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Boxing legend Don Fullmer dies at age 72

WEST JORDAN — Utahs gentleman bruiser, Don Fullmer, 72, who fought some of the world's most famous boxers and came within a single fight of a world title himself, died peacefully Saturday morning surrounded by the prize he valued most — his family.

Fullmer and his boxing brothers, Gene, the oldest and a world middle weight champion in 1957, and Jay, second oldest who left the sport with a 20-5-2 record after an eye injury, put Utah on the international boxing stage in the 1950s and ’60s. Don Fullmer had been battling his toughest opponent, lymphocytic leukemia, for the past 15 years. In November, doctors told him an infection had damaged his spine and a valve in his heart and that he had a few days, maybe a few weeks. He lived another two months.

The one that got away

One punch, thrown 43 years ago at a world champion, haunted Fullmer's dreams. What if it had been harder? What it if was better placed? What if he'd had the strength to follow it up with the kind of energy that would have turned the fight and maybe, just maybe, changed the life of this bricklayer and firefighter from West Jordan, Utah.

Instead of being listed as one of Nino Benvenuti's conquests, maybe the man who fought nine world champions in his 79 fights would have been inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame himself. In the seventh round of the 15-round title fight, Fullmer, who was weak from weeks of fighting the flu, landed a punch that sent Benvenuti to the canvas. But it wasn't enough, and in the end he lost that fight by decision.

"About 10 years ago, he told me that a day never goes by that he hasn't thought about that fight," said one of Fullmer's five sons, Hud Fullmer. Adds his youngest son, Kade, "He told me he dreams about it every night."

On the 43rd anniversary of that fight, the Fullmer boys gathered at the South Jordan home of their dad and mom, Nedra, to talk about their father, his life and his legacy — inside and outside the ring. They discussed Fullmer's second fight against Benvenuti, an Olympic gold medalist and Italian superstar, on Dec. 14, 1968, which was for the world middleweight title.

Brad Fullmer quietly voiced the sentiment that has haunted his father. "Maybe our lives would have been a lot different from one punch," he said. And then Don Fullmer, who sat in a recliner to ease the constant pain in his back, responded with his simple, dry humor for which he is so well-known and loved: "Mine would have been. I don't know about yours, but mine would have been." The reaction sparked an eruption of laughter, followed by a lot of ribbing. And then the conversation shifted from the world they never knew to the world in which they lived.

Sons of a brawler

Growing up a Fullmer was both a blessing and a curse. But it didn't begin with Don, Jay or even Gene. It began with a man so adept at fighting that his fisted feats became the stuff of legends in a rough and rowdy mining town. The Fullmers are boxing royalty in Utah, but the trio of boxers was born to a man who preferred to go by an adjective that described him rather than his given name of Lawrence Fullmer.

"His real name was Lawrence, but everyone knew him as Tuff," said Hud Fullmer. "In fact when I was growing up, I never knew his real name. Even his mail came (addressed) to Tuff Fullmer." To understand why Don, Gene and Jay Fullmer developed such skill and passion for boxing, one must understand a little about the man who raised them.

The men from the Salt Lake Valley's southwest corner grew up hard and fast and most had a chip on their shoulder. All of the Fullmers grew up listening to tales of Tuff's adventures in barrooms and on street corners. "I thought they were kind of exaggerated," Larry Fullmer said with a slight smile. "I went to the old Bingham High School, and one day, an old-timer was out on the sidewalk. He didn't know who I was. He started talking about the good old days, and he said, 'It was really rough in the old town of Bingham. I remember a guy knocked six guys out in a bar one night. It was old Tuffy Fullmer.' I guess if other guys are telling stories about Grandpa, maybe some of it's true."

The conversation was drowned out momentarily by laughter and a few bits of other memories. And then Hud Fullmer broke through with his firsthand account of just what kind of fighter Tuff Fullmer was. "He was 72-years old," Hud said as he and his brothers tried to determine which fight they had been at the fairgrounds to see. Their memories of fights and fighters is something of an oral encyclopedia. Once they settled on which fighters, what they had been fighting for and the round-by-round breakdown of what happened, Hud resumed his story.

"Uncle Jay was reffing the fight. The fans weren't happy, and the fairgrounds were absolutely packed. But people weren't happy with the outcome, with the decision. And they started hollering at Uncle Jay, thinking he had something to do with it. I was little, like 9 or 10, where I could get up on the apron of the ring and just run around."

He and his cousin watched as one extremely large fellow in particular verbally assaulted Jay Fullmer, who later became a bailiff for the Salt Lake County Sheriff's Office after he retired from boxing. "He looked over at the sheriff and said, 'Hey, turn your back. I'm going to teach these guys some manners," Hud said smiling. "As he was getting out of the ring, the guy grabbed him and threw him through all these chairs."

And then, from around the ring, came Tuff Fullmer, complete with glasses and hearing aids, to defend his boy. "The guys was getting ready to go after Uncle Jay, and Grandpa came running over there and the guy didn't even break stride," Hud said. "He hit Grandpa right in the mouth, and Grandpa went down. But it was like he had springs in his butt. As soon as he hit the ground, he bounced back up."

Tuff's glasses were gone. The hearing aids were dangling from his ears like gaudy earrings. "He jumped up and hit that guy with four or five shots," Hud said as raucous laughter again filled Don Fullmer's modest living room. "The guy went running for the door, and Grandpa was looking around for someone else to fight."

When Tuff Fullmer, who was battered and bruised, saw his grandson, Larry, in church the next day, he smiled at his grandson and said, "I haven't had so much fun in 30 years."

Tuff Fullmer had three boys and a girl. The oldest was Gene, who was named for Gene Tunney after he defeated Jack Dempsey in 1926 for the world heavyweight title. "Had Dempsey won, he'd have been named Jack Fullmer," laughed Larry, who is Don's oldest son.

Colleen Fullmer was born second, followed by Jay and the self-described "cab-ba-boose," Don. Tuff drove Gene past a West Jordan gym run by Marv Jensen when he was just a boy. "He saw the guys out there boxing in an outdoor ring, and Grandpa asked Gene if he wanted to get involved," said Larry. "Gene said yes, and that's how it all started."

The Fullmer legacy

Fighting Benvenuti was the pinnacle of Don Fullmer's career. Despite his bitter disappointment, he didn't let the defeat define him. "He felt like he let everyone down, the family, the town of West Jordan," said Larry Fullmer. "They had a parade planned if he'd won."

Don returned to his blue-collar life, complete with two jobs, a devoted wife and five brawling boys. All of them boxed, but most of them gave it up in favor of team sports like football or baseball. Don, Gene and Jay, meanwhile, held down jobs while promoting and protecting the sport of boxing in Utah. They refereed fights and taught generations of young men, and even a few girls, how to box.

The Fullmers were instrumental in bringing the upcoming National Golden Gloves Tournament back to Utah in May 2013. They know firsthand the lessons boxing offers, and their goal was always to share it with anyone willing to learn. That included, first and foremost, their children.

Larry Fullmer boxed the longest, and he was a two-time Golden Glove champion. But he admits he never had the year-round commitment he saw his father give to the sport. Don Fullmer awoke at 6 and went running — rain or shine. Then he worked as a bricklayer all day. He'd head to the gym at 4 or 4:40, where he'd "get the heck beat out of him" and then he'd come home.

"Because he was trying to keep his weight down (160 pounds)," said Larry, "he'd eat cottage cheese and lettuce. And he sucked on ice cubes, all while we ate mashed potatoes. And then he'd start it all over the next day." He'd leave for a fight and return wearing a hat and glasses, hoping to hide the cuts and bruises on his swollen face. "I thought there's got to be an easier way to make a living," said Larry.

Despite never achieving what their father or uncles did in the sport, all of the Fullmers say boxing has blessed their lives beyond measure. But it was watching Don Fullmer navigate the sport that really shaped who these men are today.

"Never to give up," said Brad of what his father taught him. "And boxing, it toughened us up." Troy agrees, but said his father taught him that toughness didn't mean forfeiting grace. "This Don Fullmer, he's a great boxer, but he's loved outside the ring because of the man he is," said Troy. "He's such a good man. …And determination, he was an example of that."

Larry said his father's life illustrated the benefits of hard work. "I learned discipline," he said of the sport. "I always have a little regret that I didn't take it more serious."

Hud called his father his hero. "I think I learned from him about commitment to family," he said. "Dad was a firefighter, and he'd work 24-hour shifts. We can all name football games or baseball games where we saw a fire truck come because he was there, no matter what happened, no matter who you were playing." And as for boxing, Hud said the sport teaches a person that "no matter how bad it gets, you don't quit. We learned from an early age, when he tore a bicep and kept fighting, that no matter what it is you start, you don't quit."

Kade said Don Fullmer offered his sons, and a lot of others who spent time learning the sport in the Fullmer Brothers Boxing Gym, now run by Jay, "what a hero really is."

And when you look at Don Fullmer through the eyes of his boys, through the eyes of the boys in that gym, suddenly that 43-year-old fight seems like it went just the way it should have.

"It's been a great legacy," said Troy Fullmer of the family's efforts to keep boxing alive and well in Utah. "It's been a great life."

Don Rulon Fullmer is survived by Nedra, his wife of 46 years; their sons and their wives: Larry (Claudia), Brad (Marcie), Troy (Janet), Hud (Brenda) and Kade; 15 grandchildren, six great-grandchildren (soon to be seven); his beloved brothers, Gene and his wife Karen and Jay and his wife Marilyn; and thousands of young men who found joy in the sport of boxing thanks to the Fullmer brothers. He was preceeded in death by his sister, Colleen, and his parents.

A viewing will be held Thursday from 6-8 p.m. at the LDS chapel, 2200 West 9750 South, West Jordan, Utah. The funeral will be Friday at 11 a.m. at the LDS chapel, 2450 West 10400 South, South Jordan, Utah. There will be another viewing prior to the funeral from 9:30 a.m. until 11 a.m. Friday.

To see a video of the Fullmer Brothers Boxing Gym from 2009, click here.