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.
Sugar Ray Robinson
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.
Further Reading on Sugar Ray Robinson
"The Sugar in the Sweet Science," ESPN.com, http://184.108.40.206/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).