. Fullmer’s next charge resulted in Robinson falling through the ropes for which he was given a count. Again, Robinson tried to get set with a bolo punch but it didn’t have much effect on The Cyclone as he kept coming forward.

Round 8 – Fullmer was ahead on points. Robinson set up a classic combinations, including a right uppercut, but it was spoiled by another Fullmer swarm. The champion moved to the outside, his sharply bladed stance was a direct contrast to Fullmer’s more square-on posture. The round continued with Robinson trying to use his jab and set up combinations whilst the challenger was relentless in his rushes, never seeming to retire.

Round 9 – Robinson used lateral movements from one side and then the other. Brief pauses seemed to be continued repetitions of the previous rounds with the champion trying to work out how to set up his shots whilst Fullmer waded in at every opportunity. At this stage the challenger’s speed was notably a match for the champion. Past the halfway point, Robinson began to up the aggression again and landed some hard body shots as he chased Fullmer into the ropes. The challenger rallied back after defending with his cross-arm guard but the round probably went to the Robinson.

Round 10 – The champion seemed have picked up now and was more intent to push the fight. However, Fullmer was not going to let up easily. Clinches soon ensued and the champion continued to pound away with his right. The challenger’s nose was bleeding. Robinson picked up again second before the bell, blending a sharp left hook with his jabs.

Round 11 – Both men fought for the centre of the ring at the beginning of the round. Robinson worked his jab and looked to be in control for only a few seconds before Fullmer ploughed in again. These successive rallies were being better managed this time around. Robinson caught Fullmer with a nice left hook and also his bolo punch. Fullmer’s forward pressing cross-guard started to come into play more perhaps prompted by Robinson’s sharper counters.

Round 12 – Robinson’s left hooks came out as he circled from the outside. The pattern appeared to be dictated by Fullmer responding to Robinson’s initial attacks from where he would swarm into the perceived opening. Robinson’s punches went upstairs and downstairs, but they weren’t landing as readily as usual. He tried the bolo punch again.

Round 13 – Fullmer’s youth was beginning to show as the fight was clearly tiring both men. Robinson worked his jabs and rear uppercuts but little was getting through.

Round 14 – Fullmer staggered Robinson with a straight right early on, sending him into a neutral corner. He then moved onto the back-foot as Robinson attempted to open up. True to form, the challenger charged in again with cross-arm guard. Blood now was visible streaming down the champion’s left eye. Fullmer was also shown to be sporting a cut over his right eye. The fighting intensified in the centre of the ring. With the challenger now leading on the scorecards it seemed evident that Robinson needed to pull out a knockout.

Round 15 – The round began energetically enough. Both men’s respective eyes remained bloody. Fullmer also had blood seeping from his nostril. Robinson continued to have difficulty to land his combinations, get the range and negotiate the challenger’s style. Fullmer, for his part, wasn’t going to leave anything to chance and did not coast. Towards the end of the round he was still coming forward, working hard and actively engaging in the clinch-work.

Gene Fullmer won the undisputed world middleweight championship by unanimous decision. Robinson admitted that Fullmer’s style had bothered him. He said that he had not anticipated a non-drinking Mormon to have a barroom brawler’s style of fighting. He also said that after getting over from the virus he had had trouble sleeping. Dr Nardiello had given him tranquilisers rather than sleeping tablets for fear that later would have him hooked. Robinson said that the tranquilisers had made him so relaxed that he had gone to sleep in the ring with Fullmer. However, the IRS let him keep $140,000 from the purse he had earned that night. He would be back and a rematch was scheduled for 1st May that year and another great rivalry was born.