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Sugar Ray Robinson Revisited – Part Two
By Thomas Hauser
Sugar Ray Robinson’s knockout victory over Jake LaMotta captured the imagination of America. Baseball and boxing were the country’s two national sports. Robinson had now entered the ring for 124 fights, losing once. This was his fifth victory over the man who’d defeated him. And thanks to television, thirty million people had witnessed him in his prime. He was handsome, telegenic, and lethal.
After vanquishing LaMotta for the middleweight crown, Robinson appeared on the cover of Time Magazine. Joe Louis and Louis Armstrong were the only black Americans to have previously received that honor.
During the early years of his career, Robinson had fought in the shadow of Louis. The two men had vastly different personalities. Louis was passive and plainspoken. Robinson was assertive and had an easy way with words. As Jesse Abramson wrote in the New York Herald-Tribune, “Everyone likes Joe Louis. Not everyone likes Ray Robinson.” Robinson would tell people what was on his mind whether they liked what he had to say or not. Louis wouldn’t.
Louis, of course, had become an American icon by defeating Max Schmeling in their 1938 rematch at a time when the nation needed him most. But by Valentine’s Day 1951, his time had come and gone. He’d retired, come out of retirement, and lost to Ezzard Charles. Only a brutal beating at the hands of Rocky Marciano later that year lay ahead. He was still a hero, but Robinson was boxing’s brightest star.
In April 1951, after two non-title fights in the United States, Robinson returned to Europe. Having refined the art of the entourage, he was accompanied by his trainer, barber, masseuse, golf instructor, various playmates, and a four-foot-four-inch dwarf. The group brought fifteen suitcases and thirty-two trunks. Robinson’s personal luggage included twelve suits, five overcoats, dozens of neckties, and 140 jazz albums.
“The symbol of my reputation” (Robinson’s fuchsia Cadillac convertible) also made the trip.
The first stop on the tour was Paris, where Robinson was treated like a conquering hero. He had defeated the hated Jake LaMotta, who’d beaten France’s beloved Marcel Cerdan (Cerdan’s loss being all the more bitter because he died in a plane crash before it could be avenged).
Robinson fought non-title bouts in Paris, Zurich, Antwerp, Liege, Berlin, and Turin within the course of six weeks. He’d become an international star; something that no non-heavyweight before him had ever done. On July 10th, he entered the ring in London against Randy Turpin for the first defense of his middleweight crown.
In his autobiography, Robinson later observed “All your training is timed so that, on the night of the fight, you are at your best. Not the night before; not the night after. The night. And not near your best; your very best.”
Against Turpin, Robinson broke that rule. The European tour, and particularly his time in Paris, had taken him out of a serious training mode. In the days leading up to the Turpin fight, he’d trained sporadically; playing golf during the day and partying in clubs at night.
Turpin was an untested challenger. Still, at twenty-three, he was seven years younger than the champion. And like LaMotta, he was a naturally bigger man. Robinson fought like a tired out-of-shape fighter, which is what he was that night. In round seven, an accidental head butt opened an ugly cut above his left eye. Ten stitches would be required to close the wound. Turpin won a unanimous decision.
For only the second time in 132 fights, Sugar Ray Robinson had been defeated. Less than five months after beating Jack LaMotta in the greatest victory of his career, he’d been toppled from the middleweight throne.
“It hit me [when I was waiting to be stitched up in the dressing room after the fight],” Robinson later recalled. “I hadn’t quite realized that Randy Turpin was the new middleweight champion and I was the former champion. Until that moment, it had seemed like another stop on my grand tour of Europe. But suddenly it hit me that this had not been an appearance.”
Time Magazine labeled the bout “boxing’s biggest upset since 1936, when Max Schmeling knocked out Joe Louis.”
An immediate rematch followed; this time in New York. A crowd of 61,370 jammed the Polo Grounds, paying a live gate of US$767,626 (a record at that time for a non-heavyweight bout). General Douglas MacArthur was at ringside. So were Joe DiMaggio, Joe Louis, Ezzard Charles, Jersey Joe Walcott, and myriad celebrities from the entertainment world.
Early in round ten, as was the case in their first fight, an accidental head butt opened a gash above Robinson’s left eye. That same round, he knocked Turpin out.
Six months passed before Robinson’s next fight; his longest period of inactivity since 1943-1944 when he was sidelined by the military. On March 13, 1952, he returned to the ring with a victory over Carl “Bobo” Olson. Five weeks later, he defended his championship against Rocky Graziano.
“He must be good,” Graziano said afterward, “because he knocked me out in three rounds.”
Then Robinson undertook his greatest ring challenge. At Yankee Stadium on June 23, 1952, he sought to wrest the light-heavyweight championship from Joey Maxim. A victory would give him a title in his third weight division at a time when the phrase “world champion” really meant something. Only Henry Armstrong and Bob Fitzsimmons had accomplished that feat before.
Maxim was a shade younger than Robinson and, more significantly, outweighed him by fifteen pounds. Robinson was a 7-to-5 favorite because of his extraordinary skills. But fighting for the 175-pound championship was a tremendous reach for a fighter who’d begun his career at 135 pounds.
“How are your legs?” Robinson was asked several days before the bout.
“I hope they’re all right,” he answered. “This would sure be a bad time for them to go wrong.”
The temperature in the ring on fight night was 104 degrees. It was the hottest June 25th in the history of New York. “A miasma of cigarette smoke hung over the ringside seats on the baseball diamond,” A. J. Liebling wrote. “There was no breeze to dispel it, and the American flags on the four posts at the corners of the ring drooped straight down.”
“I thought I was being roasted to death,” referee Ruby Goldstein said afterward.
The first ten rounds were slow-paced, with Robinson piling up a lead on the scorecards. Later, he recalled, “Maxim was an easy target. In the seventh, I stunned him with a right hand to the jaw. But the heat was beginning to get to me. After the ninth, I plopped on my stool. ‘I don’t know what’s the matter,’ I said. ‘I’m getting sleepy.’ That is the last memory I have of anything that happened that night.”
At the end of round ten, Goldstein collapsed from the heat and was replaced by Ray Miller. The new third man in the ring broke clinches more quickly than his predecessor and the pace of the fight quickened a bit.
“In the eleventh round,” Dave Anderson recounted in the New York Times, “Robinson jolted Maxim with another right hand to the jaw. But when the bell rang, he wandered aimlessly toward a neutral corner.”
In round twelve, Robinson forced himself onto the attack again, scoring repeatedly but at the expense of the little strength left in his reserve. Then he hit the proverbial wall.
“When Robinson came out for the thirteenth,” Liebling wrote, “he walked as if he had the gout in both feet and dreaded putting them down. When he punched, which was infrequently, he was as late and wild as an amateur; and when he wasn’t punching, his arms hung at his sides. Maxim, at first apparently unable to believe his good fortune, began after a period of ratiocination to hit after him. Then Robinson, the almost flawless boxer, the epitome of ring grace, swung wildly like a child, missed his man completely, and fell on his face.”
Robinson rose and finished the round. When it ended, he hung onto the ropes in a neutral corner. His cornermen dragged him to his stool, held smelling salts beneath his nose, and pressed ice against the back of his neck.
A commission doctor asked Robinson if he could stand up. The two judges had him leading Maxim 10-3 and 9-3-1 in rounds. The composite score of the two referees had him ahead 7-4-3. In other words, under the round scoring system then in effect in New York, all he had to do was finish the fight to win.
Robinson shook his head. He was physically unable to rise from his stool.
The bell rang. Maxim was declared the winner by knockout at the start of the fourteenth round.
After the fight, Robinson suffered from delirium in his dressing room. His body was covered with blisters and he had lost twelve pounds. He refused to go to the hospital and was taken to his mother’s home.
Two months later, Robinson announced his retirement from boxing. He was thirty-one years old. “I do not feel I can any longer give the public my best as it has come to recognize it,” he said. “I know better than anyone else how good I am and what my limitations are. I find I can’t move in the ring with the same speed, dispatch, and accuracy. My instinct used to guide my hands and feet. I could see the opening in a flash and, in the same twinkle, handle the situation. The coordination isn’t there anymore. No one knows that better than I do.”
Then Robinson set out in pursuit of the next stage of his dream. Great fighters of the past had made good money on the vaudeville circuit. Ray had more ambitious plans. He wasn’t just a great fighter. He could dance and sing, and he was convinced that people would pay to see him do it. He was an entertainer, a star.
“I’m a celebrity’s celebrity,” he said with pride. “Other celebrities come to see me.”
On November 7, 1952, Robinson made his debut as an entertainer at the French Casino in the Paramount Hotel in New York. Joe Louis was in the audience. So were Milton Berle, Delores Parker, Hazel Scott, and Adam Clayton Powell Jr.
During the course of the evening, Robinson wore six different outfits: a yellow-and-black plaid tuxedo, a cream-colored suit, a dark-brown suit, a dusty-rose jacket with cherise slacks, a white suit, and midnight-blue tails with a top hat. He danced with a chorus line of beautiful women behind him, told jokes, and sang a bit. The event was covered in both the entertainment and sports sections of New York’s newspapers. The audience was enthusiastic. The sportswriters were kind in their reviews.
Then Robinson went on tour with the Count Basie Orchestra. A national television audience saw him on The Ed Sullivan Show. He played the Sahara Hotel in Las Vegas and the Apollo Theatre in New York.
But there were problems. And the biggest problem was that, as a singer and dancer, Robinson wasn’t very good. As Wil Haygood notes in his forthcoming biography, “Robinson’s act seemed to be in a state of continuous flux. The machinery never seemed well-oiled. Cues were missed. It lacked the authority of movement and precision that the best acts had down cold. Audiences that saw Robinson had also seen the likes of the Step Brothers and the Will Mastin Trio starring Sammy Davis Jr, just two of the acts soaring during that golden age of tap. But those other groups had honed their dance routines over years and years of being on the road. They were masters at the ad lib and improvisation, but that came in large part from hard work and practice. Though Robinson’s name secured him a position with marquee-name traveling acts – Louis Armstrong, Count Basie – it also gave audiences a chance to compare him to those performers, and he paled next to them. Edna Mae would watch her husband perform and sometimes shake her head. She had danced at the Cotton Club. She knew timing and movement.”
Frank Sinatra could punch people out in bars; particularly when he got off first and had a bodyguard standing beside him. But he wasn’t a professional fighter; only the greatest popular singer of his time and maybe all time. Sugar Ray Robinson could carry a tune. But he wasn’t a professional singer or dancer; not really.
Time Magazine labeled Robinson “a second-rate song and dance man.” A review in The Chicago Defender (one of America’s most prominent black newspapers) said that he was “out of character in a nightclub as an entertainer” and “just an average dancer.”
“Robinson thought he could sing and dance,” Jimmy Breslin later recalled. “I went to a thing one night, a kind of audition. It was in an apartment on Seventh Avenue. Robinson played the piano and sang. He did this to let the agents see him for the first time. It was okay, but it was street stuff. It wasn’t professional.”
As the novelty of Robinson’s act wore thin, the paychecks got slimmer. He performed four times in Pittsburgh. The shows cost $20,000 to produce. The receipts were $5,000. He took his show to Paris, where as a fighter, he’d been a star. “My first night there, the show was bad,” he acknowledged in his autobiography. “So were the reviews. The show got better after that, but critics don’t come back.”
Empty tables became the norm. “I had made more money in my debut than Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly,” Robinson noted. “But I wasn’t making it now. My agent told me that he could book me for at least $25,000 a year. But that wasn’t enough.”
Things went from bad to worse. Robinson was a big spender where his personal life was concerned. Taxes had gone unpaid and his business judgment was often unwise. After he retired from boxing in 1952, there was no longer a constant flow of cash from his fights to keep things running smoothly. His business empire started to fall apart. Real estate properties were in danger of being foreclosed upon. And his name drew increasingly fewer customers to his business properties.
On October 20, 1954, Robinson announced that he was returning to the ring. “I need a buck as well as anyone else,” he said.
The comeback began against a journeyman named Joe Rindone on January 5, 1955, in Detroit. Rindone was at the end of his career and winless in his previous four fights. Robinson knocked him out in six rounds. Two weeks later, Ray was in Chicago to fight Ralph “Tiger” Jones. Jones was a seasoned professional. But he’d lost five fights in a row and was on a downward slide that would see him win only twenty of his last forty-seven outings. Robinson was a 3-to-1 favorite. And he embarrassed himself. Jones dominated from beginning to end, winning by scores of 100-88, 98-89, and 99-94. “It was humiliating,” Ray said afterward.
Former ring great Henry Armstrong, who was at ringside, concurred. Twelve years earlier, Robinson had charitably carried Armstrong (one of his boyhood heroes) for ten rounds in the twilight of Armstrong’s career. Now, speaking of himself and Robinson, Armstrong noted, “When you get old, you don’t get young again. When you’re through, you’re through.”
Several days later in the New York Journal-American, Jimmy Cannon summed up his feelings regarding Robinson’s performance. “This is one I don’t like to do,” Cannon wrote. “It may seem cruel, but I don’t intend it to be that way. There is no language spoken on the face of the earth in which you can be kind when you tell a man he is old and should stop pretending he is young. What he had is gone. The pride isn’t; the gameness isn’t. The insolent faith in himself is still there. But the pride and the gameness and that insolent faith get in his way. He was marvelous, but he isn’t anymore. He must know how bad he was with Jones because there were nights when he was perfect. He knows and he’s kidding no one.”
Robinson’s next three fights were victories over mediocre opponents. Then, on July 22, 1955, he was matched against Rocky Castellani (a contender with 60 wins, 8 losses, and 4 draws) and told that, if he defeated Castellani, he’d get a title shot.
Castellani entered the ring a 9-to-5 favorite. In round six, a barrage of punches put Robinson on the canvas. He rose shakily at the count of nine and hung on to win a ten-round decision.
On December 9, 1955, for the third time in his life, Robinson entered the ring as a challenger for the middleweight championship of the world. The champion was Carl “Bobo” Olson (seven years Ray’s junior), who Robinson had beaten twice before. After Ray’s retirement, Olson had defeated Randy Turpin to seize the vacant throne. He’d defended the title successfully against Kid Gavilan, Castellani, and Pierre Langlois.
Robinson was a decided underdog. The assumption was that he was shot. He knocked Olson out in the second round. Five months later, there was a rematch. This time, Olson lasted four rounds.
“He was the greatest boxer to ever step into the ring,” Olson said years later. “I tried to copy his style a few times, but I couldn’t do it. He was too good.”
In truth, Robinson was no longer the greatest fighter in the world. Age and the wear-and-tear of 144 professional fights had caught up with him. After beating Olson for the second time, he took the rest of 1956 off, save for a meaningless non-title fight against Bob Provizzi that was a tune-up for a January 2, 1957, date against Gene Fullmer.
Fullmer was a rough tough brawler from Utah with a 37-and-3 record; twenty-five years old, compared to Robinson’s thirty-five. He had a granite chin and lacked a big punch but wore opponents down through attrition. In other words, he was the sort of fighter that Robinson would have carved to pieces in his prime.
“Robinson was tough on the contract negotiations,” Fullmer said when the last of what would be four fights between them was done. “He wanted all the money and everything else in his favor. He wanted everything his way.”
But in their first encounter, once the bell rang, everything went Fullmer’s way. “I was in charge,” he said afterward. “Just cut the ring off and put pressure on him, move in close before he started doing much punching.”
“There’s nothing I can say,” Robinson acknowledged after the unanimous decision against him was announced. “The better man won tonight.”
Gene Fullmer was the new middleweight champion of the world.
Four months later, they fought again. Fullmer was a 3-to-1 favorite. After four rounds, he was in control. Robinson seemed to be tiring, and the assumption was that he’d wilt further as the night wore on.
“Up to that time, it wasn’t a tough fight,” Fullmer later recalled. “I was winning on everybody’s card. I was working on his body a lot and he was hurting. Never seen the punch coming. I don’t know anything about the punch except I’ve watched it on movies a number of times. I didn’t know anything about being hit. I didn’t know anything about being down. The first thing I knew, I was standing up. Robinson was in the other corner. I thought he was in great condition, doing exercises between rounds. My manager crawled in the ring. I said, ‘What happened?’ He said, ‘They counted ten.’ Up to then, I didn’t know.”
Sugar Ray Robinson, two days shy of his thirty-sixth birthday, had landed the ultimate highlight-reel punch of all-time; a short compact left-hook that exploded flush on Fullmer’s jaw. It was possibly his greatest single moment as a fighter and also his last moment of true ring greatness. Later, he called the blow “the most perfect punch of my career.”
On September 23, 1957, Robinson defended his newly-reacquired middleweight title against Carmen Basilio, the welterweight champion of the world.
When Robinson was a welterweight, he’d enjoyed a decided advantage in height and reach over virtually all of his opponents. Against Basilio, he had a five-inch edge in height and outweighed his foe by seven pounds.
Basilio was a blood-and-guts fighter who would take two punches to land one. “When people buy a fight ticket,” he said, “they’re paying to see blood and knockdowns.” He was also fueled by a hatred of Robinson, who he called “an egotistical son of a bitch.” Three decades after they fought, Basilio said of Sugar Ray, “Don’t talk about that bastard to me. I got no use for him. I didn’t like him then, and I don’t like him now. Call me a jerk, fine. But that’s the way I feel. When he died, I said, ‘I don’t give a shit.’”
Basilio worked Robinson’s body for fifteen rounds and took the championship from him on a split decision.
On March 25, 1958, they fought again. This time, the split decision went Robinson’s way.
“I got stupid that night,” Basilio said of his second fight with Robinson. “He kept throwing a right uppercut at me. He never quit. He threw it at me five times. He knew that I bobbed and weaved, and he tried to catch me going down in a bob and weave. He’d throw it; I’d go down; I’d catch his right uppercut with my right hand; and I’d counter him with a left hook because he was wide open for it. I did it four times. The fifth time he threw it at me, I missed it with my hand and it hit me right in the eyebrow and blew my eyelid up. My eye shut. This was the middle of the sixth round, and I fought the next nine rounds with one eye.”
Robinson didn’t fight again for the rest of the year. In 1959, he entered the ring just once (against a club fighter named Bob Young, who he knocked out in two rounds). On May 4, 1959, the National Boxing Association stripped him of his title for failing to fight a return bout against Basilio. Now only the state athletic commissions in New York and Massachusetts recognized him as the middleweight champion.
On January 22, 1960, Robinson defended what was left of his crown against Paul Pender in Boston. He wasn’t a great fighter anymore, but he had no intention of going quietly into the night.
Don Turner, then a 20-year-old middleweight, was hired as a sparring partner preparatory to Robinson fighting Pender.
“The man was thirty-nine years old,” Turner recalls. “First sparring partner gets in the ring. Robinson knocks him down in the first round and hurts him bad enough that he can’t go on. Second sparring partner gets in the ring. Robinson knocks him down in the first round and hurts him bad enough that he can’t go on. Now it’s my turn. I’d had two pro fights and they want me to spar three rounds. I was a little nervous but I was getting paid. And to be in the ring with Sugar Ray Robinson. Wow! First round, he hit me with a left hook that knocked my headgear off, clear out of the ring. I don’t know if I’d strapped it on wrong or what. But I figured, better the headgear than my head. I lasted the three rounds, but it wasn’t easy.”
Pender won a decision over Robinson. Afterward, the new middleweight champion of Massachusetts and New York declared, “My strategy, knowing that Robinson was so old, was the only intelligent one. Wear him out and then break him down.”
Five months later, they fought again. Dick Schaap wrote in advance of the fight, “Nothing dulls the impact of a powerful play so surely as an anticlimax. And all Sugar Ray has left are anticlimaxes.”
Once again, Pender won a decision.
After losing twice to Pender, Robinson had two more fights against Fullmer (who by then, had beaten Basilio twice to lay claim to the legitimate middleweight crown). The first was declared a draw, with Fullmer retaining his title. In the second, Robinson lost a unanimous decision.
He wasn’t Sugar Ray Robinson anymore; not as a fighter. “When you’re younger, you can take it better,” he said.
Meanwhile, Robinson’s world away from the ring was falling apart. Sugar Ray’s Café and his other businesses shut down in 1962. Later that year, Edna Mae was granted a divorce. Immediately thereafter, Robinson became engaged to Millie Bruce, who he’d met in the early-1950s while performing on tour in Los Angeles.
Edna Mae had encountered Millie by chance years earlier, when the latter was in a supermarket with Robinson’s mother during a visit to New York. “I thought she was lovely, as so many others that had preceded her were,” Edna Mae recalled.
And he kept fighting. “That’s what happens when the money runs out,” Robinson said. “You always say, ’I’ll quit when I start to slide.’ Then, one morning, you wake up and you’ve done slid. You can’t choose your ending in boxing."
The end game was ugly. “It was hard to watch Robinson in decline,” Larry Merchant recalls. “Seeing him fight when he got old was like watching Fred Astaire trip and fall on the dance floor or the desecration of a great painting.”
In the last fifty fights of his career, many of them against ordinary opposition, Robinson lost thirteen times and had four draws. “Ray had problems at the end with guys who could jab,” Emanuel Steward recounts. “And they kept him away from punchers. But he never complained about losing a fight. When he lost, no matter how close the decision, he’d go across the ring and congratulate the other guy. That’s just the way he was.”
Don Chargin journeyed to a bullring in Tijuana in 1965, the last year of Robinson’s career, to watch him fight Memo Ayon.
“It was pathetic,” Chargin remembers. “Ray was in this terrible-looking dressing room before the fight, all alone, wrapping his own hands. Not another soul was there except for myself. He lost the fight. But for a few seconds, as shot as he was, I thought I saw flashes of what he’d once been. Since then, I’ve often wondered if that was something I really saw or just something I wanted to see.”
The day after losing to Ayon, Robinson flew with Millie to Las Vegas, where they were married by a justice of the peace. The cab driver who picked them up at the airport was their witness at the ceremony.
“I knew Millie loved me because there wasn’t anything else for her to love,” Robinson said several years later. “My flamingo Continental [that Ed Sullivan had given him at the behest of a sponsor to replace the fuchsia Cadillac] had been sold. My café had closed. The symbols of my success had disappeared. Only me was left.”
The Robinsons “honeymooned” in Honolulu, where (six days after they were married) Ray lost a ten-round decision to Stan Harrington.
On September 23, 1965, he was taken the ten-round distance in a victory over Harvey McCullough (who’d won three of thirty-one fights in the preceding eight years).
Eight days later, Robinson won again but was extended the full ten rounds by Peter Schmidt (who retired soon after, having won just one of his final eleven fights).
On October 20th, Ray knocked out Rudolf Bent (who was in the midst of a thirteen-fight losing streak). His purse for the Bent fight was five hundred dollars.
On November 10, 1965, Sugar Ray Robinson entered the ring as an active fighter for the last time. The opponent was Joey Archer, a stylish boxer with a 44-and-1 record and a powder-puff punch. Ray had been told that, if he beat Archer, he might get another title shot. And he needed the money. Besides, as Robinson noted in his autobiography, “Archer hadn’t knocked down anybody in five years.”
In round four, Archer put Robinson on the canvas. When Ray was young, on those rare occasions when he was decked, he’d spring to his feet immediately. When Archer knocked him down, he took an eight-count. The need for a few more seconds outweighed his shame at finding himself on the canvas.
Archer won a unanimous decision. By most accounts, he won every round.
One month later, Robinson formally retired from boxing at an elaborate farewell ceremony just prior to Emile Griffith’s welterweight title defense against Emanuel Gonzalez at Madison Square Garden. A sell-out crowd of 12,146 jammed the arena to pay tribute. The ceremony started at 9:30 PM, a half-hour before television coverage of the night’s main event began. Robinson had refused to be on camera because he wasn’t being paid for his presence.
In retirement, Robinson was revered by the boxing public. When he was introduced at fights, he had a way of tilting his head a little to the side and reaching out with both hands as he moved across the ring, as if he were embracing the crowd.
Money remained an issue. To make ends meet, Millie took a job as a receptionist. Frank Sinatra got Robinson a part in a 1968 film (starring Sinatra) called The Detective. In 1969, Viking paid a $50,000 advance for Ray’s autobiography. A national tour highlighted by an appearance on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson was planned to promote the book. But Robinson refused to participate unless he was paid for the appearances. The tour was cancelled.
Bob Arum recalls that, when the Las Vegas casinos started hosting big fights, Robinson was invited to sit ringside for a mega-event at Caesars. He asked for a five-thousand-dollar appearance fee on the theory that his presence on television would be a marketing plus for the casino. Caesars refused, so Ray asked Arum for a hundred-dollar ticket and sat in the nosebleed seats.
Robinson’s final years were spent in Los Angeles, where he and Millie lived on the top floor of a two-story lime-green duplex. His once-stylish wardrobe had been replaced by Hawaiian shirts that hung loosely over his expanding middle-age frame. Asked by a reporter if he still owned a Cadillac convertible, Ray answered, “No more. The car I drive now is a little red Pinto. But I’ve been there.”
In 1984, he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. That year, when a writer inquired about his status as the greatest fighter of all time, Robinson fumbled for words before saying, “It’s the most wonderful feeling in the world. I can’t say any more. I loved boxing, and every time I hear someone say ‘pound for pound’ . . .” His voice trailed off, then picked up again. “It’s the most wonderful feeling in the world.”
Arteriosclerosis, diabetes, and hypertension left him further debilitated. Don Chargin recalls, “A year or two before Ray died, Lorraine [Chargin’s wife] and I were with him and Millie at the Forum Shops in Caesars. Lorraine and Millie went into a dress shop. I was standing outside with Ray, talking. And he panicked. ‘Where’s Millie? Where’s Millie?’ He got very upset that she wasn’t there. By then, he needed her around to protect him all the time.”
On April 12, 1989, Walker Smith Jr (known to the world as Sugar Ray Robinson) died. At his funeral, Jesse Jackson eulogized him as “an original art form.” The United States Postal Service would print one hundred million postage stamps bearing his likeness. The only other boxer so honored was Joe Louis.
Most of us tend to be loyal to the sports heroes we worshipped and the music we listened to when we were young. But respect for Robinson transcends time and fondness for any given era.
Indeed, Robinson’s legacy arguably would have been even greater than it is but for the absence of film footage of his fights from the 1940s. People who watch films of Ray as a middleweight (particularly his final victory over Jake LaMotta and one-punch knockout of Gene Fullmer) have seen Sugar Ray Robinson. But they haven’t seen him at his best and never will.
Virtually no film footage of Robinson in action prior to 1950 exists. There are home-movie snippets from seven fights in the 1940s (three Golden Gloves bouts and four professional contests against lesser foes), but that’s all. The first professionally-filmed footage of a Robinson fight is of his lackluster title defense against Charlie Fusari in mid-1950.
That’s like a Frank Sinatra songbook without the young Sinatra.
Robinson’s final ring record was 175 wins against 19 losses with 109 knockouts and 6 draws. There was one “no contest.” He was never knocked out. Once, he collapsed from the heat. As a pro, he boxed 1,403 rounds.
By way of comparison, Sugar Ray Leonard boxed a total of forty pro fights. Leonard’s record after the age of 32 was 1 win, 2 losses, and 1 draw. Robinson, on his thirty-second birthday, had retired from boxing after losing to Joey Maxim and had been defeated just three times in 136 fights. After he returned, he had 66 more fights and won the middleweight championship three more times.
“With some fighters,” Jerry Izenberg observes, “the longer they’re away from the game, the better they get. But Ray was as good as people say he was. He did things that were beyond the imagination of other fighters.”
“The great ones are pioneers in some way,” adds Teddy Atlas. “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 meaning and accuracy. He took away the waste. He didn’t just throw flurries. He threw tighter harder combinations that were all meaningful. He had more than talent. He had genius.”
Consider the phenomenon of being the best ever; a man who defines his craft. Shakespeare . . . Michelangelo . . .
In recent decades, Tiger Woods, Roger Federer, and Michael Jordan have been called “the greatest ever” in their respective sports. But Sugar Ray Robinson required that the language of boxing be changed as a way of codifying his greatness. “Pound for pound” belongs to him. Only Babe Ruth (think “Ruthian blasts”) had a similar impact on the language of his game.
Don Dunphy was the premier blow-by-blow announcer of the Robinson era. He called more than two thousand fights in a career that began during the golden age of radio and ended after the glory years of Muhammad Ali. Reflecting on a half-century behind the microphone, Dunphy declared, “Any ingredient that any champion ever had, Ray Robinson had them all.”
Joe Louis was in accord, saying, “Sugar Ray Robinson was the greatest of anyone who stepped in the ring. I saw him at his best. He was the best fighter that ever lived.”
Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at email@example.com. His next book (“An Unforgiving Sport”) will be published in September by the University of Arkansas Press.