On This Day – Boxings Greatest Sugar Ray Robinson Departs
on April 12 1989 the sport of Boxing lost the man whom many call the greatest Boxer to have ever lived. The man who called himself ‘The Greatest’ Muhammad Ali said about this Boxer that he was ‘the king, the master, my idol.’ This man was Sugar Ray Robinson. Indeed when Muhammad Ali turned professional as a young man in the 60’s he approached Sugar Ray Robinson to be his manager, but because Sugar Ray was still Boxing, in the twilight of his career, he had to turn Ali down, instead though, he was to send Drew ‘Bundini’ Brown to Ali as an assistant trainer and cornerman. It was Bundini Brown who helped coin the term for Ali ‘Float like a Butterfly, sting like a Bee’ and what many don’t know was that it was Sugar Ray Robinson who helped Ali devise the game plan for Ali when he shook up the world that fateful night on 25 February 1964 with his win over Sonny Liston to become Heavyweight Champion of the World.
Sugar Ray Robinson was Born Walker Smith Jnr on May 3rd 1921 in Detroit, Michigan. Michigan has been a hub of great Boxers, including World Champions such as Floyd Mayweather Jnr, James Toney, Stanley Ketchel as well as arguably the greatest Boxing trainer in history, Eddie Futch. If you don’t already know, you’re probably wondering why he boxed as Sugar Ray Robinson if his birthname was Walker Smith Jnr? The story goes that the kid they called ‘Smitty’ turned up for an amateur fight without his official identity card required for Boxing, his trainer George Gainsford who would later become Robinson’s manager when he turned pro, dug out the card of an amateur Boxer who was no longer fighting, and gave the named card to ‘Smitty’, the name on the card was Ray Robinson(he would go onto compile an amateur record of 85-0 with 69 knockouts including a win over another all time great fighter Willie Pep and won the Golden Gloves as a featherweight at 18 before turning pro). The name stuck and later according to Ron Borges in HBO World Championship Boxing sportswriter Jack Case, who saw a young Robinson fight at the Salem Crescent Gym in New York in 1939, told Robinson’s manager, George Gainford, ‘That’s a sweet fighter you’ve got there.’ ‘Sweet as sugar,’ answered Gainford and thus Sugar Ray Robinson was born.
Sugar Ray Robinson turned pro in 1940 when he was just 19yrs old, by the time he had turned 30, Robinson’s record stood at 128 wins including a 91 fight unbeaten streak with 84 knockouts and just one defeat. His sole defeat during his prime came against another great Boxer, Jake Lamotta, whom Robinson had already defeated. Lamotta, who joked he fought Sugar Ray so many times its a surprise he didn’t end up with diabetes, weighed 16lb more than Robinson on the night. They would go on to fight 6 times, Robinson winning 5 of them. Robinson would become the first Boxer to win a divisional world title five times when he defeated Carmen Basilio in 1958 to regain the Middleweight title. Sugar Ray was at his best as a welterweight, unfortunately the lack of footage means there is very little footage available of his welterweight fights, but Sugar Ray was so dominant at welterweight and middleweight that the term we often hear now ‘pound for pound’ was actually coined because of Sugar Ray Robinson, prompting sportswriters to create ‘pound for pound’ rankings, where they compared fighters regardless of weight. Angelo Dundee who was the trainer for two legends Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard, commenting on Robinson, said as a young man he would often go to watch Sugar Ray Robinson fight when he was a welterweight and that there has never been a fighter like Robinson. ‘The best. Hypothetically, Ray Robinson, how can you fault him? He was incredible.’
Robinson was the first fighter to really have an ‘entourage’, his extravagant lifestyle meant he would often have people such as mascots, trumpet players, barbers, masseurs and even a voice coach hanging around him. The owner of a nightclub in Harlem and a pink cadillac he was a shrewd businessman well before his fellow Michigan Boxer many years later, Mayweather Jnr was calling his own shots. At a time of struggle for African Americans, Robinson became a huge figure in the USA and one of the first African Americans to become huge outside of the sports arena not just at home but across the world too. In an era when blacks were supposed to be humble and grateful for favors received, he was a man whose every move in and out of the ring showed what black pride and power meant. When Sugar Ray refused to play ball with the Mafia who often controlled Boxing in the states and even refused a million dollars to throw a fight against Rocky Graziano, he was forced to go on a European tour, he even visited my home town of Watford according to my neighbour who met Robinson, having come along for a game of golf on one of the courses here!
Sugar Ray fought in countless battles against top opposition including 14 World Champions at a time there were less divisions and less World Champions, aside from his famed rivalry with Jake Lamotta, other world champions on his resume include Henry Armstrong – Armstrong is an all time great Boxer ranked by some as the 2nd greatest after only Robinson himself who was past his best when he fought Robinson but Robinson took the fight against his idol to help him financially after Armstrong called and pleaded with Robinson for the fight, ‘It’s difficult fighting a fellow you look up to,’ said Robinson. ‘You don’t have a feel for fighting a friend.’ the 23yr old Robinson would be too much for the 30yr old Armstrong, carrying him for the 10 rounds. Gene Fullmer(whom Robinson knocked out with what Boxing scribes would call the ‘perfect’ punch, a left hook which knocked out Fuller in the fifth round) Carmen Basilio, Bobo Olsen who said ‘Robinson was the best. He had no one to challenge him when I came along. He couldn’t be beat at the time. I was confident, but he stopped me(in 12 in October 1950). ‘I fought him again in 1952, went the full distance and lost by two points. Robinson was the greatest fighter who ever lived. I was glad to go 15 rounds with him and come close.’ Also, Rocky Graziano, Kid Gavilan and even Joey Maxim who was the light heavyweight champion of the world and considerably taller and heavier than Robinson. Sugar Ray built up a large points lead as he out boxed the larger world champion, but the fight was fought in the middle of a heatwave and gradually the heat which measured 103 degrees(even the referee had to be replaced because of the heat), as well as Robinsons higher work rate, coupled with having to take punches from a much bigger man meant that Robinson succumbed to hyperthermia and failed to answer the bell for the 14th round. Had Robinson stayed on his feet he would have become the light heavyweight champion of the world despite still weighing in as a middleweight(Robinson weighed in at 11st 3lbs for the fight), instead it was to be the only time in his 200 fight career that Robinson was stopped and that too was not because of his opponent. ‘Maxim was lucky to stand up to the heat better than I was,’ he said. ‘It was too hot for walking let alone fighting. Maxim was nothing. He didn’t hit me for 10 rounds.’
One of the more intruiging stories of Robinsons fight career though was his bout against Jimmy Doyle. On 24th June 1947 the two were scheduled to fight, Robinson was defending his welterweight title. The night before the fight, Sugar Ray dreamt he killed his opponent in the ring. Upon waking up, Robinson relayed his dream to members of his team and decided he would pull out of the fight feeling uneasy at what he had seen in his dream. Robinson took counsel from a priest and was talked back into fighting Jimmy Doyle. In round 9 the referee stopped the fight after Doyle was downed for the third time in the round. A single left hook from Robinson ended the fight. ‘That punch knocked Jimmy rigid…. With heels resting against the canvas as if hinged, Doyle’s body went down. It struck the floor with a thud, like a rigid mass falling. His head crashed against the padded canvas, and as the referee started the count. Doyle raised his head and rested on his elbows…. The referee counted to ten. Doyle was out’. The 22yr old Doyle was rushed to hospital but tragically died just hours later. Robinson was shattered and grief stricken and even had to endure charges of manslaughter which were later dropped. Having found out that Jimmy Doyle was planning on buying his mother a house, Robinson gave the purses of his next three fights to his deceased opponents mother so she could buy that house.
Sugar Ray Robinson was capable of fighting in any style, his dancing background from a young age gave him supreme footwork and balance, which meant he was able to deliver knockout blows with any punch with either hand. Robinson had fast hands and fast feet, he was primarily a Boxer puncher but if you wanted to brawl he could do that, he could also counter punch and pick you off from the outside. He really did have everything, often you find Boxers have a weakness, such as a counter puncher or a boxer with fast hands will not be a big puncher, but Robinson had both as well as having incredible punching power, the Ring magazine even ranked Robinson at no.11 in their list of all time greatest punchers.
Tony Zale, ‘The Man of Steel’, fought Robinson in 1947 and was 21 fights unbeaten before facing Robinson, said of their April 1952 confrontation ‘I thought I was going to lick him. I had him down (a flash knockdown) in the second, but Robinson is the greatest fighter I ever fought. Pound-for-pound, he was a fantastic fighter.’
Bert Sugar, arguably Boxings most noted historian said ‘Robinson could deliver a knockout blow going backwards’ and that he would have rated Robinson as numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9 in his top 10 greatest ever Boxers if he could.
‘He boxed as though he were playing the violin,’ sportswriter Barney Nagler observed.
Ron Borges quoted trainer of greats such as Iron Mike Tyson and historian Teddy Atlas, who said, ‘The great ones are pioneers in some way. That’s what Ray was. He took speed and combination punching and a certain smoothness when it wasn’t all connected and he connected it. Everything he did, he did with more meaning and more accuracy. He didn’t just throw flurries, he threw tighter, harder combinations that were all meaningful.” Trainer Eddie Futch told Borges, “He had marvelous balance and speed and superb reflexes. He was just as dangerous with either hand when going backwards and he knew almost everything there was to know about how to box.’ Muhammad Ali based much of his style on Sugar Ray Robinson, we begin to see why Ali moved so fluently for a heavyweight when we find out he based his Boxing and movement on Sugar Ray Robinson. Robinson himself noted of his style ‘that once a fighter has trained to a certain level, their techniques and responses become almost reflexive. “You don’t think. It’s all instinct. If you stop to think, you’re gone.’ and ‘Rhythm is everything in boxing. Every move you make starts with your heart, and that’s in rhythm or you’re in trouble.’ Young fighters would do well to heed the wisdom of Sugar Ray ‘Some champions were accused of not fighting enough, but I was accused of fighting too much. You never quit learning from the men you meet, whether you win, lose or draw.’ Robinson looked up to two legends of the sport growing up, Henry Armstrong whom he would later defeat, and heavyweight champion Joe Louis, who for a time grew up in the same neighbourhood as Sugar Ray, 6yrs older than Robinson they would go on to become close friends throughout their careers and spent time in the army together during World War II where they performed exhibition bouts for stationed US troops, as a form of entertainment. In a strange co-incidence, Joe Louis would die on April 12 1981, exactly 8yrs later his friend Sugar Ray Robinson would pass away. Louis was just one of a host of legendary Boxers who would say Robinson was the greatest Boxer to have lived, others such as Muhammad Ali, Roberto Duran and Sugar Ray Leonard, inspired by Robinsons nickname were of the same opinion.Sugar Ray Leonard said, ‘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.’ Other fighters inspired by Sugar Ray to use his nickname include the former world champion Boxer Sugar Shane Mosley and the MMA fighter ‘Suga’ Rashad Evans.
The accolades would never stop pouring in for Robinson, The Ring ranked him as the best pound for pound fighter in history and in 1999, he was named ‘welterweight of the century’, ‘middleweight of the century’ and overall fighter of the century by the Associated Press. In 2007, ESPN.com featured the piece ’50 Greatest Boxers of All Time’, in which it named Robinson the top boxer in history. He was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990.
Unfortunately Sugar Ray Robinsons larger than life personality and charisma meant he was always only too happy to spend his money, especially on those close to him or part of his ‘entourage’ which meant despite retiring numerous times, He first retired in 1952, only to come back two and a half years later and regain the middleweight title in 1955 he was all too often forced to come back to support his lifestyle. This meant the great Sugar Ray would continue to box well into his 40’s and suffered many defeats he wouldn’t have otherwise experienced had he not continued fighting well past his prime. Robinson finally decided to hang up the gloves for good aged 44 in 1965, 25yrs after his debut having lost a 10 round decision to Joey Archer.
Sugar Ray Robinson ended his career with an astounding 200 fights, losing just 19, 11 of those losses came after the age of 40 and 5 in the last six months of his career having already turned 44, this in an era when fighters who hit 30 were considered well past their best.
Sugar Ray Robinson turned to television and the movies upon retiring and also set up a youth foundation in 1969. He would later suffer from Alzheimer’s disease and diabetes before succumbing to ill health on April 12, 1989.