Spider in a Cyclone (diary entry)

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This year’s first “Learn from the Fight” session finished off the 1950s with Gene “The Cyclone” Fullmer’s first defence of the National Boxing Association version of the world middleweight championship. His opponent was Ellsworth Webb who had previously defeated on a unanimous decision a year ago.

Ellsworth “Spider” Webb was born on 20th November 1931 Tulsa, Oklahoma, USA. He was one of 11 children born to a hard working single mother. The unsupervised young Webb was quick to get into street fights and was sent to live with his uncle in Los Angeles. However, his uncle did not have much luck curbing his love of fighting even when Webb’s mother shortly joined them. He made friends with Donald Sanders whose elder brother, Ed, who would win the 1952 Olympic heavyweight gold medal in 1952 before his tragic death ’54 due to injuries he suffered in a bout with Willie James. Donald convinced Webb to channel his energy into sport and to join him at Compton Junior College. He initially joined as a football player but after the season finished, Sanders encouraged Webb to try out for the boxing team where Ellsworth excelled. Over the two years he studied at Compton, Webb won the NCAA titles in 1950 and 1951. Apparently his “Spider” nickname was not just a play on his surname – although it seems unlikely that this didn’t play a part – but on the way he fought. He had a long reach at 177cm and at least during his junior years was prone to swinging arms around and supposedly moving around like a spider. After graduating Webb followed Donald’s older brother, Ed, to Idaho State and won the NCAA light middleweight titles in 1952 and 1953. According to Ibro Research:

“In four years of college competition he went undefeated in 71 fights, winning 57 of his fights by knockout. Ellsworth was also a member of the great 1952 U.S. Olympic Team that won five gold medals at Helsinki. Unfortunately, he wasn’t one of the winners. He had the misfortune of meeting Hungary’s legendary Laslo Papp, the 1948 Olympic middleweight gold medalist who also went on to capture gold in the 1952 and 1956 Olympics. Papp, a hard-hitting southpaw, knocked out Webb in the second round. ‘I learned something that night-don’t get overconfident.” ‘I had him in trouble in the first round and when I went to my corner after the first round I said to myself ‘this guy is over-rated. I’ll take him easy.’In the second round he nailed me-and good. It seemed like the roof caved in. When I came to the fight was over. I haven’t taken an opponent lightly since then.'”

After returning to Idaho State to win the NCAA championship again, Webb was guided towards Hec Knowles by his coach Milton (Dubby) Holt to pursue a professional career. Knowles had successfully managed other NCAA champions. Ellsworth turned professional on 1st July 1951 and won his first match by second round knockout of Johnny Williams or Jimmy Johnson (records conflict on the name). He then knocked out Bob Carpenter also in the second round and just 12 days later. Keeping active, he fought his third pro fight just nine days after this one but lost a controversial six round decision against Jimmy Red Elby. Even Elby thought the decision had gone the wrong way and told Webb this after the fight. He won all 10 of his next fights, nine by knockout. This included two knockouts of Jimmy Martinez a 23-year old veteran of 73 fights. Up to this point in his career, Martinez had never been stopped but Webb took him out in round one of their first encounter proving to be a shocking upset. His second victory was via a sixth round technical stoppage. After stopping Bobby Boyd, Webb was drafted into the army for two years where he worked as co-boxing coach at Fort Lewis with future ring rival, Charley Joseph.

After being discharged, Spider returned to the ring on 16th May 1956 to win a first round technical knockout over Irwin Thatch in Chicago. A good number of Webb’s early fights took place in Chicago which became his new home. He had moved into a more competitive field now and his next five wins were all by decision. These included the highly ranked Holly Mims and the hitherto undefeated contender, Rory Calhoun. Thanks to his fight with Mims, Spider had now also made the television circuit and was proving a popular attraction. Calhoun had also given Webb his hardest punch. Ellsworth was knocked down into the ropes in round 3 and it looked like it was over. Calhoun had been so confident that he had turned his back to return to his corner and not seen his opponent catapult off the ropes back into the fight. Webb’s victory had granted him seventh contender status in Ring’s middleweight rankings. He didn’t stay there long. After winning unanimous decisions over Charley Cotton and Charley Green before rounding off the year with a devastating second round stoppage of British Empire champion Pat McAteer, who knocked down a total of four times, Webb became Ring Magazine’s number five ranked contender for 1956.

1957 saw Webb begin with three unanimous decisions, two of which earned him Ring Magazine’s Fighter of the Month titles and moving him to the number three contender position. He then lost for the second time in his career. This was to his old comrade-in-arms Charley Joseph, the then number six contender. Joseph won a unanimous decision. The fight was considered one of the greatest seen in New Orleans for years and some journalists believed Webb should have won. Five weeks later the two met again and this time Spider took the win via a majority decision. He won his next three fights, including a knockout rematch over Rory Calhoun and first round knockout of Jackie LaBua. LaBua had only been stopped once his 40 fight career and that was on a cut. He had fought some of the best including Gene Fullmer and Gil Turner. Webb knocked him out at 59 second mark of round 1.

After the Calhoun fight, Spider took his third career loss in a rematch with Holly Mims. It was a unanimous decision. After Mims he won his first split decision over Jimmy Beecham before travelling to the UK to win a points victory over British Empire champion Dick Tiger. He then won a seven round stoppage over Germany’s Franz Szuzina, a man who had only been stopped twice his 73 fight career. Webb took the fight at short notice as a substitute for Gene Fullmer. Fullmer was currently in the number two position and was on his comeback trail after his second fight with Sugar Ray Robinson had lost him the middleweight title. Fullmer’s swarming and counter-punching style made the fight very difficult for Spider who fought from the outside. The 10-round decision went to Gene but Spider was still considered a top contender. However, he was the underdog in his next fight against the number three ranked contender, Joey Giardello. The fight proved to be brutal and bloody affair finishing with a seventh round stoppage of Giardello. Webb travelled back to England to beat the British champion, Terry Downes, in the eighth round of their fight. The paper dubbed it Britain’s “Fight of the Year.”

Returning to his new home of Chicago, second only to New York in its boxing prestige, Webb knocked out old rival Bobby Boyd in round one of their fight in dramatic fashion. These victories made Spider a very undesirable opponent for most of the top ranked middleweights. Another old opponent, Neal Rivers stepped in having only lost on a decision to Webb on a previous occasion. Rivers looked like he might score upset when he had Spider in trouble in round three. However, Webb came back harder in round four and totally overwhelmed his opponent to score a technical knockout.

Given the huge threat Webb was presenting, many have credited Gene Fullmer for his willingness to fight him in his first title defence. He signed the contract very soon after he had won the vacant title on 28th August 1959.

Ellsworth “Spider” Webb stood at 185 cm with 177 cm reach. His record stood at 33-4-0.

Gene Fullmer versus Ellsworth Webb NBA World Middleweight Championship 04.12.1959

The fight took place at George Nelson Field House, Logan in Fullmer’s home state of Utah. Although the bookies had Fullmer as the 7-5 favourite, Robert J. Thornton the Managing Director of Boxing Illustrated stated that most of the smart money was on Webb.

Early in the fight Webb seemed to charge and Fullmer went on the back foot. Some of Fullmer’s charges were avoided and Webb scored prolifically with his jab. However, long before the halfway point Gene was beginning to spoil Spider’s rhythm. By round six I had the match scored fairly even with Fullmer landing most of the power punches and Webb scoring more punches overall.

Boxing journalists were baffled by how Fullmer could give a technician like Webb so much trouble. He seemed to defy the conventions of the day. However, a closer look at his style revealed it wasn’t as clumsy and brash at it first seemed. His fight with Basilio showed how when it came to two swarmers, the more technically proficient would win. Fullmer had a peculiar approach. His reverse cross arm guard, which did not surface until round two, has forced him to punch very differently than most other boxers. Just about every one of his punches was angular. His jab fell somewhere between an overhand and a hammer fist strike and his rear hand was regularly thrown a swinging diagonal overhand reminiscent of  Max Baer’s terrifying punch. At close range he did all the work in the clinch, landing sharp uppercuts and also devastating body shots. His right hook to the body, which had been his undoing in his last fight with Sugar Ray Robinson, was also present and helped build up his points.

Webb, for his part, often avoided Fullmer’s two-fisted assaults and by round 10 had begun holding the centre of the ring. Interestingly, for all the contemporary journalist talk about Fullmer tripping over his own feet, it was the nimble Spider who seemed to be unbalanced on more occasions and also slipped a few times. Round 10 might have been the last round Webb won. Fullmer had gone in hard in round 9 with a volley of heat-seeking rights. He had smelt blood and thought his moment had come to land a knockout. Round 10 seemed more to be about Fullmer feeling confident enough to course than Webb actively taking charge. When given his opportunity, Spider mainly picked away at jabs, playing the outboxer when it was clear he needed to assert his dominance. Rounds 11-13 all saw Fullmer put his foot back on the gas and take the fight to Webb. Usually a counter-puncher, he seemed determined swarm and set up his rights. Webb did well to avoid most of the assaults but often ended entangled in clinches that were mainly dominated by Fullmer. Round 14 saw Spider fight back hard but Fullmer was no less busy. Confident he was ahead on the scorecards and unafraid of Webb’s legendary knockout power, Gene tried again for the knockout in the final round. His two-fisted swinging assaults came in with venom but Webb continued to box well. Gene Fullmer was successful in his first title defence and finished the 1950s as the reigning NBA middleweight title.

Ultimately Fullmer’s tenacity won through over Webb’s style. Spider should be credited for the cuts he opened, getting past Fullmer’s very difficult reverse cross-arm guard, he could not set his smooth rhythm against Fullmer’s charging attacks that continued to the very end.

Check out our “Learn from the Fight” video. 

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