Sugar Ray RobinsonJul 31st, 2011 | By BHS | Category: Sports
1920?-1988 Sugar Ray Robinson is widely regarded as the best boxer in the history of the sport. After winning a Golden Gloves amateur title in his teens, he went on to enjoy a storied professional career during which he won, in succession, the world lightweight, welterweight, and middleweight championships. At his peak, he had an astounding record of 98 wins and three losses.
Dancing on the Sidewalks
Robinson was born Walker Smith, Jr., in Detroit, Michigan, on or about May 3, 1920. His father, Walker “Pop” Smith, Sr., was a construction laborer, and his mother, Leila Hurst, worked as a chambermaid and seamstress. After his parents divorced, Robinson moved with his mother and his two older sisters through a succession of homes in Detroit, Georgia, and then New York, barely managing to earn enough to survive. In New York City, Robinson attended public schools and held odd jobs to help support the family. During this period, his mother scraped up enough money for tap lessons, and Robinson could sometimes be found with his friends dancing for change outside Broadway theaters.
After his family settled in Harlem, Robinson earned a reputation as someone good with his fists, both on the streets and in the school yard. In high school, he began hanging out with a friend at a local gym. The gym featured a boxing program, and as soon as Robinson stepped into the ring, the grace and balance that would characterize his style were apparent. A coach at the gym, George Gainford, first showed Robinson the ropes, then began entering him in amateur boxing tournaments. To avoid red tape, Gainford entered him under the name of another boy who had boxed at the gym. The boy’s name was Ray Robinson. Legend has it that “Sugar” was added when someone (thought to be a coach, reporter, or fan) observed that Robinson’s boxing style was “sweet as sugar.”
Robinson rose quickly in amateur boxing, winning the featherweight championship in 1939. He turned professional the following year, knocking out a boxer named Joe Escheverria in the second round of his first fight. Over the next 25 years, he went on to become world champion in three different weight classes. His first defeat came at the hands of Jake LaMotta in 1943, in his 41st fight. He didn’t lose again for eight years.
A Legendary Match-up
Robinson’s five matches against LaMotta, also one of the great boxers of the 20th century, have become legends. Two weeks after the first fight on February 4, 1943, they had a rematch, and this time Robinson won. Both fights went 10 rounds. Two years later to the day, the two boxers met a third time, and once more, Robinson prevailed. Then, in September of 1945, he defeated LaMotta again. Robinson was now in peak form. The next year, in December, he was given a shot at the welterweight title and defeated Tommy Bell in 15 rounds. He never lost another welterweight fight, holding the world title undefeated until he made the decision to vacate it in 1951, and fight for the world middleweight title. The championship bout took place on February 4th of that year, and once more his opponent was Jake LaMotta. Robinson defeated him again, this time by a knockout in round 13. It was the last time LaMotta fought Robinson.
With his fluid, powerful style, great ability to absorb punches, and a superb feel for tactics, Robinson overcame stronger opponents time and time again. He never lost a featherweight fight. He suffered only one loss to LaMotta as a welterweight. As a middleweight, he lost only once to Randy Turpin in a title fight in London in 1951. After the middleweight loss, Robinson quickly regained the title by defeating Turpin in a rematch in New York. The next year, in the summer of 1952, he lost a light-heavyweight championship fight to Joey Maxim. It took place in New York in the midst of a sweltering heat wave. In the 10th round, the heat overwhelmed the referee who nearly fainted. Then, in the 13th, Robinson was ahead on points when he succumbed to the heat and passed out. That loss was enough for Robinson, and a few months later, in December 1952, in the 12th year of his professional career, Robinson announced his retirement. His record at the time was an astonishing 98 victories, three defeats, and one draw.
For the next two years, Robinson pursued a career as an entertainer in the United States and Europe. His stage shows were a mixture of comedy, singing, and dancing. But in October 1954, in response to a sudden crisis in his finances, Robinson reentered the ring. Between late 1954 and late 1965, he boxed in 99 matches, winning 77 of them. Finally, on December 10, 1965, at a gala ceremony in New York’s Madison Square Garden, Robinson formally announced his retirement, and this time it was for keeps. His career record was 175 victories, 109 knockouts, 19 losses, and six draws. He had defeated such legendary boxers as Henry Armstrong, Kid Gavilan, Carmen Basilio, Rocky Graziano, Gene Fullmer, Fritzie Zivic, and Carl “Bobo” Olson.
In his final years, Robinson found success in motion pictures and television, and he used the wealth he accumulated to create the Sugar Ray Robinson Foundation to help disadvantaged children participate in sports. But he was unable to win a bout with diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease, and died on April 12, 1988. His funeral services in southern California were attended by a Who’s Who of the boxing world, along with celebrities from Elizabeth Taylor to the Reverend Jesse Jackson. Jackson delivered the eulogy, but Robinson’s best epitaph may have been renowned sportswriter Barney Nagler’s observation that “he boxed as though he were playing a violin.”