Sugar Ray Robinson was the greatest fighter – in any weight class – in boxing history.
A dominant force in the ring for two decades, Robinson was the first boxer to win a divisional world championship five times. At the pinnacle of his career, Robinson’s record was 128-1-2 , with 84 knockouts. He was undefeated as an amateur, won his first 40 professional matches, and had a 91-fight winning streak during his reign as world welterweight champion. In 200 professional bouts, Sugar Ray was never knocked out. He fought 18 world champions and seven hall-of-famers during his 25-year career, amassing 109 knockouts. With unmatched grace and elegance, Sugar Ray was built for the Sweet Science and is the best fighter the sport has ever produced. “He boxed as though he were playing the violin,” wrote Barney Nagler. Robinson took the World Welterweight title in 1946 and held it for four years. In 1951, he moved up in class and captured the middleweight crown. Inspired by Robinson, future heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali developed his matador style. Ali called Sugar Ray, “The king, the master, my idol.”
Born Walker Smith Jr. in Ailey, Georgia, May 3, 1921, Robinson was the youngest of three children. The family moved to Detroit, where Robinson lived on the same block as future heavyweight champ, Joe Louis. At 12, Robinson’s parents separated and he moved with his mother to a rough neighborhood in Harlem. After dropping out of DeWitt Clinton High School in ninth grade, Robinson joined the Salem Methodist Episcopal Church boxing club, where he met his future coach, George Gainford. At 15, he borrowed the AAU boxing card of a friend, Ray Robinson, in order to enter his first tournament. After watching Robinson for the first time, Gainford thought the fighter’s fluid style was “sweet as sugar.” Others agreed, and the name stuck.
Robinson was brilliant as an amateur. In 1939, he won the New York Golden Gloves Featherweight title. After winning the tournament’s Lightweight title the following year, 19-year-old Ray Robinson turned pro and never looked back. He finished his amateur career with an 85-0 record with 69 knockouts – 40 coming in the first round. Robinson made his professional debut in October 1940, with a second-round stoppage over Joe Echevarria at Madison Square Garden. He won his first 40 fights, many of them over past and future world champions, and was named 1941 Fighter of the Year.
After 125 straight wins [including 85 as an amateur], Robinson lost for the first time in February, 1943, when Jake LaMotta – who held a 16-pound weight advantage over Robinson — beat him in a ten-round unanimous decision. The two fought six times between 1942 and 1951, with Robinson winning five. By 1946, Robinson was 73-1-1 and had beaten every top contender in the welterweight division, but had not been granted a chance to fight for the title because he refused to cooperate with the Mafia, which controlled boxing at the time. He was given his first title shot in December 1946, when he won a 15-round decision over Tommy Bell to claim the World Welterweight title. He retained the title belt for four years, winning 45 straight matches. Having dominated the welterweight division and finding it increasingly difficult to make the 147-pound weight limit, Robinson decided to move up to pursue the richer purses of the middleweight class.
On February 14, 1951, Robinson and LaMotta met for the sixth time. In what came to be known as The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, Robinson delivered a savage beating, winning the undisputed World Middleweight title with a 13th round TKO. It was the first time in 95 pro bouts LaMotta – later depicted in the 1980 biopic Raging Bull – was knocked out. Over the next seven months, Robinson lost and reclaimed the title and was named Ring magazine’s “Fighter of the Year” for the second time in his career. In June 1952, he challenged Joey Maxim for the World Light Heavyweight title. In the searing 103-degree heat at Yankee Stadium, he led on all three judges’ scorecards, but the temperature in the ring took its toll. Referee Ruby Goldstein was the first victim of the heat and had to be replaced. Robinson was the heat’s next victim, as he collapsed at the end of the 13th and failed to answer the bell for the next round. Following the Maxim bout, Robinson retired to pursue a career in show business as a singer and tap dancer. His record was 131-3-2.
Unable to find success on the stage, Robinson returned to the ring in 1955. His work as a dancer had kept him in shape, and he regained the World Middleweight belt in December. He lost the title twice in 1957 – to Gene Fullmer and Carmen Basilio – only to reclaim it each time. The second match with Basilio [a 15-round split decision in which Robinson regained the title for a record fifth time] was voted 1958 “Fight of the Year.” Ray Robinson was nearly 39 years old when he knocked out Bob Young in the second round of their fight in Boston Garden in December 1959. It would be his last successful title defense, as Paul Bender took the World Middleweight crown six months later.
Ray Robinson boxed too long. Like his life-long friend, Joe Louis, Robinson mismanaged his money, forcing him to fight well past his prime. Despite earning over four million dollars in his career, he was broke by the early 1960s. Of his 19 career defeats, 16 came after 1955. Destitute at 44, Robinson fought 14 times in a span of eight months, losing five. Some of his bouts were scheduled two weeks apart. Ray Robinson stepped into the ring for the last time in November 1965, losing a ten-round unanimous decision to Joey Archer in Pittsburgh’s Civic Arena. The greatest boxer in history retired one month later, with a career record of 173-19-6.
“Someone once said there was a comparison between Sugar Ray Leonard and Sugar Ray Robinson,” said former world champion and three-time Fighter of the Year, Ray Leonard. “Believe me, there’s no comparison. Sugar Ray Robinson was the greatest.” Standing 5’11” and sporting a 72-inch reach, Robinson took on all comers. In 1997, The Ring magazine called him, “Pound for pound, the best boxer of all time.” In 1999, the Associated Press named Robinson the greatest welterweight, middleweight, and overall boxer of the 20th century. In 2007 – more than 40 years after his retirement — ESPN.com ranked Sugar Ray the top fighter in history. Possessing great speed and power, Robinson was tremendously versatile. With a firm jab, devastating hook and vicious uppercut, he was effective with either hand. “Robinson could deliver a knockout punch going backward,” said boxing analyst Bert Sugar. The durable Robinson fought 1,399 rounds over a quarter-century and was twice voted Fighter of the Year – in 1942 and again in 1951. He won his last title at 37 and retired in 1965, at 44. In 1967, the man formerly known as Walker Smith Jr., was voted into the Ring magazine boxing Hall of Fame and, in 1990, was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.
Sugar Ray Robison died at Brotman Medical Center in Culver City, California, on this date in 1989, after a long battle with Alzheimer’s and diabetes. He was 67.
— Ray Robinson