It is one of the singular qualities of Gene Fullmer, whose heavy and swollen face gives him the appearance of a man ravaged by instant mumps, that he always looks like a beaten fighter yet he is almost never the loser. Last Saturday, as he defended his middleweight title (the NBA version, which is not recognized in New York, Massachusetts, Europe and assorted suburbs), he managed to exalt Challenger Florentino Fernandez from Cuba even as he defeated him. The fight was a virtuoso performance in the Fullmer genre in which appearance all but overcame reality.
Fernandez, a muscular boxer with the upper torso of a light heavyweight and the lower torso of a big welterweight, is a good example of what is happening in boxing. He had three fights as a middleweight, won them all on knockouts, and almost before he had a chance to settle comfortably into his new division found himself fighting Fullmer for the championship. He is a converted southpaw, with a strong left hand and a somewhat overdeveloped left side. "He's an inch bigger all down his left side," says Angelo Dundee, an enthusiastic mercenary who supplements Fernandez' Cuban handlers here in the U.S. "Even his left foot is bigger than his right."
Before the fight Fernandez was said to have two assets working for him. One was his powerful left hook. Fullmer was knocked out by Ray Robinson in May 1957 when a left hook caught him on the chin, and it has become part of an elaborate fantasy of the sport that he is particularly susceptible to left hooks on the chin. The flaw in this theory is that Fullmer is susceptible to any punch on the point of the chin. Sitting in the office of the West Jordan Lions Club last Friday night, his face puffed as usual, his eyes looking as if they'd disappear if he glanced out the corners, Fullmer said as much. "It was not because it was a left hook; it was because I walked right into the punch."
Fernandez' other asset was supposed to be his age. He is only 25, Fullmer is 30 and this fight marked a subtle change, a sort of continental divide, in his career. Heretofore he had been fighting older men; now, for the first time, he was in a title match against a decidedly younger man. ("There'll be a lot of them from now on," said Marv Jenson after the fight. "It's a new era.") As it developed, Fullmer's age—and experience—helped him while Fernandez' youth did him no perceptible good.
For his part Fullmer was thought to have the edge in stamina. Four of his last six fights went 15 rounds, and the other two involved knockouts of Carmen Basilio in the 12th and 14th rounds. Fernandez had never gone more than 10 rounds, and the last time he went as long as 10 rounds he lost.
Finally, the fight was to be held in Utah. "I am fighting in Fullmer's home state and home country. I will be fighting under the laws of the State of Utah and with officials the Utah Boxing Commission will designate. This is of no concern to me," Fernandez announced grandly. (Actually, in its efforts to find impartial officials, the Utah commission sometimes exasperates the Fullmer camp more than the visitors. On the night before the fight, Jenson protested the selection of Del Markham as one judge on the grounds that Fullmer had beaten Markham badly in an amateur fight some 15 years ago. The commission stood by Markham.)
The fight itself was held in the unreal turn-of-the-century atmosphere that television, mindful of the big 10 p.m. markets in the East, has forced on boxing. It was still daylight as the bell sounded and in the background was the renowned Wasatch Range. The setting was reminiscent of the old photographs of boxing. The script, however, was more familiar: in the first two rounds Fullmer moved away from Fernandez, keeping his left side toward the challenger (to make Fernandez' left hook less dangerous) and peeking out the corners of his eyes like a wary, wounded animal. Fernandez bore in, looking for a chance to land his left hook. He wanted to work on Fullmer's kidneys and stomach to get the champion's crossed-arm guard down from his head. Then when Fullmer plunged down and forward into close range, he wanted to belt him with a right uppercut. "But Gene upset the pattern," said Dundee after the fight. "He's a smart operator."
No body, no knockout
In the third, Fullmer began the tactics that endured for 10 rounds. On the theory that there was "a lot of arm in Fernandez' left hook but not much body," he maneuvered so that he could throw his right cross above Fernandez' arm when he got set to throw the left. At one point in the third round, Fullmer held Fernandez by the throat with his left hand while he belted him with the right. But the quick knockout, which was close, eluded him. "I knew he was hurt but I couldn't tell whether he was hurt in the head or the body or what," said Fullmer.
After that Fullmer clawed in behind Fernandez' left arm, held horizontally across his head, to pound at Fernandez in the clinches. The body punches, Fernandez said later, were his single most important surprise in the fight.