34 years ago today, the sport of boxing, indeed the world, lost the finest of them all. Sugar Ray Robinson, the greatest boxer to ever lace up the gloves – the man who was born Walker Smith Junior going on to become one of the finest athletes, showmen, artists, entertainers, and American icons – passed away at age 67, this from Alzheimers and high blood pressure.
But Robinson, even in his depilated condition, surely must have known that he would never be forgotten. Not ever. And The original, and for many the only ‘Sugar’ to grace the boxing ring, sure hasn’t been forgotten. Not by a long shot.
Long shot? This is the tag so many of Robinson’s opponents entered the ring with when it came to them having any shot at beating him. Why is Sugar Ray regarded by so many as THE greatest? It might be due to Robinson’s untouchable reign as welterweight champ. Heck, even as the 147-pound best contender in the world (and everyone knew it), Robinson was darn near untouchable. In fact, as special as he was, Robinson’s best stuff, his pre-title fights, might have seen him at his most majestic. Yet, as we lament, those earlier Sugar Ray fights are not to be seen, unfilmed as they were.
But even if you can’t watch some of his peak performances, you can look at these stats:
From his October 1940 pro debut to his August 1950 retention of the world welterweight title against Charley Fusari, Sugar Ray went an astonishing 111-1-2. The sole loss came via the immense toughness of one Jake LaMotta. And, boy, how these two would meet again. And again. And again.
More stats show how, in 1942 alone, Sugar Ray fought some 14 times, with Robinson defeating the likes of Fritzie Zivic, Marty Servo, Sammy Angott, LaMotta (in the first of their savage rivalry), and Izzy Jannazzo.
Activity not enough for you in defining greatness?
Look at the men Robinson defeated during his career (and keep in mind, this is pro career only, with Robinson having boxed to an incredible 85-0 amateur record):
Sammy Angott, Marty Servo, Fritzie Zivic, Jake LaMotta, Henry Armstrong, Tommy Bell, George “Sugar” Costner, Jimmy Doyle, Kid Gavilan, Bobo Olson, Holly Mims, Randolph Turpin, Rocky Graziano, Gene Fullmer, Carmen Basilio.
As for what Robinson could do in the ring, well, he could do the following and more: he could move like no other man, he could punch with venom whilst going forwards or backwards, he could take a punch from hell without flinching, Sugar Ray could dance for all 15 rounds, he could fire off multi-punch combos. Ray could target head and body, and he could put on a show whilst doing so. Sugar Ray made the most savage of sports look like ballet.
Over the course of 25 years, Robinson went 174-19-6 with 2 no-contests (109 KO’s) And, aside from the hellish day when he fought Joey Maxim in a light heavyweight title challenge under a record-hot NY heat, Ray was NEVER stopped.
Robinson often fought 10 times a year. Or 20 times a year! Or 13 times a year. You get the picture. These are unthinkable activity levels for any fighter these days; much less for the pound-for-pound king, indeed the emperor of the day as Sugar Ray was.
Robinson, if he were fighting today, would almost certainly clean up – in something like five weight classes. Disagree? Then who of today’s operators at 140, 147, 154, 160, 168 would you have dared to bet on beating Sugar Ray?
Robinson was special. He had flare, he had grace, he had uncommon boxing ability like no other. Yes, you can make the firm argument that no other man ever made the sport of boxing look so precious and so beautiful. And Sugar Ray never ducked or dodged a single worthy opponent.
Add up all of his many, many qualities, and it’s little wonder we miss Sugar Ray – the man born Walker Smith.
“Sugar Walker Smith doesn’t have the same ring. Sugar Ray Robinson is different,” Robinson once said when speaking about his famed nickname. “Man, it’s sweet.”
Sweet it was, and none of us who wish to refer to ourselves as boxing fans should ever stop remembering.
Sugar Ray Robinson – May 3, 1921 to April 12, 1989.
Welterweight king, five-time middleweight king.
The greatest fighter ever, pound-for-pound.