Sugar Ray Robinson
Sugar Ray Robinson was one of the greatest boxers to ever grace the ring and is a household name anywhere you go in the world. He was regarded by fellow boxers, including Muhammed Ali, and also sports critics, such as The Associated Press and The Ring, as the greatest boxer of all time ‘pound for pound’. For this merit, in 1990 he was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.
Sugar Ray Robinson had an extraordinary career as a boxer and, also a flamboyant lifestyle outside the ring. As an amateur boxer, Sugar Ray won an astounding 85 fights, with not a single loss. Even more breathtaking is that 69 of those 85 wins were gained by knockout, of which 40 were in the first round. Sugar Ray was a formidable boxer from an early age and turned professional in 1949, at the age of 19. By 1951 he had accrued a record of 128-1-2, including the grand total of 84 knockouts.
Officially speaking, Sugar Ray retired in 1952, but actually came back to regain the middleweight championship on two separate occasions, in 1955 and 1958, and for his efforts, became the first boxer in history to win his divisional world championship belt on five occasions. In a career that lasted 26 years, Sugar Ray Robinson fought in 200 bouts.
Sugar Ray also enjoyed the night life and frequently led large groups of his crew and followers out in the city or on tour to Europe. Such activities led to the first usage of ‘entourage’ when referring to boxers and their company.
Sugar Ray was born Walker Smith Jr. to a poor cotton picking family. Although it is unclear as to whether Sugar Ray was actually born in Georgia or in Detroit Michigan, it is certain that his family moved to Detroit when he was a child, as his father took work as a construction worker. Later, when his parents separated, he moved to Harlem, Manhattan with his mother. After a tumultuous youth, in which he was involved in a street gang and married and had a child before the age of 19, he finished up his amateur boxing career in 1939, after winning the Golden Gloves featherweight and lightweight championships.
Having turned professional in 1940, he proceeded to knockout Joe Echeverria in the second round, and won his next five fights that year, four by means of a knockout. In 1941, in one of the biggest fights of his career, he defeated Fritzie Zivic in front of a crowd of over 20,000 in Madison Square Garden. In the rematch a year later, Zivic was knocked out by Sugar Ray in the tenth round in a controversial fight.
In October 1942, Robinson faced Jake LaMotta, Scorcese’s famous Raging Bull. He defeated LaMotta in a unanimous decision and went on to win the next 4 bouts. That year, 1942, he was named ‘Fighter of the Year’, having racked up 14 wins and 0 losses. Soon LaMotta would come back to earn his revenge, and after gaining a 40-0 record, Robinson would lose his first fight. LaMotta had a 16lb weight advantage over Robinson, and knocked him out of the ring in the eighth round, in a momentous fight in Robinson’s home town Detroit, a fight that attracted a record crowd.
Robinson defeated LaMotta for the second time only 3 weeks later in a rematch and then went on to defeat his childhood idol, Henry Armstrong. It is widely reported that Robinson fought Armstrong as a gesture to help him out financially. Shortly after, Robinson served a stint in the US Army, and alongside Joe Louis, they performed exhibition bouts for stationed US troops, as a form of entertainment. Only 15 months later, Robinson was discharged from the army due to a ‘mental deficiency’ and resumed his professional boxing career. Over the course of his career, Sugar Ray Robinson was devastating in two weight brackets: welterweight and middleweight.
At that time, much of boxing was controlled by the Mafia and Robinson’s reluctance to give in to this corruption meant, for much time, he was unable to compete for the welterweight title. He was, however, finally given the chance to claim the title in a bout against Tommy Bell on December 20th 1946. The fight was described by the press as a ‘war’ in which Robinson was knocked down, but not out, by Bell in the tenth, but then came back to win in a close decision over 15 rounds, snatching the welterweight title.
Robinson subsequently defended his title against Jimmy Doyle, but in the most bizarre of circumstances. Before the fight, Robinson had a dream (or premonition) that he would accidentally kill Doyle in the fight, and for this reason, wanted to pull out of the fight. However, a priest and a minister eventually persuaded him to go ahead with the bout. Amazingly, Robinson knocked out Doyle in the eighth round and he later died from the injuries that he sustained.
Of the five bouts that he fought in 1948, only one was a title contest. In 1949 he boxed 16 times, but once again, in only one of them did he defend his title. The only boxer to vaguely match Robinson that year was Henry Brimm, who took him to a tenth round draw result. He fought 19 times in 1950, a glorious year in which he successfully defended his title against Charley Fusari and knocked down George Costner in 2 minutes and 49 seconds, after Costner had taken to calling himself ‘Sugar’ to Robinson’s distaste. Just before the fight commenced, Robinson had said in the ring introduction, “We better touch gloves, because this is the only round, your name ain’t sugar, mine is“.
Robinson moved up to middleweight later that same year. He wasted little time in climbing up the middleweight ranks, defeating Robert Villamain for the Pennsylvania title and then going on to defend the crown against Joe Basora, whom he knocked out in 50 seconds, a record that stood for 38 years following this bout. On February 14th, 1951, Robinson and LaMotta met for the 6th time, in a bout that was dubbed ‘The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre’. Robinson beat LaMotta in a 13th round technical knockout decision and one of the most exciting bouts in boxing history, claiming the World Middleweight title. Robinson out-fought LaMotta for the first 10 rounds, then in the final 3, unleashed a devastating attacking flurry that resulted in LaMotta’s first knockout in his 95 fight history. The stunning scenes of this fight later provided footage for Scorcese’s “Raging Bull”.
After the glory of the LaMotta fight, Robinson, his flamingo-pink Cadillac and entourage embarked on a European tour. He began in France, where he had an adoring following and a huge public profile. Robinson went as far as to meet the French President, and reportedly kissed his wife four times, twice on each cheek, in front of a public composed of the French upper crust. He was disqualified in his Berlin fight against Gerhard Hecht for a punch to the kidney, which was illegal in Europe, but not on Robinson’s home soil. In London, he faced Randy Turpin, who took the Middleweight title from Robinson in the most sensational of contests. Robinson however, returned 3 months later to reclaim what seemed to be his God-given right, the middleweight title. Over 10 rounds, he achieved this goal, in front of 60,000 fans. At the end of that year, he was named ‘Fighter of the Year’.
Robinson fought only 3 bouts in 1952 before officially stepping down from a career in the ring. First, he faced Olson, whom he defeated by decision, then went on to defeat former champion, Rocky Graziano, in a 3 round bout, before finally challenging Joey Maxim for the light heavyweight title in the searing heat of the Yankee stadium. It was reported that the mercury on the thermometer had passed the 103º mark, and in the madness the referee, Ruby Goldstein, had to be replaced. Robinson couldn’t tolerate the heat and was the next to fall, collapsing in the 13th round and not returning in the 14th, therefore losing in a technical knockout. Following that bout, with a record of 131-3-1-1, Robinson retired from the sport.
Robinson’s comeback, however, was not far around the corner: in 1955 he returned to the ring. The great man was still in an excellent physical condition, owing to his stint as a dancer and entertainer, in which he claimed to run 5 miles every morning and dance for 5 hours every evening. That year he won five fights, before losing to Ralph ‘Tiger’ Jones, but soon bounced back to defeat Rocky Castellani, then won back the World Middleweight title for the third time from Bobo Olson. In 1956, the pair fought again, and Robinson won in a fourth round knockout, seemingly as strong as ever.
Sugar Ray then proceeded to lose the middleweight title to Gene Fullmer, for a brief period, before winning it back again in a tactically well-played contest in the rematch. Robinson continued to box well into the 1960’s, but his form steadily declined as he aged. On November 11, 1965, he announced his retirement from boxing, stating, “I hate to go too long campaigning for another chance.” The great man retired from boxing with one of the highest ranking records of all time, 175-19-6 with 110 knockouts in 200 professional bouts: a truly astounding boxing career by any estimation.
The Legacy of Sugar Ray
Sugar Ray Robinson possessed one of the finest and most fluid boxing styles ever witnessed in the game. He possessed a wicked quick jab and tremendous knockout power. According to many top boxing analysts, he was an incredibly versatile boxer, who was efficient with both hands, and had an extremely well-developed repertoire of punches. The analysts were not the only ones to consider Sugar Ray Robinson the greatest of all time. Here are a couple of characters close to Robinson and the comments they made about the legendary boxer:
Someone once said there was a comparison between Sugar Ray Leonard and Sugar Ray Robinson. Believe me, there’s no comparison. Sugar Ray Robinson was the greatest.
Sugar Ray Leonard
The king, the master, my idol.
Muhammad Ali on Robinson
Robinson was one of the first African Americans to earn himself the public profile of a star and was the idol of millions of African American youths growing up in the 1950s.