It’s been said many times how Sugar Ray Robinson could do it all; he could fight going backward, he fight coming forward, Sugar could land a hefty punch, and he could take one, Robinson could dance, he could slug, he could indeed do it all in the ring. Apart from quit. Quitting is the one thing Robinson was unable to do, even when he should have done so.
As his fans know, Robinson was stopped just once during his 25-year pro career – when the evil heat of a blazing New York summer forced Ray to collapse on his stool in the 13th round of his light-heavyweight title challenge of Joey Maxim; Robinson coming to grief after the referee. But this amazing ability to keep fighting, to keep going hard, of never letting go, would serve to hurt Robinson in his later years.
Robinson is far from the only great fighter to have carried on in his profession for way too long. Still, one look at the former welterweight and former middleweight king’s record lets a fan know how severely Robinson pushed his resources and his luck. Also, like many other fighters, Robinson had money troubles; the vast amounts of cash earned by the pound-for-pound best to ever do it sifting through his fingers like sand. This inability to hold onto his hard-earned purses saw to it that Robinson – who famously said many times that he neither cared for boxing nor was a fight fan – carried on fighting for years and years, his declining years seeing him take on a truly punishing schedule.
Robinson, born in May of 1921 and going pro in October of 1940, had his final shot at a world title in 1961, his hard battle with Gene Fullmer (in their fourth fight/war) seeing the 39-year-old drop a 15 round decision. This was already around three or four fights too much for the aging, formerly untouchable ex-champ. Yet Robinson, unable to hang up the gloves, fought further 40-plus fights – this an entire career by today’s standards.
Robinson undertook a totally strength-sapping, damaging schedule in the 1960s, as his career slowly came to its end. Robinson had four fights, all of them world middleweight title fights, in 1960 alone. Robinson, who had recently made history by becoming the first five-time middleweight king, came close to winning the crown a sixth time. Only a split decision loss to Paul Pender (who had taken the title via a split decision five months earlier) denied Sugar.
Then came a draw with Fullmer in their third fight (this, like the Pender fight, one that could have gone Robinson’s way on the cards), and then the clear decision loss to Gene. That should absolutely have been that for the finest to have ever done it. But no, Robinson, unable as well as unwilling to retire, fought on, having those 44 additional fights. Often fighting for paydays that would have been insulting and thoroughly unacceptable to the prime Sugar Ray, the forty-something Robinson, the fighter who once bowed to no-one, had no choice but to take whatever he was offered.
It was a slow, as in agonizingly slow, fall from grace for Robinson’s fans to observe. Often losing to fighters he would once have embarrassed and sent home in short order, Robinson the faded superstar, the master boxer who could drop the collective jaws of the hardened and the seen it all fight experts, fought in such places as Trinidad and Tobago, London, England, Vienna, Austria, The Dominican Republic, Brussels, Belgium and Paisley, Scotland. Sometimes Robinson would come home with a win, other times with a decision defeat, but Sugar Ray never stayed at home for long, packing his bags and taking his next fight just weeks, or mere days later.
Forty-four fights boxed over four years and two months; Robinson going 30-10-3 with one no-contest. We will never see the likes of this again, not with such a superb former champion fighting so many times, so frequently, when having next to nothing left. This is, of course, a good thing. Robinson suffered from dementia in his later years. While it’s impossible to say whether or not the champion of champions would have been afflicted with the terrible condition even if he had retired with far less wear and tear on his mind and body, it’s perhaps likely he would not have ended his days in such a fog.
Robinson is rightly celebrated as the greatest fighter who ever lived, and it’s due to his dazzling, peak performances as a welterweight and a middleweight. But it should never be forgotten how immensely tough, brave, and strong Robinson was, even when he was boxing as an older man. Sugar Ray Robinson deserved a far better, much more dignified ending to his life and career than that which he received.
Robinson’s final numbers read a mind-boggling 173-19-6(109) with two no-contests. There will never be anyone or anything quite like him ever again.