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It was the 15th round. Out of his corner came Sugar Ray Robinson with three minutes to go as middleweight champion of the world. Blood trickled from a deep, inch-long cut over his left eye. It had splashed down onto his white trunks, onto his thigh and shin. His hair, so carefully marcelled in Round One, was a disordered shock. This was a beaten fighter but a champion, too. He proved it during those last seconds.
He was 35 years old by his account, 36 by the record books, 37 by the reckoning of one of his five managers. By any calculation, he was old. Against him now, charging toward him once more as in every previous round, was a young man of 25, the bullnecked, heavy muscled, powerful Gene Fullmer, a welder's apprentice from West Jordan, Utah and, very likely, with more talent for welding than for boxing. Fullmer ended his charge by crashing a right into Robinson's body. Robinson sagged back, as he had done so many times before.
Suddenly the crowd screamed. There were 18,134 fans packed into Madison Square Garden and just about every one of them was howling in admiration. Few fans love Sugar Ray outside the ring but when he is working at his trade it is impossible not to respect him. He is a brave and skillful man. So the crowd howled. For Champion Sugar once more had cut loose with one of his fabulous flurries, a blinding fast combination to Fullmer's tough head, the kind that a few months before had crashed Bobo Olson to the canvas of a Los Angeles ring.
Fullmer, of course, is no Bobo Olson. With his 17-inch neck and powerful legs he has the durability, perhaps, of a Jake LaMotta and something of the crude insistence of a Rocky Marciano. The hardest punches merely shake him up a little. He has never been knocked out. But the crowd had not yet accepted this truth. It did seem, for a few wonderful seconds which revived memories of more youthful skills, that Sugar Ray's coldly furious combinations might work. His only chance was a knockout. He was trying desperately to achieve it.
He could not do it, of course, least of all after 14 rounds. Fullmer gave ground briefly, then he lunged back. Robinson caught Fullmer with a smashing right to the head, followed it with another, followed that with a right to the body. Everything about those punches reminded one of the young Robinson, whose grace and guile and power had made him welterweight champion and the only man to win the middleweight title three times. Everything, that is, but their effect.
The fight came to a close with Robinson, by some miracle of longevity, still fighting on his toes instead of in an old man's flat-footed stance, his miraculous dancer's legs still taking him wherever he wanted to go without ever a sign that age had weakened them. The boxing bromide has it that a fighter's legs abandon him first and his punch goes last. In the case of Sugar Ray Robinson the reverse may well be true.
So the last round ended, with Fullmer so confused that he continued to fight. He didn't hear the bell or see the red lights flash on the ring posts. Referee Ruby Goldstein stepped between the fighters.
It was Sugar Ray's round, last stand of a champion. It was Gene's fight.
It had been a grudge fight, so far as Fullmer was concerned, at times with the flavor of a Stag at Sharkey's. There had been moments filled with pure brawling energy as Robinson's defenses caved under the impact of Fullmer's bull-like rushes. The ring ropes couldn't take it. They collapsed. In one wild, sixth-round charge, Fullmer and Robinson tumbled to the canvas and into the ropes, unmooring them. In the next round Robinson went through the ropes alone, the result of a right-hand smash and a shove. Finesse took a holiday.
The grudge derived in part from the financial terms of the bout, in part from Sugar Ray's refusal to fight on the agreed date (Dec. 12), the 25th postponement of his procrastinating career. He had a virus, he said, and a commission doctor agreed he did, but to the Fullmer camp, which had been predicting for weeks that Robinson would postpone the bout, it was just another slick Easterner's trick. What rankled even more, in Fullmer's highly domesticated mind, was that he was thereby deprived of Christmas with his family. As to the financial side of it, Robinson had insisted on an outrageous split that gave him $139,050, Fullmer a mere $20,802.