- BOXING - Forgotten Champ: Paul Pender

Tuesday, June 3
Forgotten Champ: Paul Pender

For a man who twice defeated the legendary Sugar Ray Robinson, Paul Pender gets precious little attention when compared to other Robinson conquerors like Gene Fullmer, Carmen Basilio, and Randy Turpin. Those men gained a measure of fame by beating the legendary Sugar Ray, while Pender's name remains largely anonymous. Admittedly, Robinson was past his prime when he faced Pender, but the 31 year old Pender was no spring chicken himself. Yet, Pender's name remains strangely overlooked, even when the subject of seemingly inferior boxers defeating legends is discussed, such as Ken Norton over Muhammad Ali, Young Corbett over Terry McGovern, Iran Barkley over Thomas Hearns, or John Ruiz over Evander Holyfield.

Pender is not, nor should he be considered, one of the 30 best middleweights of all time. But it would be wrong to totally dismiss him when talking about the talented lot of boxers from the late 1950's, which was the supposed golden era of boxing.

Pender also achieved another feat which few in boxing can stake a claim to when he retired from the sport while still a recognized world champion. And his career is even more remarkable when you consider his best wins came at the end of his career. Pender also had to battle against chronically injured hands, which sent him into premature retirement on two occasions.

Paul Pender was more than a very good boxer, he was a man of great foresight when it came to confronting the ills of the sport. He openly discussed his hatred for the politics of boxing, and the need to protect boxers from unscrupulous forces outside of the ring. Even after his retirement Pender bemoaned the state of boxing. In a 1971 interview he stated, "There's only one thing that is going to save it (boxing), that is a National Boxing Board. Why not have a National Boxing Board, and put a qualified man, not an undertaker or delicatessen owner as it's president."

Thirty years later, that same sentiment is being echoed by good people who a re trying to improve the sport like Teddy Atlas, Lou DiBella, and Senator John McCain. Pender's most famous quote on the subject came when he observed that, "The worst thing that happened to managers was when boxers learned to read and write."

Inside or out of the ring, Pender is not a man who shied away from informing others of his principles, and just as importantly, his actions never turned him into a hypocrite. After his initial contract with manager Johnny Buckley ran out, Pender fired him stating, "I don't see why it is smart business to pay somebody 33 1/2 percent of your earnings to do something I can just as well do for myself."

One look at Pender's nose, which had more bends in it than a pretzel, told you that Pender was a boxer. In today's vernacular, Pender would be called a spoiler - he learned every trick in the book to compensate for his chronically sore hands. In spite of fighting in Boston, Pender was a European style boxer with a stand up style, who worked behind an educated jab. Pender relied a lot on defense, hoping to frustrate opponents into mistakes, rather than eating three punches to land one. His sturdy chin permitted him to get a lot of rounds in, which in turn allowed him to learn the nuances of the game.

Pender was a thinking man's fighter. When asked why he chose boxing over other sports, he said, "I consider boxing, probably, the biggest test of humanity in the world for endurance, mentally, and physically. It's a test because no one is responsible other than yourself. No one can accuse anybody else of making a mistake, other than yourself. That's why I enjoyed the challenge"

What set Pender apart from others was his confidence, which many mistook for arrogance. Boston promoter Sam Silverman commented, "Pender doesn't think any fighter in the world can beat him. In fact, Pender doesn't think anybody can fight like he can, and that includes Archie Moore, Floyd Patterson, and Fullmer, and anyone else you might name. I never saw a more confident fighter. He reminds me a lot of Billy Conn. Conn didn't believe anyone else could fight either. That was Conn's downfall against Louis."

The career of Pender could have evolved into so much more, were it not for persistent injuries to his hands. From 1952 to 1956, Pender suffered a broken hand in six consecutive bouts.

It was a career that started off in excellent fashion. He turned pro after capturing the New England amateur welterweight title. Pender began his first year of professional boxing 11-0-1 with eight of the wins coming via knockout. The lone setback was a draw to Boston veteran Bill Daley, whom he had beaten handily in his first 10 round fight only two months earlier. 1950, his second season as a pro, saw Pender dominate the best boxers of New England area. He only ventured away from Boston, and Portland Maine for one fight in Nova Scotia, where he beat local hot shot Roy Wouters. In a fight against Leon Brown, Pender broke the third metacarpal in his right hand, which was never discovered by any of the doctors he sought out for help. For his next seven fights Pender fought with the broken hand, and in constant pain, Pender never fully committed to his punches.

The year ended on a down note when he lost his first professional fight to Norman Hayes via 10 round decision. The loss was avenged in his next outing, with Pender scoring a seventh round knockout over Hayes. It was during this time of increased opposition that the constant pain in his hand dramatically affected Pender's boxing abilities. After avenging the loss to Hayes, Pender dropped another fight in Boston, this time to Joe Rindone. Unlike his other losses, Pender was not able to avenge this loss.

In the rematch two months later, the two battled to a crowd pleasing draw. Things went from bad to worse for Pender in his next fight. Hard as nails middleweight contender Eugene Hairston scored a third round knockout over Pender. A 1953 loss to Jimmy Beau was the last straw for Pender. Bothered by the constant pain, he gave up boxing to join the United States Marine Corps.

The persistent pain in hands continued in the Marines, where they also failed to find the reason for his pain. After leaving the Marines early because of his hands, Pender sought the help of the Boston Red Sox team physician who finally diagnosed the chipped bone in his right hand. After an operation to remove the chip, Pender returned to the ring, winning a ten round decision over Otis Graham in Boston. Pender could not gain any momentum from the win, losing to east coast spoiler Jimmy Beau in his next fight.

Pender took all of 1953 off, and began to work full time as a fireman in his hometown of Brookline, Massachusetts. For the next seven years, Pender fought sporadically, engaging in only six bouts. In 1954, he scored two 10 round decision wins, the second of which was a win over Ted Olla in New York City. It was Pender's first appearance in the capital of boxing. And 1955 was another slow year as Pender scored one win in January, but lost in February to Gene Fullmer over the 10 round distance at Brooklyn's famous Parkway Arena. As if facing a talented brawler like Fullmer was not enough, Pender found himself, again, limited when he broke both hands before the bell for the fifth round had sounded. Pender still managed to gut it out, rallying in the late rounds, and even scoring a knockdown in the final round. But it was not enough to prevent Fullmer from being awarded the split decision win.

After ten months of rehabilitation, Pender returned for his only fight of 1956 when he defeated Jimmy Skinner. Pender decided to retire again, and was inactive until 1958 when he returned to boxing with a vengeance. The lure of the ring proved too strong, and Pender decided to give boxing one more whole hearted attempt. The return was facilitated by Doctor Nathan Shapiro, who found Pender to suffer from a severe calcium deficiency which was taken care of with proper diet, and repeated injections in his hands that helped harden his brittle fists.

With his hand problems a thing of the past, Pender found new life in the ring, knocking out three consecutive opponents. 1959 also started with a bang when he knocked out Joe Gomes in the sixth round. Five more wins rounded out the year, and it was Pender's most active year since his second year as a pro. The year ended in fine fashion with wins over top rated Ralph 'Tiger' Jones, and Jackson Brown. The latter gained Pender the New England middleweight title.

The winning streak paid dividends when Pender was selected to fight Sugar Ray Robinson in 1960. Robinson had been looking for a local talent with some name recognition in the Boston market, and Sam Silverman (the promoter of Pender) convinced Sugar Ray Robinson that Pender was a easy touch. The bookies agreed with Silverman, making Pender a four to one underdog.

In the weeks leading up to the fight, the NBA boxing organization stripped Robinson of his title for failing to defend against Carmen Basilio. But the powerful New York Commission, and the European Commission still recognized Robinson as the true champion. The Ring magazine described the opening few rounds between Sugar Ray and Pender, "Pender was very careful, and a sloppy Sugar Ray missed more than he connected. As he had promised, Pender fought cautiously until the stretch. The challenger was quicker, and busier over the last five rounds, and the judges rewarded him with a split decision. Scores of 148-142, 147-138 for Pender and one vote for Robinson 146-142."

Pender was never silent when it came to commenting on Robinson, in fact he might have grown tired of him having to verify that Robinson was the greatest of all time. In an interview for the book "In This Corner", Pender vented, "Robinson was not a great boxer. I tell people that, and they look at me like I'm positively insane. 'The great Ray Robinson!' He wasn't a great boxer. He was the greatest puncher that ever lived, with a repertoire of punches that nobody could throw. He was fast with his hands, fast afoot. That's all. I hit him with left jabs, which he never had in his life. But Ray Robinson had the greatest repertoire of punches of any fighter that ever lived. But boxing ability, he couldn't shine Willie Pep's shoes as far as pure boxing ability."

Many thought Pender to be a temporary nuisance, and that Robinson would take the crown back in the rematch. Pender entered the second fight with the exact same strategy as the first, and again the decision was a close one. Pender fought a smart fight, going to the body early, and snapping the jab at every opportunity. Sugar Ray, as expected by Pender, could not keep the pace up, and faded again down the stretch. It allowed Pender to land a lot of straight right hands in the final three rounds to take the split decision verdict. Most neutral observers thought Pender did enough to earn legitimate wins in both fight, and the fans all had an opportunityto judge for themselves since both bouts were nationally televised.

Pender moved on to another, younger, challenge after the second Robinson meeting. The streaking, and number one rated contender Terry Downes of England came to Boston in January of 1961. Pender set the tone for the fight early when a great left - right combination sent Downes to the canvas in the first round. But Downes was a brawler who was not easily discouraged. He fought his way back into the fight until the fourth round when a big right hand opened an angry cut on the bridge of Downes' nose, and over his right eye. Pender continued to slice up the challengers soft skin with a great jab until the referee stopped the fight because of the large cuts and profuse bleeding.

Next up for Pender was hall of fame bound Carmen Basilio, who came up from the welterweight division to challenge for the middleweight crown. It was a case of a good big man beating a great little man, with Pender retaining his title via 15 round decision in Boston. Even after having to take off two pounds at the weigh-in, Pender was in top form for this fight. Basilio was little more than a punching bag for much of the fight. Pender put Basilio on the canvas for the first time in his career when he knocked him down in the 13th and 15th rounds. In the first two rounds, Pender started slow before a big right hand by Basilio woke him up. From round three on it was all Pender, catching Basilio with every punch in his arsenal. A local scribe wrote of the scene, "Basilio sat on his stool, his face looking like he had run into a nest of angry bees"

Terry Downes was able to earn a return match with Pender in his hometown of London for financial compensation on Pender's part. This time around, it was Pender's turn to bleed. Downes fought with a fury he had not shown in the first fight. Charged on by his hometown fans, he opened cuts over both of Pender's eyes. The worst was sustained in the eighth round, as Downes started to catch his second wind. Pender had kept the fight close on the scorecards with his ever present jab, but the bleeding was too much to overcome. Trainer Al Lacey threw in the towel as round ten was about to begin. Pender attributed the loss to a severe cold he had gotten a couple of days before the fight, but did not lean on it too heavily as an excuse. "I don't know if I could have beaten him that night. I don't want to say because I don't know. The proof is in the writing, he beat me that night."

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."

After he retired from boxing for good, Pender became the recreation coordinator for the Walpole correctional institution in Norfolk Massachusetts, as well as, working as a security officer. Pender lived a full, and active post boxing life. In 1999, a stroke forced him into the New Bedford Massachusetts VA hospital. Pender currently lives at the VA

hospital which provides him the 24 hour supervision he needs. Anyone wishing to send Pender a letter of support or thanks can do so by writing to:

Paul Pender
Bedford VA Hospital,
Building 62D, One Spring St.
Bedford, MA. 01730-0781

Unfortunately, Paul Pender is proof that beating a legendary fighter like Sugar Ray Robinson does not remove you from the realms of forgotten champions.