Sugar Ray Robinson has been called many things: The greatest to ever do it. The boxer the very term pound-for-pound best was invented for. A boxer who made the sport as beautiful as ballet. A boxer who could do everything, and all of it a little bit better than any other great fighter. The greatest welterweight in history. The greatest middleweight in history.
In fact, Robinson was all of the above and more. He was the perfect fighter, one who could unleash the perfect punch. Sugar Ray was a boxer who had perfect balance, perfect timing, and in his prime, Robinson entered the ring in perfect physical condition, his hand and feet in perfect harmony, his razor-sharp reflexes finely tuned. At his blistering best, Ray Robinson was unbeatable.
Born 100 years ago today in Alley, Georgia, Robinson came into the world as Walker Smith Jr. Fight fans know the story of how a teenage Smith Jr was given his new, soon to be globally celebrated name. Having got into boxing through his friend Joe Louis, for whom Walker would carry his gym bag, the 15 year old tried to fight in a boxing tournament but was turned down because he was too young. Smith Jr borrowed the I.D of a boxer named Ray Robinson and the rest is history – Smith Jr was now Ray Robinson. The Sugar nickname came later, when a ringside observer told Ray and his manager how he was “one sweet fighter.”
To this day, the debate over whether or not any other fighter has been deserving of the Sugar nickname continues.
Sugar Ray Robinson was in a class all by himself. As an amateur, he went an amazing 85-0, with 69 KO’s. Turning pro in 1940, Robinson was untouchable, winning his first 40 fights. The first loss came against middleweight Jake LaMotta, with welterweight Robinson dropping a decision he would go on to avenge no less than five times. Robinson met and defeated a number of great fighters, including Henry Armstrong (Robinson’s ring idol, along with Louis; Sugar Ray meeting a faded version of Armstrong), Fritzie Zivic, Tommy Bell, Rocky Graziano, Gene Fullmer, Carmen Basilio and many more. But it is the savage and demanding rivalry Sugar Ray had with “The Bronx Bull” that fans seem to think of most when the majesty of Sugar Ray is discussed.
Before he passed away a couple of years ago, great matchmaker and promoter Don “War-a-Week” Chargin kindly spoke about Robinson with this writer. Chargin, who saw all the greats up close and personal, had no hesitation is stating that the greatest fighter he ever saw live and in the flesh was Sugar Ray Robinson.
“The greatest fighter I ever saw live was Ray Robinson,” Don told me back in 2017. “I saw him fight live around six or seven times. His fight with Bobo Olsen, the one that went the full 15 rounds, that was a heck of a fight, a great fight. I first saw Robinson fight in 1948 and he was just incredible, he really was. Robinson’s fights with Carmen Basilio, they were great, great fights. But the fights between Ray Robinson and Jake LaMotta, you cannot imagine how vicious those fights were, all six of them.
“Look at it this way [when you consider how much tougher fighters were back then in comparison to today), Jake beat Ray in their second fight and Robinson wanted to avenge that defeat. They fought just three weeks after their first fight, which was a very rough and tough fight, but Robinson boxed another fight in-between that fight! Ray fought a good contender in California Jackie Wilson, who he beat on points, before fighting the rematch with Jake a week afterwards. You just wouldn’t hear of anything remotely like that today.”
Robinson showed everything in his formidable arsenal in the fights/wars with LaMotta: his speed, his power and accuracy, his great stamina, his fine chin, his heart and desire. Sugar Ray was a complete fighter. His status as The Greatest Of All Time isn’t going anywhere.
201 pro fights – 174 wins, 19 defeats and six draws. Stopped just once, this when the 104-degree heat got the better of Robinson (and the referee). Welterweight king from 1946 to 1951, five-time middleweight ruler from 1951 to 1960.