ONE hundred and fifty fights, just six defeats. Five separate occasions winner of the world middleweight title. Never in close to 18 years of professional fighting beaten twice by the same man.
There has never been a record like it. It is doubtful if there ever will be again.
Those simple, straightforward facts are the best way of telling a story of Sugar Ray Robinson. For the man who will be 38 in the first week in May has now reached the stage when all the superlatives have been used up trying to describe his fabulous fighting feats.
When he outpointed Carmen Basilio to win back the crown from the 30-year-old former onion farmer in a tightly-packed Chicago Stadium on March 25, 1958 by a 15-round decision, Robinson added one more page to the history of fistiana which, come what may, can never be erased.
He is no ordinary fighter, and this was no ordinary fight. It was a gruelling, relentless struggle, often a bitter one, between two men who fought not only for cash and honour and glory, but as if their lives depended on it.
And it was Robinson who won the battle of wits, both in and out of the ring. He came to scale at 11st 5 3/4lbs against Basilio’s 10st 13lbs, and left the weigh-in snoopers, including the Basilio camp, wondering whether or not he had struggled to beat the scale.
Robinson made the weight with his socks on, after Basilio’s handlers had insisted on having the scales officially checked, since they believed he had made the weight the Turkish bath way.
Then Robinson proceeded to make a show of drinking beef tea in full view of everyone to make them believe he needed to recuperate from his efforts.
But he gave no sign of weakness of any kind, and the ageing legs were just as strong at the finish as they were at the start.
True, they were slower than Robinson’s legs used to be, but it is more than 10 years since he first won the world’s welterweight title, and a lot of water has flowed down the Hudson River since then. But the hands were just as fast, and the punching just as sharp, even if all his blows did not land with the regularity they used to do.
Robinson opened up as if he was bent on a quick knockout. But it was Basilio’s rugged aggression which was the more impressive in the two opening rounds.
Switching from bobbing and weaving to stand-up boxing, he even succeeded on occasions in out-jabbing the king of the jabbers.
Basilio opened as if he was certain to land the odds while he never gave up worrying Robinson, and hurting him with his body punches, not to mention one or two really fine shots to the head, he never really looked like succeeding after that.
And from the fourth round, when Robinson filled in Basilio’s left eye with a glorious right uppercut, any chance Basilio had of victory really faded. Beating Robinson with two eyes had already begun to look a forlorn hope. Beating him with one eye, so that he never had a chance of seeing those lightning right-handers, was a virtual impossibility.
Beaten as he was, however, Basilio just refused to go down, and with Robinson in exactly the same frame of mind, one of the most gruelling world title fights for many a year travelled its full course without a single knockdown.
Make no mistake the punches were hard enough for there to have been plenty. But Basilio had desire to go with his ruggedness, and Robinson had pride to go with his punch, and neither of them would concede to the other any suggestion of hurt.
They were both hurt though. The kind of punches that were thrown made sure of that. And the 10th round, in which each man had the other going, was one of the finest we have ever seen.
There were times when, in ducking to avoid Robinson’s onslaught, Basilio almost had his nose on his boot-tops. There must have been times when he wished the ring would open up and give him merciful relief from that cauldron of hate, yet he never showed it for an instant.
The fight had everything, both in actual combat and in extra-curricular activity. There was a furious exchange of blows, lasting a full 10 seconds, after the bell for the end of the first round, a true indication of the “needle” which existed. There were rabbit-punches, kidney blows, and in desperation, a good old-fashioned attempt of deliberate butting from Basilio in the final blistering session.
Yes, this fight had everything, even though it fell slightly behind the first meeting of the pair in New York last August for sheer drama.
Once it was obvious that Basilio’s eye was too great a handicap, the only possibility of a short route ending was if Robinson’s legs gave out on him. He paced himself so perfectly that they never did, and never looked like doing so.
That eye? Well, those who remember the one Gus Lesnevich collected in his first meeting with Freddie Mills will probably regard that as the worst they ever saw. I did, until I saw Basilio’s. Within seconds of the sizzling
uppercut Robinson landed on it, it was shut so tight that there was never the slightest chance of it being opened. And as the fight proceeded, it swelled visibly, until only the slits above and below it gave any real indication of where the normal eye opening started and finished.
Hard as Basilio tried, gallantly though he came back from furious barrages of blows, and close as he managed to make even his
losing rounds, he still fell further and further behind, so that finally the only amazing thing about the fight was the scorecard of referee Frank Sikora, the top Illinois official.
While the two judges scored the fight on the Illinois five-point must system with eight-point advantages for Robinson, Sikora scored it 69-66 in Basilio’s favour, prompting more than one ringsider to say that while Basilio had one eye shut, Sikora must have had both his closed!
Some idea of the fury of the struggle can be gauged from the fact that although Basilio began by trying to weaken Robinson with his body attacks, the courageous little in-betweener – he is too heavy for a welterweight and neither big enough nor heavy enough for a
middleweight – was actually pleading with Robinson in the closing stages not to hit him any more in the body.
The shrewd old campaigner, who also did some fast talking on his own account, was also confident enough to go into clinches so that he could look up at the big clock to see how long remained of each of the last three rounds.
But for all his success, the old Robinson fire is no longer really there. The dancing feet and the agile brain will make sure, if he decides to continue fighting, that no one would ever lick him twice. But the timing was never so
positive as it used to be, and the combinations were fewer and less effective.
From Basilio’s standpoint, that was just as well, for he would surely never have lived with the real Robinson, for all his durability.
It was the deficiencies of the great one as they exist today, rather than any brilliance from Basilio, which made this a great fight. It wasn’t even close.
With the Robinson of old, it wouldn’t have been a race.
They never come back? Never tell that to Robinson, whether you be friend or detractor, because he’ll throw it right back in your teeth.