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When the bell rang ending the 15th and last round of his fight last Saturday night with Middleweight Champion Gene Fullmer, Ray Robinson tottered happily into the arms of his handlers and an admirer jumped up onto the ring apron shouting, "Put away the flowers, boys! The man ain't dead yet!"
For a few breathless, exciting seconds, it seemed that the incredible had happened again, that the Lazarus of boxing was once more among the quick. It may well be, centuries from now, that the kind of people who won't believe the stories of Robin Hood, King Arthur, Paul Bunyan or even Wyatt Earp, won't believe the legend of Sugar Ray Robinson either. Yet there were 14,130 boxing fans in the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena to attest that not only is there really a Sugar Ray, but that he is truly one of the extraordinary human beings of our day. It was not so much that he was fighting to regain the middleweight championship for an unbelievable fifth time, and at an age (40) when most men are finding it more and more painful to play a game of catch with their sons—it was that he so very nearly won it. In fact, in the minds of the referee and all but a handful of eyewitnesses (two of them, unhappily, judges of the fight), he did win it.
The three California officials, not uncharacteristically, disagreed violently about the fight. One of them, Referee Tommy Hart, thought Robinson had won it all the way—11 to 4 was his count. A judge, Lee Grossman, presumably looking at the same ring and for the same things, thought Fullmer had an edge, and a big one, 9 to 5. The deciding judge, George Latka, thought it was closer than California's vote in the Nixon-Kennedy match. He called it even, 8-8. This made the fight a draw and Fullmer a kind of half champion.
The decision, as anticlimactic as a handshake from Marilyn Monroe, threw the crowd into shock. Even Fullmer himself stared for a full five seconds before he regained his composure; his manager, Marv Jenson, explained that Gene was surprised because he thought he had won handily. Fullmer said nothing.
For Robinson, the decision had the effect of letting the air out of his elation. Lazarus had been returned to limbo. Fullmer, retaining his title by a draw for the second time in a year, was still champion. But for Gene Fullmer—to whom retaining his title should have been all that mattered—it was further galling proof that the old champion who has been a taunt to him ever since they first met nearly four years ago still wears no man's yoke and has not yet met his master. For Ray Robinson, it was a triumph in spirit.
Like Fullmer, the gamblers were saved by the decision. They had made the champion a 9-to-5 favorite in fairly heavy action.
The fight was slow in coming to steam. Robinson, who barely made it to the finish line in his two recent gavottes with the taffy-punching Paul Pender, was pacing himself, although ever watchful for the chance to throw one perfect punch as he had when he flattened Fullmer the last time they met, in May 1957.
Except that Fullmer was more cautious and did not leave the field of battle feet first this time, the fight was a reprise of their two earlier meetings. The clumsy, artless mink farmer fought awkwardly, elbows foremost, popping left hands downward like a man driving nails with the flat of his hand. His right was restricted to a futile effort that came flailing out of a crouch and whistling behind the back of Sugar Ray's head.
Sugar Ray's art, as usual, was endless. He fought only one minute of any round but did so with such command and �lan that it was enough to establish, if anyone thought it needed establishing, who was the aristocrat of this cruel ordeal and who was the lout. It was even possible to feel pity for Gene Fullmer as he came into the ring, earnest eyes peering out of a lumpy, kindly face. He was met by such a torrent of venomous boos that one might have supposed a poor-box robber had just been introduced. The sportswriters, adoring of Sugar Ray in prefight stories, had published things like "Sugar Ray sat there regally, trim, handsome, unmarked by combat. You looked at this magnificent athlete and were seized by a disquieting feeling. You envisioned him losing to a clobbering brute whose style was an affront to Sugar Ray's art."
Sugar wasn't home