The Middleweight Champion Time Forgot

By Jeff Day

17.02 - When people talk about the greatest middleweights in history, the normal names bounded about are Stanley Ketchel, Harry Greb, Sugar Ray Robinson, Carlos Monzon and Marvelous Marvin Hagler.

This is not to say that Boston, Massachusetts' former World Middleweight Champion Paul Pender should be included in the above list; of course not. However, it seems only fit to pay respects to a fine fighter, who won a legitimate World Championship, not once but twice, beat Sugar Ray Robinson twice - albeit a faded Robinson and fought and beat a number of good fighters.

Pender passed away last month at the age of 72, but despite not being a lover of the fight game, in fact Pender said 40 years ago that the game should be banned for 5 years while it cleaned itself up, he managed a career record of 40 wins (20 inside schedule and 1 by disqualification), 6 defeats and 2 draws.

Although Pender fought out of Boston and the vast majority of his bouts were held there, he was born in Brookline on 20 June 1930, of Irish ancestry.

With 20 wins in his first 21 fights, (a draw with Bill Daley being the blot on his record), his first defeat came in fight number 22, when he was outpointed over ten rounds by Norman Hayes on 11 December 1950. However, just 28 days later, Pender avenged the defeat with a 7th round knockout.

Pender's confidence had clearly not returned, despite avenging his only loss. His next five fights were: a points defeat and draw with Joe Ridone, a third round knockout defeat by deaf-mute Eugene Hairston, a points win over Otis Graham and another inside schedule defeat (5 rounds) by Jimmy Beau in March 1952.

Paul joined the Marines and gave boxing a wide berth until August 1954, when he returned against Larry Villeneuve. Trouble was, Pender was experiencing hand trouble. In December 1954, he broke a hand en route to a ten round points win over Ted Olla. Amazingly, just 17 days later, Pender was back in the ring against Freddie Mack, a real character himself, and Pender won with a fourth round knockout.

The victory over Mack propelled Pender into a fight with fellow contender, Gene Fullmer on 14 February 1955. It would be a cruel night for the Boston man, as future champion Fullmer scored a knockdown on his way to a ten round points win. It is a testament to Pender's courage that he even lasted the course. He broke his left hand in round four and his right hand in round six!

The hands were clearly going to cause major problems for Pender throughout his career and it seemed impossible for him to be World Champion. He took 11 months out before returning to outscore Jimmy Skinner, but again broke a hand in doing so.

Paul retired, but could not find peace in his life, as rumours of heavy drinking and fighting (outside the roped square began to circulate. It would not be a permanent retirement. A return to the ring on 17 November 1958 saw the start of a 14 fight-winning streak, which culminated in the ultimate prize being won by Pender.

In fact, victory over Jackson Brown (KO 4) was one of six fights in just two months. Hell, the current World Middleweight Champion, Bernard Hopkins has had only six fights in three years.

One of the best victories was the points win over Ralph 'Tiger' Jones. Jones was a clear favourite to win their match on 17 March 1959 and was good enough to hold a decision over Sugar Ray Robinson, but Pender showed he was a world class operator.

Paul's next fight came five months later, when he took the New England version of the World Title by beating Jackson Brown over ten rounds.

Sugar Ray Robinson, the true champion, was stripped by the NBA for his apparent reluctance to put the title on the line. The NBA matched Gene Fullmer and Carmen Basilio for their vacant crown.

Sam Silverman had been Pender's promoter throughout the Boston man's career and persuaded the 39 year old Robinson to defend his World Championship (though officially was only the New York version) in Boston on 22 January 1960. Pender placed a bet of $2,000.00 on himself to win and intended to join the police force if he was beaten!

In front of more than 10,000 fans in his hometown, Pender ground out a split decision, as he finished better than the older man. There had to be a rematch: it was scheduled for April, but Pender injured a foot. It would be 10 June 1960 before they met again, yet again in Boston.

Once again, it was nip and tuck and ended in a split decision. One judge, Jim Craig, gave Robinson only one round and made another even. According to Mr Craig, clearly the Eugenia Williams of his day, Pender had won 13 of the 15 rounds. Paul now had the distinction of being the first man to beat the great 'Sugarman' twice.

A unification match with Gene Fullmer and even a move up to light-heavyweight (there was no super middleweight division in those days) and a meeting with the genial Archie Moore was talked about. Despite the closeness of his two meetings with Robinson, a third meeting was not to happen.

Instead, Pender put the title on the line against British Champion (and former US Marine) Terry Downes on 14 January 1961. Downes would have to travel to Boston for his opportunity, granted mainly through the persuasive methods of Harry Levene, the veteran British promoter.

In his last fight, however, Downes had beaten Joey Giardello in his last bout just three months earlier and was an uncompromising fighter: a real tough nut.

Although the champion scored a first round knockdown, the fight was a tough one for him. He was forced to fight the challenger's fight throughout and absorbed some tremendous body shots. Paul dug deep and didn't falter under the constant pressure.

By the end of the sixth, Downes' face was covered in blood: cuts from the eyes and a horrible one on the bridge of the nose. When the challenger came out for round seven, the blood was still flowing freely. After a few more punches landed on Terry's nose, the referee called a halt. Pender had defended his title for the second time.

Promoter Harry Levene made Pender a lucrative offer to defend the crown against Downes in a rematch, this time in Britain. Pender was spoilt for choice: a fight against the upcoming winner of the Fullmer-Robinson fight, a return with the Englishman or a defense against former king Carmen Basilio.

As it turned out, Basilio got the nod, and on 22 April 1961, the 'Onion farmer' got his opportunity in Boston. It turned out to be Basilio's 78th and final fight. He gave it a real go, despite being floored for the first time in his career. It was not to be as Carmen lost a clear decision, even though Pender had struggled to make the 160lbs limit and suffered eye damage himself.

On 11 July 1961, Pender came to London to take on Terry Downes in a rematch. It would be attended by 12,000 fans in Wembley (not the stadium, but the Empire Pool or Arena as it is now). Paul travelled by boat across the Atlantic, as he had a fear of flying!

Being at home inspired Downes, while being away not just from Boston, but from the United States seemed to leave Pender homesick. Downes came to the ring with a scar over the bridge of his nose that he had suffered in sparring. It would not take long for the cut reopen.

Both men were cut inside the first three rounds. The champion could not seem to get his game together and at the end of the ninth round, with cuts over both eyes, the Pender corner announced their man's retirement to a chorus of boos from fans who clearly felt they had been short-changed.
Pender claimed to be suffering from a virus that had impaired his performance.

There was a return clause, but for contractual reasons and the fact Downes broke his thumb falling down a flight of stairs, the rematch would not take place until 7 April 1962 in Boston. Sam Silverman made Terry a substantial offer to relinquish home advantage.

The rubber match was a boring, drab affair with far too much holding, especially early on from the American. Again, both men suffered cuts, as the mauling and grappling continued throughout the match.

At the end of the fifteen rounds, during which the three judges must have had more than their share of black coffee, Pender had regained his championship by unanimous decision. (Two judges had Paul ahead by a single point.)

Future matches against former three time Olympic champion Laszlo Papp of Hungary, who was now European champion and Jose Torres were mooted, but never came off.

By May 1963, and with no real desire to continue in the game he never really cared for, Pender hung up his gloves and went back to university to obtain the degree he had put on hold while he pursued his boxing career. Later on, he turned his attention to local politics and also worked as security guard.

Because of his outspoken opinion of his chosen sport, Pender would not be remembered fondly by many in the boxing community.

Nevertheless, he could fight: his career saw him win the World Middleweight Championship twice, beat Sugar Ray Robinson twice and finish the career of Carmen Basilio. He may not be remembered with affection, but he should be remembered with respect.


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