Robinson, Sugar Ray 1921–1989
Sugar Ray Robinson 1921–1989
It is a testament to Sugar Ray Robinson’s greatness as a boxer that when people discuss who was the greatest boxer of all-time, pound-for-pound, not only is no one else usually picked, but rarely is anyone else even considered. Robinson dominated first the welterweight and then the middleweight divisions at a time when boxing’s popularity was at its peak, and his skills were so widely admired that famed boxing writer Bert Sugar once wrote that being knocked out by Robinson “was more of an honor than a disgrace.”
Robinson was born Walker Smith, Jr. on May 3, 1921 in Detroit. He grew up poor in the Black Bottom section of that city. In 1932 his father, Walker Sr., and his mother Leila were divorced, and the elder Walker left the family. Leila took Ray and his sisters to New York, where she looked for work. Young Walker had tried boxing at the Brewster gym back in Detroit, and he pursued the sport in earnest once in New York. His manager, George Gainford, ran the gym Smith trained at as an amateur, and remembered the first time Smith came to his gym. “I told Smitty he was too young to fight,” he recalled in Harry Carpenter’s book, Masters of Boxing “Besides, he said his ma would kill him if he got mixed up with the fight game. So I chased him away from the gym, back to delivering groceries and dancing for dimes. But he turned up again. I took him into my home, taught him a few tricks and let him stay around when I took my team round the clubs.… I smacked him down more than once. Smitty deserved his breaks, though. In those days he had nothing.”
A turning point in the legend of Sugar Ray Robinson came one night in Kingston, New York, when Smith was 15. Gainford was short one boxer for a show, and decided to use Smith. Since New York state law forbade anyone under the age of 16 to box, however, Smith needed fake credentials. Gainford happened to have in his pocket the fight card of one Ray Robinson. Smith fought under that name that night, and he would never be known as anything else for the rest of his career. The rest of his name was coined in Watertown, New York, when a reporter observed to Gainford that Robinson was “as sweet as sugar,” the trainer concurred. The fighter was briefly known as Ray (Sugar) Robinson, until it was decided Sugar Ray sounded better.
At a Glance…
Born Walker Smith, Jr., May 3, 1921, in Detroit, Ml; son of Walker Smith, Sr. and Leila Smith. Married three times: second wife Edna M. Holly, from 1943-60; third wife Millie Johnson, from 1965-89. Died April 12, J 1989.
Career: Professional boxer, 1940-65. Welterweight world champion, 1946-51; middleweight world champion five times, 1951, 1951-52, 1955, 1957, 1958-60. Inducted to Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990.
Robinson won the New York Golden Gloves championship at featherweight (126 pounds) in 1939 and lightweight (135 pounds) in 1940. Some historians claim he was never beaten as an amateur, although others say he lost twice. On October 4, 1940, Robinson turned professional with a bout at Madison Square Garden. The 19-year old stopped a fighter named Joe Echevarría in the second round, and his winning streak extended through the first 40 fights and 28 months of his professional career. Twenty-nine of those early victims failed to go the distance with Robinson, including world-ranked welterweights such as Pete Lello, Fritzie Zivic, Norman Rubio, Tony Motisi and Izzy Jannazzo.
Robinson’s first professional winning streak came to a close, and one of his most lasting rivalries was born, on February 5, 1943 in Detroit. He lost a 10-round decision to Jake LaMotta, a fighter he had beaten the previous fall in another 10-round decision in New York. Three weeks after losing to LaMotta, Robinson beat him in another rematch in Detroit. The second fight between the two was the only one of six LaMotta would ever win, but his status as the first fighter ever to beat Robinson was a major facet of his reputation for years to come. The LaMotta-Robinson series has gone down in history as one of the sport’s great rivalries.
Robinson fought at a pace that would be unheard of today. It was not unusual for him to fight twice within the span of a week, and in 1941 alone he fought an amazing 20 times, including two fights in August just two days apart. His schedule slowed in 1943, when he had just six fights, and ground to a halt in late summer, when he began a stint in the U.S. Army. The first bit of controversy in Robinson’s career stemmed from that army hitch. The army was letting high-profile boxers, most notably Joe Louis, avoid combat duty by fighting exhibition bouts for troops overseas. When Robinson’s boxing unit set sail, however, he did not show up. He was awarded an honorary discharge, and later claimed to have fallen down a flight of stairs and suffered amnesia, but some in the press held a grudge against Robinson long afterward.
Robinson resumed his busy fight schedule in the fall of 1944, and built another win streak, winning five fights before that year was out, nine in 1945 and 16 in 1946. It was in the last fight in 1946 in which Robinson won his first world title. He had run his record to 74-1 by the time the National Boxing Association (the forerunner of the present-day World Boxing Association) granted him a fight against Tommy Bell for the vacant world welterweight championship. Robinson won the fight on a 15-round decision and his days as a champion boxer had begun.
Robinson stayed fit with four non-title bouts early in 1947, then put his title on the line for the first time against Jimmy Doyle on June 24. In what sounds like legend but is actually fact, Robinson dreamed the night before the fight that he would kill Doyle with a left hook. Robinson was shaken by the dream and tried to pull out of the fight, but the promoters called in a Catholic priest to reassure him that his worries were unwarranted and that he must go through with the fight. In the eighth round, just as in the dream, Robinson hit Doyle with a devastating left hook. Doyle was carried from the ring on a stretcher and died the next day without ever regaining consciousness. At the coroner’s inquest Robinson was asked if he knew Doyle was hurt, and he replied, as quoted by Carpenter, “It’s my business to keep fighters in trouble when they’re hurt.” Leila Smith later said she believed her son was traumatized throughout his life by the incident.
Robinson did not let the tragedy slow him down, however, and he won five more fights, all by knockout, before the year was over. One was a title defense against Chuck Taylor, and he won five more fights and one more title defense in 1948. He fought 13 times in 1949, gaining 12 wins and a draw—the draw coming in a non-title bout with Henry Brimm—and won his only title defense that year against Kid Gavilán in Philadelphia. He stepped up the pace in 1950, fighting 19 bouts and winning them all, including a title defense against Charley Fusari.
In 1950 Robinson made another career move, moving up to middleweight and winning the Pennsylvania middleweight title. He defended that title twice, never going to the full middleweight limit of 160 pounds, but hovering around the mid-150s and fighting larger men, something Robinson was never afraid to do. In November and December he held his first tour of Europe, something that sounds odd today when fighters rarely box more than four or five times in a year. He won non-title fights in France, Belgium, Switzerland, and Germany, before setting his sights on the world middleweight title.
To win that prize Robinson needed to reacquaint himself with an old rival. He had already beaten Jake LaMotta four times in five fights, but since they had last fought over five years earlier, LaMotta had gone on to win the NBA middleweight title. Their fight on Valentine’s Day, February 14, 1951, was their sixth meeting, but the first in which a crown was at stake. Robinson gradually took control over the first half of the fight, and over the last several rounds he pounded LaMotta with one of the most savage beatings in the history of the sport until the doctor at ringside called for the fight to be halted in the 13th round. Because the fight had been held in Chicago, the boxing writers who were there decreed the fight “another Valentine’s Day Massacre.” The fight was recreated in the 1980 Martin Scorcese film bio of LaMotta, “Raging Bull,” with Robert DeNiro as LaMotta, following Robinson around the ring after the fight’s conclusion taunting, “You never got me down, Ray. You never got me down.” The win marked the end of Robinson’s reign as the welterweight champion, what some have called his prime period, but started a longer career in the middleweight ranks.
Robinson’s career could not have come at a better time in history for him to be a big star. Before World War II and since Vietnam boxing was not widely popular, and widespread attention was usually only granted to contenders in the heavyweight division. But from the late 1940s until the mid 1960s boxing, an easy sport to televise, was a staple on prime-time television, sometimes being broadcast as many as four times a week. With so much boxing being televised, weight classes below heavyweight necessarily had to receive more exposure, and during the heyday of televised boxing Sugar Ray Robinson was one of the sport’s top stars.
Before defending his middleweight title in 1951, Robinson made another tour of Europe, and won all his bouts except for one in Germany. He almost started a riot by knocking out German hero Gerhard Hecht, allegedly with kidney punches, a punch that was legal in the United States but not in Europe. He was initially disqualified, and had to hide under the ring when angry fans began pelting him with bottles. It was later discovered that Hecht had a broken rib, though, and the decision was changed to a no-contest.
His last fight on the tour was a title defense against Randy Turpin in London, and an unprepared Robinson lost his title on a 15-round decision. Carpenter remembered Robinson explaining, “I was never hit with so many jabs in my life and I couldn’t do a thing about it. I was sold out because of the travelling. My eyes were tired and couldn’t focus properly.” Two months later a better-prepared Robinson fought a rematch against Turpin, and he regained the title before 60,000 fans at New York’s Polo Grounds when he knocked Turpin out with one of his classic left hooks.
Robinson took a year off from non-title fights in 1952, fighting only three times and defending his title against two strong challengers, Bobo Olson and Rocky Graziano. Then, on June 25, he fought what many fans consider to be one of his best fights, a fight he actually lost, for Joey Maxim’s light-heavyweight title. Robinson made no attempt to bulk up to the light-heavyweight limit of 175 pounds, fighting instead at his natural weight of 157 and giving away almost 20 pounds. The fight was held on the hottest night of the year in New York City. It was 104 degrees at ringside, and about 140 degrees under the ring lights. Spectators were passing out in the crowd. Robinson outboxed the bigger, stronger man every step of the way, and was far ahead on all the scorecards, needing only to finish the fight to become the third man in boxing history (along with Henry Armstrong and Bob Fitzsimmons) to win the title in three weight classes.
The heat took its toll, though, and Maxim wore Robinson down by leaning on him with his greater weight throughout the fight. Even referee Ruby Goldstein suffered heat exhaustion and had to be replaced after the 10th round, but Robinson stayed strong—until the 13th round. Then he tired visibly and at one point in the round, when Maxim stepped back away from a Robinson hook, Robinson fell right to the canvas on his follow-through. At the end of the round Robinson was almost delirious and had to be helped back to his corner by his handlers, who tried frantically to revive him for the last two rounds. When the bell sounded for the start of the 14th, however, Robinson could not stand up, and his only fight for the light-heavyweight title went down in history as a near-miss. It was also the only fight of his career in which he failed to complete the match.
Winning his third title was the last real goal Robinson had left. Carpenter quoted him as saying prior to the Maxim fight, “The papers say I do everything for Ray Robinson first. That could be. I see a lot of bad in boxing. I see a lot of fighters finished and broke. I don’t want that for me. I want to come out with money. I don’t want to keep fighting like Joe Louis. “After losing to Maxim, Robinson said goodbye to boxing, and started a career as a song-and-dance man. Some say Robinson’s reputation would be even greater than it is today if he had stayed retired, but between bad business investments, tax problems and extravagant spending habits, he was faced with no other choice by 1955 than to return to boxing.
After his return to boxing, Robinson was never again the unbeatable force he had been during his prime, but he still had some of his most memorable fights during this period. After winning five of six fights during the early part of 1955, Robinson was given a shot against the middleweight champ, whom he had beaten for the title in 1952. This time he knocked Bobo Olson out in the second round, and again in a rematch early in 1956. Robinson now held the middleweight title for the third time.
Robinson was often resented by his contemporaries for defending his interests at the bargaining table as determinedly as he defended his titles in the ring. Since early in his career he had earned a reputation as a ruthless businessman, and many fighters whose careers would have been well-served by a fight with Robinson were frustrated that he refused to sign to fight anyone who would not agree to terms that were heavily lopsided in Robinson’s favor.
It was not only fighters who found Robinson a formidable opponent in money disputes. Even the rule that allows federal income taxes to be computed based on average earnings over a number of years sprang from a confrontation between Robinson and the Internal Revenue Service. But as champion Robinson was especially aggressive in pursuing his own financial interests. A typical Robinson fight contract dictated that Robinson got the much larger portion of the gate and most or all of the money from television. It also dictated that if the challenger won, he had to give Robinson a rematch with his next fight and Robinson would get most of the money from that fight, too. It was that contractually mandated rematch which would serve him the best in the late 1950s.
On the second day of 1957 Robinson lost his title on a decision to Gene Fullmer, a Mormon from Utah. On the first day of May that year, however, the two met again, and Robinson regained his title with a fifth-round knockout on which many boxing historians consider his best-ever punch. A left hook that came from nowhere landed flush on Fullmer’s jaw and sent him staggering backwards toward the canvas, then left him futilely trying to drag himself back to his feet. Fullmer said in an interview years later that he did not even know he’d been knocked out until his cornermen told him as he sat on his stool some minutes later. Robinson now held the title for the fourth time.
In September of that year, Robinson lost his title on a decision to the great fighter Carmen Basilio. Basilio harbored a great deal of dislike for Robinson, and the two had a true rivalry by the time they met in their rematch on March 25, 1958. Many observers of the fight game thought this was the night when Robinson would truly look his age, and Basilio would finish off the old champ’s career as a viable contender once and for all. But Basilio was troubled from about the sixth round on with a badly swollen eye, and Robinson won a brutal fight with a 15-round decision. He had to be carried from the ring to the dressing room, from the dressing room to his Cadillac, and from the car to his hotel room, but he had won the middleweight championship for a fifth time.
Robinson was nearing 40 now, but he still could not afford to retire from boxing. Part of it was because of his back taxes. But Robinson had also become accustomed to a fairly extravagant lifestyle, which had also become a defining aspect of his image. He had bought for himself over the years a bar, three Harlem apartment buildings, a cleaning and dyeing shop, and a lingerie shop (the latter for his wife—the former Edna Mae Holly, to whom he was married from 1943-60; he had been married briefly to another woman as a teenager, but details are sketchy). The traveling entourage for Robinson consisted of his wife; Gainford, his manager; a male secretary; three trainers; a golf pro; a personal barber; an odd-job man; a chauffeur; and a midget court jester. They carried 100 pieces of luggage among them, and it cost about $3,000 a week to support the lot of them.
Robinson had tried to protect his public image early in his career, donating portions of, and sometimes whole purses, to charity, including Jimmy Doyle’s widow, but as his career progressed he became increasingly unconcerned about his reputation where money was involved. The New York Times Book of Sports Legends recalled Robinson saying, “I went through $4 million, but I have no regrets. If I had the chance to do it over again, I’d do it the same way. I didn’t gamble away my money. I used it to help people live. I took my family and my friends on trips with me. I loaned it to strangers to pay their bills, and sometimes I didn’t get it back.”
Robinson went into a period of inactivity in 1959, fighting only one tune-up fight in December. The NBA stripped Robinson of his title for not defending it, but other jurisdictions continued to recognize him as the champion until he lost that distinction to Paul Pender in Boston in January 1960. He had, of course, written a rematch clause into his contract for the fight, but in June he lost that fight as well. In December he fought for the NBA title, but Fullmer retained that title on a draw. There was one last attempt at Fullmer’s championship the following year, but the champ kept his title on a decision, and Robinson, despite fighting 46 more times over the next five years, never again fought for the world championship. He finally retired in 1965 with a career record of 175 wins, 19 defeats, six draws and two no-contests.
That same year Robinson married his third wife, the former Millie Wiggins Bruce, who was several years older than he was. They lived in Los Angeles, where Ray established the Sugar Ray Robinson Youth Foundation, an organization that funded and organized recreational activities for young people. Ray continued to work out until the mid 1970s, when his age began to take its toll. In the late 1970s a young fighter named Ray Leonard began using the old “Sugar Ray” nickname; some close to Robinson speculated that he must have resented the young fighter usurping his moniker, but for the record, at least, Robinson gave Leonard his blessing.
In the 1980s, as Alzheimer’s Disease, a common malady among boxers with long careers, took hold of Robinson, Millie’s side of the family took control of the youth foundation. Family members, such as Ray’s mother and son (Ray Jr., whom he had with Edna Mae), expressed distrust of Millie and resentment at her refusal to let anyone, even them, see Ray. For her part, she insisted that the two of them were proud people and that as his wife it was her responsibility to protect him and keep anyone from seeing him in his compromised and vulnerable condition. Ray died on April 12, 1989.
In 1997, as part of its 75th anniversary, Ring magazine picked the best fighter pound-for-pound of the last 75 years. The three finalists were Robinson, Joe Louis and Muhammad Ali. Robinson was picked as the winner, which came as no surprise to anyone. Louis had said decades earlier that he thought Robinson was the greatest fighter in the world, and Ali had said in 1975, as quoted in African-American Sports Greats, “I believe I am the greatest heavyweight of all time, but Ray Robinson was the greatest fighter of all time.” Nearly sixty years after he first put on the gloves, Sugar Ray Robinson was still the sweetest.
African-American Sports Greats: A Biographical Dictionary, edited by David L. Porter, Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1995, p. 286.
The Boxing Register: International Boxing Hall of Fame Official Record Book, by James B. Roberts and Alexander G. Skutt, Ithaca, NY: McBooks Press, 1997, p. 358.
The Encyclopedia of Boxing, compiled by Maurice Goldsworthy, p. 171.
Masters of Boxing, by Harry Carpenter, p. 51.
The New York Times Book of Sports Legends, edited by Joseph J. Vecchione, New York: Random House, 1991, p. 264.
Sports Illustrated, July 13, 1987, p. 70; April 24, 1989, p. 96.
Robinson, Sugar Ray
Five-time middleweight champion of the world, Sugar Ray Robinson is remembered as the greatest boxer ever produced by the sport. He won Golden Gloves championships in both featherweight and welterweight classifications and retired undefeated as the world welterweight champion in 1952. He managed also a brief career as a tap dancer, and his Ray Robinson Enterprises spanned the better part of a city block in New York City on 7th Avenue, between 123rd and 124th Streets. Known also for his great generosity and his concern for children, Robinson holds a special place in boxing history.
Walker Smith, Jr.
Born Walker Smith Jr. on May 3, 1921, Robinson was the son of Leila (Hurst) and Walker Smith Sr. The Smiths had moved from Dublin, Georgia, to Detroit, Michigan, along with their two daughters, Marie and Evelyn, just weeks before Robinson's birth. In Detroit, Robinson's father worked as a ditch-digger and moonlighted laying sewers. Leila Smith, who found work as a chambermaid at Detroit's Sheraton Hotel, later supported her family by working as a seamstress. Robinson attended Balch Elementary School where during his early years he was known by all as Junior.
When his parents separated in 1927, Robinson's mother took him and his sisters to stay with their grandmother in Greenwood, Georgia, then returned to Michigan to handle the divorce. She returned after one year and brought the children back to Detroit where the four of them lived on Palmer Street, pending finalization of the divorce. In Detroit, Robinson spent his free time at the Brewster Recreation Center, where he met and idolized the young Joe Louis , still an unknown at that time.
With the divorce papers finalized, in November of 1932 Robinson's mother brought her children to live with her in New York City. There the family rented an apartment near Times Square, at 419 W. 53rd Street. The neighborhood, an ethnic ghetto, was known during the Great Depression as Hell's Kitchen. To stay busy after school Robinson and his sisters went to the Ray Scott Studio for tap dancing lessons. After a year the family moved to Harlem, where Robinson attended Cooper Junior High School; he earned spending money by working at a fruit stand.
Smitty the Flyweight
In June of 1936, at the invitation of Reverend Frederick Cullen, Robinson began to frequent the Salem-Crescent Gym and Athletic Club in the basement of Salem Methodist Church, at 129th Street and 7th Avenue. At the club Robinson learned to box under the guidance of George Gainford, the top man of the time on Harlem's amateur boxing scene. Boxing, according to Robinson, was the only youth sport that could be played in those days without costly fees. Equipment and facilities were all available free of charge.
At age fifteen Robinson weighed 111 pounds and qualified as a flyweight boxer. He was known to his friends as Smitty. He traveled regularly to meets and tournaments with other amateur boxers from the area, but according to his mother's wishes, never fought a match.
Finally one day in Kingston, New York, Gainford needed a fill-in fighter for a flyweight bout. Although qualified by weight, Robinson was not registered with the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) and could not fight for Gainford as a result. Determined to remain in the competition, Gainford resolved the issue by flipping through a stack of AAU identification cards that he held
for his fighters. He turned up a card belonging to Ray Robinson, a fighter who had been inactive on the boxing circuit for some time. Gainford then submitted the card to the officials and instructed fifteen-year-old Walker Jr. to answer the call for Ray Robinson to fight. Smith Jr.—fighting under the name of Ray Robinson that day—won his first-ever boxing match by a unanimous decision.
Sugar Ray Robinson
Using Ray Robinson's AAU card, Smith Jr. continued to fight on the so-called bootleg circuit. It was a bootleg operation because the fighters, who were presumed to be amateurs, pocketed $10 per win. Still fighting under the alias of Ray Robinson, Smith Jr. picked up the nickname of Sugar when a local sports editor in Watertown, New York, remarked of Robinson "That's a sweet fighter you've got there…," to which a fan rejoined, "As sweet as sugar." Still growing, and training in earnest, Robinson brought his weight up to 118 pounds and continued undefeated throughout his years as an amateur boxer. Thus, the career of Sugar Ray Robinson was born.
In 1939 then eighteen-year-old Robinson, weighing just under 116 pounds, defeated Louis (Spider) Valentine for the featherweight championship in the Golden Gloves competition. In 1940, at 126 pounds, Robinson won his second Golden Gloves championship, this time as a lightweight. Leaving behind an amateur record of eighty-five undefeated bouts, including sixty-nine knockouts—with forty in the first round—he hired Curt Horrmann as a manager and turned professional that year. Sugar Ray Robinson made his debut as a welter-weight on October 4 at Madison Square Garden in a bout against Joe Echeverria. Robinson won by a knockout in the second round of the scheduled four-round fight, and took a purse of $150. Just four days later he defeated Silent Stefford in Savannah, and once again it was a second-round knockout for Robinson.
Robinson earned a modest reputation and on July 21, 1941, he fought in a main event for the first time, in a contest with Sammy Angott, the reigning lightweight champion of the National Boxing Association. Angott had agreed to the fight only in a non-title bout. Robinson as a result had to weigh more than 136 pounds in order to be heavier than a lightweight. After tipping the scale at 1361/2 pounds at weigh-in, Robinson won the ten-round decision and pocketed a $6,000 purse for the affair. He finished the calendar year with three more knockouts and two ten-round decisions in his favor.
In 1942 Robinson signed with agent Mike Jacobs who wasted no time in contracting a fight with Jake LaMotta on October 2, 1942 in New York City. Robinson took the 10-round decision but four months later suffered the first loss of his career, in a re-match with LaMotta in Detroit on February 5. After defeating Jackie Wilson two weeks later in New York, Robinson dealt LaMotta a second defeat on February 26 in Detroit in a ten-round decision. On February 27 Robinson reported for induction to the U.S. Army as Private Walker Smith Jr., in compliance with a call to the draft.
After basic training at Fort Dix, New Jersey, Robinson reported for duty as a corporal and was assigned along with Joe Louis to entertain the troops. It is worthy of note that Robinson, because of his forthright manner and conscientious regard for fair play, successfully accomplished the integration of otherwise segregated troops during those military exhibitions in which he appeared. He received an honorable discharge from the army on June 3, 1944, after taking a fall and suffering amnesia for more than one week. Robinson by the end of his military career had attained the rank of sergeant.
Six months after his induction, on August 27, 1943, Robinson went up against former three-way world champion Henry Armstrong, then thirty years old. Robinson, at age twenty-two, was greatly honored to box against one of his own boyhood heroes. The ten-round fight, arranged by Jacobs, would be the final contest of Armstrong's career. Although Robinson won by decision and was later accused of holding back in the bout, he retorted ambiguously that, "The only guys who went the distance with me were the guys I just couldn't knock out.… And I just couldn't knock out Henry Armstrong either."
Won the Welterweight Belt
Robinson racked up a fourth and fifth defeat of LaMotta in February and September of 1945, after which a scheduled title bout between Robinson and world welter-weight champion Marty Servo was cancelled when Servo retired unexpectedly. Robinson subsequently prevailed in a ten-round decision against Angott in March 1946, and that fight proved instrumental in setting the conditions for a December 20 title bout versus Tommy Bell in New York City for the vacant welterweight championship. Robinson won the title in a 15-round decision.
|1921||Born on May 3 in Detroit, Michigan|
|1932||Moves with mother and sisters to New York City|
|1936||Trains with George Gainford at Salem-Crescent Gym and Athletic Club; assumes the name Ray Robinson as an alias in order to compete in AAU|
|1940||Makes a professional debut, against Joe Echeverria on October 4 at Madison Square Garden|
|1941||Fights in a main event for the first time, against Sammy Angott on July 21|
|1942||Beats Jake LaMotta for the first time in New York City on October 2|
|1943||Loses first fight ever on February 5, to LaMotta in Detroit; enters basic training as a U.S. Army draftee; marries Edna Mae Holly on May 29; beats Henry Armstrong in New York City on August 27|
|1947||Knocks out Jimmy Doyle (who dies from injuries) in round 8 of a title bout on June 24 in Cleveland|
|1950||Beats Robert Villemain in Philadelphia, for Pennsylvania middleweight title; beats Charley Fusari in final welterweight defense, on August 9 in Jersey City; tours Europe in November and December|
|1951||Knocks out LaMotta in 13 rounds in Chicago, on February 14 for the middleweight championship; loses middleweight title to Randy Turpin in London on July 10; beats Turpin by a knockout for the middleweight title, on September 12 in New York City|
|1952||Loses to Joey Maxim in New York City on June 25 in a light heavyweight title bout; announces retirement on December 18|
|1954||Returns to ring in an Ontario exhibition against Gene Burton on November 29|
|1955||Beats Carl "Bobo" Olson for the middleweight title, on December 9 in Chicago|
|1957||Loses middleweight title to Gene Fullmer on January 2 in New York; beats Fullmer for the middleweight title, on May 1 in Chicago; loses middleweight title to Carmen Basilio on September 23 in New York; beats Basilio for the middleweight title, on March 25 in Chicago|
|1958||Loses middleweight title to Paul Bender on January 22 in Boston|
|1965||Retires on December 10 after 202 total bouts, 109 knockouts, 66 winning decisions, 6 draws, 18 losses by decision and 1 loss by knockout|
|1989||Dies on April 12|
After knockouts of Bernie Miller, Fred Wilson, and Eddie Finazzo, Robinson won a ten-round decision against George Abrams in New York City on May 16, 1947. All were non-title bouts, with Robinson's first welterweight title defense scheduled against Jimmy Doyle on June 24 in Cleveland. On the day of the fight Robinson tried to cancel the bout because of a dream he had the night before. In the dream, according to Robinson, he dealt a fatal blow to Doyle. Representatives from the boxing commission, and even from the Roman Catholic clergy, counseled Robinson and urged him to consider that the dream was a mere nightmare. Reluctantly he agreed to proceed with the fight.
In an eighth round knockout by Robinson, Doyle hit the mat. He raised one arm momentarily, instinctively seeking the rope, but never regained consciousness and was transported to the hospital. Jimmy Doyle died on the day after the fight, after undergoing surgery. Robinson was shaken by the event and considered ending his career. He came back cautiously over the course of that year, with five knockouts, including a sixth-round knockout in a title defense against Chuck Taylor in Detroit.
Despite a busy fight schedule, title bouts for Robinson were increasingly sparse due to a dearth of contenders. After a title defense against Bernard Docusen in June 1948 and a July 1949 defense against Kid Gavilan, Robinson gained weight and moved into middleweight contention. After a June 5, 1950, defeat of Robert Villemain for the Pennsylvania middleweight tile, Robinson just barely lost the weight necessary to defend his welterweight crown on August 9 in Jersey City against Charley Fusari. The match would be the last welter-weight fight of Robinson's career.
Five-time Middleweight Champion
After defeating Fusari and subsequently defending the Pennsylvania middleweight title against Jose Basora and Carl "Bobo" Olson, Robinson spent the final weeks of 1950 on a European tour. On the Continent he fought a series of middleweight opponents and drew an immense following. During the tour he knocked out Jean Stock and Robert Villemain in Paris, Luc van Dam in Brussels, and Hans Stretz in Frankfort. He fought also in Geneva, winning a ten-round decision against Jean Walzack.
Robinson returned to the United States prepared to challenge then middleweight champion LaMotta for the belt. On February 14, 1951, Robinson defeated LaMotta by a technical knockout in the thirteenth round. He returned to Europe—more triumphant than before—in possession of the middleweight belt.
In a title defense in London on July 10, 1951, Robinson relinquished the middleweight title to Randy Turpin in a 15-round decision. After reclaiming the belt in a rematch against Turpin on September 12 in New York City, Robinson defended the title in San Francisco on March 13, 1952, against Olson. He won by a unanimous decision, and fought a second defense on April 16 against Rocky Graziano , defeating the contender by a knockout in the third round.
After suffering the second defeat of his career at the hands of Joey Maxim in a contention for the light heavyweight title on June 25, 1952, Robinson retired from boxing on December 18. He spent 1953 tending to a series of business enterprises and entered the performing arts as a tap dancer.
Robinson announced his return to boxing on October 20, 1954 and fought a six-round exhibition bout against Gene Burton in Hamilton, Ontario on November 29. He spent 1955 making the steady climb up the ladder of worthy opponents, in an effort to position himself in contention for a middleweight title bout against Olson, who held the belt at that time. Robinson's sixth-round knockout of Joe Rindone in Detroit on January 5 was followed by a loss to Ralph "Tiger" Jones on January 19 in Chicago. Robinson then won a ten-round decision against Johnny Lombardo in March, knocked out Ted Olla in April, and won a ten-round decision against Garth Panter in May. After defeating Rocky Castellani on July 22 in San Francisco, Robinson was scheduled to challenge Olson on December 9 in Chicago. The fight was a route, with Robinson reclaiming the title in a second-round knockout.
After successfully defending the title in a rematch with Olson in Los Angeles on May 18, 1956, Robinson lost to Gene Fullmer in New York on January 2, 1957, after fifteen rounds. Robinson reclaimed the middleweight belt for a fourth time, knocking out Fullmer in five rounds in Chicago on May 1, only to lose to Carmen Basilio in New York on September 23, in the first defense of his fourth middleweight title.
On March 25, 1958, in a rematch against Basilio, Robinson—at age 36—regained the middleweight title for an unprecedented fifth time in a 15-round decision. With no contenders, he held the title for nearly two years, until January 22, 1960, on which day he lost the belt to Paul Bender.
Related Biography: Boxer Henry Armstrong
Born Henry Jackson, on December 12, 1912, in Mississippi, and raised in St. Louis, Missouri, Armstrong was the only boxer ever to hold simultaneous world championship titles in three classifications: featherweight, lightweight, and welterweight.
Armstrong boxed professionally in two bouts in 1931, scoring one win, and one loss by knockout. At that time he appeared under the assumed name of Melody Jackson in order to maintain the amateur status necessary to compete in the 1932 Olympics. As it happened, he failed in his bid for the Olympic team, went to California instead, and embarked on a professional career, changing his name to Armstrong in the process.
After losing his first two professional bouts, he improved steadily and went 52-10-6 in 1936. His 27-0 record in 1937 included twenty-six knockouts. He took the featherweight title on November 19, 1937, by a technical knockout in round six, over Petey Sarron. In 1938 he went 14-0, winning the welterweight title from Barney Ross in a 15-round decision on May 31. Just weeks later, on August 17, he took the lightweight crown from Lou Ambers, also by decision after 15 rounds.
Armstrong, who earned the nicknamed Hurricane Hank for his all-out boxing style, attempted a comeback in 1943 at age 30, but retired soon after losing to Sugar Ray Robinson on August 27.
Although he never held another title, Robinson fought nearly fifty times more over the course of the next five years, losing in only twelve of these contests. When he celebrated his final retirement from boxing on
December 10, 1965, at age forty-four, he was joined ceremonially in the ring by Basilio, Fullmer, Olson, and Turpin—four of the five men who relinquished the middleweight belt to him.
Robinson, in his 1969 autobiography, professed to drinking beef blood for vitamin fortification. Perhaps it worked, because he endured a 25-year career, having fought a total of 202 bouts, of which 109 ended in knockout. He won sixty-six by decision, posted six draws and only nineteen losses—with only one loss by knockout. Critics concur that he was the most capable boxer in the history of the sport.
Robinson, who stood 5-feet-11-inches tall, never finished junior high school, having slowly abandoned his studies as his amateur boxing career materialized. Just before he dropped out of school altogether, an adolescent fling with a schoolmate led to a teenage marriage and the birth of his first son, Ronnie. The marriage was later annulled according to the wishes of the girl's parents.
On May 29, 1943, soon after his induction into the Army, Robinson married Edna Mae Holly, a dancer, in Chicago. Holly, a college graduate, proved to be a great asset for Robinson. In addition to her attractive appearance and sincere devotion to him as a partner, she encouraged him to become well spoken, an asset that greatly enhanced his public image. Their son, Ray Jr., was born on November 19, 1949. Although the two stayed together for many years, Robinson by his own admission was not the most faithful of husbands. In 1963 Holly obtained a Mexican divorce. Robinson married Mildred Wiggins Bruce on May 25, 1965.
Over the course of his professional career Robinson earned an estimated $4 million dollars and was known for his generosity as much as for his fighting ability. Following his ill-fated bout with Doyle in 1947, he gave several thousand dollars to Doyle's mother and later set up a small annuity for her. Similarly, on August 9, 1950, he donated all but one dollar of one prize purse to cancer research, in memory of Valentine, who had died of cancer and was a friend and Golden Gloves opponent to Robinson.
After a final farewell to boxing in 1965, Robinson retired to Los Angeles where he founded the Sugar Ray Robinson Youth Foundation in 1969. He died from heart problems on April 12, 1989, having suffered from Alzheimer's disease for several years prior. He lays buried in Inglewood Cemetery in Los Angeles.
Awards and Accomplishments
|Robinson retired on December 10, 1965, after 202 total bouts, 109 knockouts, 66 winning decisions, 6 draws, 18 loss by decision and 1 loss by knockout|
|1935-40||Fought in 85 amateur bouts; scored 69 knockouts, including 40 in the first round|
|1939||Won Golden Gloves (featherweight division)|
|1940||Won Golden Gloves (lightweight division)|
|1946||Won vacant World Welterweight Championship|
|1950||Won the Pennsylvania middleweight title; won final welterweight defense|
|1951||Won the world middleweight title for the first and second time|
|1955||Won the world middleweight title for the third time|
|1957||Won the world middleweight title for the fourth and fifth time|
SELECTED WRITINGS BY ROBINSON:
(With Dave Anderson) Sugar Ray, Viking Press, 1969.
Markoe, Arnold, ed., and Kenneth T. Jackson. Scribner Encyclopedia of American Lives. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 2002.
Robinson, Sugar Ray, with Dave Anderson. Sugar Ray. New York: Viking Press, 1969.
"IBHOF/Sugar Ray Robinson." www.ibhof.com/robinson.htm (February 3, 2003).
Sugar Ray Robinson: Pound for Pound. Big Fights Inc. (1978) (video).
Sketch by G. Cooksey
Sugar Ray Robinson
Sugar Ray Robinson
Sugar Ray Robinson (1921-1989) was one of the first African American athletes who became well-known outside the boxing arena. He was the world welterweight champion from 1946 to 1951, won the middleweight title five times between 1951 and 1960, and has been universally acclaimed as one of the greatest boxers in the history of the sport.
Born Walker Smith, Jr., in Detroit, Michigan on May 3, 1921, Robinson became interested in boxing as a teenager, when he moved to New York City with his parents. When he was 13, he fought in the Police Athletic League competition, and by the time he was 15 he was fighting unlicensed amateurs. At the beginning of his career, he used his real name and was known as "Smitty" to his friends. One night he showed up for an amateur fight, but did not have the official identity card he needed to fight. He borrowed the boxing card from a friend named Ray Robinson. From then on, he used that name.
According to Ron Borges in HBO World Championship Boxing sportswriter Jack Case, who saw a young Robinson fight at the Salem Crescent Gym in New York in 1939, told Robinson's manager, George Gainford, "That's a sweet fighter you've got there." "Sweet as sugar," answered Gainford. The nickname "Sugar Ray," like manager Gainford, would be with Robinson for the rest of his career.
Robinson was married three times. His first marriage, when Robinson was still a teenager, produced one son, Ronnie Smith. The marriage was later annulled. He then married Edna Mae Holly and they had one son, Ray Jr., in 1949. Robinson married Millie Bruce in 1965, and the two would remain together for the rest of his life.
Early Professional Career
Robinson became a professional boxer in 1940. His first fight, against Joe Echevarria, ended with Robinson's victory in the second round.
Robinson served in the U.S. Army during World War II, but his major battles during that time were with a boxing rival named Jake LaMotta. Robinson had been unbeaten in his first 40 fights. The 41st was against LaMotta. Robinson had easily beaten LaMotta in a 10-round match in New York City, but at a rematch in Detroit, LaMotta won. This was the first defeat of his career. Three weeks later, Robinson avenged himself by beating LaMotta again. This would be a pattern that repeated itself throughout his career; when another boxer beat him (and it happened rarely), Robinson came back in a rematch and pounded the other boxer into defeat.
"That was the thing about Robinson," boxing trainer and historian Teddy Atlas told writer Borges. "He not only won his rematches, he stopped the guy.… He was magnificent after a loss. … He corrected his mistakes and took his opponent apart if they fought again." Atlas also told Borges, "If I had a guy who beat Ray Robinson I'd be sure to do one thing. Don't give him a rematch. Ray had more than talent. He had genius."
After defeating LaMotta in the rematch, Robinson would continue to win for the next eight years. In 1945, Robinson beat LaMotta twice more, prompting LaMotta to say, according to Ron Flatter of ESPN.com,"I fought Sugar Ray so often, I almost got diabetes." LaMotta also said, "No one else wanted to fight him. And no one else wanted to fight me, so thank God he was around so we fought each other."
World Welterweight Champ
In December 1946, Robinson beat Tommy Bell after 15 rounds, earning the welterweight championship. In defending his title in 1947, Robinson knocked out Tommy Doyle in eight rounds. Doyle, who had sustained brain injuries in a previous match, never woke up. Ron Flatter, in ESPN.com, reported that when the police investigated the death and asked Robinson if he had meant to get Doyle "in trouble," Robinson replied, "Mister, it's my business to get him in trouble." Some people said that Robinson had dreamed, the night before this match, that he would kill his opponent, and that when Doyle did die, Robinson lost his "killer instinct." Even so, Robinson remained an incredible fighter.
A Flamboyant Style
Robinson lived in larger-than-life style, with a pink Cadillac convertible, fur coat, and flashy diamond jewelry. He was the owner of a Harlem nightclub where jazz legends like Charlie Parker and Miles Davis played. Robinson was surrounded by an entourage of assistants, including a barber, secretary, voice coach, masseur, trainers, women, and his manager, George Gainford. He was an entrepreneur when that was an unheard-of thing for African Americans to do and at a time when many African Americans were not even allowed to vote. Robinson was a shrewd businessman and hard bargainer. Ron Flatter noted that he was "as much a part of the New York scene in the forties and fifties as the Copa and Sinatra." Fan Tallulah Dancier recalled in Colored Reflections, "I remember seeing pictures of him in Ebony magazine and Jetmagazine with flashy diamonds, a huge fur coat, sitting on a Rolls Royce. But everybody liked him."
"St. Valentine's Day Massacre"
In 1951, Robinson went up against Jake LaMotta again, in a match known as the "St. Valentine's Day Massacre." The referee stopped the fight in the 13th round, when LaMotta could barely stand and no longer had the strength to punch back.
Boxing had its shady side, and Robinson refused to give in to the Mob. He failed to obey the directives of what writer Ron Borges described as "a group of characters to whom legitimate business was only a figure of speech," and "carry" LaMotta through more rounds in that fight. As a result, Robinson was forced to leave the United States for a while because Jim Norris, a Mob-connected character who ran boxing in those days, froze him out of U.S. fighting. He headed to Europe, where his streak of 91 fights without a defeat ended when British boxer Randy Turpin took the welterweight title by winning a 15-round decision in London. Two months later, however, Robinson regained the title by beating Turpin in a 10-round technical knock out (TKO).
In 1952, Robinson went up for the light-heavyweight championship against Joey Maxim in Yankee Stadium. It was a hot night and the temperature in the ring was over 100 degrees. The heat, more than his opponent, wore Robinson down. By the 14th round, he couldn't get up to fight when the bell rang. Six months later, he announced that he was retiring from the sport.
Returned to Boxing
For a short time, Robinson entertained audiences by tap dancing in a nightclub act and undertook various business ventures. But two years later, he was back in the ring, regaining the middleweight championship by beating Carl "Bobo" Olsen three times. He lost the title in 1957 in a bout against Gene Fullmer, but won it back four months later in a rematch. Robinson knocked Fullmer out in the fifth round with a left hook; it was the first time Fullmer had ever been knocked out.
Later that year, Robinson lost the title again, and won it back in a bloody battle against Carmen Basilio. Robinson gained an early advantage in the first fight, cutting open Basilio's eye and nose. An angered Basilio fought back furiously, leading to a split decision in Basilio's favor. Like many other boxers Robinson had beaten, Basilio hated Robinson and claimed that he wouldn never admit how hard he had been punched. "Robinson wouldn't tell the truth to God," Basilio said, according to Ron Flatter.
Robinson hated losing, and followed his classic pattern In a rematch six months later, even though he was sick with a virus, Robinson hit Basilio so hard he couldn't use his left eye and won a split decision, winning the middleweight championship for the fifth and last time.
Robinson didn't fight for two more years. When he finally reentered the ring, he lost the title for good. On January 22, 1960, in a 15-round split decision against Paul Pender, the referee decided in favor of Pender. Ron Flatter reported that when Robinson's manager, George Gainford, complained, Robinson told him, "No beefs, George. Sometimes we got the best of it in the past."
Robinson made about $4 million during his career, but by the mid-1960s his lavish lifestyle had reduced his finances to nothing. In 1965, Robinson, broke and 44 years old-ancient in the grueling, youth-oriented sport of boxing-had to fight five times in 35 days, receiving as little as $1,100 per fight. After losing ten rounds to Joey Archer, he announced his retirement and this time he meant it.
Robinson turned from boxing to show business, and recouped his financial losses, through acting and singing. He appeared on television and in movies and also started a youth foundation in 1969. Robinson moved to California with his third wife, Millie. In one of his last public appearances, Robinson was the best man at the 1986 wedding of his old rival, Jake LaMotta.
Robinson suffered from Alzheimer's disease and diabetes. He died in Culver City, California, on April 12, 1989, at the age of 67.
An Enduring Legacy
Robinson's lifetime record was 175 wins, 19 losses, 6 draws, 2 no-contests, and 109 knockouts. That record has not been forgotten, nor has his incredible grace, speed, and flamboyant style, both in and out of the ring.
Ron Borges quoted trainer and historian Teddy Atlas, who said, "The great ones are pioneers in some way. 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 more meaning and more accuracy. He didn't just throw flurries, he threw tighter, harder combinations that were all meaningful." Trainer Eddie Futch told Borges, "He had marvelous balance and speed and superb reflexes. He was just as dangerous with either hand when going backwards and he knew almost everything there was to know about how to box."
The Ring magazine chose Robinson as the best boxer in its entire 75 years of publication, and said that "pound for pound" he was the best boxer in the history of the sport.
"The Sugar in the Sweet Science," ESPN.com, http://220.127.116.11/sportscentury/features/00947963.html (March 1, 1999).
"All-Time Greatest Fighters: Sugar Ray Robinson," HBO World Championship Boxing, http://hbo.com/boxing/columnsfeatures/greats/cmp/greats-robinson.shtml (March 1, 1999).
"Sugar Ray Robinson," Colored Reflections, http://www.net4tv.com/color/50/Srobinson.htm (March 1, 1999).
"Sugar Ray Robinson," International Boxing Hall of Fame, http://www.ibhof.com/robinson.htm (March 1, 1999).
"Sugar Ray Robinson: God's Fighter,"HBO World Championship Boxing, http://hbo.com/boxing/columnsfeatures/cmp/robinsonarticle.shtml (March 1, 1999).
"Sugar Ray Robinson: Perspective," Colored Reflections, http://www.net4tv.com/color/50/SrobinsonPer.htm (March 1, 1999).
"Sugar Ray Robinson: The Bright Lights and Dark Shadows of a Champion," HBO World Championship Boxing, http://hbo.com/boxing/columnsfeatures/cmp/robinsondocu.shtml (March 1, 1999). □
Robinson, Sugar Ray
Robinson, Sugar Ray
May 3, 1921
April 12, 1989
Boxer "Sugar Ray" Robinson was born Walker Smith Jr. in Detroit to Marie and Walker Smith. He moved with his mother in 1933 to Harlem, where he attended DeWitt Clinton High School. Representing the Salem Athletic Club, he began boxing, using the identification card of a Ray Robinson. He won the New York Golden Gloves in 1939 and 1940 and turned professional late in 1940. A reporter described his technique as "sweet as sugar." Robinson won his first forty fights (twenty-six knockouts) until Jake LaMotta beat him on a decision in 1943. He served as a private during World War II, mainly boxing in exhibitions on tour with his idol, Joe Louis. Robinson demanded fair treatment for blacks in the military, refusing to appear at one show until blacks were allowed into the audience and getting into a fight with a military policeman who had threatened Louis for using a phone in a whites-only area.
Robinson won the vacant welterweight (147 pounds) championship on December 20, 1946, in a fifteen-round decision over Tommy Bell. In Robinson's first defense, Jimmy Doyle suffered fatal brain injuries in an eighth-round knockout. When asked if he had intended to get Doyle into trouble, Robinson responded, "Mister, it's my business to get him in trouble." He moved up to the middleweight division (160 pounds), besting champion Jake LaMotta in the 1951 "St. Valentine's Day Massacre," which got its name from the punishment LaMotta took until the fight was stopped in the thirteenth round. Robinson lost the title on a decision five months later to Randy Turpin in London, making his record 128–1–2. Two months later he regained the title from Turpin with a dramatic tenth-round knockout in New York as he bled heavily from a cut above the left eye. In 1952 he fought Joey Maxim for the light heavyweight championship at Yankee Stadium. He was far ahead on points, but he collapsed after the thirteenth round in 100-degree heat.
Robinson retired from the ring and worked for two years as a tap dancer. He returned to boxing in 1955 and in his seventh bout regained the middleweight crown with a second-round knockout of Bobo Olson on December 9, 1955. He lost the title on January 2, 1956, to Gene Fullmer, regaining it in a rematch four months later, knocking Fullmer unconscious in the fifth. Carmen Basilio dethroned Robinson on September 23 but lost the rematch on March 25, 1958, by decision. Robinson held the middleweight title until Paul Pender defeated him on January 22, 1960. Robinson lost the rematch and two other title bouts, and he retired in 1965. He held the middleweight championship a record five times.
Robinson was renowned for his flashy living. He owned a nightclub, Sugar Ray's, and other Harlem properties, and on tours he took a large entourage, including a valet and barber. He appeared in television and films. Once he was well established, he acted as his own manager and was regarded as a tough negotiator. An Internal Revenue Service tax dispute led to a ruling that allowed income averaging. However, Robinson went through $4 million so fast he had to continue boxing well past his prime. In 1969 he moved to Los Angeles, where he established the Sugar Ray Robinson Youth Foundation for innercity youth. He lived there with his second wife, Millie Bruce, until he died of Alzheimer's disease and diabetes. Robinson had a record of 174–19–6, with 109 knockouts and two nodecisions. Renowned for his superb footwork, hand speed, and leverage, he was so powerful that he could knock out an opponent when moving backwards. He was elected to the Boxing Hall of Fame in 1967.
Nathan, David A. "Sugar Ray Robinson, the Sweet Science, and the Politics of Meaning," Journal of Sport History 26 (spring 1999): 163–174.
Obituary. New York Times, April 13, 1989, I, 1-1.
Robinson, Sugar Ray, and Dave Anderson. Sugar Ray. New York: Viking, 1969.
steven a. riess (1996)