Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Boxing History: Remembering Gil Turner

By Peter Sikov

Gil Turner was one of the most exciting and popular fighters ever to come out of Philadelphia. He had, what would in later years, come to be seen as the stereotypical Philadelphia fighting style; an ultra aggressive, all-action, whirlwind of a fighter. The 1950s era in which he fought was the era where TV fell in love with boxing, and Gil Turner was to become one of the most popular and widely televised fighters of that generation.

Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on October 9, 1930, Turner turned professional in 1950, and became a sensation from the start. The fans loved Turner’s high energy fighting. His fists would blaze away, as if he were trying to punch his way through a wall. He appeared to be tireless and impervious to his opponent’s punches. Like most ’sluggers’ of his era, Turner knew how to box and had a useful jab, but he was a fighter who seemed to love going to war and the fans quickly loved him for it. Turner was making a charge up the welterweight rankings, and for such a young professional, he was matched tough. It seemed to make no difference, as he collected victory after victory in exciting fashion. By the middle of 1951, having been professional for barely a year, Turner was already a rated contender at welterweight, with wins over former lightweight world champions Beau Jack, Ike Williams, and top contenders Charley Fusari and Vic Cardell. 

By the beginning of 1952 Turner was 27-0, and hankering after a shot at the World welterweight championship that was held by “The Cuban Hawk” Kid Gavilan. In hindsight, it seems audacious to say the least, that Turner’s management could feel that their boy was ready to take on the formidable and battle-hardened Gavilan, with his record of 82-12-4, after barely two years as professional and just 27 contests. Yet, this is what they did after Turner had posted 4 more wins in early 1952 to bring his record up to 31-0. On July 7, 1952, Turner was given his shot at the Hawk.

The fight itself was eagerly anticipated. The champion was persuaded to defend his crown at Philadelphia’s Municipal Stadium; in other words, in the challenger Turner’s own backyard. A crowd of more than 39,000 created a record gate of 269,667 dollars, making the contest the richest ever for the World welterweight title up to that time.

In regards to action and excitement, the fight did not disappoint, although the majority of the fans there that night, most of whom had come to cheer on their home town fighter Turner, were destined to be deflated by the contest’s conclusion.

In what has become one of the more overlooked classics of the ring, challenger and champion blazed away at each other for 11 rounds until someone finally broke.  Turner went after the champion for most of the fight, showing a good jab, and then firing away with both hands, at the body, the head, anywhere he could land. Gavilan seemed content to counter with fiery combinations of his own. After 10 rounds, both men were about even on the judge’s scorecards, but Gavilan, had been waiting, biding his time, keeping his attacks measured, while his challenger was going for broke every round.  While Turner had been past 10 rounds just once so far in his career (and then only into the 11th round) Gavilan was an expert in going the distance and out- lasting his opponents in grueling fights. Although Gavilan was only 4 years older than Turner was, he had seven years ring experience over him, and at 26 years old, was in his prime. Perhaps most crucially for Turner, who was used top knocking most of his opponents out, Gavilan had one of the best chins in all of boxing, and would end his career having never been stopped or knocked out.

In short, Turner’s constant blazing attacks upon the champion were nothing short of suicidal. He was never going to stop or KO Gavilan, nobody would. Then again, nobody knew that in 1952. 

At times during the fight’s first 10 rounds it did seem as though “The Cuban Hawk” would wilt under the ferocity of his challenger’s vicious attacks. For certain periods it seemed as if Turner would overwhelm Gavilan. Then the moment was gone, as Gavilan fired back another combination of counter punches.

By the 11th round Turner’s white mouthpiece was glaring through his lips as he tried desperately to find more air. He was tired and exhausted, yet, he continued to carry the fight to the champion, and with even more fury than in the earlier rounds. 

Finally, Gavilan was done waiting. Around the 2.00-minute mark of the 11th, as Turner continued to try and tear into him with both fists, Gavilan answered with one of those combinations. This time, however, there was an added weight and purpose in the combination. Turner was suddenly hurt, wobbled, and as he fell against the ropes Gavilan opened up with a seemingly never-ending fusillade of punches that landed with unforgiving accuracy upon the challenger’s head and face. Turner staggered around the ring under the attack, looking like he would go down at any moment, but somehow keeping his feet. The referee watched as he took punch after punch, then Turner was hanging on the ropes, drooping, but still on his feet. Gavilan was still firing mercilessly upon him, only then did the referee finally step in and stop it.

Turner had lost but lost valiantly, in the true tradition of the Philadelphia warrior, going down all guns blazing.  What Turner and nobody else knew at that point was that this would turn out to be his one and only shot at a world title.

Some fighters lose something when they are beaten for the first time, especially when they had been almost invincible until that point in time. 

Gil Turner would remain a huge draw and score some great victories in the coming years, but the losses would also come more often now; the sparkle of invincibility that Turner had felt before the Gavilan contest was gone.

In his first fight after the loss to Gavilan, Turner was out-pointed by Bobby Dykes.
The Dykes fight was another war for Turner and he came out of if needing ten stitches to close up cuts over his left eye, on his right cheek, and in his mouth.

Turner came back to win 10 out of 12 contests over the next 12 months, including a revenge win over Dykes on points. His two losses during this time were on points to Joey Giardello and Rocky Castellani.  By now, Turner had moved up to middleweight, a move that meant that he was often giving away weight. Against Giardello he gave away 7 pounds. With hindsight, Turner’s move up to middleweight was not the greatest of ideas, even when he put on extra poundage to weigh close to the middleweight limit, he was never a true middleweight.  If anything, Turner was probably a natural light middleweight by this point in his career. Unfortunately, in the 1950s, no such division existed. With the move up to middleweight every fight became evermore of a war for Turner.

1954 proved to be a turning point for Turner’s career, as he went 4-3.  Being out- pointed and then stopped by Bobby Jones in two fights and then, being knocked out in 3 rounds by Al Andrews. Despite ending the year with two wins, Turner’s days as a genuine top contender was over.

Turner vs. Basilio
However, television and the fans (and indeed the promoters) continued to love Turner, win or lose, he always gave value for money. You could always count on an action- packed (and often bloody) contest when Turner was in the ring. From the mid-1950s onwards, he started being seen more as an opponent, and a fringe contender.

As always, Turner was never matched easy, one wonders what might have happened had he been given a softer run at some point, or even (heaven forbid!) more than a month or two off between fights sometimes. But, this was the 50s when fighters fought, where only the very best and the very well managed, rose to the top.

Turner vs. Giambra
During the last four years of his career Turner’s opposition reads like a whose-who of the top welterweights, where Turner still flirted occasionally, and middleweights of that time. Fighters such as Joe Miceli, Gene Fullmer, Carmen Basilo, Isaac Logart, Johnny Saxton, Yama Bahama, Joey Giambra, Del Flanagan, Vigil Atkins, Vince Martinez, and Ralph Dupas were some of his competition. 

Victories over Fullmer (who would later beat Turner twice on points), Atkins, and Flannigan, would keep Turner upon the fringes of contendership, and he was never an easy opponent for anyone. 

Turner went 13-12-2 in his last 27 contests from 1955 to 1958, and finally retired after losing on points to Del Flanagan, on November 20, 1958. Turner was only 28 years of age, but in true Philadelphia style. He had blazed bright, and burnt out young.

Gil Turner may not have reached the absolute heights and won a world title, but he came close, and gave it his best shot against one of the greatest fighters of his and any other era.  In today’s multi-titled era, a fighter like Turner could more or less count on winning a number of world titles, at different weights. But, Turner fought in an era when the champions were few and just to reach the status of being a contender was enough to prove that you were something special. 

Gil Turner’s final boxing record was 56(34koes)-19-2.

 Copyright © 2015 The Boxing Glove, Inc. Peter Silkov Art. All Rights Reserved. Peter Silkov contributes to and

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  1. Hello Mr. Sikov,

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