SI Vault
Martin Kane
May 02, 1960
Middleweight Champion Gene Fullmer retained his title but not all of his reputation in one of the rowdiest brawls in boxing history
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May 02, 1960

A Mad Night In Montana

Middleweight Champion Gene Fullmer retained his title but not all of his reputation in one of the rowdiest brawls in boxing history

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In the crimson history of Montana there have been many bloody massacres, like Custer's Last Stand and the Battle at Big Hole, when Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce Indians took vigorous umbrage at the white man's refusal to play the game according to rules of fair play. The National Boxing Association middleweight championship fight between Champion Gene Fullmer and Joey Giardello, fought more recently at Bozeman, Mont., may be regarded as a cultural renaissance of those good old days. The rules deprived the fighters of scalping knives, but even under such restraint they drew freshets of blood in every round. They butted, heeled, punched low and snarled.

To see that the fight was conducted with the propriety of a quadrille, Montana had imported Referee Harry Kessler from St. Louis. In or out of the ring, Harry Kessler is a bit of a dandy, a millionaire metallurgist with interests that range from Tokyo to North Bergen, N.J. Boxing is only his hobby. Five percent of U.S. metals are produced with his advice or with the aid of his inventions. Despite a certain girth, he moves about the ring with the tailored grace of a Ph.D. from Arthur Murray's. He speaks to the fighters softly before and during a fight, admonishing them like the headmaster of a rich boy's prep school, even though one may be gouging at an eye with a thumb and the other lifting the knee in a clinch. The Kessler Idea is that if you treat fighters like gentlemen they will act that way.

Fullmer and Giardello collapsed that lovely souffl�.

By the middle of the fourth round, his matching gray-green slacks and shirt smeared with contrasting tones of human blood, Referee Kessler had to call an armistice of a nature unprecedented in title fights. Fullmer and Giardello, a pair of clawing wildcats, were held at bay by Kessler's outstretched arms while he preached a few words on common decency. These soft words were lost in the roar of the crowd. For some moments it seemed as if Kessler might be stopping the fight altogether. Giardello's manager, Tony Ferrante, a Philadelphian in a ten-gallon hat, shrewdly assumed his boy might be getting the worst of it—because his boy had been giving a little bit the worst of it. Ferrante howled his way into the ring and had to be hauled out of it. But by that time Kessler had made it clear that he was trying only, as he put it later, "to restore law and order in the fight." To some extent he did. The fight was resumed on a slightly reduced scale of savagery, but not until Kessler had primly forced the fighters to shake hands. As they did so they glowered at each other.

Until Kessler called a pause they had been butting each other like buck deer. Even without antlers they drew blood. It streamed from their foreheads into their eyes, but, dramatic though these abrasions looked, none of the cuts were dangerous.

In the end, by official decision, it was a draw, and that was enough for Fullmer to retain the title. Kessler voted for Giardello, one judge voted for Fullmer, and the third official called it all even. Those of the ringside press who were polled voted 12 for Fullmer, one for a draw.

It was a hard fight to score because so little happened within the rules. The crowd of 12,122 packed into Montana State College's beautifully designed field house, a domed and pillarless structure where there seem to be no bad seats, resented Fullmer's headlong charges and his mauling, brawling style. The crowd therefore cheered for Giardello, the eastern dude. It was the only sporting gesture of the night.

As viewed from the blood-spattered intimacy of the press section, Fullmer did win. Giardello threw more punches at the head, Fullmer landed more to the body. Giardello's head punches were mostly blocked by Fullmer's adaptation of Archie Moore's crisscross defense, in which the right arm is extended horizontally across the chin, the right glove protecting the left side of the jaw and the right elbow guarding the right side of the jaw. Giardello threw some spectacular combinations against this guard and scarcely penetrated it at all. On the other hand, Fullmer, choosing to fight inside because of respect for Giardello's long-range punching power, persistently barged his way into close quarters, head foremost, and banged at Giardello's body so painfully that in the middle-to-late rounds Giardello was wincing even before the body punches landed.

After the fight Giardello dropped his trunks dramatically in the dressing room to display an ugly bruise on his left hip. The cuts on his scarred forehead were forgotten as a crowd of sympathizers moaned at this evidence of Fullmer's viciousness. Still, a punch to the hip is hardly the kind that a fighter would throw in order to disable an opponent.

Giardello, on the other hand, cost himself points by persistent holding. When he clutched one of Fullmer's fists to his side with an elbow, Fullmer clouted him with the other fist, and such punches score.

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