It’s the middle of a magical year in a magical decade and we are in a magical place for boxing. Only boxing royalty is present this night, that and the finest, most gifted artists, writers and performers of the day. The one and only Miles Davis, enveloped in silhouette, plays for the guest of honour, while Sugar Ray’s fellow boxing masters, the ones he has personally invited to his latest post-fight celebration, sit and drink and revel and talk boxing and money and fame and immortality as they bask in the glory they have each long since grown accustomed to enjoying.
Archie Moore, the seemingly ageless light-heavyweight champion, sits at the piano, almost silently tickling the keys as accompaniment to the heavenly playing of the jazz great. Joe Louis, arguably the finest heavyweight of all time, sits and sips on a short, “The Brown Bomber” looking slightly uneasily towards the door as he does so. Then the music stops and our hero makes his entrance.
Dressed immaculately in a suit that looks like it cost a million dollars, Sugar Ray glides into the room, the atmosphere crackling as he does so. Even Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney temporarily abandon their conversation to give Robinson a standing ovation, showing their respect for his latest triumph and his career achievements as a whole. Britain’s Randolph Turpin, who once accomplished the unthinkable and defeated Robinson, applauds with gusto.
“Thank you all for coming tonight,” Ray says with a wide smile. “I hope you all enjoy yourselves.”
Robinson then embarks on a duet of sorts with Davis, tap-dancing elegantly as the musical genius soars. Cameras flash, the drinks, especially the champagne, flow with abandon and the place is absolutely on fire. Outside on the packed Harlem street “Sugar Ray’s” occupies, many hundreds of fans desperately try to peer in through a window. How they would love to be inside this, a genuine haven for boxing heaven! How they would love to hear what the boxing Gods are saying to one another!
Jake LaMotta, the one and only “Bronx Bull,” lurches to his feet and approaches Robinson, “Me and you need to do it again, Ray,” he says with a slur. Jake has enjoyed almost as many drinks as he went rounds with Robinson and only the good time he is having, along with the plethora of honoured guests, prevents the nasty side of the former street kid juvenile from rearing its head in full.
“The money would have to be right for me to fight you again,” laughs Sugar Ray, still dancing as he shoots his reply to his one-time conqueror and fiercest ring rival. Jake tries to reel off a couple of verses of rhyming poetry, before spitting out a laugh of his own and staggering back to his stool, ordering another shot.
Floyd Patterson doesn’t drink, neither on this special night does Joey Maxim – he of the infamous 104-degrees battle with Robinson at Yankee Stadium. Instead of enjoying the plentiful liquor, the two somewhat aloof pugilists who quite recently shared a ring play chess over in a quiet corner. Rocky Marciano engages in some friendly arm wrestling with Gene Fulmer. “The Rock” enjoys victory but he breaks a profound sweat in doing so, his peak fighting weight having vanished for good some months back.
Sugar Ray saunters over to the man he most respects in the room next to Joe Louis: “Hammering Hank” himself, Henry Armstrong. The boxer turned preacher greets the pound-for-pound master who openly calls him his idol and the two fall into an affectionate embrace.
“How would you have done against Ray had you met him in your prime?” asks a young black kid, nattily dressed in a jacket and slacks.
“I’d have never beaten Ray, not even on the best night I ever saw,” Armstrong replies. The nameless kid walks away, his photographs taken for posterity. “Who’s that young kid?” Armstrong asks.
“Oh, just a young amateur boxer,” replies Robinson. “I don’t know what it is about him, but I think he’ll be something in a few years. He follows me around and he never stops talking! He persuaded me to let him in tonight. Seems like a good kid.”
Yet more drinks are served by the hardworking bar tenders and waitresses, before Sugar Ray takes to the microphone and asks the star-studded gathering who they think he should fight next.
“I’m thinking of quitting the ring and taking up dancing full-time, once again!” Robinson says with a laugh.
“No! You got some good years left yet, champ,” someone shouts from the side of the packed room.
Sat at another table, picking each other’s finely tuned boxing brains, are trainer/manger George Gainford who guides Robinson, and matchmaker Teddy Brenner
“I was wondering about a possible shot at the heavyweight title for Ray,” Brenner says, scanning Gainford’s face for a reaction. “I figure he can get up to around 170 and beat Patterson.”
Floyd, the reigning heavyweight king, looks up as his name is dropped, yet he wears no obvious expression at having been put down as a potential loser to the middleweight ruler.
“He only lost to Maxim due to the heat, and maybe he could outbox Floyd,” Brenner continues
“Hey, I never had no sunshade or air-conditioning!” bellows Maxim having been in earshot. “It was hot for me too!”
“Sugar Ray is so great, so beloved, he could run for President, forget fighting!” yells someone from the bar.
“Yeah, a black President, that’d be the day,” Gainford retorts. “You think the public would ever buy a fight between Ray and Patterson?” he asks Brenner?
“Hell, they’re talking about Patterson defending against Rademacher in the guy’s first fight!” Brenner shoots back
Robinson joins Gainford and Brenner as they hold talks about his future.
“You know, I might try and make it in the movies, George.” the dancing master says thoughtfully.
Gainford offers no reply.
Sat in another corner is writer W.C Heinz, an avid admirer of Robinson. He is holding court, with a number of ears bent his way, trying to take in some of his pearls of wisdom.
“There’s no way Ray quits boxing,” Heinz states as a fact. “Not yet. Not the way he goes through money. Look at this shindig, all paid for by his hand. He’ll box on or he’ll wind up broke.”
The party/celebration/collection of egos carries on well into the small hours. The crowd finally begins to thin and some tired and satisfied boxing greats make for their chauffeur-driven automobiles and head home. No-one knows for sure what the great Robinson will do next, but the smart money is indeed on a number of additional fights yet.
No-one noticed, a few hours earlier, the young kid with the camera squeezing his way through the crowds of fans outside. Yet soon enough Robinson will indeed walk away from the ring – and not with the style and grace and untarnished record he’d have liked – and the cocky, curious and star struck teenager will rise to claim the lofty mantle of his successor.
The young kid snaps his camera and grabs a shot of Sugar Ray’s famous pink Cadillac as he rushes on home. He’ll have one of those as his own soon. As well as the expensively vast entourage.
From The Greatest ever to The Greatest: The passing of The Torch.