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‘I dreamed I had died in that fight.’ The nightmarish heat that engulfed Sugar Ray Robinson

Sugar Ray Robinson
Getty
It’s almost 70 years since Sugar Ray Robinson succumbed to Joey Maxim and the elements in New York City, writes Steve Bunce

ONE referee collapsed from the heat, one boxer lost 11 pounds in weight and after 13 merciless rounds the fight between Sugar Ray Robinson and Joey Maxim finished without a death. It was, make no mistake, a close call.

The fight was in June 1952, held in the sweltering and breathless air of an early summer night outdoors at Yankee Stadium in New York. The paid attendance was 47,983. It was for Maxim’s light-heavyweight title; Robinson had regained his middleweight version a few months earlier in front of 61,370 at the Polo Grounds when he stopped Randy Turpin. At about the same time, Maxim had lost to Ezzard Charles, who had just lost his world heavyweight title to Jersey Joe Walcott. It’s a magical and mad world where fights happen like that.

Anyway, back to June 1952 and Robinson’s quest. It had rained, the fight had been delayed for two days, the tension increased; Robinson, the middleweight champion at the time, had weighed 11st 6, but he dropped to 11st 3 after the delay; Maxim shifted from 12st 6 to 12st 5. I have no idea how much the referee, Ruby Goldstein, weighed, but he only managed 10 rounds before stumbling incoherent and damaged from the ring. Both boxers at that stage were also suffering.

“I dreamed I had died in that fight,” Robinson said. “I dreamed that the day before the fight. And I almost did.”

One of the boxing writers, men of respect and legend in the ‘fifties, talked about the “sweltering city that had forgotten how to breathe.” New York when it is hot is oppressive, the wrong heat for a fight. In the shade at ringside, it was reported that the heat hit 104 degrees; the final sizzling figure under the naked neon would have pushed the unbearable 20 degrees higher. It was lethal under the lights.

Maxim was a good fighter, tough and durable. Robinson was the undefeated welterweight champion; current untouchable middleweight champ and he had lost just twice in nearly 140 fights at that point. He was a hero, an idol, an influencer; his ringside was Hollywood and Washington DC, his cheap seats were boys and men who adored him. The king, the boxing king fighting in his domain. Sugar had real influence.

After about six rounds, Robinson was up by about five rounds. He started to show signs that the furnace was taking a toll on him from round seven. Maxim just kept coming with the jab and shots to body, arms and chest. Maxim is no fool and never wastes times looking for perfection. The heat increases and poor Ruby starts to really suffer.

Ruby sucks on smelling salts, but at the end of the 10th he is led from the ring and replaced by Ray Miller. In Robinson’s corner there is concern; they are ancient fighting men and they know the signs, the disturbing signs that their man is in trouble.

At ringside in the press rows, there was fear for Robinson. At the end of the 11th round, Peter Wilson of the Daily Mirror was worried about what he saw in Robinson’s eyes. “Staring and confused and hopeless they were as the heat encompassed him.” Maxim was only slightly better, but he had sensed Robinson’s decline a round earlier.

By the 13th round, Robinson’s legs had stopped behaving and his bravery was about the only thing working for him. Robinson missed with a right and toppled over to the canvas. He was exhausted, finished. He regained his feet, continued staggering and at the bell to end round 13, he had no idea where the comfort was; he went to a neutral corner before his handlers grabbed him. He was lost.

Robinson slumped in the corner at the end of the 13th round. Mumbled that it was over. The referee heard the end. Maxim was up for the 14th round. Robinson was being carried from the ring. The fight was over. Robinson was leading 10-3, 9-3-1 and 7-3-3 on the scorecards at the finish.
Wilson managed to get to Robinson’s dressing room in the minutes after the fight and the emotional trip from the ring to the cool and calm of the safe place. Robinson was talking and not making a lot of sense. They stuck him in a cold shower and still he talked about God and heaven and his friends in the mayor’s office. George Gainsford, his manager, stood in the cold shower to support Sugar. Gainsford was fully dressed. There must have been real fear and dread in that room.

Maxim was also exhausted. He thought that he would collapse before Robinson. What a fight, what a night that must have been. Maxim, a nice guy, talked about losing his mind in the 13th and actually wanting to step on Robinson’s face when he fell down. That is heat delirium.

A few months later, Robinson announced his retirement and he was out of the ring until 1955. He regained the middleweight title the year he returned. There is great and there is Sugar, make no mistake. His last fight was in 1965.

Maxim lost his light-heavyweight world title in his next fight to Archie Moore. He fought until 1958; had two more 15-rounders with Moore, he beat unbeaten Floyd Patterson in 1954 and in 1957 lost twice on points to unbeaten and avoided Eddie Machen. He certainly deserves a bit more respect for beating Robinson in that cauldron. Forget Dmitri Bivol and Canelo comparisons.

The American writer, F. Scott Fitzgerald once said: “Show me a hero and I’ll write you a tragedy.” I think of that quote when I read about Sugar losing that night to Maxim. I think of all the hard, hard fights and nights that Sugar would face before his death at just 67. He went to the very edge that night – he went to the edge far too many times in his life.

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