West Jordan • When famed boxing broadcaster Al Bernstein was a young man growing up in Chicago, he rooted for legendary boxer Sugar Ray Robinson to whip Utah's Gene Fullmer when the middleweights squared off four times — twice in 1957 and again in 1960 and 1961.
Fullmer won two of those epic battles, the first and the last, against the man called by many the best boxer, pound-for-pound, in the sport's history.
Years later, after meeting Fullmer at an International Boxing Hall of Fame event, Bernstein said he felt tinges of guilt for rooting against him because he quickly learned Fullmer was as kind, humble and generous with his time as any boxer he had ever met.
Fullmer, 83, died late Monday night at a care center in Taylorsville not far from the West Jordan home and 10 acres of land he bought with his prize money when he was the world middleweight champion.
"In terms of boxing, Gene Fullmer brought Utah to the forefront in the 1950s and 60s. What a wonderful man," Bernstein said Tuesday. "Gene fought in an era when there were great, great middleweights, and he was right there with the best of them. You could make a case that for a good portion of that era, he was the best."
According to his nephew, Larry Fullmer, and grandson Kasey Winters, Gene Fullmer died of natural causes related to Alzheimer's disease, dementia and a bacterial infection that dramatically worsened his condition the past few days.
Fullmer died just hours after his brother, Jay Fullmer, was laid to rest in South Jordan after having died last week from complications due to chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL). Gene Fullmer's other brother, Don Fullmer, died in 2012 from the same illness that claimed Jay Fullmer's life a week ago.
"Now the brothers are together again," said Larry Fullmer, one of Don's five sons.
Tributes to Gene Fullmer poured in Tuesday as news of his death made headlines across the country.
Bernstein, who was in Las Vegas prepping for Saturday's big Floyd Mayweather-Manny Pacquiao bout, said Fullmer will be remembered for not only his grueling, punishing fights against Robinson, Carmen Basilio, Dick Tiger and others, but for his wholesome lifestyle as a proud member of the Mormon Church in the fast, glitzy world of professional boxing.
"And he had a will to win that was second to none," Bernstein said. "He was a powerful, straightforward fighter who just hated to lose."
Upon arriving in Utah with the NBA's Utah Jazz in 1979, coach and general manager Frank Layden quickly struck up a friendship with Fullmer.
"Gene Fullmer was something special," Layden said Tuesday. "He was on the biggest stages in the world and he handled himself with dignity and class. And he was a world champion. Most of all, he was a good representative of the state of Utah. I just loved him. If we took every athlete we've had, and we've had some great ones in this state, he would be at the top of my list."
Layden said heaven is a better place today because of Fullmer's presence, "and it is a whole lot tougher, too."
In 1999, a panel that included former Salt Lake Tribune editors John Mooney and Dick Rosetta ranked Fullmer No. 3 among Utah's 50 Greatest Athletes of the 20th Century behind skier Alf Engen and NBA Hall of Famer Karl Malone — and Fullmer topped the list of Utah natives, just ahead of former Utah State football star Merlin Olsen.
"He is a state icon," Rosetta said Tuesday. "I can't think of anybody who has brought the state more publicity than Gene has. He beat the so-called fighter of the century [Robinson] not once, but twice. Not only was he a world renowned boxer, but a true gentleman, and a real state treasure."
When it came to having a trademark moniker, Fullmer wasn't like many of his counterparts. In a 2009 interview, Fullmer said he just preferred to be called by the name his parents, Tuff and Mary Fullmer, gave him when he was born in 1931. His mother named him after boxer Gene Tunney, whom she thought was handsome.
Boxing writers in the 1950s occasionally referred to Fullmer as "Cyclone" or "The Mormon Mauler," but Fullmer often told them to call him Gene, or, simply, a gentleman.
Fullmer compiled a 55-6-3 record as a professional, with 24 of his victories coming by knockout.
In a memorable 1959 fight for the vacant world middle weight title, Fullmer scored a technical knockout over New York's Basilio at the Cow Palace in San Francisco, a fight The Ring magazine called the "Fight of the Year." The two later fought at the old Derks Field in Salt Lake City.
Layden, who is also a native New Yorker, said he often crossed paths with Basilio, who passed away three years ago. He said Basilio always asked about Fullmer's health and reminds Layden that his rival "was the toughest guy that there ever was." Fullmer turned pro in 1951 and won 19 of his first 29 fights by knockout. He stunned Robinson, who was 10 years older than him, on Jan. 2, 1957 to seize the middleweight title in a brutal and bloody fight that went 15 rounds.
Fullmer won that bout by unanimous decision, but in a rematch four months later, Robinson knocked Fullmer out in the fifth round to reclaim the title. It was the first time in 44 bouts that Fullmer had been knocked out, but he got a measure of revenge with a 15-round unanimous decision win over Robinson in 1961 in Las Vegas after the combatants had battled to a draw in 1960 in Los Angeles.
Fullmer lost his title to Nigerian Dick Tiger on Oct. 23, 1962. He would fight Tiger twice in 1963 in an attempt to regain it. The first 1963 bout ended in a draw and in the second, Fullmer was knocked out in the seventh round on Aug 10, 1963 in Ibadan, Nigeria. That turned out to be his last professional fight.
"Gene once told me that he fought all over the world, but the toughest fights he had were in the gym in Marv Jenson's backyard against his brothers," said Rosetta, the former Tribune sports editor. "He told me that one of the biggest disappointments in his life was not his losses, but the loss Don suffered against Nino Benvenuti [for the world middleweight title in 1968]."
Jenson trained Fullmer from age 12 and was instrumental, along with Fullmer's father, in turning the farmboy into a champion. Fullmer graduated from Sandy's Jordan High and worked various jobs even during his pro boxing career, including at Kennecott Copper as a welder. He was drafted in 1951 and fought in the Korean War.
In 1964, Fullmer teamed with his brothers and several local businessmen to purchase a Golden Gloves boxing franchise, which became the Rocky Mountain Region Golden Gloves organization. In 1978, the brothers opened the Fullmer Brothers Boxing Gym in an old chicken coop in Riverton. The club is now housed at the Salt Lake County Fairgrounds in South Jordan and will continue to operate despite the deaths of all three brothers within the past three years, Larry Fullmer said.
Although Fullmer suffered from Parkinson's and Alzheimer's disease later in life, his grandson, Winters, said, "He could still work the speed bag in his 60s and 70s. He was still strong and powerful."
"Gene and his brothers were constantly helping kids," Rosetta said. "They took kids off the street and made better people of them. … He was just a man for all seasons."
And a man who won a lot of championships — and brought the state of Utah a great deal of pride.
Fullmer is survived by his wife of 31 years, Karen. He had two sons, Delaun and Bart, and two daughters, Kaye and Marianne, with his first wife, Dolores H. Fullmer, who died in 1983.
A viewing will be held on Sunday from 5 to 9 p.m. at the LDS Stake Center, 2800 W. 9000 South, West Jordan. Funeral services will be held Monday at 11:30 a.m. in the same building.