Meanwhile, the middleweight division was in upheaval. Sugar Ray Robinson, the reigning champion, was stripped of the NBA version of the crown for inactivity forcing a face off between Carmen Basilio and Gene Fullmer. However, many areas followed the New York State Commission’s decision to still recognize Robinson as the real middleweight champion, including Massachusetts. This would lead to Pender’s title shot against Robinson and his greatest glory as a prizefighter.
Robinson said before the fight when he was offered $70,000, and not knowing who Pender was, “For that amount of money I’d fight Paul Revere in Boston.”*
Entering the 1960 title challenge as a prohibitive underdog, and completely underestimated by Robinson, Pender survived an early assault to win the title by split decision in front of an elated Boston Garden crowd.
Robinson later commented that he “just couldn’t get going. I got tired.”**
The rematch, later that June, was also held in Boston and was another closely contested affair, although one of the judges scorecards, at 149-138 for Pender, was so out of whack it proves that bad judging has gone on forever in the sport. But Pender got the decision he deserved.
He would then face off against another popular middleweight, British contender Terry Downes in a trilogy befitting some of the great rivalries in boxing. In the first go round he stopped Downes in the seventh stanza of a terrific battle. Pender graciously commented, “Sugar is clever and hard to catch, but Downes comes at you all the time and hurts you with everything he hits you with.”**
Before the rematch Pender decided to square off against another legend of the ring, Carmen Basilio, again in Boston. He floored the iron-chinned “Onion Farmer” and went on to decision him easily over fifteen rounds.
Then came Downes again at Wembley in London less than three months later. Both men were cut severely in a clutch-and-grab fest that left Pender unable to continue after the ninth round.
The two rivals would face off for a third time in April of 1962 back in Boston. Pender again employed a more mauling tactic and regained the title by unanimous decision.
He was then set to fight Gene Fullmer again for NBA recognition as the “legitimate” middleweight champion but Fullmer, under pressure from the NBA commission was strong-armed into defending his title against Dick Tiger. Fullmer lost by unanimous decision and the aging Pender began to again become disillusioned with all the backstage machinations that often chewed fighters up and spat them out without so much as a “thank you.”
When a scheduled fight against future light heavyweight champion Jose Torres fell apart Pender simply gave up, later saying, “Boxing is so rotten with gangsters and thieves it should be banned for a five-year clean up period.”**
After retiring from the ring Pender worked as a security guard and later as recreation director at the Norfolk jail in Massachusetts.
After suffering a serious stroke in 1999 he would go on to battle Alzheimer’s Disease until his death in January of 2003.
In the end Paul Pender remains something of a hidden gem in the storied history of the middleweight division. Despite his later aversion to the sport, or more to the point, the shady business dealings that often crippled his career, Pender always conducted himself with dignity and fought with a fiery spirit that led him to the top of the heap. For that his career deserves reexamining. Any fighter who defeated Sugar Ray Robinson twice should get as much.
* Sugar Ray With Dave Anderson
May 9, 2012