Robinson, Sugar Ray (1921-1989)

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Robinson, Sugar Ray (1921-1989)

Sugar Ray Robinson's abilities and accomplishments made him the idol not only of a generation of boxing fans, but of a generation of boxers as well. Muhammad Ali idolized Sugar Ray Robinson. During the decades of the 1940s and 1950s, Robinson dominated boxing like no one else, sometimes on the front pages of the newspapers, and always in the ring. Born Walker Smith, the man later nicknamed "Sugar" for his sweet-as-sugar style of fighting, originally borrowed the identity of a friend named Ray Robinson in order to enter an amateur boxing tournament for which he was under the required age. Known in the ring for his raw athletic ability, refined boxing skill, and devastating punching power; Sugar Ray Robinson was identifiable outside the ring by his handsome features and flashy pink Cadillac, both of which he sported all over New York City, and especially Harlem. In an era when most fighters did what they were told when they were told, Robinson remained independent, refusing to do business with organized crime, and negotiating many of the contracts for his own fights by himself. Robinson's reputation as a tough negotiator is legendary and the fact that he in effect managed his own career is part of his legacy as an American original.

Robinson began fighting professionally in 1940 and retired for the final time in 1965. Along the way he defeated a list of champions and near-champions that reads like a roll-call of the boxing Hall of Fame. At his best, as a welterweight (147 pounds), he was nearly invincible. As an older middleweight (160 pounds), he became a five-time champion. Nearly all the fighters who fought him and nearly all the fans who watched him fight insist that Robinson was the best ever. The great Jake LaMotta (of Raging Bull fame) managed one single victory against Robinson in six fights, and LaMotta outweighed him in many of their fights by up to 15 pounds. Because the only fighters able to compete with Robinson were fighters larger than him, writers began referring to Robinson as "pound for pound" the best fighter in the world. And indeed, by the time he had completed his career, he had come to be known as the greatest fighter, pound for pound, in the history of boxing. He outboxed all the boxers and out-slugged all the sluggers. "Robinson could knock you out with either hand, while he was going backwards!" was the mantra of those who watched his career unfold.

The title "pound for pound" is not the only expression developed for the express purpose of describing the career of Sugar Ray Robinson. The term "entourage," widely used in the sporting world of the 1990s, was rather new to the boxing world when it was first used to describe the gang of hangers-on that surrounded Robinson. During the height of his career, after winning the middleweight title against LaMotta in 1951, Robinson and his entourage toured Europe for a year, living the good life. Along the way, however, Robinson lost the title to an Englishman named Randy Turpin. Though Robinson got serious for the rematch and won back the title three months later, it was becoming clear that interests other than boxing were beginning to occupy the time of the greatest fighter the world had ever seen. Sure enough, Sugar Ray Robinson retired in 1952, to become a nightclub entertainer, doing song and dance acts, and not doing them very well. By 1955 he was back in the ring, winning and losing the title three more times before finally hanging his gloves up for good at the age of 45—ancient for a boxer. Sugar Ray Robinson occupies a niche similar to that of Babe Ruth or Michael Jordan, if not in popular culture, then at least in the history of sports. All three were thoroughly dominant during their sport's golden age, and all three represent the standard by which greatness in their sport is measured.

—Max Kellerman

Further Reading:

Anderson, Dave. Sugar Ray. London, Putnam, 1970.

Schoor, Gene. Sugar Ray Robinson. New York, Greenberg, 1951.

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Robinson, Sugar Ray (1921-1989)

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