He is Walker Smith, who boxed under the ring name of Sugar Ray Robinson and lit up the Forties and Fifties with a dazzling array of skill, power, good looks and, when he had to, tremendous courage. Claude Abrams pays homage to him… the greatest fighter of all-time
TIME has done little to distort the image of near-perfection which is Sugar Ray Robinson.
Many years have passed since he last fought and, to the end of a staggering 25-year career, Robinson remained extraordinary: a master boxer, wonderfully proportioned, steel-chinned, iron-willed, a chilling puncher blessed with dazzling speed who would always knock his opponent out if the chance presented itself.
Robinson knew how to do just about everything – except, perhaps, hang up his gloves at the right time.
Like so many of the greats, Sugar Ray, our No. 1 choice, was transfixed by glory and adulation and finished on a loss, a 10-round points defeat by Joey Archer, who couldn’t punch particularly hard, yet knocked him down.
Indeed it would be grudging to allow the minor setbacks at the tail-end of an astonishing career to offset his fabulous achievements.
Anyone who saw Robinson fight will acknowledge he was the best, as will nearly all his opponents, with the possible exception of the sturdy Gene Fullmer, who beat him in two of four (one draw) meetings.
Robinson, world welterweight champion from 1946 until 1949 and five-time world middleweight king between 1951 and 1960 (a record), packed up for good on December 10, 1965, a month after his final contest.
Amazingly, only 15 months separate the end of his career and the beginning of Roberto Duran’s, but Sugar Ray was 45 when the curtain came down for good. He had first retired on December 18, 1952, six months after suffering his sole inside-the-distance defeat in 202 contests – against Joey Maxim for the world light-heavy title – but couldn’t resist the lure of the ring.
Sugar Ray thought he could. His mother, Marie, who watched most of his fights, had always told him, “Get out when you’re ready, not when you’re through”.
It was smart advice. “There ain’t nothing or anyone who can get me back in the ring,” Ray insisted in 1953.
Robinson, despite saying the training had become harder leading up to the Maxim fight, grew bored with dancing on the night-club circuit – apparently a brilliant dancer – and announced his return on October 20, 1954, boxing another 65 times over the next 11 years.
From the slicked-back hair – always neatly in place – to his primed physique, not overly muscular but defined and loose, Robinson, who was almost 6ft tall, majestic, handsome and charming, was as close to the consummate fighting machine as the world had seen.
He possessed sharp reflexes, amazing agility, a vicious punch in either hand, grace, accurate timing, clever footwork, the ability to take a blow and attack going in any direction. He had a unique stance: the left hand held low – always ready to counter – the right fist unclenched, tucked slightly under and to the left of his chin.
He moved on the balls of his feet, always balanced perfectly and poised to spring into action. Robinson controlled opponents with his jab, could dart at his foes with amazing precision, sometimes doubling and trebling his slashing left hooks – often aimed to head and body in the same attack – and landing them like bolts of lightning.
Sugar Ray may have appeared open to hooks and the right over the top, but no one was able to take advantage. The closest he came to getting knocked out was by Artie Levine, who dropped him with a left hook for nine in the fifth before getting stopped in the 10th of their 1946 meeting.
Often, though, Robinson’s rivals never knew what to expect. Rarely did he allow his foes much time to settle and he was always fit. The doctor who examined Robinson before he stopped Jean Walzack in six in Liege in 1951 said he was the fittest man he had ever met. There can be no disputing he was the supremo.
Muhammad Ali, the former world heavyweight king whom we rated No. 2 in our all-time list, said so and Sugar Ray Leonard added, “There was no comparison between us. He was the best”.
Born Walker Smith Jnr in a flat in Black Bottom, Detroit on May 3, 1921, Robinson grew up on 662 Henry Street before the family moved during the deep depression to Harlem, New York when the skinny boy was 12.
Two years later he started boxing on a show in Kingston, New York. George Gainford, a big man of about 6ft and almost 15st who forged a partnership with Ray for his entire career, matched him with a kid of a similar build.
Robinson was not registered, so Gainford reached into his pocket to produce an old card of a fighter named Ray Robinson. The legend was born.
Soon Sugar Ray was earning well in “bootleg” bouts to support his family, quitting school when he was young. He got into scrapes on ‘ the streets, but says his sister often stood up for him.
Robinson turned professional at 20 (October 4, 1940), having won all 89 amateur contests (63 inside the distance) – including a decision over Willie Pep, our No.6 – climbing off the floor to stop Joe Echevarria, one of seven men to knock him down, in the second.
His final and lasting retirement came after suffering his fifth defeat of 1964. Ten of his 18 points setbacks took place after 1962, when his skills had eroded, his timing slower and his blows had lost some bite. But Robinson could still mix with the best right until the end, even if much of his greatness had worn off. He won 175 times, scoring more knockouts or stoppages (110) than modern great Julio Cesar Chavez has had fights.
He drew on six occasions and was stopped only once, through heat exhaustion (temperatures reached 106 degrees) when he failed to answer the bell for the 14th round against Maxim at Yankee Stadium, New York in June 1952.
“Maxim [below left] 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.”
It was a boiling, incredible night. Even referee Ruby Goldstein failed to last the course, unable to come out for the 10th and being replaced by Ray Miller. But Sugar Ray, who at 11st 3 1/2lbs was lighter than any other world light-heavyweight title challenger in history bar Ted ‘Kid’ Lewis (knocked out in two minutes 15 seconds by Georges Carpentier in June 1922), was still way ahead on points when the finish came against a champion who outweighed him by 15 1/2lbs and, a year previously, had gone 15 rounds with Ezzard Charles for the world heavyweight title.
Sugar Ray perhaps paid the price for setting such a torrid pace and it was too one-sided to be called thrilling, but his amazing performance was comparable today with, say, a welterweight Oscar De La Hoya outclassing super-middleweight Joe Calzaghe.
Robinson, as weak as a kitten, was carried back to his changing room and put under a cold shower. He and Gainford were criticised for trying to bridge the gap in weight – a venture taken all too often these days – and The Ring magazine even suggested a ban should be imposed to prevent fighters from doing so again.
But there’s more. Much more. Robinson, who had an ego to match his heart and skill and hated to fly or travel by boat, won his first 40 fights before losing on points to great rival Jake LaMotta, ‘The Bronx Bull’ (Sugar Ray claimed he paid the price for not training properly), and went undefeated in his next 89 bouts (two draws and one No Contest) before Leamington Spa’s Randy Turpin dethroned him over 15 rounds in a huge shock at Earls Court in July 1951.
Sugar Ray was really only a light-middle, but the 11st division didn’t exist back then.
Turpin, big for his weight, fought brilliantly. “Ray made the first move every time,” he said. “When he moved, I moved. When he feinted, I feinted. When he ducked, I ducked. I watched him more carefully then a cat watches a mouse.”
Robinson congratulated his conqueror: “There’s no doubt he was the better fighter,” he admitted. “For once, I just didn’t have it.”
But Ray made his excuses. “I was sold out from all the travelling [on his European tour]. It wasn’t the fights, but never sleeping in the same bed for more than two nights. My eyes were tired. He punches pretty good, but the return won’t go 15 rounds. I’ll get the title back.”
He was right. Randy lost the return 64 days later at the Polo Grounds, New York before a crown of 61,370. For nine rounds Robinson again could not get to grips with the Briton – until he suffered a terrible cut over the (same) left eye which had required stitches in the first clash.
Sugar Ray saw red – literally – and shifted gears almost instantly, forcing a conclusive finish in the 10th as he dropped Randy with a huge right hand. Turpin took a count of nine, went to the ropes, where he thought he would be safe, and was subjected to a furious fusillade of blows before he was rescued, still trying to bob and weave, with eight seconds left in the round.
No one knows how he stayed on his feet, though many, to this day, say Turpin was robbed of glory. A fighter had been killed just days earlier and many say that influenced referee Goldstein’s decision to step in.
Whatever, it was reported in Britain that because four million had switched on lights and radios during the night to listen to the BBC’s broadcast, burning an estimated 70 tons of coal, the British electricity authority would find itself short of power in the forthcoming winter.
The American Press called it Robinson’s finest hour, but Sugar Ray had greater moments. It is still argued he was at his peak as a welter, particularly as his record in the world middleweight title bouts was only 8-6-1, but there were few fighters he failed to unravel and he fought all sorts in an age and division where knockovers rarely existed.
Robinson tackled all the great champions of his day. LaMotta said he boxed Sugar Ray so many timed he was surprised he didn’t get diabetes. “All our fights were close,” he said. “But that’s why we fought six times [Robinson won five]. He knew he was in a fight – and so did I.
“I fought the greatest fighter of them all. We stood toe-to-toe and banged away. No foul ‘ blows. Most times I had to chase him. I had to be in superb condition.”
Robinson stopped LaMotta in the 13th in their final meeting before a crowd of 14,802 at Chicago Stadium in February 1951. Having outscored Jake four times previously, Sugar Ray, who collected $22,340 – the smaller share – tried desperately, but failed to floor his great rival, who had never before hit the canvas in 95 fights.
“I thought the fight was even for six rounds and that he shaded me in the seventh and eighth,” admitted Robinson. “But I purposely let him gain false confidence. Then I got tired of hitting him. It was the shortened punches in the late rounds that did the trick.”
Robinson’s finishing attack was described as “frenzied”. And referee Frank Sikora stopped the slaughter with Jake on his feet but helpless on the ropes. LaMotta’s lips were almost too swollen for him to speak. He left the ring under his own steam, but received oxygen. Jake’s wife Vicki, a “Miss America”, said her husband had struggled to make the weight.
Henry Armstrong, whom we ranked No. 4 all-time great and held the world feather, light and welterweight titles simultaneously, lost over 10 rounds to Sugar Ray in New York in August 1943, shortly before Robinson joined the army.
Armstrong was 30, Robinson 23, though it was Henry’s sole blemish during a 19-fight spell. Armstrong accused Robinson of running. “He was clever,” admitted Henry.
But Robinson said he fought that way because Armstrong was a friend and needed the money. Sugar Ray claimed Henry, his idol who had fallen on hard times, had phoned him and pleaded 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.”
At the age of 32 Sugar Ray Leonard, a modern-day champion in five divisions, had boxed 36 times and started to slide,
whereas Robinson, who fought in a tougher era, was about 13 years away from retirement and had compiled a record of 127-2-2 with one No Contest. Leonard was undoubtedly superb, but Robinson better.
Rocky Graziano, who won the world middleweight title from Tony Zale, “The Man of Steel”, 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.”
Graziano, knocked down in the third when his gumshield was sent spinning into the crowd, had one more fight, a points defeat by Chuck Davey, before retiring.
Yet Robinson had gone 15 rounds with Carl ‘Bobo’ Olson only a month earlier.
Millions watched the Graziano fight on TV. A crowd of 22,264 paid to get in at the Chicago Stadium. “I feinted and them hit him on the chin [with a superb right],” said Robinson, describing the finish. He had moved anti-clockwise for a second to confuse his opponent.
Olson, who became world middleweight king after two defeats by Robinson, also 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.”
They fought twice more, on December 1955 and May 1956, with Olson – who lived a secret life for years with two women and two sets of kids – losing in two and four rounds respectively.
Still, Olson went on to take Maxim the distance in his next fight, draw with Giulio Rinaldi, who had outscored light-heavyweight great Archie Moore, and lasted the course with quality operators like Johnny Persol and former Olympic champion Pete Rademacher.
Robinson fought 14 world champions in all, comprising 33 contests. He defeated all but three of them, probably because of age. Twice he outpointed tough ex-world lightweight champion Sammy Angott.
Fritz Zivic [below right], who had 232 fights and was crowned champion at 10st 7lbs in 1940 when he outpointed Henry Armstrong, also boxed Robinson twice. Nine months after stopping Armstrong in the 12th round of a rematch, Zivic was outpointed over 10 by Sugar Ray and, in 1942, Robinson recorded one of only four inside-the-distance victories against the Pennsylvanian, stopping him in 10 in New York.
The fabulously-slick Cuban, Kid Gavilan, master of the bolo punch which Robinson also perfected and never halted in 143 fights in 15 years as a pro (1943 – 58), beat Carmen Basilio, but Sugar Ray outpointed him in both their meetings – a non-title 10-rounder in September 1948 and unanimously over 15 difficult rounds for the world welterweight title at the Municipal Hall, Philadelphia in July 1949.
Twenty two months and 26 fights later Gavilan became world champion, just to prove the Cuban Hawk was far from over the hill.
Basilio and Robinson had two memorable meetings, the first at Yankee Stadium in 1957 which Carmen won by a split decision over 15 rounds. When they met again six months later (March 25, 1958) at the Chicago Stadium the result was the same, only in Robinson’s favour. The blistering contest was shown via satellite from 174 outlets in 143 American cities with 364,876 customers paying more than $1,400,000 at the box-office.
Robinson, eight years older at almost 38 and who earned about $250,000, won the middleweight crown for a record fifth time and threatened to retire again – as undefeated champion. He had struggled to make the weight and the rough, tough Fullmer, who had outpointed him over 15 rounds for the title in January 1957 and lost the rematch four months later, was on stand-by.
Basilio, impervious to pain, had his left eye slammed shut for the last 10 rounds, but said he was never hurt.
“Robinson kept using the right uppercut,” he said. “He knew I bobbed and weaved. He was tall, hard to catch cleanly, but I fought him with one eye. I had ice on the eye for three days to reduce the swelling. But he’d never fight me a third time.”
Sugar Ray didn’t box again until December 1959 – 21 months later – when he stopped Bob Young in the second of a non-title clash in Boston. Then he engaged in two more matches with Fullmer, losing both.
“I was confident I could beat Robinson,” said Fullmer. “I trained hard and had such a tough time getting the fight. He wasn’t the greatest where I was concerned. My style gave him more trouble than most. My fights with him weren’t my toughest other than he knocked me out that time [with the sweetest left hook in the fifth round in May 1957, the only time Fullmer was ever knocked out in 64 fights].
“He held a lot and complained a lot too because I was rabbit-punching.
“He liked to punch at long range. I learned how to cut the ring off and keep from getting hit on the chin as I was getting in close.
“I think it made me a better fighter after he knocked me out. I understood it could happen. I don’t know anything about the punch except what I have seen on the video. The first thing I knew, I was standing up and Robinson was in the other corner. There was no pain, nothing.”
Robinson should have retired after the last defeat by Fullmer. He was approaching 41 and his record – 32-11-3 1 NC – over the final five years of his career illustrates his decline.
At worst, Robinson could still muster a good opening round, when his arms and legs were fresh, but struggled to manage that against Joey Giardello in Philadelphia in June 1963.
Sugar Ray never ran short of gusto, though. He tried hard over the final three rounds to find a way to win – having lost the previous seven and taken a count of eight in the fourth from a left hook – but as one American writer put it, “Even my typewriter is running out of tears”.
Britain’s Terry Downes also had the advantage of youth against Robinson – though Giardello was 33 – and outpointed the former champ over 10 before a packed house at Wembley in September 1962, five months after the cockney, then 26, had lost his world crown to Paul Pender, who two years previously had outpointed the Sugarman twice in 15 rounders for the same title. Downes didn’t give the 42-year-old Robinson a moment’s rest and Britain was not a successful hunting patch for the great American.
He loved Europe, but lost three of four appearances in the UK; a controversial decision against Mick Leahy in Paisley in September 1964 followed the next month by his sole success – a sixth-round stoppage against teak-tough Nigerian Johnny Angel at the Hilton Hotel in London in October 1964.
In only five of the first 21 years of Robinson’s career did he fail to face a future or former world champion: 1953 (because he was retired), and 1954 and 1959 (because he boxed only once).
By the time Robinson was 30 and around his prime, he had earned well, though most of his money was tied up in property and businesses. He cared for his close family, particularly his mother, who had raised him (when Ray’s father had left home) and paid 25 cents for Robinson’s first boxing lesson at the Brewster Recreation Centre, where Joe Louis, who became his close friend, also learned to fight.
Sugar Ray never had much loose cash. His money went on his huge travelling 20-strong entourage which included a trumpet player and barber. Robinson, who drove an open-top pink Cadillac, denied it was a circus and insisted every member had an important role to play.
Perhaps he was just being modest, but Robinson didn’t consider himself the best. He never lacked confidence, though. In an interview in 1951 Sugar Ray said, “I don’t think I’m so great. When I hit a fellow and he goes down, I say to myself, ‘I don’t know how that happened’. It just happens.
“Someone said I was the best fighter since Benny Leonard, but I never saw him fight and don’t know how I fit with him.”
Robinson had natural ability in abundance. He was a dancer, quick on his feet and with his hands. His trainer maximised Robinson’s talents.
“He showed me how to punch so as not to hurt my hands and how to keep from getting hit,” he said.
“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.
“I got a kick out of being champion. But if you can’t act like one out of the ring, how can you be one inside?”
Robinson, who in August 1950 retained his world welterweight title on points over 15 rounds against Charlie Fusari in Jersey City and gave his entire $33,120 purse to the Damon Runyon Cancer Fund, said the secret to his success was to keep his mind and legs in shape. “I always got that part right,” he said.
“I had pride, and a lot of it. After Turpin beat me – fair and square – I watched a tape of the fight and didn’t realise how bad I’d looked. But lightning doesn’t strike twice in the same place.”
Sugar Ray, a keen golfer, liked the good life, but didn’t drink or smoke. He trained hard, often going into camp, running in the mornings, sparring in the afternoons and walking in the evenings. He enjoyed the mountains, the fresh air, the sound of the trees in the wind. He liked to reach his peak a few days before a fight and then hold it.
“If it hadn’t been for boxing I could have been a hoodlum or a gangster,” he said.
“I escaped all that. I got to be a big man in boxing. I figure boxing was good for me. It could be I was lucky.
“You have to sacrifice to be a fighter. George [Gainford] taught me everything. He taught me how not to argue with people.”
Robinson’s success continued long after his retirement. In 1969 he started Sugar Ray’s Youth Foundation in downtown Los Angeles, where he worked until his death, aged 67, because of heart failure on April 12, 1989.
He had been ill with Alzheimer’s Disease for some time and had perhaps forgotten much of what he had achieved.
But it is extremely doubtful, particularly with the trend of boxers’ careers shortening, his like will be seen again.