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Robinson, Walker Smith, Jr. ("Sugar Ray")

ROBINSON, Walker Smith, Jr. ("Sugar Ray")

(b. 3 May 1921 in Detroit, Michigan; d. 12 April 1989 in Culver City, California), welter-and middleweight boxer who was the only fighter to win the middleweight title five times.

Robinson was born Walker Smith, Jr., the youngest of three children born to Walker Smith, a construction worker, and Leila Hurst Smith, a chambermaid, in the Black Bottom section of Detroit. A mischievous kid who liked to fool around, Robinson learned the elements of boxing at the Brewster Center in Detroit. He grew up idolizing his neighbor, Joe Louis, and in his autobiography, Sugar Ray (1970), reminisced about the privilege of carrying Louis's training bag to the gym. Leila Smith separated from her husband in 1927, and in 1932 moved with her three children to 419 West Fifty-third Street in the Hell's Kitchen section of Manhattan; the family subsequently moved to Manhattan Avenue and 119th Street in Harlem.

While his mother worked as a laundress, Robinson combined an education at Cooper Junior High School with dance lessons at the Roy Scott Studios, shooting craps, and dancing for dimes on street corners. He also ran errands for a grocery store, sold driftwood, and shined shoes. He fathered a child with a teenage girl, Marjorie Joseph, and married her to make the child legitimate, but the union was annulled three months later. Robinson soon dropped out of DeWitt Clinton High School to pursue his boxing career.

At Police Athletic League contests, Robinson met George Gainford, who soon placed him into the bootleg boxing circuit in New England and upstate New York. Since Robinson was underage for his first fight, Gainford gave him the Amateur Athletics Union (AAU) card of another boxer, Ray Robinson. A Watertown (New York) Daily Times sportswriter named Jack Case dubbed the fledgling fighter "sweet as sugar." The name stuck, and "Sugar Ray" Robinson roared through the amateur ranks with a record of 85–0, winning the New York City Golden Gloves titles as a featherweight (1939) and a lightweight (1940). He turned professional in 1940 under Gainford's management.

Robinson quickly became famous for his speed, agility, and extraordinary repertoire of punches. Winning his first forty fights (twenty-nine by knockout), he was named outstanding fighter of 1942 by Ring magazine. In the first of their six battles, Robinson won over Jake LaMotta on points in 1942, though most sportswriters favored LaMotta, who was known as the "Raging Bull." In their rematch, LaMotta won over Robinson by a decision after nearly knocking him out in the eighth round. In a third match, Robinson won in twelve rounds. He continued to dominate LaMotta in three more fights, though LaMotta insisted in his autobiography Raging Bull that he won at least two of them. LaMotta also boasted that although Robinson padded his record by knocking out mediocre opponents, "he was never able to flatten me."

Robinson was drafted into the U.S. Army on 27 February 1943, and that March he was inducted as a sergeant in Joe Louis's boxing troupe. The boxers gave exhibition tours of boxing at military bases for fifteen months. On 29 May 1943 Robinson married a former showgirl named Edna Mae Holly, with whom he had a son. After his honorable discharge on 3 June 1944, Robinson returned to full-time boxing.

Robinson fought sixteen bouts in 1946, entering the ring at times every ten days. He capped the year by winning his first title on points over Tommy Bell for the World Welterweight Championship in New York on 20 December. Six months later, in his first defense of the title, Robinson beat Jimmy Doyle by a technical knockout in the ninth round. After Doyle died the next day from a brain injury, a grieving Robinson established a trust fund for Doyle's mother.

Robinson won forty-eight consecutive bouts between 1946 and 1950, but only five were title defenses. The others were income opportunities for Robinson, who shrewdly negotiated his own contracts, saying, "I don't see why I should take fifty cents when I have a dollar coming." Robinson backed up these words by canceling bouts if he was not satisfied with the financial arrangements. Before a fight with LaMotta in 1951, for example, Robinson forced the New York State Boxing Commission and the television networks to accept his terms. They did so because of his ability to attract huge crowds to his matches.

During the late 1940s, years after he had bragged to his Harlem playmates that he would own property "around here someday," Robinson was the proprietor of a top Harlem nightclub, a dry cleaning store, apartment buildings, a lingerie boutique, and a barbershop. More famously, he drove a pink Cadillac convertible.

In 1950 he took his title, car, and entourage to Paris. He won five bouts—four by knockout—while touring Europe in twenty-nine days. Adoring Frenchmen flocked around him and the pink convertible. As policemen cleared his way, droves of cyclists trailed behind like small fish after a cruise ship. Robinson, a sharp dresser and notorious ladies' man, charmed U.S. columnists Damon Runyon and Walter Winchell by denouncing Paul Robeson, who claimed to have signed Communist Party petitions as "simply autographs." Later he offered to fight Orval Faubus, the segregationist governor of Arkansas, "after I take care of [Carmen] Basilio."

On 14 February 1951 Robinson returned to business by beating LaMotta for the last time, winning the world middleweight title and vacating his welterweight crown. Flush with success, Robinson returned to Europe. On one occasion, he kept French notables waiting for an hour as he toured the town. As bejeweled ladies were pushed aside in the rush to meet "Monsieur Roban-sahn," he donated a large check to the Damon Runyon cancer fund and bussed Madame Vincent Ariole, the first lady of the nation, on each cheek.

Robinson's grand tour hit a pothole when the black English boxer Randy Turpin beat him by decision in fifteen rounds in London. Licking his wounds, Robinson returned to his adoring fans in New York, who included the mayor, the chief of police, and 3,500 people at city hall. Part of this adulation was due to the fact that columnist Walter Winchell had reported that Robinson had donated nearly $60,000 to the cancer fund. Robinson offered no excuses for his defeat and promised the next match would end differently. He regained his title on September 12 with a tenth round knockout of Turpin.

Robinson fought only three times in 1952; all were title defenses. He beat Bobo Olson in fifteen rounds on March 13; knocked out Rocky Graziano in the third round, then lost his challenge for the light heavyweight championship by knockout to the tough Joey Maxim in the fourteenth round in a sweltering Yankee Stadium. Six months later Robinson announced his retirement, citing a potential acting career, tap dance engagements, and an admission that he could "not [sic] longer give the public his best."

Robinson stayed in retirement in 1953 and most of 1954. He announced his comeback in October of that year, then fought an exhibition in Ontario the following month. Observers thought his thirty-four-year old reflexes were sluggish and his punching combinations "lacked their once deadly, almost blurry swiftness." On 19 January 1954 his return was marred by a loss in ten rounds to Tiger Jones. After four tune-ups, however, Robinson flattened Bobo Olson in two rounds to regain the middleweight championship, and repeated his domination of Olson by knocking him out in four rounds in their rematch.

In the next few years, while he restored his pattern of easy bouts against inferior opponents, Robinson also thrilled U.S. television audiences with a series of classic title matches against Gene Fullmer and Carmen Basilio. Robinson first lost to Fullmer in fifteen rounds in Los Angeles on 2 January 1957, then knocked him out in five rounds in Chicago on 2 May 1957. Three months later Basilio took away Robinson's crown in fifteen rounds in Madison Square Garden. Robinson won it back for the fifth time in Chicago on 25 March 1958. He fought only once in 1959 and lost his title for good to Paul Pender in a fifteen-round decision the following year. Two rematches with Fullmer that year also ended in defeat.

Although he never again fought for a title Robinson stayed in the ring, prompting his mother to comment, "The older he gets, the more he wants to prove he isn't." In 1962, with clearly declining skills, Robinson lost three of his six bouts. Undaunted, he entered the ring ten times in 1963 and 1964. Few of these matches were headliners; most were fought in smaller cities or in Europe. In 1965 he fought fourteen times; three bouts were with Young Joe Walcott. He lost five of the matches. After an embarrassing loss to Joey Archer, Robinson retired for good. He had achieved an extraordinary lifetime record of 175 wins, 19 losses, 6 draws, 2 no-contests, and 109 knockouts.

Robinson spent his retirement in Los Angeles. After his wife, Edna Mae, obtained a Mexican divorce in 1963, he married his longtime companion Mildred Wiggins Bruce on 25 May 1965; they had no children. His $4 million of ring earnings had largely vanished. In 1969 he established the Sugar Ray Robinson Youth Foundation, which seeks to build the self-esteem of underprivileged youth by giving them an opportunity to realize their potential through sports, fine arts, and performing arts activities. Robinson suffered from Alzheimer's disease in his last years before dying of heart ailments and is buried in Inglewood Cemetery in Los Angeles.

A generally accepted accolade is that, "pound for pound," Robinson was the best boxer ever. His influence on Muhammad Ali's boxing technique and flamboyant style, and the way in which his public persona created a role model for the African-American working class, will carry his name into future generations.

Robinson's autobiography, written with Dave Anderson, is Sugar Ray: The Sugar Ray Robinson Story (1971). LaMotta's comments can be found in Jake LaMotta, Joseph Carter, and Peter Savage, Raging Bull (1970). Further biographical information on Robinson can be found in Michael McLean, "Sugar Ray Robinson," Scribners Encyclopedia of American Live s (1999); and David A. Nathan, "Sugar Ray Robinson, the Sweet Science, and the Politics of Meaning," Journal of Sport History 26:1 (spring 1999): 163–172.

Graham Russell Hodges

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