Lee Groves

10: Notable Valentine’s Day fights

9. 1955 – Gene Fullmer W 10 Paul Pender, Eastern Parkway Arena, Brooklyn, New York

Within a half decade both men would achieve their ultimate objective – the world middleweight championship – but before that happened the future fireman from Boston and the oldest of three fighting brothers from Utah crossed paths on relatively neutral turf.

Fullmer entered the bout undefeated in 27 fights and just 15 days removed from his most recent fight, a 10-round decision over Frenchman Marcel Assire at the Eastern Parkway Arena. In fact, this was Fullmer’s fourth consecutive fight at this venue, which apparently was much to his liking because besides beating Assire he scored decision wins over Peter Mueller and Jackie LaBua.

Meanwhile, Pender had already faced more than a few crossroads in his career. Pender was 12-0-1 (8) when he met Leon Brown in March 1950, 11 months into his pro career. Despite scoring a fifth round KO Pender suffered the first of what would become numerous hand fractures that forced him to fight much more cautiously. Pender gritted his way through the pain and won his next seven fights before suffering his first loss, a 10-rounder to the 15-5 Norman Hayes in Boston.

Although Pender stopped Hayes in the immediate rematch 28 days later at the same venue (Mechanics Building in Boston) the downward spiral in confidence and physiology eventually got to Pender. After avenging the loss to Hayes, Pender went 1-3-1 in his next five fights, including KO defeats to Gene “Silent” Hairston and Jimmy Beau, before quitting the sport for nearly two-and-a-half years. During that time he enlisted in the U.S. Marines and became the base’s boxing coach.

The hand pain persisted after he left the Marines and despite nearly two dozen X-rays doctors couldn’t identify the problem. Finally, Boston Red Sox team physician T.K. Richards found a chipped bone in Pender’s right hand, and following surgery Pender was fighting again.

His return bout was against the 45-5-2 Larry Villeneuve, an ambitious choice for a comeback fight. Pender’s faith in himself was justified as he won a shutout decision and he followed up with wins over Ted Olla (W 10) and Freddie Mack (KO 4) before signing to fight Fullmer.

Fullmer’s extraordinary physical strength and difficult style troubled the textbook stylist, but the hand injuries that bedeviled Pender returned with a vengeance as Pender fractured his left in the fourth and the right in round six. Meanwhile Fullmer continued to exert his trademark pressure and piled up the rounds. With electric pain shooting through his arms every time he punched, Pender simply couldn’t compete at full strength and Fullmer made him pay the price. Fullmer’s decision victory (7-3, 6-4, 5-3-2 in rounds) was cemented by a final round knockdown.

After the fight Pender underwent 10 months of rehab before returning to the ring 22 months later while Fullmer went 9-3 in his next 12 to set up his career-defining decision victory over Sugar Ray Robinson in January 1957.

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