Sometimes in this great sport a fight comes too late in the career of one, or even both, of the protagonists. This was very much the case today, 75 long years ago, when Sugar Ray Robinson and Henry Armstrong – the two finest fighters of all-time, pound-for-pound – fought a non-title ten-rounder at the legendary Madison Square Garden in New York.
Robinson, then aged 22 and sporting a 44-1 pro ledger (the loss coming at the hands of the fearsome Jake La Motta, this brutal and unforgettable rivalry having begun the previous year) was for many the best welterweight in the world, even though Sugar would not win the world title until 1946. Armstrong, aged 33 and sporting an incredible 135-17-7 pro record, had ruled the world as the featherweight, lightweight and welterweight king, and he was Robinson’s idol (along with heavyweight immortal Joe Louis).
Very much like the 1980 fight between Larry Holmes and Muhammad Ali, Robinson-Armstrong was a sad affair, with Robinson not wanting to fight, much less hurt his hero. Had this battle of legends taken place when both men were in their prime, who knows what fantastic a fight the world would have been treated to (and imagine the pay-per-view numbers this monster would have pulled in had they been in existence back then!)
Instead, in complete control for every minute of every round, Robinson dominated on his way to a shut-out decision win. Robinson unleashed his swift and powerful hands, but not to full effect – Robinson holding back and not going for the KO he may well have been able to score. The 15,000+ crowd, both knowledgable and respectful, knew the score and did not boo the fight (imagine this happening today).
Robinson had beaten his idol yet the victory was very much a hollow one. Then again, Robinson was not really in any position to avoid the fight, and Armstrong, who had won seven in a row since dropping a decision to Beau Jack in April (yes, seven fights, all wins, in just four months; this from an ageing fighter) had genuine belief he would know enough to beat the young star.
Robinson went on to achieve true greatness, eventually becoming known by all as the finest boxer of all-time. Armstrong, who many historians have ranked as the second-greatest boxer in history, fought on but never beat an elite fighter again.
Robinson retired in 1965, with an amazing 174-19-6(109) record. Armstrong finally quit in 1945, walking away with an equally mesmerising 152-21-9(101) record. Robinson was stopped just once (by the searing heat and light-heavyweight champ Joey Maxim). Armstrong was halted just twice, by Al Lovino, famously in his pro debut, and by Fritzie Zivic, in the second of their three wars.
How the sport of boxing has changed over 75 years.