Sugar Ray Robinson’s lofty place in boxing lore was as cemented as the chin of his former six-time rival, Jake La Motta. Robinson, for whom the term pound-for-pound best was invented, had ruled the world at welterweight (the finest ever) and middleweight (the finest ever) and he had taken on and beaten all comers. Sugar Ray was 31 years of age and he had nothing at all left to prove.
But, as is the case with the great ones, the special ones, the egotistically driven ones, Robinson wanted more. Sugar Ray wanted to do something no welterweight champion had ever done: win the light-heavyweight crown. So, on June 25, 1952 in New York, Robinson, an incredible 132-2-2, met 175 pound king Joey Maxim, 78-18-4 – and, crucially, stopped just once (this by Curtis Sheppard, a noted heavyweight). The fight had been set for a couple of days before, yet a massive downpour of rain forced a postponement. When the first bell did ring, New York was experiencing its hottest day on record – 103 degrees.
Stop for a minute, and imagine how hellish, how cruel, how dangerous it must be, fighting under hot ring lights, under such burning conditions – for 15 long, hard rounds. It must really have been hell for both men (and for the referee – more about that later).
Robinson dazzled the slow-footed, sure and steady Maxim for a good ten rounds, the smaller but faster, slicker, more punch-versatile boxing master having his way. Maxim, though, was unhurt and he was constantly trudging forward. Later, Maxim and his manager Doc Kearns said the game-plan was to let Robinson “punch himself out.” This Sugar Ray did, the blistering heat both speeding up and intensifying his fatigued condition.
By the 12th, Robinson was visibly, to use a British word, knackered. His legs, his arms, his brain betraying him, the P-4-P best had hit the wall. Almost. Only raw courage on Robinson’s behalf would allow him to see it through to round 13 – this after famed ref of the day Ruby Goldstein had himself collapsed, replaced by another third man (the fourth man in the ring that day if you like). Not only that, but a good number of fans had by now fainted under the scorching heat.
In the unlucky round, Robinson, flailing like a drunken sailor, tossed out a big right hand which sailed clean over it’s intended target. Robinson was left flat on his face, the momentum of the missed blow combined with his almost fatal state of exhaustion and dehydration tipping him over. And almost over the edge. Dragged back to his corner in a reportedly delirious state, Robinson was unable to go out for the 14th. Maxim – who later said “there weren’t no air-conditioning in my corner” – had retained his title; the first (and as it turned out only man) to ever stop Robinson.
Robinson had lost an incredible 16 pounds in weight during the fight, Maxim had lost a reported ten pounds. Sugar Ray, when he had recovered, announced his retirement. It stuck for two-and-a-half years. Maxim would lose his next fight, to the ageless Archie Moore. Maxim, like Robinson, would suffer a stoppage loss just once in his entire pro career.
The question has often been asked – what would Robinson have done had he beaten Maxim; as he came so close to doing and almost certainly would have done had the fight been fought under a cooler sky, or indoors. Imagine a Robinson-Moore fight, for one mesmerizing possibility. Or would Robinson, having done what he’d set out to do, have opted to drop back down, thus vacating his third world title?
We will never know. But the fight of 68 years ago today will never be forgotten.