The fighter was Gene Tunney, the handsome heavyweight champ of the 1920s. Family lore has it that Tuff Fullmer took one look at his newborn son and said, "Maybe we ought not name him after Tunney."
"Why not?" asked Mary Fullmer, the boy's mother.
"He ain't so good-lookin'."
"Well, he ain't gonna hurt his looks none fightin'." Gene it was.
After teaching his son everything he had learned from a brief and unmemorable career in the ring, Tuff turned the 12-year-old Gene over to Jenson, a local mink rancher who bred fighters in his basement gym. Jenson nurtured Gene's greatest talent: stamina. When he was 18, Fullmer was working full time in Kennecott Copper's huge open-pit mine in Bingham, Utah, but he still had enough energy to run four miles every morning and train with Jenson for two hours after his shift was over.
To improve Fullmer's flexibility, Jenson had him club a heavy bag with a Louisville Slugger, Willie Mays model. To flummox the opposition, Jenson had him throw punches by numbered signals called from the corner.
Fullmer had been working with Jenson for more than a decade when he got his shot at Robinson. He was 25 and had won 37 of 40 bouts, 20 by knockout. To face the 35-year-old champ, the challenger had to settle for the skimpiest of terms. Robinson pocketed 42.5% of the Madison Square Garden gate, plus $60,000 from the TV rights. Fullmer's take was 12.5% of the gate. "Sugar Ray always wanted all of the money," says Fullmer. "And he nearly got it."
Robinson made prizefighting seem like a ballet of feet and fists in magical coordination. Fullmer was the classic pug: slow and squat, with sloping shoulders. Known for his clumsy rushes and reckless punches, he led with his skull and caught as much as he threw. "My philosophy was to move forward and swing," Fullmer says. "I'd get on a guy like stink."
He stunk up Robinson from the opening bell. Crowding in and hanging his face out to be slugged, Fullmer threw fists and shoulders with fierce abandon. He and Robinson sprawled around the ring in grotesque clinches. In the seventh round Fullmer even pushed the aging champ through the ropes. At the end of the 15th Fullmer was awarded a unanimous decision. Back in West Jordan he was feted with parties and parades. For a few weeks the town even changed its name to Fullmerville. Meanwhile, Fullmer went back to work in the mine for $17.56 a day.
The rematch was set for May 1, in Chicago Stadium. Four rounds into the fight, Fullmer led on all cards. But one of Robinson's handlers had noticed Fullmer's habit of sticking his left out like a fender and then lunging forward with a swinging right. Early in Round 5, Robinson exploited that habit by landing a couple of righthand leads to the body that dropped Fullmer's guard. As Fullmer readied a roundhouse, Robinson reached back across the years for one of those punches that end a fight in a moment. A moment later the old champ was the new champ. "It was the best left hook I've ever seen," says Jenson, who still lives in West Jordan, "and also the worst." Ring magazine recently named it the greatest knockout punch in the history of boxing.