Greatness Revisited: How "Sugar" Ray Robinson Dominated the "Sweet Science"

Steve SmithSenior Writer ISeptember 28, 2009

“Boxing is the toughest and loneliest sport in the world.”

Those words were uttered by Frank Bruno, and while nowadays many people would claim otherwise (saying mixed martial arts [MMA], or even...[gasp]...pro wrestling is tougher, as evidenced by the comments posted on Dorothy Willis’ piece), those words still ring true when it comes to many boxing matches.

One of those fights took place a week ago last Saturday night, when Juan Manuel Marquez had to have felt all alone in the world as he was pummeled in a tough matchup with one of the best fighters in the world today, Floyd Mayweather Jr.

It was an exciting fight in many ways, but Marquez was simply overpowered and outmatched. Mayweather dominated the fight from start to finish, winning by unanimous decision after 12 rounds.

Mayweather fought another Mexican, Oscar De La Hoya, in February of 2007, though that match was more hyped than the Mayweather/Marquez bout. In fact, the fanfare surrounding that fight was so great it amazed even some sportswriters covering the clash.

One such writer, James Slater, wrote a piece before the fight that struck me then as oh-so true. His piece seems even more poignant now, and really sums up the entire theme of my article.

The title of his piece: "'Sugar' Ray Robinson: Good Enough to Have Beaten Both De La Hoya and Mayweather on the Same Night?"

Although I’ve never once seen the late Ray Robinson, or "Sugar," as he was known to his fans and many friends, fight in person (having only been blessed to watch YouTube videos of his fights), I’m confident Mr. Slater was, and is, absolutely correct.

Robinson would have manhandled Mayweather and De La Hoya easily, with nothing more than a 15-minute break between the fights.

Former heavyweight champion Max Schmeling once said of Robinson, “He was the greatest. A distance fighter. A half-distance fighter. An in-fighter. Scientific. He was wonderful to see.”

Another former heavyweight champion, Joe Louis, known as “The Brown Bomber” and considered by many to be the best heavyweight boxer ever, once called Robinson, “The greatest fighter ever to step into the ring.”

The Boxing Writers of America were of the same opinion, voting Robinson the Best Fighter of All Time in 1977.

In 1997 The Ring magazine concurred, naming Sugar Ray the best boxer in its 75 years of publication.

A panel of experts from the Associated Press seemed to agree with Schmeling and Louis as well when, in 1999, they voted Robinson the “Fighter of the Century.”

In 2007, ESPN.com ran a piece titled “50 Greatest Boxers of All Time,” in which Robinson claimed the top spot.

All of these accolades from his peers and those who would know more than testify to the fact that Sugar Ray Robinson had no equal in the ring and dominated the “Sweet Science.”

Simply put, his brilliance in the ring is unparalleled, and that’s precisely why I’m somewhat amazed that his life outside the ring, in part, seemed to mirror my own in many ways.

My Introduction to the “Sweetest” Boxer Ever

My father left my mother when I was only five years old. I won’t go into all of the troubled reasons for this here other than to say that they separated and he was never in my life again, but I will say that I only have three real memories of him and they are dear ones.

The one memory that’s relevant to this article is of him trying to teach my older brother David and me how to box. He’d bought us two small sets of boxing gloves and would have us spar each other, giving us tips and pointers.

He knew what he was doing, too, for he had at one time in his life been a light-heavyweight contender in the 1940s. That was long before he’d met my mother, but he hadn’t lost his knowledge of the sport that was dearest to him. While he loved other sports, it was the "Sweet Science" that held his heart.

Although I would later box a little as a youth, as did my brother David, neither of us really ever developed a love for the sport to the degree our father had. He loved it so much he lived to participate in it. You could hear the ache of desire in his voice, as he laced up our gloves and sent us at each other, to once again lace up a pair of gloves himself and get in the ring.

It was easy to tell he wanted desperately to return to his youth for one last shot at glory as he taught us the difference between a jab and a left hook. You could see the gleam in his eyes that I only recognize now through the dim haze of memory, as he instructed us on how to keep our hands up and to protect our heads.

It was evident he would trade anything for another go in the ring. He’d once been a lion, and like a lion he longed to hunt his prey.

While I don’t have a distinct memory of him telling me who his favorite boxers were, talks with my mother about him have revealed that he was a huge fan of the “Brown Bomber” Joe Louis (who he told my mother he’d once sparred with) and Sugar Ray Robinson.

She says he was adamant that while Louis was the greatest heavyweight fighter he’d ever seen, Robinson was the best boxer ever born.

And he’s not alone in this assessment. As stated above, Robinson is considered by most experts, historians, and knowledgeable fans as the greatest “pound-for-pound” fighter to ever take to a ring or lace up gloves.

More important than all of those people, though, is the man known as “The Greatest,” Muhammad Ali, who many others feel was the greatest. Ali himself said that honor belongs to Sugar Ray. He called Robinson “the king, the master, my idol.”

How, then, can anyone doubt it?

In fact, the “pound-for-pound” rankings (a term used in boxing to describe a fighter’s value in relation to fighters of different weight classes) were devised by sportswriters because of Robinson’s performances and dominance of the welterweight and middleweight divisions.

That dominance was complete, as Robinson held the welterweight title once, as well as the middleweight championship five times.

He even tried to take the light heavyweight (175 pound) crown from Joey Maxim on June 25, 1952, but was overcome by the heat (reportedly 104 degrees) in Yankee Stadium, and couldn’t continue the match he was winning on all cards after the 13th round.

Maxim was awarded a TKO; the only time in Robinson’s career he didn’t finish a fight.

Roots of the “Sweet Science” That “Sugar” Dominated

Boxing has been a sport far longer than almost all others, dating back thousands of years. Sometimes referred to as pugilism, from the Latin word pugil, which means “a boxer,” it’s a sport that has been criticized by many for its violent nature. These critics would probably be happy to note that boxing has seen a marked decline in popularity in the U.S. over the last decade.

Literary great Joyce Carol Oates once said of the sport, “Boxing has become America’s tragic theater.”

Another writing luminary, Roger Kahn, said of it, “Boxing is smoky halls and kidneys battered until they bleed.”

While the smoky halls are a thing of the past here in America because of our nation’s politically correct nature, the battered kidneys definitely aren’t in short supply in the sport. Also, while they were spoken long before the bout, Oates’ words rang especially true the night Mike Tyson tried his best to bite off Evander Holyfield’s ear.

Despite that, and despite the fact I never had a strong desire to get in the ring myself, I will always find a visceral desire at times to watch a good fight. I’m guessing this is primarily because I’m a man, and we men tend toward violence. I know I certainly have in my lifetime, although I’ve worked hard to curtail such urges.

This desire is precisely why I wish I could have seen Sugar Ray Robinson box in person, for as many of my elders have regaled me, he was a wonder to behold in the ring. According to many, his combination of speed, athleticism, power, and poise, along with his sheer determination to conquer his opponent, were a marvel to watch.

He was also bigger than life outside the ring. He was slick and handsome, and knew it. He was reportedly a womanizer, and lived a lavish, flamboyant life, driving a flamingo-pink Cadillac everywhere he went and tipping $20 bills to those who served him when $20 was a great deal of money.

He was the first in the sport to really have what’s known today as an entourage, with a private secretary, barber, masseur, voice coach, along with numerous trainers, beautiful women, and even a dwarf mascot following him and his lifelong manager, George Gainford, to every match.

Yet, it was his skills in the ring that make me yearn to have enjoyed watching him in real life.

I’ve witnessed my fair share of great boxing matches, including a couple that have been labeled the greatest matches in the history of the sport—Hagler vs. Hearns and Hearns vs. "Sugar" Ray Leonard to name two.

I’ve also seen some of the greatest fighters ever display their skills, as they bobbed and weaved, danced and tilted, while delivering whirling cracks of thunder to the body and jaws of their opponents.

That being said, I would give quite a bit to have witnessed the man considered the greatest ever do his thing. As the title of this piece alludes to, Robinson simply dominated the Sweet Science, and how great it would have been to see that dominance in person.

Sugar’s Youth and Early Days

Born Walker Smith Jr. in Ailey, Georgia, on May 3, 1921, Robinson’s early life mirrored my own in many ways. His parents, like my own, were poor. His father was originally a farmer in Georgia, but moved the family to Detroit when Robinson was young, working two jobs as a cement mixer and sewer worker.

Robinson once said of his father, "He had to get up at six in the morning and he’d get home close to midnight. Six days a week. The only day I really saw him was Sunday…I always wanted to be with him more."

My own father moved us from Florida to Southern California; working two jobs himself as I stated earlier, and would frequently get home long after me and my brother had gone to bed. Like Robinson, I wish I could have spent more time with my father.

Another similarity between our lives was the fact Robinson’s parents separated when he was 12; his father walked out and his mother moved him and his two older sisters, Marie and Evelyn, to Harlem in New York City.

Like Robinson’s mother, mine moved me and my two brothers, David and Richard, to Northern California, where we stayed for a couple of years before I, being an incorrigible child, was placed in the juvenile justice system, ending up in numerous foster homes and group homes, including one in Compton.

Like Robinson, my youth was troubled, but unlike Robinson I quickly turned to football, basketball, and baseball, where he turned to boxing as an outlet for his childhood rambunctiousness.

Unlike Robinson, my sports career ended when I injured my knee, while he went on to numerous amateur and professional championships. 

Of course there is no similarity between us in that regard, to say nothing of the fact that he was an incredibly handsome man with a chiseled body, where my body has been affectionately referred to as...chunky. My sports success was fleeting, and quickly forgotten by most, if not all, of those who witnessed any part of it.

Robinson's, by contrast, lasted over decades and is legendary.

He tried to start his amateur career at 14, but wasn’t able to because he didn’t have an AAU membership card. Two years later, at 16, he got around the AAU age requirements by borrowing a certificate from a friend of his named Ray Robinson.

He continued to fight as an amateur under the moniker Ray Robinson, and this seems fortuitous, as I can’t imagine Sugar Walker Smith would have had the same ring to the ear as the name he adopted.

There are conflicting reports on how he got the nickname “Sugar.” Legend has it that he came by it when sportswriter Jack Case, who saw Robinson fight at the Salem Crescent Gym in New York in 1939, told Robinson’s lifelong manager, George Gainford, “That’s a sweet fighter you’ve got there.”

Gainford’s reply, “Yeah, sweet as sugar,” gave Robinson the nickname that would last throughout his lifetime and be used by other boxing luminaries such as “Sugar” Ray Leonard and “Sugar” Shane Moseley.

However he got the name, it fit; and he would forever be known as the one and only “Sugar” Ray Robinson.

As Ray Leonard put it once, “Someone once said there was a comparison between Sugar Ray Leonard and Sugar Ray Robinson. Believe me, there’s no comparison. Sugar Ray Robinson was the greatest.”

His dominance began even in the amateur ranks, as he amassed a stunning record of 85-0, 69 wins by knockout, and 40 of those knockouts in the first round. As an amateur he won the Golden Gloves featherweight championship in 1939 and the lightweight title in 1940.

Just think about that. The man literally beat the living snot out of every single amateur fighter he faced, sending almost half of them to the canvas for good within three minutes, and won amateur titles in two weight classes in two consecutive calendar years.

The sheer fact he fought so many amateur bouts is testimony to his strength and endurance, as many young fighters today turn pro before they’ve fought one third as many amateur fights. The fact he won all of them so convincingly is testimony to his greatness.

Dominance During Pro Career Just As Pronounced

Moving on from the amateur ranks, Robinson turned pro at 19 in the year 1940, having his first professional bout with Joe Echevarria on Oct. 4 of that year; winning in a second-round knockout. That win was a distinct harbinger of what was to come in a professional career that would span two and a half decades.

Over the next two years he fought 18 times before the first defeat of his career, to Jake LaMotta. Those 18 fights were against such august boxers as world champion Sammy Angott, future champion Marty Servo, and former champion Fritzie Zivic.

In the first bout with Zivic, which was held in front of more than 20,000 people at Madison Square Garden, Robinson controlled most of the fight except some of the middle rounds, and won on all three scorecards.

In the rematch with Zivic in January of 1942 Zivic’s corner protested the fight being stopped by the referee after the 10th round. James P. Dawson of The New York Times reported, though, that “[t]hey were criticizing a humane act. The battle had been a slaughter, for want of a more delicate word.”

In October of 1942 Robinson took on the opponent who would become his arch-nemesis, Jake LaMotta.

In that first fight Robinson was 12.5 pounds lighter than the Italian fighter, weighing in at 145 pounds to LaMotta’s 157.5 pounds. Despite this advantage for LaMotta, Robinson was able to control the fight the entire time, and is said to have landed harder punches than his larger opponent, and won the fight in a unanimous decision.

(This is distinctly dissimilar to the results from the fight two Saturdays ago between Marquez and Mayweather, where Floyd Jr. came into the bout four pounds over the required weight and was penalized $600,000.00 for it. His weight advantage, unlike LaMotta’s in all but one of his six fights with Robinson, was a real advantage, and he used it well, dominating Marquez from the outset with his greater strength.)

When Robinson faced LaMotta for the second time in their 10-round rematch the result would be far different than the first. Robinson came into the fight with an unblemished 40-0 record, but left with a loss.

LaMotta, who came into this fight with an even larger weight advantage of 16 pounds, fought harder and knocked Robinson entirely out of the ring in the eighth round. Sugar Ray had controlled the early rounds with his speed, but Jake bided his time and took advantage of that wait in what could probably be described as an early version of Ali’s “Rope-a-Dope” strategy.

In front of Robinson’s hometown crowd in Detroit, Michigan, LaMotta took control in the later rounds and won by decision after the final bell sounded.

Sugar Ray couldn’t have been pleased with losing his first professional bout, and didn’t waste any time in scheduling a rematch with his nemesis three weeks later in which he would bloody up LaMotta and win unanimously.

This theme was prevalent throughout Robinson’s career.

As Teddy Atlas, a noted boxing trainer and historian, once told Ron Borges for his World Boxing Championship series for HBO, “He [Robinson] 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 added, “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.”

It must be said though that Robinson rarely lost a fight, and the vast majority of those losses came after the age of 40 when he was clearly on the downside of his lengthy 25-year career. He ultimately retired with a record of 175-19-6 with two no-decisions, according to The Ring magazine.

He also had a streak of 91 straight wins in the heart of his career (88-0-2), which is likely the most impressive winning streak in boxing history, and ended only when Randy Turpin scored a shocking upset in a 15-round decision to take the title from Robinson on July 10, 1951, in London.

From the start of his professional career in 1940 until 1951, Robinson was practically unbeatable, holding the world welterweight title from 1946 to 1951. He then moved up in weight class in order to find a challenge and went on to win the middleweight title five times between 1951 and 1960.

When he was at his best, Robinson amassed an absolutely stunning record of 128-1-2, with 84 of those 128 wins coming by knockout. Even more impressive is the fact that in the 200 fights in his career he never once took a 10-count; although he did once suffer a TKO.

Robinson would face LaMotta three more times in his career, winning all three, including the last fight between the two that took place on Feb. 14, 1951, and is generally known in boxing circles as the “St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.”

In that bout, the matchup between the two seemed very competitive through the first seven rounds. After that, Robinson tore into LaMotta like he’d never torn into another fighter before, seemingly bent on finally putting the “Raging Bull” to the canvas for the first time in his career.

Robinson seemed in a rage as he ripped into the completely weary LaMotta, who, in the 12th round, seemed barely able to stand; hanging on to anything he could find in the ring, including Robinson.

According to reports, everyone was shocked Jake was even able to answer the bell for the start of the 13th round, but he was mercifully spared the one thing he dreaded in his career, being sent to the floor, when the referee stopped the bout after Robinson pummeled him with a hail of unanswered blows, effectively ending the bloodbath.

Although Robinson bloodied up LaMotta more than he had any fighter in his career, Jake never seemed to have any animosity toward Sugar Ray. In fact, LaMotta frequently joked about his fights with Robinson during his nightclub acts he was famous for after the end of his boxing career.

One such joke went, “I fought Sugar Ray so often, I almost got diabetes.” Of Sugar Ray himself, Jake jokingly said, “The three toughest fighters I ever went up against were Ray Robinson, Ray Robinson, and Ray Robinson.”

Robinson Serves His Country

It was after the third fight with LaMotta, though, that Robinson’s fate mirrored my own again, in a way, as he was inducted into the United States Army in February of 1943. I myself wasn’t inducted, since there’s never been a draft during most of my life, but I enlisted in the United States Navy when I was 17.

Just as my service in the Navy was short, Sugar Ray’s stay in the Army wasn’t long. He served a short 15 month stint, mainly going on exhibition tours with his good friend and fellow Army inductee, Joe Louis, whom he’d idolized as a young 11-year-old when Louis was 17.

Like Robinson, my service in the Navy ended with an honorable discharge after a short time (I was discharged under medical conditions because of a dislocated shoulder injury I’d suffered playing football in high school).

Unlike Robinson, though, my service wasn’t plagued by controversy.

Sugar Ray got into some scrapes with his superior officers numerous times when he claimed they were discriminating against him because of his race. He also refused to fight in exhibition matches once he was told that black soldiers weren’t allowed to watch the bouts.

This "insubordination" directly led to his discharge in 1944, and is a black mark not on Robinson in my view, but the Army he served in.

After his army service Robinson returned to the ring against George Martin on Dec. 22, 1944, winning the fight easily when Martin failed to answer the bell at the beginning of the eighth round.

In his next fight just a month later he scored a TKO in the second round against Tommy Bell, the man he’d beat again a little over a year later for his first championship title.

Robinson went on to fight LaMotta twice more that year, the second of which (fifth overall) Robinson himself at that time stated it “was the toughest fight I’ve ever had with LaMotta.”

In that fight, which was similar to bouts they’d had in the past, Robinson dominated the early rounds, and then seemed to coast through the later ones as LaMotta rallied furiously in the ninth, 10th, and 11th before losing a disputed decision.

Another controversial fight that took place soon after came when Robinson faced Joe Curcio at Madison Square Garden on July 12, 1946. Robinson supposedly knocked out Curcio at the end of the first round, and when Joe couldn’t come out of his corner at the start of the second he was counted out. His supporters were so upset by the call they stormed the ring.

A fight that took place just four months later, on Nov. 6, 1946, was probably the closest Robinson came to quickly ending his 91-win streak he was in the midst of, when he faced Artie Levine.

In that fight, Robinson was nearly knocked out in the fourth round by Levine. Levine landed a left hook, and quickly followed it with a right cross, both of them to Robinson’s chin, and put him down. The blows almost felled Robinson for good in the fight, but he eventually rose to his feet unsteadily and found a way to survive the round.

According to The Ring magazine “Sugar had several other close calls during the course of the evening,” but eventually it came down to stamina, and “Sugar paralyzed Artie with a right to the solar plexus [in the 10th]. Then Sugar became a ‘killer,’ throwing punches with reckless abandon to both head and body with the result that Artie was beaten to the floor.”

A little over a month later Robinson would finally get a shot at the welterweight title he’d longed for since he’d broken into the professional ranks, fighting Tommy Bell, whom he’d already defeated.

Robinson had beaten every top fighter in the welterweight division, including twice beating the man, Marty Servo, whose title (which was vacated) he was fighting Bell for. But he hadn’t cooperated with the Mafia, which controlled the boxing game then, and had been kept from getting a chance to fight for the title.

While this part of Robinson's life doesn’t mirror my own, it does mirror my father’s, who fought during the same time as Robinson. According to my mother, my father had told her he should have been given a shot at the light heavyweight title but was never allowed that chance because of his uncooperativeness with the mob.

Like Sugar Ray, my father simply wouldn’t allow the Mafia to dictate how he was going to fight, and paid for it by never getting a shot at greatness.

Whether he would have capitalized on that shot had he been given it is mere speculation on anyone’s part, including my own. However, to me he showed the mark of a champion by not giving in to the sordid demands of thugs and gangsters.

To me, he was a hero.

For Robinson, the title fight with Bell, like the one against Levine, was a battle. Yet, battle or not, Sugar Ray came out on top of a close 15-round decision.

From that moment on, Sugar Ray wasn’t just sweet. He wasn’t just dominant; he was a world champion. He would hold that title through 1951 until he moved up in weight to take on the great middleweights of his day.

One fight from these years before he moved up in weight would haunt Sugar Ray, though, for the rest of his days. It was the bout with Jimmy Doyle. Robinson was scheduled to fight Doyle on June 24, 1947, but weeks before the match he’d had a dream in which he’d envisioned landing a vicious left hook and ending Doyle’s life.

Robinson actually went to his manager and wanted to cancel the fight, afraid of the ominous feeling he had that tragedy awaited his opponent in the ring. Some might say this was simply Robinson entertaining a bit of braggadocio, but I choose to believe he was sincere.

His manager, along with a local priest who was called in, convinced Robinson that his dream had no real meaning, and that he should go on with the bout. He did, and to the end of his days regretted it, for in the eighth round of the fight he did land a vicious left hook, sending Doyle to the canvas and garnering him a TKO victory.

Doyle, who was immediately rushed to the hospital, never recovered, and died later of the brain injuries he’d suffered.

Although the fight would haunt Robinson, it would never get in the way of his being able to fight. He knew what he was, and what he did. When asked by the coroner if he’d meant to get Doyle “in trouble,” Sugar Ray simply replied, “Mister, it’s my business to get him in trouble.”

That sums up Robinson’s career. He was in the business of getting his opponents "in trouble," and business was good.

After the Doyle fight there were many others, including a title defense against the future champ, Kid Gavilan, on July 11, 1949, in which he won a unanimous decision. However, he was finding it hard to find real competition.

Simply put, he couldn’t find anyone to really challenge him in the welterweight division, and since he was beginning to find it difficult to make the 147-pound maximum weight for the class, it was just naturally time to move up.

One of the fights prior to his moving up summed up why he felt he needed more of a challenge. It took place in 1950, and was against a fighter named George Costner who’d started to call himself “Sugar” George Costner.

A few weeks before the fight he made a statement to the press that he rightfully deserved the moniker “Sugar,” not Ray Robinson, because he was so sweet.

When the fight started, Robinson is said to have told Costner, “We better touch gloves, because this is the only round. Your name ain’t Sugar, mine is.”

He backed up that bravado by knocking out Costner in the first round.

Sugar Moves Up to Dominate the Middleweight Division

There were many reasons why Sugar Ray moved up to the middleweight division, some of them stated earlier in this piece. One other reason was the financial benefit he could receive by doing so because the division contained some of the biggest names in boxing, including Jake LaMotta, Carl “Bobo” Olson, Rocky Graziano, and Randy Turpin.

His first match at the new weight, though, was against Robert Villemain, and garnered him the Pennsylvania state middleweight title in 1950. He defended that title later that year against Jose Basora, whom Robinson had earlier fought to a draw. In that title defense, Sugar Ray set a record that would stand 38 years, knocking out Basora in 50 seconds.

He also fought Carl Olson before Robinson's famous sixth bout against LaMotta. Robinson won the undisputed world middleweight title with his bloody "St. Valentine’s Day Massacre" TKO of LaMotta, and this would be the first of five times he would win that vaunted championship belt, becoming the first to do so.

After defeating LaMotta, Robinson went to Europe to tour the continent, visiting France and fighting in Berlin against Gerhard Hecht. That match ended in a controversial disqualification for Sugar Ray when he hit Hecht in the kidney, which was a legal punch in the US. The fight was later declared a no-contest.

His string of 91 straight fights without a loss came to an end soon after, when he suffered a stunning defeat to Randy Turpin, who scored a 15-round decision over Sugar Ray on July 10, 1951, in London.

No one had really expected Turpin to beat Robinson. After all, Robinson had wiped the mat with the vast majority of his opponents, and had only lost one fight in his career to that point, with an overall record of 128-1-2.

What they expected made no difference, though, as Turpin clearly won the bout on points to stun Robinson and the world, taking the World Middleweight Title from Sugar Ray in the process.

Robinson wouldn’t be without that title for long, though. Just two months later they fought again, this time at the Polo Grounds in New York City in front of more than 61,000 of Sugar Ray’s hometown fans, and Robinson savagely beat Turpin to the canvas, scoring a 10th-round TKO.

As stated earlier, this pattern would continue throughout his career, as after losses to Gene Fullmer and Carmen Basilio Sugar Ray would come back and brutally take back the title from his opponents.

Six months after he’d done so against Turpin, Robinson tried to do what few others have ever accomplished, win a title in a third weight class, moving up to take on Light-Heavyweight Champion Joey Maxim on June 25, 1952.

As noted, he would have accomplished this amazing feat, further solidifying his place in history as the greatest fighter to ever step in a ring, if not for Mother Nature.

Joey Maxim would claim it had nothing to do with the heat in Yankee Stadium the day of the fight, saying he too had to fight in the same weather, but Maxim’s style (that of a puncher) didn’t rely on a great deal of movement, whereas Robinson, being the naturally lighter boxer, relied heavily on his movement and footwork.

This is precisely why the heat took a greater toll on Sugar Ray than it did on Maxim, draining him of his strength late in the fight due to the amount of energy he’d had to expend in dancing around Maxim, scoring vicious blows to Joey, even if none of them could take him to the canvas.

The 104 degree heat left Robinson unable to respond to the bell at the start of the 14th round, and the TKO was awarded to Maxim even though Sugar Ray was ahead on all three officials’ cards.

Six months later, without having another fight, Sugar Ray announced his retirement, and the boxing world would seem vacant and empty without him.

Sugar Ray Explores His Sweet Side

For two years Sugar Ray was content with staying out of the ring, entertaining audiences with his tap dancing at nightclubs, undertaking various business ventures, and even appearing as Jim on a television episode of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

This appearance would not be his last on television, nor would his dancing days be relegated to the two years he spent in retirement.

Even after returning to the ring in 1955 to take back the World Middleweight Title from Carl “Bobo” Olson, Robinson continued to explore his various singing, dancing, and acting talents.

Sugar Ray appeared as himself on such illustrious shows as What’s My Line?, Toast of the Town, The Steve Allen Show, Car 54, Where Are You?, The Dick Cavett Show, The Dean Martin Show, This Is Your Life, The Flip Wilson Show, Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, and The Fall Guy.

He also acted in various roles on such shows as Run for Your Life, The Danny Thomas Hour, The Detective, Mission: Impossible, Land of the Giants, City Beneath the Sea, The Mod Squad, and Fantasy Island.

During this time away from the sport he loved, Sugar Ray cemented his place in the American culture as a King of Cool.

His image was brash and flamboyant, and he played this image to the hilt, knowing he was handsome, he never failed to play up to that. He was Muhammad Ali before there was an Ali.

And where Jack Johnson had garnered hatred and racist-tinged malice at the beginning of the century for his similar public attitude, Sugar Ray was simply too cool, and the times too different, for that to happen to a great degree.

Robinson was the man every man wanted to be, and every woman wanted to be with. His smile was infectious, and he used it to deflect a majority of the "dark" feelings that may have been directed at him otherwise because of the color of his skin.

While I’ve never been as handsome as Sugar Ray (in fact, let’s just say I took a leap off the ugly tree at birth and leave it at that), I have explored my many talents, as he did; trying my hand at numerous things, including music, art, and now writing.

In all of it I’ve been told by too many people that I’m extremely talented to dismiss it as just friendly bluster, yet I never met with the success Robinson enjoyed in his many endeavors.

Despite the success he encountered in all of these things, he still desired the challenge that could only be found in the ring. As everyone expected, his time in retirement had to come to an end sooner or later. He was still far too young to hang it up for good, and far too good to not pursue that title he’d held.

Sugar Returns and Still Dominates

After five tune-up fights Sugar Ray was once again in the ring battling for the World Middleweight Title, this time against Carl “Bobo” Olson on Dec. 9, 1955.

He scored a quick knockout of Olson in the second round, which was actually a bit startling to many considering his long time off and the trouble he’d had with Rocky Castellani in his 10-round win by decision in July of that year where Rocky had put Robinson to the canvas for a nine-count in the sixth round.

Despite that, Sugar Ray was once again on top of the world. Once again he was the dominant force in the middleweight ranks.

Nearly six months passed before he fought again, giving Olson a shot at redemption in their May 18, 1956, rematch. Although he would make a far better accounting in the rematch than he had in the first bout, “Bobo” failed to redeem himself, losing a 10-round unanimous decision to Robinson.

After a non-title bout with Bob Provizzi later that year, Sugar Ray went on to lose the middleweight crown to Gene Fullmer in a hard-fought 15-round unanimous decision loss at Madison Square Garden in New York on Jan. 2, 1957.

Unlike Olson, and true to his form, Sugar Ray regrouped, figured out what he needed to do, and came back and beat Fullmer to a bloody pulp in front of a packed Chicago Stadium on May 1, 1957, knocking him out in the fifth round to regain the belt he’d handed to Gene just five months earlier.

This pattern would nearly repeat itself, as his next title defense was won against another bruiser, Carmen Basilio, who took the title away from Robinson with a 15-round split decision win at Yankee Stadium on Aug. 23, 1957.

In that bout Robinson took an early advantage, cutting Basilio’s eye and nose before the welterweight champion came back in a furious way to earn the split decision win.

As with Fullmer, Robinson once again regrouped and found a way to take back the belt from Basilio in one of the best matches of his career, winning a 15-round split decision over Carmen to take back the World Middleweight Title for the fifth and final time in front of another cheering crowd at Chicago Stadium on March 25, 1958.

Basilio, who had been angered at Robinson for supposedly slighting him after the first fight and recognizing he’d won, said of Sugar Ray, “Robinson wouldn’t tell the truth to God.”

In the second match, more than words would be flying as Sugar Ray, despite suffering from a virus and being 36 years old at the time, beat young Carmen to a bloody heap, closing his left eye completely to win that rematch and the coveted middleweight title.

Both fights were honored by The Ring magazine as the “Fight of the Year” for 1957 and 1958.

Sugar Ray wouldn’t find the same success he had against Fullmer and Basilio with his next opponent in a title match, Paul Pender.

After a tune-up fight with Bob Young that Robinson won handily with a knockout in the second round, he faced the man who would take his title for good on Jan. 22, 1960 in front of a sold-out crowd at Boston Gardens.

Paul Pender came into the fight just as determined as any other opponent of Sugar Ray’s, even though he was a heavy underdog. He found a way to beat the odds, though, and pulled off a stunning 15-round split decision victory over Sugar Ray that effectively ended Robinson’s reign.

After a tune-up non-title match with Tony Baldoni at the Coliseum in Baltimore, which Robinson easily won with a first-round knockout, he once again faced Pender.

As with his previous rematches against opponents who’d beaten him, Robinson and his fans were certain he’d find a way to beat Pender. In fact, there were few who believed Pender would win, as the oddsmakers in Vegas struggled to find anyone to bet on Pender.

Those who did would end up smiling that June 10, 1960, night as they watched Robinson suffer another 15-round split decision loss to his final nemesis, and the only man to beat Robinson in the ring in a title fight without losing to Sugar Ray himself.

The Sweet One’s Decline

Sugar Ray would get two more shots at a title, battling his former nemesis, Gene Fullmer, in two great bouts for the National Boxing Association World Middleweight Title, but after these two fights his career was basically over. He would go on to fight for four more years, but it was these two bouts that were the last title fights he’d take part in.

In the first match that took place at the Sports Arena in Los Angeles on Dec. 3, 1960, the judges scored it a draw, with Judge Tommy Hart scoring it 11-4 for Robinson, Judge Lee Grossman 5-9 in favor of Fullmer, and Judge George Latka scoring it an 8-8 draw.

Many truly believe Lee Grossman’s scoring of the match was grossly inaccurate, but I’m sure those in the corner of Fullmer felt the same about Tommy Hart’s scorecard. Regardless, Robinson failed to take a middleweight title for a record sixth time.

Sugar Ray’s lifelong trainer, George Gainford, was livid about the results. However, in just one of numerous examples of his unbelievable class, Robinson said to Gainford, “No beefs, George. Sometimes we got the best of it in the past.”

In the rematch against Fullmer at the Convention Center in Las Vegas on March 4, 1961, there was no such controversy, as Fullmer took a 15-round unanimous decision victory from Sugar Ray that night to once again hold the middleweight crown.

Some of Robinson’s fights after these two title bouts with Fullmer would be good ones, including the two battles with Denny Moyer, yet none of them would be title fights, and he would see his last battle in a 10-round unanimous decision loss to Joey Archer at the Civic Arena in Pittsburgh on November 10, 1965.

At this inglorious end to his illustrious career, Sugar Ray Robinson had fought in 200 fights in his career, amassing an astounding record of 173 wins (108 by KO), 19 losses (most coming after he was 40), six draws (again most coming after he was 40), and two no contests.

As noted earlier, his record at the peak of his career was 128-1-2, something we’re almost certain to never see again from a boxer. Simply put, Robinson dominated the welterweight and middleweight ranks for nearly two decades, and was practically unbeatable for the first decade he fought.

He defeated many Hall of Fame fighters, including Jake LaMotta, Rocky Graziano, Carmen Basilio, Kid Gavilan, Gene Fullmer, Carl “Bobo” Olson, and his childhood idol, Henry Armstrong.

Noted boxing commentator and historian, Bert Sugar, in describing how dominant and powerful Sugar Ray was, once put it, “Robinson could deliver a knockout blow going backward.”

Simply put, Bert Sugar knows what he’s talking about. Sugar Ray Robinson dominated the “Sweet Science” in a way no other man has in history.

I’m fully of the opinion that Schmeling, Louis, Ali, and many, many others are correct when they say he’s the greatest boxer in the history of the ring.

After his career as a boxer, Robinson’s life was troubled, both financially and personally. He suffered from Alzheimer’s disease and diabetes in his later years, and died at the age of 67 on April 12, 1989, in Culver City, California.

Although he succumbed to age, as we all must do, he did it with as much dignity as life will allow. Most importantly though, far more important even than his career as a boxer, was the legacy he left as a family man.

However, his children and heirs are mainly concerned with that legacy. For they are the ones who felt the love he bestowed on them throughout their lives. To us, the general public, the only legacy we can truly concern ourselves with was the one he left from his days in a ring.

That legacy was honored in 2006 as his likeness graced a 39 cent USA commemorative postage stamp that was first issued on April 7 of that year at Madison Square Garden in conjunction with the Golden Gloves tournament.

The title of my piece says it all, and it can’t be repeated enough. Sugar Ray Robinson dominated the “Sweet Science.”

Here’s hoping he’s smiling down on all the “Sweet” bouts yet to come from today’s fighters.

The following sources were used for biographical material and quotes:

The Cyber Boxing Zone Encyclopedia – “Sugar” Ray Robinson


The Sugar in the Sweet Science – Ron Flatter – Special to ESPN.com


BookRags Encyclopedia – Sugar Ray Robinson Summary


Internet Movie Database


“Sugar” Ray Robinson: Good Enough To Have Beaten Both De La Hoya And Mayweather On The Same Night? By James Slater


Posted on East Side Boxing’s website eastsideboxing.com


Sugar Ray Robinson Honored On New Stamp – By Randolph Schmid of the Associated Press – Printed in the 4/6/2006 edition of USA Today


Sugar Ray Robinson Wikipedia Biography


Sugar Ray Robinson: Biography from Answers.com


New World Encyclopedia Sugar Ray Robinson Biography


Sports Illustrated’s “Bittersweet Twilight of Sugar” by Ralph Wiley


The Official Site of Sugar Ray Robinson


The Battle of the Two Sugar Rays: Leonard vs. Robinson – By Geoff “The Professor” Poundes as seen on ringsidereport.com