Any and all descriptions implying greatness can be applied to the man born Walker Smith in Detroit on May 3, 1921, but the one appellation that stuck was first uttered by writer Jack Case, who, witnessing for the first time a young lanky boxer fighting for the Salem Crescent Gym in New York, remarked to the manager of the team, George Gainford, "That's a sweet fighter you've got there."
"Sweet as Sugar," replied Gainford for posterity. And so it was that "Sugar" Ray Robinson was born. Robinson came by the other part of his name honestly. Or somewhat honestly. For back in those days when the bootleg circuit-unlicensed fights held in small clubs held sway, the youngster originally went by his given name, Walker Smith -- "Smitty" to his friends. One night "Smitty" borrowed the amateur card of a friend named Ray Robinson and became, from that night on, the man who would go on as Ray Robinson to become the greatest fighter, pound for pound, in the history of boxing.
No single label for Robinson is adequate. He was boxing's version of Rashomon; everyone saw something different. He could deliver a knockout blow going backward; he was seamless, with no fault lines; his left hand, held ever at the ready, was purity in motion; his footwork was superior to any that had been seen in boxing up to that time; his hand speed and leverage were unmatchable; on and on. There was an unaltered chemistry to Ray Robinson. He was magic; he was Hemingway's "Grace under pressure."
Robinson went unbeaten, untied, and unscored upon in his first forty fights, and it wasn't until his forty-first fight, against Jake LaMotta, that he was derailed, losing a ten-round decision. It was a decision he would reverse five times. Robinson went on to become welterweight champ, losing only to LaMotta in his first 132 fights, registering 84 knockouts.
But while Robinson was the shellac for the rough exterior of the sport, boxing was being run by the IBC and a group of characters to whom legitimate business was only a matter of speech. And when Robinson disobeyed their commands and failed to carry LaMotta in their sixth fight, as he had so many others (writer Barney Nagler once called him "The greatest carrier since Mother Dionne"), he was banished from the States, and had to ply his trade in Europe. He went first-class, taking with him an entourage that included, like Noah, two of everything as he toured the continent. On one of his stops, he left behind the middleweight championship in the competent hands of Brit Randy Turpin, who lost it back to Sugar Ray three months later. It would be the first of four times he would redeem the title he had lent away..
After losing to the heat and, incidentally, Joey Maxim, in a bid for the light heavyweight championship on a night that turned him into a wilted head of lettuce, Robinson retired, due to the lack of opportunity and opponents. But if John Updike is right when he says, "Retirement is a little like death," Robinson must have died a thousand times before coming back to reclaim his title from Bobo Olson and stage his classic fights with Gene Fullmer and Carmen Basilio in the twilight of his career, proving that the great ones can come back. And back again.
Sugar Ray Robinson was, indeed, the sweetest practitioner of "The Sweet Science."
From "Boxing's Greatest Fighters,"
copyright 2006, Lyons Press
Boxing historian Bert Sugar is host of ESPN Classic's "Ringside" and a contributor to ESPN.com.