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Remembering the legendary Sugar Ray Robinson on the 99th anniversary of his birth

Sugar Ray Robinson
Bob Mee pays tribute to the one and only Sugar Ray Robinson on what would have been his 99th birthday

SUGAR RAY ROBINSON has become an automatic choice in polls for the best fighter of all time, to the point where it’s almost heresy to vote against him.

He was an extraordinary talent. He had every move in the book, and added a few chapters of his own. His footwork was graceful, dazzling; he had an elegant jab, threw blurring combinations with perfect balance; as he showed against Gene Fullmer, he could take a man out with one punch; and he could take a shot.

He was welterweight champion, belatedly, for four years and had five spells as middleweight champ.

In more than 200 fights spread over a quarter of a century, he failed to finish a fight only once, when the dreadful heat and humidity ruined his challenge for the world light-heavyweight title against Joey Maxim in Yankee Stadium, New York, in June 1952. Robinson was reeling around, dazed and confused, utterly dehydrated, and was not allowed off his stool for round 14.

After 13 rounds Sugar Ray Robinson was ahead on the scorecards: 10-3, 9-3 and 7-3-3. Six more minutes and he would have won.

At least he lasted longer than referee Ruby Goldstein, who had to retire after the 10th round, to be replaced by Ray Miller.

Robinson’s incredible life began when he was born Walker Smith Jr in Detroit in May 1921. He used the gym at the Brewster Recreation Center, where he saw Joe Louis working out, but when he was 11 his mother moved her children with her to New York. He did the rest of his growing up in Harlem.

Sugar Ray Robinson

He changed his name from Walker Smith when he made his amateur debut, using the card of a boy named Ray Robinson. In 1939 he won the National Golden Gloves featherweight title, and at 20 made his pro debut at Madison Square Garden. The Ring Record Book said he was unbeaten in 85 amateur contests.

In his first year he won 25 fights, including a 10-round decision over the former lightweight champion Sammy Angott in Philadelphia and Fritzie Zivic, who until four months before had been the world welterweight king.

In 1942 he won the first of his six fights with Jake LaMotta. Their second meeting, in Detroit in February 1943, brought Robinson his first pro defeat, on points over 10 rounds. He would not lose again for eight years. He was so unaffected by it that he was back in the ring winning a 10-round verdict over Jackie Wilson a fortnight later, and a week after that was back in Detroit to beat LaMotta. The same year he outclassed his old hero, Henry Armstrong, but let it go 10 rounds.

The waiting went on. Freddie ‘Red’ Cochrane was welterweight champion, but was serving in the Armed Forces. The unwritten rule was that a man serving his country in wartime could not be stripped of a world title. Cochrane came back to the ring in June 1945, but Robinson had to sit it out as Red gave Marty Servo first shot – and lost in four rounds. Servo, whom Robinson had beaten twice years before, didn’t want to box him again and retired.

At last in December 1946, by now 26 years old, Robinson was given his chance at the vacant title against Tommy Bell, whom he had beaten over 10 rounds in Cleveland in 1945. Robinson’s record by then was 73 wins, a draw and the solitary defeat to LaMotta in 75 fights.

He had a shock when he suffered a flash knockdown in round two, but got up to outbox Bell over the whole 15 rounds and celebrated a few days later, on Christmas Eve, by opening his own cafe-restaurant on Seventh Avenue, known as Sugar Ray’s.

The welterweight division was his. He had already beaten most of the contenders. He did, however, have to endure a tragic first defence against Jimmy Doyle in Cleveland in June 1947. He stopped Doyle in the eighth round – and Doyle died from a brain haemorrhage.

He defended against Chuck Taylor in Detroit, Bernard Docusen in Chicago and Kid Gavilan in Philadelphia, also cramming in a whole string of non-title fights. He built up a business empire, had a wife and child to provide for, but indulged himself in a pink cadillac and a large, gaudy entourage that included a barber, secretary, and when he was in Paris a midget who offered to work as his interpreter.

Sugar Ray Robinson
Robinson defeats LaMotta in their final fight

In 1951, on February 14, in a fight known forever as the St Valentine’s Day Massacre, Robinson moved up to win the middleweight title against old rival Jake LaMotta. He stopped the tough old Bronx Bull on his feet in round 13.

A couple of months later he set off on a European tour. It looked as if he had been disqualified in a fight in Berlin, but the result was changed to No Contest, and then he descended on London to defend his championship against British challenger Randolph Turpin at the Earls Court arena in July 1951.

Turpin did the unthinkable, exploiting Robinson’s too casual approach and blazing away to outwork him over the 15 rounds with the London fans singing ‘For He’s A Jolly Good Fellow’ as the fight drew to a close.  Turpin’s reign lasted 64 days… just the time it took to get him back in the ring in New York, at the Polo Grounds. And there, on 12 September 1951, in front of a paying crowd of 61,370 which produced record gate receipts for a non-heavyweight fight, Robinson overcame a badly cut eye to stop the Englishman with an unanswered barrage of punches in the 10th round.

He outpointed Carl Bobo Olson, knocked out the crude former champion Rocky Graziano in three, but then lost in his light-heavyweight attempt against Maxim in the searing New York heat, and six months later announced his retirement. He wanted to have an easy life, to dance, and was given a contract worth $15,000 a week at the Paramount Hotel in New York. He moved on from there to the Sahara in Las Vegas, and on to Europe, but the novelty wore off.

Turpin is rescued in the Robinson rematch

He returned to the ring in January 1955, lost the second fight of his comeback to the under-rated Ralph ‘Tiger’ Jones, but improved and regained his old title with a second round knockout of Carl Olson in Chicago in December 1955.

Suddenly he wasn’t a young man any more. The legs were still strong, but slowing, the brilliance of his welterweight prime a memory. He was too good for Olson, whom he knocked out again, but then in January 1957 he lost a 15-round decision to Gene Fullmer, a rugged brawler from Utah.

He still had his punch – and he produced one of the great shots of the modern era to regain the championship, a left hook that laid Fullmer out cold in Chicago in May 1957. He was middleweight champion for the fourth time.

Again, the reign didn’t last. The new generation were not worried about his reputation and Carmen Basilio, the welterweight champion from the onion country around Syracuse, New York, blazed into him for 15 rounds in Yankee Stadium in September 1957, and emerged with a split decision win and the title.

Basilio wasn’t a proper middleweight – he didn’t even weigh 11st – but he had the hunger, the youth and the talent to cancel Robinson’s skills. They fought again, and this time the split decision went Sugar Ray’s way, in Chicago in March 1958, but the signs were clear. The great man was 37 and dragging everything out of himself to get the job done.

He all-but retired, then lost his title to Paul Pender on points in Boston in January 1960. Pender beat him in a return, but upset the NBA, who matched Fullmer and Robinson for their nominal ‘vacant’ title in Los Angeles in December 1960. After 15 rounds, the verdict was a draw… a strange one, with Robinson seven points up on one card, Fullmer four points up on another, and the third level.

When Fullmer won a rematch on points in Las Vegas in March 1961, Robinson had fought for a ‘world’ title for the last time. He went on earning, however, for the next four years, cashing in on his legend until finally, at Madison Square Garden in December 1965, aged 45, he took his final bow before his beloved New York fans, from the ring, in his boxing gear.

He worked as an actor, scaled down, with his old businesses all gone, in 1969 set up the Sugar Ray Robinson Youth Foundation and remained a star. By 1980, however, he was suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease, and he died on 12 April 1989, aged 68.

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