The sugar in the sweet science

Updated: October 12, 2006, 9:51 AM ET
By Ron Flatter | Special to ESPN.com

"He hit me with this left hook I never seen, heard or felt. As a matter of fact, when I got up, I said, 'Why is Robinson doing exercises between rounds? Look at him over there jumping up and down.' They said, he just won, they counted to 10," said former middleweight champion Gene Fullmer about Sugar Ray Robinson on ESPN Classic's SportsCentury series.

"Pound for pound, the best." The claim has been used to describe many boxers, but it was invented for Sugar Ray Robinson.

Never mind the weight class. When it came to boxing, Robinson was as good as it got.

Sugar Ray Robinson
In 1997, Ring Magazine selected Sugar Ray Robinson as the best boxer in its 75-year history.
Muhammad Ali called Sugar Ray "the king, the master, my idol."

"Robinson could deliver a knockout blow going backward," boxing historian Bert Sugar said.

Robinson held the world welterweight title from 1946 to 1951, then was the middleweight champion five times between 1951 and 1960. At his peak, his record was 128-1-2 with 84 knockouts. And he never took a 10-count in his 200 fights, though he once suffered a TKO.

His one early loss was to Jake LaMotta, his career-long rival. They fought six times, and Robinson won five.

As recently as 1997, Robinson was renamed the best of all time -- "pound for pound" -- when The Ring magazine chose him the best boxer in its 75 years of publication.

But Robinson's legacy was not made on boxing alone. He was one of the first African-American athletes to become a major star outside of sports. With his flashy pink Cadillac convertible and his Harlem nightclub, Sugar Ray was as much a part of the New York scene in the forties and fifties as the Copa and Sinatra.

He was the pioneer of boxing's bigger-than-life entourages, including a secretary, barber, masseur, voice coach, a coterie of trainers, beautiful women, a dwarf mascot and lifelong manager George Gainford.

After making an estimated $4 million in the ring, Robinson spent himself into destitution by the mid-sixties. Then he reinvented himself by getting into show business -- acting and even singing. But he would always be remembered for the music he made in the ring.

"He boxed as though he were playing the violin," sportswriter Barney Nagler observed.

Robinson literally made his name boxing. Born Walker Smith Jr. in Detroit, Mich. on May 3, 1921 (some say it was earlier), he moved with his parents to New York. Boxing in a Harlem gym, he borrowed the Amateur Athletic Union boxing card of a friend named Ray Robinson.

An early look at the future champ prompted Gainford to say he was "sweet as sugar." So Walker Smith Jr. was no longer. In 1939, Sugar Ray Robinson was born.

Shortly after winning the New York Golden Gloves, Robinson turned pro at age 19.

Aside from a hitch in the Army, Robinson's World War II life was marked by the beginning of his rivalry with LaMotta. It started with his brutal, 10-round victory in New York. LaMotta, a middleweight, won their first rematch in Detroit, Robinson's first defeat in 41 pro fights. Then Robinson, a welterweight, avenged the loss three weeks later, also in Detroit.

Robinson won two more decisions over LaMotta in 1945. "I fought Sugar Ray so often, I almost got diabetes," LaMotta later said.

Just before Christmas 1946, Robinson won the vacant welterweight championship with a unanimous 15-round decision over Tommy Bell.

An eighth-round TKO of Jimmy Doyle in 1947 proved to be a tragic title defense for Robinson. Doyle suffered brain injuries that eventually cost him his life. When the coroner asked if he figured to get Doyle "in trouble," Robinson said, "Mister, it's my business to get him in trouble."

Robinson continued to dominate his welterweight championship fights, including winning a unanimous decision over future champ Kid Gavilan on July 11, 1949. Then he moved up and won the vacant Pennsylvania middleweight title in 1950 with a unanimous decision over France's Robert Villemain.

Still, there was that enduring memory of the only man who ever beat him. After more than five years, Robinson was reunited with LaMotta at Chicago Stadium on Feb. 14, 1951.

Through seven rounds, the fight was competitive. Then the champ took command in the bloody "St. Valentine's Day Massacre." The raging Robinson ripped into the raging bull and it was a weary LaMotta who came out for the 12th round, hanging onto the ropes, Robinson's trunks, anything he could find to avoid being knocked down for the first time in his career.

Somehow, LaMotta answered the bell for the 13th, but a barrage of unanswered punches from Robinson led the referee to stop the bloodbath.

That spring, Robinson and his enterouge traveled to Europe, where he went through six opponents in as many weeks. But his streak of 91 fights without a defeat (88-0-2 with one no contest) ended when Randy Turpin scored a stunning upset, taking the title on a 15-round decision in London on July 10, 1951.

Sugar Ray came home and, two months later in New York, he regained the championship from Turpin before 61,370 fans at the Polo Grounds, winning on a 10th-round TKO.

Robinson went after the light-heavyweight championship, fighting Joey Maxim on June 25, 1952. It was 103 degrees at Yankee Stadium, and Robinson wilted under the Maxim-um pressure and the New York heat, failing to answer the bell for the 14th round. Robinson had been ahead on all three officials' cards.

Six months later, he announced his retirement.

Business interests and a tap-dancing career occupied the two years before Robinson returned to the ring in 1955. He regained the middleweight championship with his third victory over Carl "Bobo" Olson, a second-round KO on Dec. 9, 1955.

Not done spawning rivalries, Robinson lost his title on Jan. 2, 1957 to Gene Fullmer. Robinson suffered a bad cut alongside his right eye in the 14th round and dropped a unanimous decision.

But he won back the title four months later in his first of three rematch victories over Fullmer. He did it with a quick left hook in the fifth round, the first time Fullmer was ever knocked out.

Robinson resumed the pattern later that year, this time with 5-foot-6 Carmen Basilio, who was five inches shorter than Robinson. Sugar Ray cut open Basilio's eye and nose to gain an early advantage before Basilio, the welterweight champion, came back to win a split decision in a furious fight.

Afterward, Basilio may have spoken for the many opponents who hated Robinson and all his swagger. Saying Robinson would not admit to how hard he punched, Basilio said, "Robinson wouldn't tell the truth to God."

More than bad blood would flow six months later in their rematch. In spite of a virus and his 36 years, Robinson pounded Basilio, closing his left eye, and won a split decision to gain the middleweight championship for the fifth -- and final -- time.

Robinson didn't have a title fight for almost two years, and when he did, he relinquished his belt for the last time. Paul Pender took a 15-round split decision from him on Jan. 22, 1960. When Gainford complained about the verdict, Robinson said, "No beefs, George. Sometimes we got the best of it in the past."

By 1965, an over-the-hill Robinson was broke and forced to fight five times in 36 days for as little as $1,100 a night. Soon after losing a 10-round decision to Joey Archer, the 44-year-old Robinson announced his retirement -- this time for good. He finished with a record of 175-19-6 with two no-decisions, according to The Ring.

In his later years, Robinson resumed a show-business career that enabled him to rally his finances. He moved to Southern California with his third wife, Millie. By 1986, he made one of his last public appearances as the best man at a wedding. The groom: Jake LaMotta.

Robinson, suffering from Alzheimer's disease and diabetes, died at age 67 on April 12, 1989, in Culver City, Calif.

Sugar Ray Leonard, who took Robinson's name, said, "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."

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