5. Gene Fullmer vs. Sugar Ray Robinson – Jan. 2, 1957 to March 4, 1961
Although the 36-year-old Robinson was no longer the supernatural force that inspired sports writers to create the “pound for pound” label to honor him, he still was a special fighter with exceptional skills. Therefore, he was favored to upend his latest challenger, a brawling brute from Utah who won his first 29 fights and entered the Robinson fight with a respectable 37-4 (19) mark. Amazingly, Fullmer couldn’t get time off from his full-time welding job to train for Robinson, so he prepared for his biggest fight to date during the evening hours.
Robinson couldn’t cope with Fullmer’s ungainly but powerful attack. Sliced over the left eye and knocked down in the seventh, Robinson lost soundly over 15 rounds, only his sixth defeat in 147 fights.
Fullmer’s convincing performance in fight one made him a solid 3-to-1 favorite entering the rematch four months later. Robinson’s reply: “No man ever beat me twice.”
The opening four rounds of the rematch were a repeat of the first fight as Fullmer’s bustling style cut through Robinson’s science. All the while Robinson noticed that the charging Fullmer held his right hand an inch or two too low and in the fifth round he seized upon that weakness with what many still call “the perfect punch.”
A beautifully timed left hook to the jaw nailed Fullmer as he came in and the defending champion’s considerable willpower wasn’t enough to lift him to his feet. With a single punch, Robinson had become the middleweight champion for the fourth time.
“In the fifth, I moved in with my left hand maybe six inches lower than it should have been, and he slipped that left hook over the top and caught me right on the chin,” Fullmer said later. “All at once the lights went out. I had never been knocked out. I had no idea what it felt like and I can’t tell you what it feels like even now.”
By the time their third fight took place in December 1960, both men had gone through plenty. Robinson had lost to – and regained the belt from – Carmen Basilio and finally ran into the man who could beat him twice: lineal middleweight champion Paul Pender, who dethroned Robinson and then retained the belt in a rematch. Meanwhile, Fullmer beat Basilio to gain the vacant NBA middleweight belt, a title he had defended three times entering the rubber match with Sugar Ray.
It’s been said that every great fighter has one last magnificent effort in him and for Robinson that effort came in fight three against Fullmer. The 39-year-old Robinson reached back into the remnants of his prime and many thought he had achieved the impossible – a sixth middleweight championship reign. But it wasn’t to be, for while referee Tommy Hart saw Robinson a clear 11-4 winner, judges Lee Grossman (9-5) and George Latka (8-8) produced a title-saving draw for Fullmer.
Fullmer-Robinson IV four months later was close on the scorecards (70-67, 70-66, 70-64) but not in the ring. A wicked overhand right near the end of round three badly wobbled Robinson and the 8-to-5 favorite’s follow-up assault had Robinson on the edge of extinction. Robinson managed to hang in tough and even swelled shut Fullmer’s left eye but Fullmer won the decision and with it the series at 2-1-1.