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||Paul Pender, Forgotten Champion
By Sam Dymond
Boxing isn't kind to those who don't make an impact. It isn't kind to those who make an impact but don't have the name to enhance that image. Paul Pender, a 1950's and 60's middleweight champion is one such man whose career has been forgotten in the realms of time. Ever the thinking mans champion, Pender liked boxing for the "challenge it provided, mentally and physically", however did think the sport was barbaric and needed an overhaul: much as it does today.
A very amiable man, Pender's career that began as a young amateur in the 1940's was hampered, and, maybe even ruined by damage that his brittle hands accumulated. This may in the end have been essentially the cause he never went on to achieve greatness. Pender retired as world champion, something few boxers before and after can boast about. He will never be looked at as one of the top 30 middleweights of all time, nor should he be, but he must be looked at as one of the more talented fighters of boxing's supposed Golden Age.
As an amateur he won the New England State Welterweight championship, and in his first two years as a pro went 20-1-1 with 13 knockouts. His winning run had been snapped by Norman Hayes, whom he stopped in a rematch in 7 rounds, then Pender's career, for a short spell, due to his injured hands, went into a dark lull. A points loss over ten to Joe Rindone, was followed by a crowd-pleasing draw in the rematch, however his next fight saw him get blown away in 3 rounds by Eugene Hairston. A victory over Otis Graham saw him get back on track, but another knockout defeat to Jimmy Beau saw Pender become disillusioned with boxing, and he didn't fight again until 1954. He joined the US marines: his hands hurt too much.
Persistent pain saw him ejected from the marines, and after a session with the Boston Red Sox physician, he returned to the ring, decisioning Larry Villeneuve and Ted Olla, before knocking out Freddy Mack in 4 in 1955. Pender now really looked like a title run was on the way, and he was matched with hot prospect, the rugged albeit crude brawler Gene Fullmer. He lost a decision, yet his sore hands hardly allowed him to sting Fullmer with full power. He was out hustled, yet not one sidedly defeated. Finally, Pender pulled together a winning run of 15 fights, to take on World Champion Sugar Ray Robinson. Ray was past his best, and didn't have the speed anymore that made him unanimously the best fighter of all time. Pender boxed sharply, and took a split 15 round decision. Robinson and entourage claimed hometown decision, but it was plain that Robinson was slipping, and Pender boxed better.
Pender claimed Ray "was nothing out of the ordinary as a fighter…he had a large repertoire of punches, but not much of a jab", and in the rematch did virtually the same as he did to Robinson the first time: stayed behind his jab and boxed him. Pender as he was the first time was awarded another split decision. His next fight took place in 1961, a world title defence against rugged English brawler Terry Downes. He decked Downes early, and sliced up the brawlers soft skin with jabs and crosses. The ref jumped in round 7, and Pender had now banked his first emphatic title defense. His next fight was against HOF bound Carmen Basilio, and this was arguably Pender's greatest performance. He hit Basilio "with every punch in the book, and Carmen looked like he walked into a nest of angry bees". Basilio was nothing but a punching bag for the sharp boxing Pender. Amazingly, Pender dropped Basilio twice, in the 13th and 15th rounds- the first time Carmen hit the canvas in his career. "That Pender is damn quick" claimed a battered Basilio after the fight, and it enhanced Paul's stature as a middleweight.
The rematch against Downes took place in London in 1961. Downes displayed fury he had not shown in the first fight, and Pender looked strangely lethargic. Downes opened cuts above both of Pender's eyes, and eventually wore him down, and Pender's manager Al Lacey threw in the towel at the end of the tenth round. Pender said after the fight "I don't know if I would've beaten him…I just don't know".
The Pender - Downes trilogy came to an end in April of 1962. With the fights squared at one apiece, the final, and decisive fight was held in Boston. Terry Downes spoke out before the fight that he thought he would not receive a fair decision in Boston, as it turned out the judges ended up giving Downes the benefit of the doubt in the close rounds. This was the only fight between the two to go the distance, which suited Pender much more than the hard charging Downes. The Londoner set a fast pace early, but an extremely fit Pender matched his pace, and a drained Downes had nothing left in the final rounds. The difference proved to be the straight right hand of Pender, and short hooks inside which were favored by the judges over Downes' infighting, and bodywork. Pender walked away with a well deserved decision. The hometown boxer won every one of the bouts between the two. That fight would end up being the only fight of the year for Pender.
The Downes fight took place on April 7 1962. On November 9th of the same year, The New York Boxing Commission stripped Pender of his title for not defending the title against their number one challenger Dick Tiger. The NYC Commission went on to establish Dick Tiger as their world champion. Pender was a fighter in, and out of the ring, and he promptly sued the NYC commission in December of 1962. The NY appellate court directed the NYC Commission to reinstate Pender as Champ on March 6th of 1963.
After protracted contract negotiations with various top middleweights that amounted to nothing, Pender decided to retire on May 7, 1963. In the end, Pender had won his last fight in, and out of the ring. Pender never lost his title, and retired the middleweight champion of the world. There is a perception that Pender avoided a fight with Dick Tiger, which he, and his team of handlers vehemently deny. In a 1963 interview for Boxing Illustrated, his manager John Cronin explained that, "His retirement was predicated upon two reasons. One - The inability of promoter Sam Silverman to obtain television rights for a fight with Joey Giardello. Two - The, rather impossible, situation in securing a match with Dick Tiger to resolve the title dispute, even though Pender stated he would fight Tiger in Nigeria." Other fights with Laszlo Papp, Gene Fullmer, and Joey Giambra, also, fell through. It all became too frustrating for Pender who decided to walk away from the game as a champion. After the negotiations turned up nothing, Pender said, "I fight for money, I retired after the meeting with my lawyer because there were no lucrative matches from then on because Gillette gave up television at the time."
Obviously Pender, now in a 24 hour supervisory hospital, will never be remembered as one of the all time greats, yet as I said earlier, nor should he be. But even by beating Sugar Ray Robinson, boxing didn't see Pender fit to be one whose legacy will survive the passage of time and memory. Pender's skills will live on in those who were privileged enough to watch him box, and realise that he would probably have held his own in any era, had it not been for debilitating hand injuries which hindered what may have been…
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