Gene Fullmer: Without the Gloves

Gene Fullmer wins a brutal middleweight championship fight against Carmen Basilio in San Francisco, knocking him out in the fourteenth round. Aug. 28, 1959

This week is the anniversary of Gene Fullmer’s first professional fight in 1951. Fast forward just six years and Gene won the middleweight championship of the world by defeating “Sugar Ray” Robinson in Madison Square Garden in New York. Fullmer was a leading champion in the professional boxing ring for over a decade, and he lived right here in West Jordan.

His boxing record: 55 Wins (24 Knockouts), 6 Defeats (2 Knockouts), and 3 Draws.

Beyond his boxing record, who was he?

“He was always happy,” Karen Davey Fullmer, his widow said. “He would say, “No one is happier than I.”

He thought he was the luckiest man on earth to have had two exceptional marriages. He said his first wife of 28 years, Dolores, ‘was everything.’ She helped him raise two boys and two girls until she passed away on January 2, 1983, after 28 years of marriage.

He married Karen Davey on May 19, 1984.

Karen moved to Utah from Chicago with her two children. She first settled in Brigham City. “I thought I was going to starve,” she said. “I asked people where I could get Italian food and they directed me to Pizza Hut! My friend and I thought things might be better in St. George.” She and her friend got jobs at different banks in St. George. A contractor came into Karen’s bank on a regular basis and eventually asked if she was single. He wanted to ‘fix her up’ with someone. She said she was happily single after a divorce 12 years previous.

But that person was Gene. She consented to one date. They clicked right away. “We mostly had phone dates,” Karen said. They eloped in May 1984, then had a reception in June.

“He would say to me, ‘You’re the best thing since buttered popcorn!’”

“He should have been a comedian,” Karen said. “He always made me laugh. He would play tricks on me and I always fell for them.”

Gene said, “I was raised very gentle. My father had never touched me. Doing something wrong he would tell me but he would never touch me, spanking and that sort. My dad had a great personality. His nickname was tough but he didn’t necessarily live up to that with me. He lived up to it with a lot of other people in the world but not with me.” (Mike, 2024)

He continued that soft exterior with every person in his life. “After I met him I couldn’t imagine him being this middleweight boxer.” Karen said. “ … I could tell he was very strong and a tough outer, inside he’s the nicest person. You’d never believe he’d take on such a tough, grueling sport.” (Mike, 2024)

After he finished his own career, he and his brothers Don and Jay (also boxing professionals) taught boxing to boys and girls, completely free. Their gym struggled to stay open and moved locations several times.

He was tough on his trainee boxers, but only to push them to be their best, not to get hurt.

During fights and training, a lot of the Dad’s wanted to be the corner men during their kids fights. Karen said, “He’d get so upset. The Dads would want the kids to stay in. Gene would say, “That Dad is not paying attention. The kid keeps getting hurt.”

Nick Butterfield was trained in the Fullmer gym. “I ran into the Fullmers in the 70s,” Butterfield said.”  …I always wanted to be a professional fighter and they would take me aside and they would teach me. It wasn’t about the boxing it was about life. It was about who you should be and how you should be acting.” (Mike, 2024)

Mike Tyson studied the careers of many famous boxers, including watching hours of Gene Fullmer fights. But Tyson learned more than fighting techniques from Gene. He saw the hours the Fullmer brothers gave to their community. “That’s bigger than his career, is giving back,” Tyson said. “Giving time was more important than giving money. People are happy to give you money…so they don’t have to show up and be accountable. They were very accountable. They cared for more than themselves.”

Gene passed away on April 27, 2015 from Alzheimer’s complications after 30 years of marriage.

Karen lives in a retirement village on the same land that the Fullmer lived and farmed decades ago.

aerial view of West Jordan neighborhood