By James Blears
If you ask Boxing`s true connoisseurs, purists, old timers who`ve seen it all and the most avidly knowledgeable fans, just who is and will forever remain the greatest fighter of all time, there is only one name…Sugar Ray Robinson.
Today is the one hundredth anniversary of Walker Smith Jr`s birth. On that day, God decided to make the most perfect exponent of the sport of Boxing there ever was and ever will be. But even ancient Greek philosopher Euclides, who taught the art of disputation and defined supreme good couldn`t have predicted the sheer brilliance of Ray. Ray could box, evade, attack and defend. He could take out an opponent with just one perfect punch. Watch and marvel at the KO of Gene Fullmer in that fateful fifth round to win the middleweight title for a fourth of fifth times. THE most incredible left hook leveler we have seen up to today.
In watching and marveling at Ray`s natural yet honed skills, it`s difficult to pick out one punch which is better executed than another. Perhaps it just might have been that pulverizing left hook?
As a youngster Ray who`s family had joined the great migration from south to north in search of food and work, lived in Detroit on the same block as Joe Louis, idolized him and carried his bag to the gym.
Years later, Joe said Robinson was the greatest boxer he`d ever seen in his lifetime, commenting that Ray could knock you out even backpedalling. No angle was too oblique. Praise from the Gods! Sugar Ray Leonard said that Sugar Ray Robinson was by far the greatest, totally refusing to be compared or considered in his league. The greatest Sugar Ray was Robinson!
Many years ago Ray and Rocky Graziano appeared on the Curt Gowdy memorabilia program dubbed: “That was the way it was.” Rocky said it was a privilege to have been knocked out in the third by the greatest fighter of all time. They laughed, joked and hugged in mutual respect.
Rocky had slammed Ray with a blockbuster right in that fateful third and down Ray went. Rocky lamented that it had landed a touch high to have full effect. But the master showman got up in less than a second, artfully disguising it as a slip, which fooled the ref. After feeling that raw and refined power, Sugar Ray didn`t hang around for more. He closed the show with dazzling combos which felled Rocky who`s tangled legs were rooted to the spot, and that was that!
Both had been obliged to change their names to get into boxing. Rocco Barbella who had been a regular visitor to juvenile hall, borrowed the name of a friend, who`s other side of the tracks convictions easily outnumbered and trumped his. While Walker Smith Jr, who needed to buy eggs and milk for his family, borrowed the name of bartender Ray Robinson to gain an AAU card, because he was only fifteen years old. The prize for a timely victory was a watch, and you could sell it back to gain desperately needed cash.
No amateur boxer could match Ray. He won all eighty five of his contests, KO`ing sixty nine of his opponents. His pro career spanned 1940-1965 and 1,401 rounds. Two hundred and one fights. Welterweight champion of the World and then Five times Middleweight champion. One hundred and seventy four victories, including one hundred and nine KO`s, nineteen losses, mostly long after he should have hung up his gloves. Yet losses back then weren`t seen in the same prissy way they`re regarded today. To lose one`s 0 was a learning curve. As the great Whitey Bimstein acidly observed: “Show me an undefeated fighter and I`ll show you a person who`s not fought any fighter of note!” Suger Ray had built a ninety one undefeated streak between 1943-1951.
No man ever beat Ray twice. The only opponent who ever stopped Ray was the weather. More than 103 degrees in the sweltering Yankee Stadium, against Joey Maxim for the light heavyweight title, Ray collapsed from his exertions in the thirteenth round, way ahead on points. Ref Ruby Goldstein has succumbed in the tenth and had to be replaced by Ray Miller!
Six fights against the tough as nails, brawling Jake Lamotta. Jake defeated Ray in the second clash, outweighing him by sixteen pounds and momentarily knocking him through the ropes in the eighth. Less than three weeks later Ray put the record straight with a UD. Their series ended with the St Valentines Day Massacre in 1951, when Ray battered Jake from pillar to post, until the referee finally and belatedly intervened in the thirteenth round, yet in all the fights he couldn`t deck iron jawed Jake. Years later Jake quipped: “I fought Ray so many times I almost got diabetes.”
Handsome, dapper and flamboyant, Ray really invented the term entourage, which was especially evident on his European tour,that culminated in defeat by Randolph Turpin. Yet three months later, Ray stopped Randy in the Polo Grounds in the tenth. Again cut, Ray overwhelmed the Lion of Royal Leamington Spa with a blistering fuselage in the tenth. Turpin`s all too brief sixty four days of glory were over and out and forever gone.
The rivalry with Carmen Basilio was a two fight classic. Carmen who accused Ray of being aloof and arrogant outside the ring, vented cold fury to win the first encounter. A Journalist had dared to tell him that twenty out of twenty one scribes predicted that he`d lose to Ray. Carmen snapped: “Well twenty of you are wrong!” and he proved it! Then his left eye swelled like a plum in the rematch which Ray won. Carmen said that Ray was brilliant and beyond brave. He could dish it out, but boy oh boy he could also soak it up.
No one listened to Ray when he had nightmares about killing Jimmy Doyle. A Catholic and a Protestant priest talked some “Sense,” into Ray and Jimmy died following an eight round KO. Ray donated most of his next four purses to insure that Jimmy`s dream of buying his mother came true.
Ray had to come back to the ring, because his business ventures failed. Some of those he trusted the most, skimmed off the top and robbed him of a deserved retirement. He died from the effects of diabetes and Alzheimers aged just sixty seven.
Ray was born in 1921, and died aged sixty seven. Paradoxically another all time middleweight great Marvelous Marvin Hagler died aged just sixty six in 2021. Fierce, elegant and awesome in the ring, perhaps they`re now sharing the same corner in the next world?