When the heat melted Sugar Ray Robinson

Sugar Ray Robinson - Boxing HistoryIt was 67 years ago this month that the immortal Sugar Ray Robinson, then the middleweight champion and fresh off a one-punch kayo of challenger Rocky Graziano in April, attempted to wrest the light-heavyweight crown from Cleveland’s Joey Maxim, who outweighed him by 15 ½ pounds.

Maxim, however, had his hand raised in victory after Sugar Ray was not able to answer the bell for the 14th round.

The bout between champion Maxim and challenger Robinson had been set originally for June 23, 1952 in Yankee Stadium but had to be postponed a few days because of rain. The weather would ultimately play a huge factor when the fight did go on two days later, but in a very different way. As author A.J. Liebling states it in his outstanding book “The Sweet Science,” the Maxim-Robinson fight was staged on “the hottest June twenty-fifth in the history of the New York City Weather Bureau.”

And, as boxing historians know, the unrelenting heat, estimated to be 104 degrees in the ring, combined with the weight differential proved too much for even Robinson to overcome.

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Robinson went into the fight with Maxim as a slight favorite with the bookmakers but a sentimental favorite among the vast majority of boxing fans. The man born as Walker Smith in May of 1921 in Vidalia, Georgia, but raised in Detroit was already a well-established boxing legend at the age of 31, having reigned as welterweight champion for a little more than four years (1946-51) before leaving that division to ascend to the middleweight throne with a 13-round stoppage of stubborn Jake LaMotta on Feb . 14 in a ferocious clash between the two ring greats that became known as the Valentine’s Day Massacre in recognition of the two-fisted assault in the latter rounds that brought Robinson the crown.

Robinson suffered a hiccup later in the summer of ’51 when he temporarily lost the title, dropping a 15-round decision to Randy Turpin in England, but he earned the title back just a few months later in a memorable Yankee Stadium battle, knocking out the strong, unorthodox Turpin in 10 rounds in dramatic fashion after sustaining a dangerous cut above the left eye.

Robinson subsequently defended the middleweight title in a tough 15-round scrap with Bobo Olson in March of ’52 before the dramatic kayo of the hard-punching Graziano in three rounds in Chicago in April. Graziano had Robinson down on the canvas before Sugar Ray came right back to send Graziano to dreamland with a straight right to the chin.

Robinson had a sparkling professional ring record of 132-2-2 with 87 KOs going into the match with Maxim but the light-heavy champion from Cleveland was also quite experienced with more than 100 ring battles under his belt, facing Robinson with a 78-18-4 mark. Maxim, ironically, had already challenged for the heavyweight title, losing a unanimous decision to Ezzard Charles in 1951.

Maxim was not a great puncher but he was an effective ring tactician with a granite chin. He was tough a savvy.

Robinson was looking to make ring history as the third person to win world titles in three weight divisions, joining fellow ring legends Bob Fitzsimmons and Henry Armstrong. If Robinson did beat Maxim, it was unclear whether Robinson would continue to fight strictly in the light-heavy ranks or try to maintain the middleweight title as well.

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As it turned out, much to the surprise of many, Robinson was not faced with the dilemma of how to defend two titles.

Some would blame the mercury alone for Robinson’s defeat on that blazing hot June night but Maxim deserves credit, too.

Maxim weighed 173 on the fateful night and Robinson scaled in an 157 ½ pounds.

The fight went the way that many expected over the first 10 rounds or so, with the agile Robinson using his superior speed to good advantage, moving in and out and frequently beating Maxim to the punch. Robinson staggered the champion at least twice, in the seventh and ninth rounds, but could not put Maxim on the canvas either time.

As Liebling, who was among the 47,000 in attendance for the bout, noted in his magnificent magazine essay, Robinson also hit Maxim in the 11th round “with the same kind of looping right to the jaw that started Turpin on the way out” but did not produce the same result this time.

Maxim swayed a bit under the force of the blow but did not fall and Robinson, who by this time was quite leg-weary, could not move in quickly enough to seize upon his advantage. Robinson’s right cross “may have been as good a punch as the one (that flattened Turpin) the year before, but it landed on a man fifteen pounds heavier.”

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By the 12th round, Maxim assumed control of the bout, hitting at Robinson in close and landing more often as Robinson became more and more affected by the heat.

There was no doubt that Robinson would get the well-deserved decision if he could last the full 15 round distance.

But could he?

In the 13th round Robinson moved around on unsteady legs and even fell to the canvas once after missing a roundhouse right. As Associated Press writer Jack Hand noted, “The sight of Robinson on his face from a missed punch was an indication of his desperate plight.”

Robinson got up quickly but was still on unsteady legs. Maxim landed some heavy blows before the bell ending the round and then, in Liebling’s account, “Robinson’s seconds half dragged, half carried him to his corner.”

At that point, Dr. Alexander Schiff entered the ring and asked Robinson if he could go on.

“I’m all in,” Sugar Ray replied, and that was it.

Dr. Schiff said that heat exhaustion finally got to Robinson, as it had also impacted referee Ruby Goldstein, who was unable to go on after the 10th round and was replaced by Ray Miller.

The scorecards of the judges and the combined scorecard of referees Goldstein and Miller confirmed that Robinson needed only to last until the final bell to get the decision. The scores by round were 10-3, 9-3-1 and 7-3-3. The A.P. had Robinson on top 9-3-1 and the U.P. had it 10-2-1.

Maxim acknowledged that he knew he was far behind in the scoring. The champion added, “I also knew I had him if I didn’t run out of rounds.”

Maxim’s colorful manager, Jack Kearns, said the heat was just an alibi for Robinson, who suffered the first knockout defeat of his stellar career at that point. “If the bell hadn’t a rang (to end the 13th round) he’d be dead. It was the way we planned it. We had Joey lay back and let Robinson punch himself out.”

For his part, Robinson was unable to comment after the fight and reporters were not permitted into his dressing room. Dr. Ira McCown of the New York State Athletic Commission told the reporters that Robinson was too “emotionally upset” to talk, saying the great champion was “in no condition to talk to anyone” and that he was “out in left field.”

Robinson retired after the bout and did not return to the ring until 1955, when he won the middleweight title again from Olson. Robinson would continue to fight for another decade, finishing with 201 total bouts. He would hold the middleweight title a record five times before finally hanging up the gloves in November of 1965 following a 10-round decision loss in Pittsburgh to up-and-coming Joey Archer.

Maxim, in the next ring encounter after Robinson, would lose the light-heavyweight title by decision to ring great Archie Moore six months later. Maxim would challenge Moore twice more, in 1953 and 1954, losing by decision each time, but would earn a narrow 8-round decision over an up-and-coming middleweight Olympic champion named Floyd Patterson later in 1954. It would be the last victory of any significance for Maxim, however.

The former champ continued fighting until 1958, long after his prime. Maxim lost eight of his last nine bouts. His final ring record reads 83 wins, 29 defeats, 4 draws.

The Cleveland native fought many champions and some all-time ring greats in his day but he is probably known more for his heat-aided victory over Robinson in the cauldron that was Yankee Stadium on that June night in 1952 than for any other fight or any other achievement in the ring, and that did not help his popularity.

As Liebling noted, Maxim was in a no-win situation with Robinson. After the fight, the champion was given credit for surviving the heat better than the lighter Robinson but was not given credit for defending the title.

“It would have required no brilliance on anyone’s part to outpoint the Maxim they described,” Liebling said of the sports writers who covered the bout.

“But Goliath never would have been popular anyway.”