By Thomas Hauser
Sugar Ray Robinson is the gold standard against which all fighters are judged.
“He had everything,” legendary trainer Eddie Futch said after Robinson died. “Boxing skills, punching power, a great chin, mental strength. There was nothing he couldn’t do. He knew almost everything there was to know about how to box. When Ray was in his prime, he owned the ring like no fighter before or since.”
Robinson was a natural welterweight who knocked out middleweights with one punch. In his first 131 professional fights, he lost once. During that time, he beat Henry Armstrong, Sammy Angott (twice), Fritzie Zivic (twice), Tommy Bell (twice), Kid Gavilan (twice), and Jake LaMotta (five times).
In 201 fights spanning twenty-five years (a career that began before Pearl Harbor and ended at the height of the war in Vietnam), Robinson suffered a single “KO by.” That came when he challenged Joey Maxim for the light-heavyweight championship and collapsed from heat prostration after controlling the fight for thirteen rounds.
Sixty years after Robinson was in his prime, he’s still thought of as the greatest fighter to ever lace on a pair of gloves.
Boxing has the most distinguished written history of any sport, but the literature on Robinson is surprisingly thin. His 1969 autobiography (ghostwritten by Dave Anderson) is typical of its time, offering a cleaned-up version of a multi-faceted life. The other biographies currently in print range from ordinary to dreadful. This autumn, Alfred A. Knopf will publish Sweet Thunder: The Life and Times of Sugar Ray Robinson by Wil Haygood. Haygood researches thoroughly and writes well. He comes closer than any of his predecessors to explaining Robinson’s legacy, both in and out of the ring.
Two film documentaries are also worthy of mention. Sugar Ray Robinson: Pound For Pound was produced by Bill Cayton in 1970 and presents the best of the existing Robinson fight footage. Sugar Ray Robinson: The Bright Lights and Dark Shadows of a Champion (an HBO Sports of the 20th Century documentary) gives Robinson his due as a fighter and reveals many of his personal flaws.
Putting the pieces of the puzzle together, a remarkable portrait emerges.
In 1920, a man named Walker Smith moved from rural Georgia to Detroit and took a job as a construction worker. Several months later, his wife (Leila) and two daughters joined him. On May 3, 1921, Walker Smith Jr (known to the world as “Sugar Ray Robinson”) was born.
Eventually, Leila Smith separated from her husband because of his abusive behavior and philandering ways. She took her children to Georgia, left them with her mother, and returned to Detroit, where she worked as a maid at the Statler Hotel. Eventually, she saved enough money to bring her son and daughters back to Detroit. In 1932, they moved to New York. She rented an apartment in an area of the city known as Hell’s Kitchen and found a job as a seamstress. At night, her son went to Times Square, where theater patrons gathered on the sidewalk during intermission. He’d danced for them as they tossed coins his way. In 1933, the family moved to Harlem.
Walker Jr. quit school in ninth grade. Thereafter, he hustled on the streets and seemed destined for bad things. His life was saved by boxing. In 1928, when he was seven years old, his mother had set aside twenty-five cents a month so he could spend time at the Brewster Recreation Center in Detroit, where he was introduced to the rudiments of boxing. He enjoyed the sport. But as he’d grown older, discipline was a problem.
Eddie Futch (who worked with amateurs in Detroit in the early 1930s) later recalled, “There was an eleven-year-old who would come to the gym. He wasn’t there to train; just hang out with his friends and make noise. One day, he made so much noise that I chased him out of the gym and told him not to come back until he was ready to behave himself.”
Smith never came back. After his family moved to New York, he was introduced to George Gainford, who coached the boxing team for the Salem Crescent Athletic Club (located in the basement of the Salem Methodist Church in Harlem).
“At first, he didn’t look like much of a fighter,” Gainford said of the man who would later become the greatest fighter of all time. “All he did was hit and run. But he had one thing; he wanted to learn. He was the first kid in the gym and the last one to leave. He’d say to me, ‘Suppose I do this; what do the other guy do?’ I’d tell him, and then he’d say, ‘And suppose I do this and this. Then what happens?’”
Dates blur when Walker Smith Jr’s early years are discussed. What’s clear is that there came a time when Gainford took a team from the Salem Crescent Athletic Club to a fight card in Kingston, New York. A club member who was slated to box in a flyweight bout that night failed to appear. Smith had made the trip with the team as a spectator and asked to take his place. But he’d never fought in an authorized bout and didn’t have the requisite Amateur Athletic Union card.
Gainford shuffled through a stack of AAU cards that he carried with him and chose one with the name “Ray Robinson” (a fighter who had stopped coming to the gym). “That’s you,” he told Smith.
“Ray Robinson” won a unanimous decision. A week later, he returned to Kingston, fought again under the same name, and emerged victorious for the second time.
On January 5, 1939, Gainford and his team traveled to Watertown, New York, where “Ray Robinson” triumphed over a highly-regarded amateur named Dom Perfetti. After the fight, Jack Case (sports editor for the Watertown Daily Times) told the coach, “That’s a sweet fighter you’ve got there.”
Some versions of the story say that what came next emanated from Gainford’s lips. Others attribute it to a woman who was standing nearby and overheard the conversation. Everyone agrees that the next three words spoken were, “Sweet as Sugar.”
The following day, Case’s article in the Watertown Daily Times referenced “Sugar Ray Robinson.”
A legend had been born.
Years later, Gainford would boast, “I’m the greatest trainer who ever lived. I trained Sugar Ray Robinson.” The response he heard was, “George, you’ve had hundreds of fighters. Why weren’t they all as good as Sugar Ray?”
Robinson had an unblemished record of 85 wins with 69 knockouts in 85 amateur fights. Forty of those knockouts were in the first round. He won the New York City Golden Gloves featherweight championship in 1939 and the lightweight title in 1940 at a time when New York was the center of the boxing world and amateur boxing mattered.
On September 19, 1940, he filed an application for a professional boxer’s license with the New York State Athletic Commission. He listed his address as 215 West 116th Street in New York and his previous occupation as “tap dancer.” The “name” entered on the application was “Walker Smith.” The “ring name” was “Ray Robinson.” He signed the application “Raymond Robinson.”
On October 4th, Robinson made his professional debut at Madison Square Garden and knocked out Joe Echeverria in the second round. Four nights later, he scored another second-round stoppage on a card in Savannah, Georgia.
On September 19, 1941, after 23 consecutive victories, Robinson was matched against Maxie Shapiro in his first Garden main event.
“I moved out in the first round and went into a crouch,” Shapiro said years later. “All of a sudden – whsst! This blur went past my head. Then – whsst! Another blur. It must have been something like that in the foxholes. The second round, I didn’t get low enough. It felt like I got hit in the forehead with a baseball bat. I was on the floor twice. In the third round, I was being careful, but he was too fast. Whsst! Here it comes, and I’m on the floor again.”
Robinson knocked Shapiro out in the third round. Six weeks later, he fought the first of two consecutive fights against Fritzie Zivic. “I boxed Sugar Ray Robinson a couple of times,” Zivic would reminisce. “Real tough; and everything I done, he done better. His hands went off automatic.”
By the end of September 1942, Robinson was undefeated in 35 fights and had been on the cover of Ring Magazine. On October 2nd, he entered the ring at Madison Square Garden for the first of six wars that he would wage against Jake LaMotta.
LaMotta (fourteen months younger than Robinson) had turned pro five months after his more celebrated rival. Ray’s debut had been on the undercard of a welterweight championship fight at Madison Square Garden. Jake’s maiden voyage (for which he’d been paid twenty-five dollars) was at St. Nicholas Arena. Both men were products of the streets of New York. Robinson was Harlem; LaMotta, the Bronx.
Robinson was tall for a welterweight; an inch shy of six feet; slender with great punching power. LaMotta was a natural middleweight; short and stocky with good ring skills and an otherworldly ability to withstand punishment. One commentator later likened him in appearance to a hairy-chested garbage collector.
LaMotta was to Robinson as Joe Frazier was to Muhammad Ali; the less physically-skilled, equally tough, indomitable foe.
LaMotta entered the ring for his first fight against Robinson with a 13-pound weight advantage. “He hurt me a couple of times,” Ray acknowledged afterward. “I never fought a fighter as strong as he is.” But Robinson emerged with a unanimous ten-round decision.
On February 5, 1943, in Detroit, they fought again. Ring Magazine had just named Robinson its 1942 “Fighter of the Year.” His record was now 40-and-0, and he was a 3-to-1 betting favorite. This time, there was a sixteen-pound weight differential between the two men. LaMotta knocked Robinson down in the eighth round and won a unanimous verdict.
The following day, a headline in the New York Times blared, “End of Robinson Streak Shocks Ring World.”
Two weeks later, Robinson decisioned Jackie Wilson at Madison Square Garden. One week after that, he returned to Detroit for his second fight in three weeks against LaMotta. This time, despite being knocked down in round seven, Sugar Ray prevailed on all three scorecards.
Several days after beating LaMotta for the second time, Robinson was inducted into the United States Army. World War II was raging. In August 1943, he and Joe Louis began a tour of military bases in the United States, giving boxing exhibitions for soldiers who were about to be sent overseas. Louis was the big name; Robinson the up-and-coming star. There were some ugly moments on segregated bases in southern states. Both men stood their ground.
Then Louis and Robinson were sent to Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn, preparatory to continuing their tour abroad to boost the morale of American troops who were fighting in Europe. Robinson indicated that he had no interest in leaving the United States. The penalty for desertion was explained to him. At that point, depending on one’s version of events, either Robinson went AWOL or suffered a medical crisis. Either way, on March 29, 1944, he disappeared.
Shortly after midnight on April 1st, Robinson was “found” by a stranger on a street in Manhattan. He was taken to a hospital on Staten Island, where he told Army investigators that he had no memory of what had happened during the preceding three days but believed that he had tripped over a duffel bag in the barracks and fallen down a flight of stairs, banging his head and incurring a severe case of amnesia.
The examining physicians found no credible evidence of brain trauma. On April 7th, Robinson was detained by military police and held for court-martial. Then, for reasons that are unclear, on June 3, 1944 (three days before D-Day), he was discharged from the Army on “medical” grounds.
Years later, Robinson asked noted sportswriter W. C. Heinz to ghostwrite his autobiography. Heinz declined because Robinson failed to explain his military history with what the writer thought was sufficient candor. The fact that Robinson never again suffered from “amnesia” and, in 201 professional fights, was never knocked unconscious casts further doubt on his conduct with regard to the Army.
Robinson resumed his ring career in October 1944 and ran off eight victories in a row. On February 23, 1945, he fought LaMotta for the fourth time and won a unanimous decision. On September 26, 1945, they battled again. Sugar Ray prevailed on a split verdict that was poorly received in some circles. Afterward, he acknowledged, “LaMotta is the toughest man I’ve ever fought. I’ve fought him five times and hit him with everything I know how to throw, but he still stands up.”
They had now fought five times. Robinson was 24 years old. LaMotta was 23.
“All the fights I had with him were very close,” Jake said after both men had retired. “That’s why we fought six times. You don’t fight six times unless it’s very, very close.”
Fighters were fashioned from rough cloth in those days. They fought with cuts that hadn’t healed. They fought with faces that were bruised before the bell rang for round one. To be considered a contender, a man had to beat more than a few world class fighters.
Robinson had done all that was asked of him. As 1946 began, the injustice in his not having had a title fight was obvious. Former welterweight champion Freddie Cochrane had ducked him. Then Marty Servo seized the crown from Cochrane. But Servo had lost to Robinson twice in the early 1940s and wanted nothing more to do with him.
Sportswriters and fans began referring to Sugar Ray as “the uncrowned champion.” He fought twelve times in the first nine months of 1946, winning on each occasion. He’d now had 72 fights with a single loss.
On September 25, 1946, Servo announced his retirement from boxing. Finally, a championship fight was within reach. Robinson defeated a club fighter named Ossie Harris; knocked out Cecil Hudson; and five days after beating Hudson, journeyed to Cleveland to fight Artie Levine.
In the fourth round, Levine knocked Robinson down. Sugar Ray later said that it was the hardest he was ever hit. After walking Levine to a neutral corner, the referee returned to Robinson and picked up the count at "one" -- a quintessential "long count.” Robinson struggled to his feet at “nine” and barely survived the round. He knocked Levine out in the tenth stanza.
On December 20, 1946, in his seventy-sixth professional fight, Sugar Ray Robinson fought Tommy Bell at Madison Square Garden for the vacant welterweight championship of the world. Joe Louis, Jack Dempsey, and Gene Tunney were at ringside. In the second round, Bell knocked Robinson down with a sharp left hook. But as the bout progressed, Robinson took control, staggering his foe several times and dropping him once. There was little doubt as to the outcome after fifteen hard-fought rounds.
In his autobiography, Robinson recalled, “The ring announcer was holding a microphone and blaring ’The new world welterweight champion . . .’ And even though he was only a few feet away, I could hardly hear him. My ears were almost bursting with the noise. The most noise seemed to come down out of the balcony; a steady roar, like a waterfall splashing all over me. Unless you’ve been in that ring when the noise is for you, there’s no way you’ll ever know what it’s like. The sound wasn’t the same as it had been at my other pro fights or when I won my Golden Gloves titles. I always had the feeling that the spectators were saying, ‘Good for you, kid, but let’s see the rest of the bouts.’ This time, there were no more bouts. They were cheering for me, the world champion.”
There’s no such thing as perfection in boxing. But Sugar Ray Robinson as welterweight champion of the world came close. He had prodigious physical gifts and a disciplined work ethic. He was always in condition and all business in the gym.
“When Ray went to the gym,” says Don Turner, “he wasn’t there to party. He didn’t play to the crowd. All he cared about was getting ready for the fight. There was no radio, no entourage. If someone was talking loud, Ray threw him out. He shadow-boxed like there was a guy in front of him. When he punched the heavy bag, it was five-punch combinations. Every punch meant something and it sounded like he was shooting guns. No fighter worked harder, and everyone else in the gym worked harder because he was there.”
“Ray had his own music in the gym,” says Angelo Dundee. “It was the slap of the jump-rope against the floor and the whappity-whack of his fists hitting the speed-bag. He put on a show. It was like going to the opera. You didn’t talk. You just watched and listened.”
“The great layer of muscle on the back of Robinson’s neck,” A. J. Liebling observed, “is the outward indication of his persistence. It is the kind that can be developed only by endless years of exercise.”
But Robinson had more than a rigid work ethic and great physical gifts. He had courage, heart, the pride of a champion, and an unyielding will to win.
“Also,” Don Turner adds, “to be a great fighter, it helps if part of you is a mean arrogant nobody-likes-you prick. And Robinson had that. That’s for sure. He was a nasty guy in the ring. And lots of times, he was a nasty guy outside it.”
Watching Robinson in combat was like watching a graceful deadly tiger. Most fighters can hurt an opponent with a straight right hand, an uppercut, or left hook, but not with all three punches. Most fighters can disable a foe with the first or last punch in a combination, but not with every punch in a sequence. Robinson threw combinations all the time with both hands to every part of the body and could knock an opponent out with any punch at any time. If he missed the first two punches in a combination, he’d land the third.
“To get physically and mentally prepared to fight a dozen or more times a year is extraordinary in itself,” Emanuel Steward observes. “Ray did that. And when he was in the ring, there was nobody like him. He was a smart fighter and a tough vicious competitor. Nobody punched harder to the head or body, and nobody had a better chin. He never lay back. He never eased up. He applied constant pressure, round after round; fighting, fighting, fighting; always trying to knock the other guy out. And he didn’t just knock guys out. He knocked guys out cold.”
“Ray was so superior to everyone else,” Steward continues. “He could do everything. And the most amazing thing was, he made mistakes – all fighters make mistakes – but he had no technical flaws. The top three fighters of all time are Sugar Ray Robinson, Sugar Ray Robinson, and Sugar Ray Robinson.”
Declining to match one of his fighters against Robinson, Irving Cohen declared, “I’m a manager, not an undertaker.”
Lightweight champion Ike Williams voiced similar reservations and later acknowledged, “I wouldn’t fight Sugar Ray Robinson because I never could have beaten him. When I mentioned the possibility of such a fight to my wife, she said, ‘Ike; that’s one fight I don’t want to see.’ I didn’t either.”
Harry Markson (director of boxing for Madison Square Garden), observed, “With all due respect to all the good fighters who were before my time, I can’t conceive of a better fighter than Ray Robinson. To be better than Robinson, you’d have to improve on perfection.”
And W. C. Heinz wrote, “When I was young, I used to hear the old men talk of Joe Gans, Terry McGovern, and Kid McCoy. They told me of Sam Langford, Stanley Ketchel, and Benny Leonard. When I am old, I shall tell them about Sugar Ray Robinson.”
In addition to being a great fighter, Robinson had style and more flair in the ring than any fighter who had come before him. “The thing that gets you is the way he moves,” A. J. Liebling wrote. “He is such a combination of skill and grace.”
“When Ray walked into the ring,” Angelo Dundee recalls, “it was like he was going to a ballroom dance. He had a walk that no one could copy. Smoothe, like he was gliding on ice skates. The first thing he’d do was shake hands with the referee. His robe and trunks were always pressed just right. Ray dressed well just to go to a weigh-in.”
That style was also evident away from boxing. Robinson went to great lengths to groom his public image. He had jet-black processed pompadour hair and neatly manicured nails. Once he became champion, his wardrobe, by his count, consisted of “about twenty-five suits, a dozen sports jackets, a couple dozen pairs of slacks, a couple dozen pairs of shoes, three tuxedos, and drawers full of shirts and sweaters.”
“He had that look,” Jerry Izenberg says. “There was an aura about him. He carried himself like a champion and he carried himself like a star. Even if you didn’t know who he was, if you were in the room when he came in, you knew he was special. In and out of the ring, people were happy just to look at him.”
Robinson hung around with the movie stars and popular singers of his era. There was also the matter of his car; a fuscia-colored Cadillac convertible with white-walled tires. Robinson called it “the Hope Diamond of Harlem” and “the symbol of my reputation.”
“When people think they recognize a celebrity,” he said in his autobiography, “they hesitate a moment. But when they saw me in that car, they knew. There was only one like it; Sugar Ray’s pink Cadillac. Most people called it pink. But to me, it was always more than pink.”
And there was the beautiful wife. Robinson met Edna Mae Holly at an outdoor swimming pool in 1941. She came from a middle-class family and had taken courses at Hunter College in New York before becoming a professional dancer. She’d worked at fashionable venues like the famed Cotton Club in Harlem and performed behind stars like Lena Horne.
Robinson pursued Edna Mae with flowers and increasingly luxurious gifts. She started attending his fights. They were married in 1943. He was twenty-two years old; she was twenty-seven. In 1945, they bought a house in the upscale Riverdale section of the Bronx.
Edna Mae had her own charisma. Husband and wife looked like a fairy-tale prince and princess when they were out on the town together.
“Robinson was a superstar personality in the age of print,” Larry Merchant observes. “God knows how big he would have been if he’d come along during the explosion of sports on television. A few athletes before him had developed their own public persona. But Sugar Ray was unlike any black athlete that America had seen before.”
Robinson also broke the mold in that he was the first black fighter (and one of the few fighters of any color up until his time) to successfully control his own ring career.
“In the fight game,” W. C. Heinz wrote, “they like fighters who will fight anybody anywhere at any time and leave the business end to their managers.”
Robinson was the antithesis of that. Curt Horrmann was his manager when he turned pro. Horrmann came from a wealthy New York family and was looking for a good time. He could afford to pay for sparring partners and give Robinson enough of a stipend that the fighter wouldn’t have to work outside the ring.
Horrmann was entitled by contract to receive one-third of Robinson’s earnings. George Gainford took ten percent. Robinson received the rest. Once Ray’s career was launched, he forced Horrmann out (ultimately paying a settlement of US$10,000). From then on, he was self-managed.
Robinson’s fights attracted the monied black elite (both legitimate businessmen and hustlers) in a way that wasn’t duplicated until Muhammad Ali in the 1970s. He sold tickets. He knew it. And he demanded his due from promoters; sometimes more.
“Robinson,” Red Smith wrote, “is the only man in the world who can unbutton a promoter’s shirt from behind while wearing boxing gloves and remove the victim’s pants and bankroll.”
In other words, he wanted to be properly compensated.
“If I had to get punched,” Robinson reflected when his career was over, “I was going to get as much money as I could for it. If I was due a dollar, I wanted that dollar. And if I could help a man make a dollar, I thought I deserved part of it."
“Why do you put up with Robinson?” James Norris (president of the International Boxing Club, which controlled Madison Square Garden and most of boxing in the 1940s) asked Harry Markson. “You don’t need him.”
“I know,” Markson answered. “But he’s such a good fighter.”
A fighter who constantly dreamed of more.
Prior to Robinson’s appearance on the boxing scene, there had been popular champions (particularly heavyweights) who were well-paid for stage appearances during their ring career. Some (most notably, Jack Dempsey) opened restaurants when their fighting days were done.
Robinson sought to create a business empire while he was an active fighter. Within weeks of winning the welterweight championship, he opened Sugar Ray’s Café in Harlem. “My café had a good reputation,” he noted in his autobiography. “Women enjoyed coming because it had rules. There were always fancy people arriving.”
Fancy people like Frank Sinatra, Jackie Gleason, Nat King Cole, Dorothy Dandridge, and Eartha Kitt; not to mention sports heroes like Joe Louis, Joe DiMaggio, and Jackie Robinson.
The café was a magnet for “beautiful people” before anyone thought to label them as such. Soon, the west side of Seventh Avenue between 123rd and 124th Streets in Harlem was dominated by Ray Robinson Enterprises (his business office), the Golden Gloves Barber Shop, Sugar Ray’s Quality Cleaners, and Edna Mae’s Lingerie Shop.
Robinson had become the standard bearer for a new kind of athlete; although where the media was concerned, much of his importance slipped between the cracks. The sportswriters of that day were largely disinterested in what happened beyond the playing field. And in a way, that was a blessing for Ray because it shielded the uglier aspects of his personal life from scrutiny.
Robinson’s first entanglement of note with a woman had come at age seventeen, when he impregnated a girl named Marjie.
Marjie was underage. According to Robinson’s autobiography, his mother told him, “If you don’t marry her, you’ll go to prison and that will be on your record for the rest of your life. You have to get married.”
The autobiography then recounts, “We had a quiet ceremony at a little red-brick church in the neighborhood. After the wedding, I never even kissed my bride. She walked away with her father and mother. I went back to our apartment with Mom. We were like two criminals being led away to different cells.”
Ronnie Smith was born on September 25, 1939. Later that year, his parents’ marriage was annulled. For the rest of his life, he had little contact with his father.
Nor did Robinson’s only child by Edna Mae fare much better. “What kind of father was my dad?” Ray Robinson Jr asked rhetorically after Sugar Ray’s death. Then he answered his own question with one word: “Horrible.”
A lot of women lusted after Robinson from a distance during his marriage to Edna Mae. There were quite a few up close, too. He was a profligate womanizer.
“There were so many of them,” Edna Mae later said. “And just one me.”
But it was worse than that.
“Dad would have three or four rooms in the Hotel Theresa [in Harlem] where he kept his girls,” Ray Robinson Jr recalled. “And when he got caught, it precipitated violence. I think one of the reasons my mother had so many miscarriages [five] was because of the abuse she suffered from my father. I can recall him hitting her on several occasions for no reason at all.”
“He had a hell of a temper,” Edna Mae acknowledged. “If he got angry, everybody stayed out of his way. He’d give me a slap if he thought I deserved one.”
One of the few writers who didn’t shy away from comment on Robinson’s character flaws was Sam Lacy (a leading sportswriter in the black community, now enshrined in the writers wing of the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame). Swimming against the tide, Lacy wrote, “I have said many times that Sugar Ray Robinson was the greatest athlete in a given field I have had the pleasure of observing. I have also said many times that he can be one of the most disgusting figures one is compelled to meet in his business.”
After Robinson won the welterweight championship, he fought four non-title bouts against soft competition. Then, on June 24, 1947, he returned to Cleveland (the site of his near-defeat at the hands of Artie Levine) for the first defense of his crown.
The opponent was Jimmy Doyle. It was a bad fight for Doyle to take. Fifteen months earlier, he had been knocked out by Levine and rendered unconscious for fifteen minutes. He was carried from the ring on a stretcher and hospitalized for observation. The doctors who tended to him recommended that he not fight again. He was a disaster waiting to happen.
Robinson controlled the fight throughout. A left hook in round eight ended matters. Lewis Burton of the New York Journal-American wrote, “Doyle fell back rigidly, pivoting on his heels as if they were hinged to the canvas. He cracked against the floor in three parts, his seat, his shoulders, and finally, like the snapping end of a whip, the back of his head.”
The beaten fighter was rushed to St. Vincent’s Charity Hospital, where surgery was performed to relieve pressure on his brain caused by a cerebral hemorrhage. He died the following afternoon. He was twenty-two years old.
Robinson fought five more times in 1947, five times in 1948, thirteen times in 1949, and eight times in the first six months of 1950. On August 9, 1950, against a clearly overmatched Charlie Fusari, he defended his welterweight championship for the final time.
By all accounts, Robinson refused to do business with the mob throughout his ring career. The Fusari fight might have been an exception. On the surface, Ray took the fight as a favor to Walter Winchell for a one-dollar purse with the proceeds going to the Damon Runyon Cancer Fund. But a substantial bet is said to have been placed on his behalf at 5-to-1 odds that the bout would go the distance.
Robinson-Fusari lasted for fifteen stultifying rounds. In his autobiography, Robinson acknowledged, “I occasionally agreed to carry an opponent. I never considered it morally wrong. As long as I was winning the fight, I saw no reason why I had to punish a lesser opponent. I’m sure guys in the know made some money betting on an opponent going the distance with me, but I never bet on any of my fights.” Then he added, “I agreed to carry Fusari.”
In late 1950, Robinson traveled to Europe and fought five times (in Paris twice, Brussels, Geneva, and Frankfort) between Thanksgiving and Christmas Day. He’d now engaged in 123 professional fights, losing once.
In February 1951, Ring Magazine announced its “Annual Ranking of World Fighters.” Reviewing the previous year, Nat Fleischer coined the phrase that would be attached to Robinson’s name forevermore. Sugar Ray, Fleischer wrote, was “the greatest all-around fighter pound-for-pound in any division.”
But there was the nagging matter of Jake LaMotta. Robinson was the better fighter. But in five bouts, he had never truly dominated the Bronx Bull. There were even those who argued that, with different judges, LaMotta would have won three of their five encounters. And the loss stuck in Robinson’s craw.
On February 14, 1951, in a fight known in boxing lore as the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, Robinson established his ring supremacy over LaMotta beyond a shadow of a doubt.
Robinson-LaMotta VI differed from its predecessors in several notable respects. First, it was a championship fight. Neither man had won a world title at the time of their previous contests. Now Robinson was the reigning welterweight king, and LaMotta had defeated Marcel Cerdan in June 1949 to annex the middleweight crown.
Second, Robinson had never demanded that LaMotta fight at a “catch-weight.” And LaMotta was the naturally bigger man. In their first five fights, he’d outweighed Robinson by an average of thirteen pounds. Now, weighing in on the day of their championship fight, LaMotta was constrained by the 160-pound middleweight limit. Robinson had grown to 155 pounds.
And last; Robinson-LaMotta VI was seen live throughout the nation on a new medium known as television. Thirty million people (one-fifth the population of the United States) watched it.
Robinson (a 17-to-5 favorite) entered the ring at Chicago Stadium wearing white trunks, his lithe frame wrapped in a black silk robe. LaMotta wore black trunks beneath a leopard-patterned robe.
For eight rounds, Sugar Ray dazzled the crowd with his speed and footwork. And for eight rounds, Jake trudged forward, forcing the fight, battling from a low coiled crouch as the bull and matador fought on even terms.
In the ninth round, the fight changed. “I couldn’t match strength with LaMotta,” Robinson said afterward. “But he was slower than he had been six years earlier. That made him an easier target. My jab had puffed up his face and I had hit him with quite a few body shots. His punches had lost their zing.”
Over the next four rounds, LaMotta was battered as brutally as any man has ever been battered in a boxing ring without going down. His eyes were closing; his lips were swollen. He was bleeding badly, staggering blindly. His championship was gone, but he wouldn’t fall. Finally, in the thirteenth round with Jake draped helplessly against the ropes, referee Frank Sikora called a halt to the carnage.
Sugar Ray Robinson had scaled Mt. Everest and staked his claim as the greatest fighter of all time.
Part Two of “Sugar Ray Robinson Revisited” will be posted on SecondsOut.com and Maxboxing.com later this month. Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. His next book (“An Unforgiving Sport”) will be published in September by the University of Arkansas Press.