On This Day: The Fight That Almost Killed Sugar Ray Robinson

Sugar Ray Robinson wanted to do something no welterweight champion had ever done: win the light-heavyweight crown. It was on this day 70 years ago when Robinson, who had already ruled at both welterweight and middleweight, moved up to the 175 pound division to take on world champ Joey Maxim. What followed was excruciating. For Sugar Ray. On June 25, 1952 in New York, Robinson, an incredible 132-2-2, met 175 pound king Maxim, 78-18-4. 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.

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.

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By the 12th, Robinson was visibly and dangerously running on empty. 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. 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 its 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. At the time of the stoppage, Robinson led on all cards: 10-3, 9-3-1 and 7-3-3.

Robinson had lost an incredible 16 pounds in weight during the fight, Maxim had lost a reported ten pounds. In his dressing room, an even more deliriously conditioned Robinson had to be dragged into a cold shower, this perhaps saving his very life. Sugar Ray’s body was covered in blisters. When he had recovered, Robinson 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 70 years ago today will never be forgotten. Both warriors quite literally fought in the depths of hell that day.