The Bloody Brawl of Montana (diary entry)

375074213_10161457438138804_4498117555347391494_n“Learn from the Fight” brought us back to the career of Gene “Cyclone” Fullmer who was still holding the NBA version of the world middleweight title. Having won a controversial unanimous decision over Ellsworth Webb in Fullmer’s home state, he now gave Joey Giardello his first title shot.

“Joey Giardello” was born Carmine Orlando Tilelli on 16th July 1930 in Brooklyn, New York, USA. Towards the end of World War 2 he decided to join the US Army but was underage and took the name of his cousin’s friend. He kept this name for his entire Boxing career. Whilst in the Army, Giardello volunteered for airborne duty. He also discovered his talent for Boxing whilst in service. After being discharged in 1948 he turned professional with the first round knockout in New Jersey. This followed by two more KO victories and a draw all in the same state, although the first two were in Trenton and the last two in Atlantic City. He then began fighting in the city that would be his home for the rest of his life, Philadelphia in Pennsylvania. More specifically he became a resident of the Lower Moyamensing neighbourhood of lower Philadelphia. He won his first match there and also took his first loss (on points) in his overall sixth career match.

From this point and until 1953 it was not the slickest of career paths. He was 43–9–6 at the beginning of the year, losing a few of his fights to journeymen but then bouncing back with strong winning streaks against strong opponents. By this time he had fought most of the top contenders more than once. Amongst his conquests was Billy Graham who, despite never winning a title, would finish his career with 102 wins and 15 losses, never once being knocked off his feet. Joey won two out of three of their battles and had climbed the ranks to the number 9 contender spot by the end of ’52. Graham’s first loss to Giardello was considered a big upset at the time, as Billy took him on as a warm-up for a title shot against Kid Gavilan. His second win against Graham only came from a legal ruling. Initially he had won the split decision but the New York commissioner had disagreed with the ring judge’s decision and overruled it in favour of Graham. Giardello took the matter to the Supreme Court who found the case in favour of Joey. However, the third time the two met the following year (1953) saw Graham grab an undisputed unanimous decision. Remarking on the carefree way he approached his Boxing career, Giardello famous said: “I went to a training camp for the first time in my life and I lost the fight.”

Still, Giardello bounced back and took his own unanimous decision win off the highly regarded Gil Turner in his next match. In 1953 he was ranked number 2 but, by most accounts, was robbed of a decision against the notoriously mob-controlled Johnny Saxton who would go on to win the world welterweight title in his highly controversial match with Kid Gavilan next year. Of his fight with Saxton, Giardello would later say, “I was robbed in my own home town, Philadelphia, because of Blinky Palermo. He bought the fight. One official gave seven rounds even! I know I didn’t lose it”.

Joey then had six straight victories, the last of which were impressive early bout stoppages over Garth Panter, Walter Cartier and Willie Troy. Although ’54 saw him outpointed by Pierre Langlois, Joey proved himself worthy of his contender status by winning his next three bouts that finished with a peak performance Ralph “Tiger” Jones. However, Joey would be a victim of his own recklessness when he crashed his car and was put out of action with a damaged knee for four months. He came back with three victories in 1955 but, again, his outside life got in the way of his career. This time he was jailed for six months after being involved in an altercation at a petrol station. Joey claimed he didn’t even get out of his car when his friends got involved in the fight. It would appear that he was still having trouble with his knee as he was back on crutches. However, this claim did not help his case as it was alleged he had hit the attendant with one of his crutches. Another account has Joey’s friend being the only true violent agitator in the incident and the person responsible for hitting the victim on the head with a pistol. It was this action taken by another, it was argued, which influenced the heavy sentencing. The jail time totally scuppered Giardello’s chance at a title shot against Bobo Olson.

Joey served four and a half months of his sentence at Holmesburg Prison, just outside Philadelphia. The entire episode was considered a total humiliation for Joey. He had his boxing licence revoked, had to attend his father’s funeral with prison guards in attendance and his second son, Carmen, was born mentally disabled. He famously made a promise to his father he would win the world championship. Giardello also said that his children gave him new purpose to mature and he made a concerted decision to rebuild his career.

By 1956 the New York Commission, under new leadership, reinstated Giardello’s licence and in February he stopped Tim Jones in round 10, Joey’s seventy-seventh fight. His new nemesis became Charlie Cotton who he fought four times in 1956,  losing the first two and winning the second two. In 1957 he encountered yet another controversy in his fight with Willie Vaughan. A mix up over the point scoring systems switched a split decision in favour of Vaughan to a no-contest declaration. He finished the year with his ninety-fifth match and a rematch with Tiger Jones, where he won a unanimous decision. It looked like he had reclaimed his previously hard fought recognition after beating Rory Calhoun, gaining the number 2 contender position under Carmen Basilio and in line to challenge Sugar Ray Robinson. However, after a majority decision win over Frank Szuzina he lost again in a split decision to his old rival Joey Giambra. Making matters worse, Giambra publicly claimed he had been asked to take a dive, had refused and fled the venue after the final bell.

With his reputation put into question, the situation was about to get worse when he lost his next match to Ellsworth Spider in a seventh round technical knockout due to deep cuts around his left eye. Keen to restore his respect in the rankings, he took another bout with Tiger Jones less than two months later. However, after a bloody slugfest it was Jones who would claim his first victory over Giardello. Retaining his number eight ranking, he came back in May ’59 with a split decision win over Holley Mims. This was followed by a first round knockout of Del Flanagan and a split decision victory over Chico Vejar. Hot Nigerian contender and two-time current Commonwealth middleweight champion Dick Tiger then handed him an unanimous decision loss in September.

By this time the middleweight division had opened up as Sugar Ray Robinson continued his dispute with the NBA who decided to strip him of his title and declare it up for grabs between Carmen Basilio and Gene Fullmer. Fullmer clinched it in 14 rounds and then defended it in a rematch with Ellsworth Webb. Giardelio, it appeared, had done enough with a rematch unanimous decision victory over Dick Tiger. Rather than face a decider, he was offered his long awaited opportunity. His 107th professional fight would match him against Fullmer in the latter’s second defence of the NBA title.

Gene Fullmer versus Joey Giardello NBA World Middleweight Championship 20.04.1960

Gene Fullmer came in at 160 lbs weight limit, Giardello was 158 lbs. Joey was 5’10” with a 70″ reach.

Montana St. College Fieldhouse, Bozeman, Montana, USA was packed with an estimated 12,000 – 12,500 people in attendance bringing in a gate of of around $110,000 plus $100,000 from radio and TV. The combined receipts broke the state record set by the Dempsey-Gibbons match of 1923. Fuller received $100,000 and Giardello was paid $25,000 plus $5,000 expenses.

The match was comparable to the fourth Willie Pep versus Sandler fights for its outright fouling and the animosity shown by both men.

. Although this was not being held in Utah where Ellsworth Webb had commented Fullmer received heavy biases from the officials, it was about two thousand miles from Joey’s hometown and he couldn’t expect much initial support.

Round 1 – Both fighters circling cautiously with Fullmer initially testing with his jab but not getting anywhere. Giardello began to feint getting flinch responses from the champion. Seemingly fed up with the early taunts The Cyclone launched his trademark overhands and charged into the fray. Joey was quick to clinch and counter with some sharp right uppercuts. Fullmer battled away inside and the referee separated them. Some more cagey behaviour followed before Giardello moved in with a one-two combination and pushed Fullmer into the ropes. Once there they both battled away with inside striking. Fullmer threw regular rabbit punches as Joey tied him up. They began to separate with the champion adopting his unique reverse cross-arm guard as Giardello threw in a series of short uppercuts. The challenger threw a left hook that was blocked. Fullmer seemingly baited him on the ropes with a low cross-arm guard. Giardello wasn’t going for it and instead threw more shots from the outside. He feinted to low with a jab and threw a right over Fullmer’s guard but to no effect. The champion decided to move in and clinch. Tucking his head into Giardello’s chest he shoved him into the ropes threw in his overhand rights. They were split up but The Cyclone was back in with his cross-guard elbow pointed at his opponent.

Round 2 – Fullmer charged again, his cross-arm guard at the ready. Joey tried to use footwork and landed a stiff jab. Fullmer closed into the clinch and both engaged in some very active in-fighting. Possible early signs of dirty play at this point with the champion’s head moving up from side to side. As Fullmer moved in, Joey threw right and left hooks under and over his unique defence. The champion clinched and landed several unmistakable side headbutts. Split apart Fuller moved in again and threw his overhand right. Blood was already visible around Joey’s left eye. This time he forced the fight to the inside and over-hooked Fullmer’s right arm. It looked they both then worked the body, although I think the champion planted a few more headbutts especially after Joey tied up his left hand. As the round neared its end it looked like the challenger was opting to move outside, his jabs mainly bouncing off Fullmer’s guard. Fullmer ploughed in again but the fight was separated on the ropes.

Round 3 – Early in the round Fullmer worked his hammerfist jab but Giardello deflected it, keeping at long/edge of  range. The champion was first to close the gap and get into the inevitable clinch. He swung his shots whilst Giardello used tight uppercuts and shovel hooks. This was short-lived and they both separated. Joey was now first to attack and pushing Gene back to the ropes with his jab. They closed again a few times and the champion continued to throw overhands and use his head. The challenger seemed to be trying rear hand uppercuts to get under the Cyclone’s guard. Finally, Fullmer received his first warning from the referee for headbutting. This did little to break his stride. In fact, the next two clinches whilst not overtly showing the headbutt were dominated by Fullmer’s body shots and overhands. Giardello went to the outside again, setting up right hooks with his jab. The champion clinched and pulled him into the corner. Again, Gene was in there working his rights but this time Joey gave some back with his shorter punches. The round finished with Fullmer backed to the opposite corner by Giardello’s outside attacks and then the champion firing back.

Round 4 – The most controversial round where Giardello showed overt contempt for Fullmer’s headbutting tactics. After two running attacks at Joey involving headbutts, the challenger openly dropped his head from the outside and struck Gene in a move that could not be ignored the referee, Harry Kessler. Kessler admonished the fighter and told the judges to deduct a point. Giardello was not impressed with the number of times Fullmer had blatantly fouled him with butts and argued with both his opponent and the referee. From this point on, it was clear this was not going to be a tactical chess game between two mutually respectful sportsman. There were few pretenses from the outside. The two just seemed to go there for a brief rest before they clashed in clinches. As Kessler worked to separate them, the two continued to throw punches. A clear uppercut from Fullmer struck his opponent as the referee parted them. They wrestled onto the ropes time and again. As the bell sounded, the cornermen looked like they were going to help the referee separate them.

Round 5 – A relatively conservative start compared to what had just occurred in the previous round with both men circling carefully. However, it wasn’t long before Fullmer made his first charge, opening up with the hammerfist jab followed by his Hail Mary overhand right. Giardello spoiled his assault and tied him up as the fell into the corner post and it was business as before with constant back and forth inside striking. This continued all around the ring. The pattern seemed to be close clinches with Joey going to the body one-handed and Fullmer mainly throwing his overhand rights that regularly struck the challenger on the back of the head. These were punctuated with very brief outside work, where Joey tried to work his jab. Occasionally Fullmer even stepped back from the punch but it was rarely long before he decided to charge with his windmilling assault of hammerfist jab/overhand right, ending in a bitter clinch. Again, Kessler had his work cut out for him as he got between the two angry fighters.

Round 6 – Comparatively less clinch-work in this round. Giardello worked his jab and Fullmer’s own peculiar jab was a little shorter. Joey seemed to be using a lower guard now, keeping his lead arm more relaxed not just for the jabs but for his rather wide left hooks. Fullmer used some backward defensive strategy here for a little while, circling out from Giardello. However, the clinching did return for the last minute and it was the same wrestling and regular in-fighting as usual.

Round 7- Early clinch with both men wading in. Circling saw Fullmer feint some this time. He then ploughed in again but this time with hooks to the body. Giardello displayed good maneuvering, turning his opponent deftly and returning fire from the outside. The champion shelled up and then battered his way back into close range, hitting the challenger what looked just about everything bar the kitchen sink. Giardello did well to tie him up with control on the biceps before letting fly a sharp uppercut. Moving to the outside, the challenger showed good evasion skills as he ducked and rolled from Fullmer’s swings before going back to his jab. The next clinch was punctuated with Gene moving out this time and landing heavy shots to the body that were partially blocked. He then drove back into the clinch.

Round 8 – Joey was on the back-foot early on by choice as he circled and seemed to control most of the first minute. Gene forced the clinch in his usual fashion and did a good deal of mauling on the ropes. Giardello moved to the outside and continued to pick the cleaner shots, landing what looked like a gazelle hook punch at one point.

Round 9 – Both fighters looked bloody. Fullmer pressed the aggression and used a scything right hook to the body as a new entrance to the clinch in place of the jab and the overhand. Giardello looked unphased and moved to the outside to pick shots when possible. One early clinch resulted in a head clash but this was more accidental than intentional in nature. Later a more intentional one landed inside the clinch. Both exchanged body shots. Giardello moved to the outside with some jabbing but it wasn’t long before Fullmer crashed in again and the brawling continued. A familiar pattern of Fullmer initiating the clinch and causing damage, and Giardello fighting him off by turning him into the ropes, took place several times.

The champion now seemed to be looking to throw bombs from the outside. He threw two of his trademark arcing shots early on in the round and then shifted to mid-range and went to the body with the scything swings. For his part, the challenger seemed to aptly manage all of this with a tight defence, angular footwork and a sharp jab. An early clinch consisted of Giardello holding Fullmer in double overhooks on his wrists whereby Gene continued to support his alternative nickname, “The Mormon Mauler”, by headbutting. Kessler separated the two. Fullmer charged in again but was matordored by Giardello who came back with a left hook to the head.

Round 10 -They exchanged jabs, then Fullmer threw several on his own that were blocked. After a pause he tried with an overhand that also missed its target. He continued hammer with his left and loop with his right but they failed to break through as Giardello circled at edge of range. Joey then decided to take his shots with jabs that similarly didn’t land home. Fullmer finally began to break the uneasy tactical lull with two more charges. The first resulted in a very brief close range exchange but the second brought us back to the usual pattern of the night. They would wrestle with the headbutting becoming more evident towards the end of the round. They’d briefly break for some ineffectual jabbing before more clinching.

Round 11 – We began at a faster pace. Joey was now moving around a lot more, determined to land some cleaner shots outside of the clinch. Gene seemed game but it appeared the challenger had the best of it from long range. His hands were faster. However, whatever Fullmer lacked in speed he more than made up for in nasty intent as he forced his way back into closer range. At first the Giardello managed him well by turning him and moving back to his more comfortable zone but the Mauler’s relentless attacks soon had them both battling on the ropes and needing to be separated. Kessler really struggled to get between these two dangerous waltzers at one point. Fullmer’s reverse cross-arm was more prominent now as Joey worked to throw shots from the outside and the champion pursued the in-fighting strategy.

Round 12 – Pretty much started in the clinch, both men eager to dish out as much punishment as possible. Fullmer’s guard was working half of the time as the odd hook bounced over the top. Fullmer included forearms into his hooking attacks. Giardello turned Fullmer into the corner and this time let fly with a barrage of shots. The champion took them and plodded forward. From the outside Joey negotiated Gene’s tricky defence with a high jab and a spleen shot. Fullmer continued, as he had done through every round, to clinch and club away with his overhand right mainly hitting the back of the challenger’s head. The closing seconds of the round went one way and then other. Gene pressed his opponent against the ropes and dug into the body. Joey then moved out to drive the champion back from the outside with a one-two combination.

Round 13 – Early round saw the champion in first by quickly closing the distance and issuing damage from the clinch. The challenger moved out and gave back more than his fair share from the outside, his shots looking clean and damaging. However, it was short-lived as Fullmer barrelled in again for his turn on the inside. Although the fight went to the ropes, Giardello decided not to hang around for the referee. Possibly feeling the fight was close, feeling his injuries and a generally biased audience he extracted himself from the clinch and returned fire again from the outside. After a pause Fullmer initiated some outside work. Joey avoided another clinch and worked to keep the fight at long range. It might have been around this point or perhaps a little earlier that Kessler decided to stay more hands off with his reffing. He look attentive but allowed the two men to inevitably close and fight on the inside only to extract themselves. To be fair, the inside fighting was quite furious with little resting. From the outside Joey really went to town working on Fullmer’s infamous guard. Gene threw nothing back but appeared to be attempting a masterclass of his defence. They inevitably closed but fought their ways to mid-range, both men battering away. Finally, Fullmer wrestled Giardello to the ropes and Kessler stepped in. Going back to long-range, Fullmer’s reverse cross-guard was back up. Joey worked around it, they clinched, exchanged nasties and then moved back out. Giardello bounced out of range and then advanced, resulting in a repeat of the previous. With bad intentions all around they moved in and out of ranges to the end of the round.

Round 14 – Joey circled but Gene seemed to be the one throwing the shots. They clinched and Fullmer waded in on the ropes. Giardello turned him and moved out. A punishing overhand found its mark on the challenger and the champion moved in again. This time the referee stepped in to separate them. The majority of the rest of the round was now fought at close range. Kessler stepped in but it quickly resumed to being a clinch fight. Although Fullmer was leading this assault, Giardello was doing well to land shovel hooks and uppercuts in the melee. No doubt about it, the Mauling Mormon’s cranium was making some regular unwanted appearances too. Unable to keep the fight at long range for any decent length of time now, the challenger caught Fullmer on the way in with a jab and then went to work with his angled body shots. With Gene’s head often quite low in the clinch, these shovel hooks would regularly find his face as much as his body. Yet again it seemed that the corner teams were having to enter the ring to help separate the two.

Round 15 – It was surprising to see that both men felt they could touch gloves for the final round given the animosity being thrown during the fight and what was to follow. Nevertheless, it happened but that did not mean it wasn’t going to be a continuation of the carnage we had witnessed for the previous 14 stanzas. Gene forced the clinch and cut away at the body all the way to the ropes. Joey performed his turning trick and then sent back his own volley of punches. As Fullmer threw his wide punches, Giardello demonstrated that his evasion skills were still very much in play and bobbed and weaved around them. This time a clinch was broken up with Joey’s rights regularly registering on Gene’s face. We were well into the final stages of an incredibly close war of attrition. Despite both men visibly tired, they were seemed to be drawing energy from somewhere to let fly some huge shots. Few hit their mark. By the end of the fight both men were toe-to-toe in the centre of the ring, neither giving or expecting a quarter.

Fight City said of the fight: “Some thought Joey was doing the sharper, cleaner work, while others preferred Fullmer’s constant aggression. It was not an easy match to score and ringside cards were all over the place. The only thing people could agree on was that it was close.”

Referee Harry Kessler said of the fight: “It was a mean fight to work because they were so strong. It was hard to get between them.” He gave the fight 142-144 to Fullmer. Judge Jay Evans saw it differently, scoring the fight 145-142 to Giardello. However, judge Billy McFarland scored the casting vote at 145 apiece. This was a view supported by the Associated Press. With the fight scored a draw, Fullmer got to keep his title. An essentially Fullmer friendly crowd warmed to Giardello by the end despite the anger shown by the two sides.

Demonstrating the disdain Giardello’s side had for Montana’s officials, Tony Pollino, Giardello’s corner was heard to say the following whilst awaiting medical attendance to stitch Joey’s eye:  “Where’s that doctor? Is everybody a shoemaker around here?” -Tony Pollino, Giardello’s cornerman. This was in reference to an earlier statement made by Giardello about Montana officials being “butchers, shoemakers and candlestick makers”.

Joey told the press: “I bumped him with my head for spite. But he was butting me since the first round. He held my neck. He hit me all over. How did I get hit there (pointing to a raw scrape on the back of his hip)? Was I fighting him backwards?”Fullmer remarked, “Anybody who does a thing like that [headbutt] in a championship fight shouldn’t get a rematch.”

“Gene Fullmer, though held to the first draw of his career by rugged Joey Giardello, still was the boss of NBA middleweights today. Fullmer finished fast Wednesday night in a brutal and confusing fist fight against the determined Brooklyn battler, to earn the deadlock. It was a rough fight for its entire 45 minutes, but the 4th round was the highlight of brutality. Giardello was cut over the eye first, and he quickly protested it was caused by Fullmer’s butting. Thus when the fighters moved into close quarters again, Joey lowered his head like a goat before Referee Harry Kessler stepped in. Giardello shoved Kessler away and both fighters milled aimlessly for nearly a minute, with the clock stopped, before Kessler put them into action again. In their first collision, Fullmer’s eye was slashed badly by a butt and Giardello admitted he did it deliberately. Thereafter it was a grudge match and they fought with little caution.” -United Press International

Incidentally UPI’s unofficial score gave the fight to Fullmer.

BoxRec reported of the fight:

In one of the dirtiest fights in history, they butted and brawled their way through 15 bad-tempered rounds. Both accused the other of starting the rough stuff, yet both were guilty of committing repeated fouls. Referee Harry Kessler eventually gave up on the pair of them and let them get on with it. The eventual result was a draw, which sparked another altercation outside the ring, with both boxers’ brothers wanting to carry on the family rivalry.

Years later. the hostilities had still not cooled. ‘Gene Fullmer was one of the dirtiest fighters around.’ said Giardello. ‘When you played a little dirty with him. he complained to the referee. I butted him. I admit I butted him. But at least I didn’t say. ‘Excuse me it was an accident.” he did it four or five times to me. ‘Of all the fights I had, he’s the only man I disliked…he was the dirtiest fighter in the book and when you retaliated on him he couldn’t take it.’ Fullmer, naturally, had different memories. `Giardello butted heads with me. After, I said: “How come you butted me?” and he said: “I wanted to win.” He admitted he butted me. A lot of people said that I was a rough fighter and that I butted heads. I fought crude and it maybe looked dirty to the spectators, but I never fought dirty.’Understandably, both thought they had won. Giardello, who had gone 15 rounds for the first time, complained: ‘I know I won. and I can beat him again. No way was it a draw. I won nine. 10 rounds. Gene Fullmer was the big shot around there and they just gave it to him. What can you do? I wanted to continue fighting right then and there.’ Fullmer’s camp claimed Kessler should have disqualified Giardello for a butt in round four.

Next lesson we return to the heavyweights for the long-awaited rematch for the undisputed world title. Former champion Floyd Patterson attempts to be the first man to win back this prestigious belt as Ingemar Johansson mounts his first title defence. Meanwhile, we return to Gene Fullmer and the NBA middleweight division for another rematch. This time the Cyclone will defend his title for third time in a second clash with a previous owner of the undisputed version of title: Carmen Basilio.


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