From the Archives: Sugar Ray Robinson, 67, Dies
Sugar Ray Robinson, considered by many to have been the greatest prizefighter ever, died Wednesday at age 67.
Robinson, whose skills, resiliency and longevity in the ring were legendary, had been a victim of Alzheimer’s disease for six years, but the cause of his death was not immediately attributable, a spokesman for the L.A. County Coroner’s office said. Robinson had lived in Los Angeles for 27 years, but recently he was rarely seen in public because of the ravaging illness, a mysterious brain disease of uncertain cause and with no known cure.
His business manager of 19 years, Sid Lockitch, told the Associated Press that Robinson also suffered from diabetes and high blood pressure.
Lockitch said Robinson and his wife, Millie, were at home when the former champion began having trouble breathing. Robinson was taken to Brotman Memorial Medical Center, where he died soon after arrival.
As world welterweight champion in the 1940s, Robinson defended the title five times. He won and lost the world middleweight championship five times in the 1950s. His professional career, which lasted 25 years, ended in 1965, when he was 44. He fought 201 times as a professional and knocked out 109 opponents. Of his 19 career losses, 10 came after he had turned 40.
Robinson began boxing as an underage amateur--he was only 15 when he had his first regulation bout--and he was unbeaten in 85 bouts before turning pro in 1940.
Famed boxing writer W.C. Heinz once observed that Robinson’s career overlapped “two distinct eras” in the rise of blacks in sports: “He began before Jackie Robinson played his first game with the Dodgers and continued into the prime of Muhammad Ali.”
While he was a peerless strategist inside the ring, Robinson was equally renowned for his jaunty, spendthrift personality outside it.
He once sailed to Europe with his own flamingo-pink Cadillac aboard the ship and an entourage that included his manager, secretary, masseur, barber, two trainers, voice teacher, drama coach and golf pro. Arriving in Paris, he added to the troupe by hiring a midget as interpreter.
“I went through $4 million, but I have no regrets,” he wrote in a 1969 autobiography co-authored by the New York Times’ Dave Anderson.
But once the bell rang, Sugar Ray Robinson was more than just all business; he was a master tactician who also could take a foe out with a single punch, and his will to win was relentless.
“He was beautiful at what he did,” wrote Times columnist Jim Murray in the spring of 1987 after learning that Robinson was afflicted by Alzheimer’s. “He elevated the art. He brought grace, rhythm, style, even science to a cruel craft. It wasn’t a fight, it was a ballet. If Nureyev were a fighter, he would do it this way.”
Commented Sports Illustrated, after one of Robinson’s most famous contests, a May 1957 bout against Gene Fullmer in which he regained the middleweight championship with a fifth-round knockout two days before his 36th birthday: “He is, in truth, a lion among champions. His feats are unequaled in ring history.”
The late Joe Louis, a friend since Robinson’s childhood and arguably the greatest heavyweight champion, called him “the best fighter that ever stepped into the ring.” And Jake LaMotta, the erstwhile “Bronx Bull” with whom Robinson engaged in a series of memorable bouts, described him as “the greatest fighter, pound for pound, who ever lived.”
Sugar Ray Robinson was born Walker Smith Jr. on May 3, 1921, in Detroit to a Georgia farm couple who had moved to Michigan about a year earlier.
The Smiths’ marriage was a troubled one, and when Robinson was 11, his mother, Marie, left Walker and moved with her three children to New York City.
But before leaving Detroit, Robinson befriended an older boy, “a big hero in the neighborhood.” His friendship with Joe Louis would last a lifetime.
Once in Manhattan, Mrs. Smith and her brood found a mean little apartment in Hell’s Kitchen, and she supported the family as a seamstress.
As a 13-year-old, the future Ray Robinson began boxing in informal Police Athletic League shows. He weighed 85 pounds when he started. When he was 15 and weighed only 111 pounds, he was slipped a piece of paper that permitted him to fight in Amateur Athletic Union-sanctioned bouts. It was an underhanded action and it resulted in his transition from Walker Smith Jr. to Sugar Ray Robinson.
Although underage, he had begun accompanying a stable of amateur boxers trained by George Gainford, who eventually became his manager, to out-of-town fights. Most were “bootleg” contests: The promoter paid Gainford and Gainford would slip his fighters five or 10 dollars.
One night in Kingston, N.Y., near Albany, the promoter needed a flyweight. Walker Smith Jr. was available. But because he was too young to hold an AAU card, Gainford sneaked him one belonging to an older protege who had retired. “Ray Robinson” won a unanimous decision and earned $10. He never did bother to apply for an AAU card in his own name.
He was tagged “Sugar” not long after he knocked out a heavier fighter at Watertown, N.Y.
After the bout, the sports editor of the local newspaper told Gainford, “That’s a mighty sweet fighter you’ve got there, a real sweet fighter.”
“As sweet as sugar,” said a woman at ringside.
In the next day’s paper, the sports editor called the sweet fighter “Sugar Ray Robinson.” Reflected Robinson years later: “Sugar Walker Smith doesn’t have the same ring. Sugar Ray Robinson is different. Man it’s sweet.”
Robinson won the 1939 Golden Gloves featherweight championship in the old Madison Square Garden, then turned pro in 1940, fighting at 133 pounds. He earned $150 for winning on the undercard of the Henry Armstrong-Fritzie Zivic welterweight championship fight in which Armstrong, whom Robinson idolized, took a frightful drubbing from Zivic, a ring ruffian who used his head, his elbows and his thumbs as expertly as his fists.
Robinson vowed to his mother, who despite earlier opposition to his fighting became a principal booster: “Mom, I want to fight Zivic. I’ll fix him for the way he beat Armstrong.”
Just a year later, on Oct. 31, 1941, he got his chance, after running off a string of 25 consecutive victories that earned him the accolade of “uncrowned lightweight champion.” Robinson got $15,000 for the Zivic bout in New York’s old Madison Square Garden but, he said: “I’d have fought for free. I wanted to humiliate him for Henry.” By then Zivic had knocked out Armstrong in a rematch but had lost his title on a decision three months earlier.
Robinson succeeded in humiliating Zivic, winning a unanimous 10-round decision before 20,000 fans. Two-and-a-half months later, in mid-January of 1942, Robinson humbled Zivic even more convincingly by knocking him out in the 10th round.
Robinson began to gain weight while scalping a series of top-ranked opponents, and sportswriters no longer called him the “uncrowned lightweight champion.” Rather they referred to him as “the uncrowned welterweight champion.”
On Oct. 2 in New York, Robinson engaged in the first of six legendary fights he was to have over a period of nine years against Jake LaMotta. Their names would become ever twinned because of the intensity of their meetings and the disparity of their styles--the matador-puncher vs. the puncher-bull. By then Robinson had had 35 fights, 27 of which he had won by knockout, but in LaMotta he was facing a slugger of mythic durability who never had been knocked down, much less stopped.
Robinson, outweighed by 10 pounds but using superior boxing skills, won that first bout with a unanimous 10-round decision. But the fight was close enough to warrant a rematch four months later, on Feb. 5, 1943, in Detroit.
This time, Robinson was outweighed by 15 pounds and had not trained properly. He later admitted that LaMotta “stomped me with his first left hook. And he stomped me for 10 rounds.”
In the eighth round, Robinson added, LaMotta “did something nobody had ever done to me before. He hit me with a right hand in my mid-section and when I doubled up, he let go with a left hook to the jaw. For the first time in my career I had no legs. I sagged through the ropes and onto the ring apron and sprawled there.”
Robinson made it up at the eight-count and survived the two remaining rounds. “I knew the decision would be unanimous for Jake,” he said in his autobiography. The defeat marked his first loss in the ring.
Three weeks later, Robinson avenged the loss in the same ring at Detroit’s Olympia via a 10-round decision. A day later, he was inducted into the Army, as Private Walker Smith Jr.
In the summer of 1943, Robinson, still in the Army, was persuaded to accept a match he hoped never would be made. He received a telephone call from Armstrong, his fabled career nearly over and in dire financial straits, offering a proposition: “Ray, we’d make a good match, we’d draw a lot of money.” Robinson replied, “I could never fight you, Henry. You were my boyhood idol.”
A few days later, promoter Mike Jacobs also suggested such a match, saying Armstrong needed the money and adding shrewdly, “He can make more money with you than anyone else.” Robinson noted in his autobiography, “As much as I didn’t want to fight Henry, if I didn’t fight him, I’d be costing him money. . . . I had to fight him for his good.”
The fight in Madison Square Garden on Aug. 27, 1943, drew 15,371 fans and grossed more than $60,000. Many present that night consider it Robinson’s most artful performance, even more masterful than better-remembered triumphs against Randy Turpin, Carmen Basilio, Gene Fullmer and, of course, LaMotta, because of the way he handled his aging but still dangerous foe without humiliating him.
Robinson was honorably discharged from the Army on June 3, 1944, but did not resume his boxing career for almost five months. When he returned to the ring, he did so with a vengeance. During the next 2 1/2 years, he reeled off a string of victories over the best welterweights and middleweights of the era, including two more decision-victories over LaMotta.
When the welterweight championship became vacant in late 1946, he finally got his first shot at a professional title. He was matched in the Garden on Dec. 20, 1946, against talented but underrated Tommy Bell.
Because of a previous victory over his foe two years earlier, Robinson may have taken Bell too lightly and was knocked down in the seventh round. He got up at the count of seven and he would recall later: “The knock down woke me up. . . . In the 11th round, I put him down with a combination. From then on, I dominated him.” When the unanimous decision was announced, Sugar Ray Robinson was the welterweight champion.
During the next four years, he defended that championship five times and won several non-title contests. His first defense, however, almost caused him to abandon the profession because of the haunting result.
The night before his June 24, 1947, defense in Cleveland against Jimmy Doyle, a slick Los Angeles boxer, Robinson had a premonition: he dreamed he killed Doyle during the fight. At the weigh-in next day, Robinson said he would not fight Doyle. He relented after Gainford, summoned a priest to stay with Robinson until just before the match began.
In the eighth round, Robinson hit Doyle with two good right hands and a left to the jaw. The bell ending the round saved Doyle from the knockout but he remained on the canvas. Doyle died the next afternoon in a Cleveland hospital. Robinson had trouble sleeping for weeks after and donated a substantial portion of his purse from two subsequent fights to set up a trust fund for Doyle’s mother.
Making the 147-pound limit became a problem for Robinson, and on Aug. 9, 1950 he defended his welterweight crown for the last time against Charley Fusari in Jersey City, winning an easy 15-round decision. Robinson, a man often thought too generous for his own good in helping friends and even strangers, donated his entire purse of $50,000 to the American Cancer Fund.
That autumn he set off on a working tour of Europe with a dazzling entourage and with 53 pieces of luggage that he, his wife of the time and others in the ensemble thought necessary. He was the rage of Paris, which was his base. He fought and won five fights in a space of 29 days, four by knockouts. He boxed twice in Paris and once each in Brussels, Geneva and Frankfurt.
When Robinson returned to New York, he obtained a match which he had eagerly sought: against LaMotta, this time for the middleweight championship on Feb. 14, 1951, in Chicago. LaMotta had won the title 1 1/2 years earlier when he knocked out the Frenchman, Marcel Cerdan, in 10 rounds, and he had successfully defended it twice.
By this time, Robinson “was really somebody now,” as he later recalled. He owned chunks of property and several businesses in Harlem and drove a flamingo-pink Cadillac convertible.
Robinson shredded LaMotta and, in the process, became middleweight champion for the first of five times. The referee stopped the fight in the 13th round with LaMotta “in a state of utter helplessness” after “a struggle that turned into a slaughter,” according to the New York Times writer who covered the contest.
Again, Robinson embarked on whirlwind overseas campaign, engaging in six non-title bouts in 22 days, four of which he won on knockouts.
Then, on July 10, 1951, Robinson defended his six-month-old championship at London’s Earl’s Court against a sturdy, unorthodox English challenger, Randy Turpin. The bout resulted in one of boxing’s major upsets, with Turpin being awarded a decision by the referee who had the only vote.
Dhe contract for the London fight stipulated that, in the unlikely event the Englishman won, a rematch would be held in New York in September. The fight in New York’s old Polo Grounds on Sept. 12, 1951, was a sellout, drawing 61,370 fans and a gate of $767,626.
“It was a good fight and a close one,” recalled the late referee Ruby Goldstein a few years later.
Going into the 10th round, Turpin seemed to come on strong against the bleeding Robinson.
“It could be that Turpin’s biggest mistake,” wrote Red Smith the day after, was to open the gash over Robinson’s left eye, the same left eye which Turpin had wounded in capturing the title in London. Robinson, inevitably at his most resourceful during the toughest of times, seized the moment.
Robinson attacked and Turpin fought back, but in doing so he left an opening that Robinson filled, driving a left to the midsection and a right to the jaw that felled Turpin. Turpin rose at seven. Robinson pounced. As a defenseless Turpin sagged, Goldstein stepped between the fighters and stopped the bout with only eight seconds remaining in the round. Sugar Ray Robinson was middleweight champion for a second time.
Early the next year, Robinson twice defended his championship against quality contenders. He won a 15-round decision over Carl (Bobo) Olson in San Francisco and knocked out Rocky Graziano, a former champion with a big right hand, in Chicago in another classic confrontation between fighters with different styles.
After that, Robinson sought to join Henry Armstrong and Ruby Robert Fitzsimmons, as one of boxing’s only three-division champions. Fitzsimmons had held the middleweight, heavyweight and light-heavyweight championships, in that order.
On the steamy night of June 25, 1952, Robinson attempted to win the light-heavyweight crown from Joey Maxim, a skilled boxer himself who was so strong that he frequently campaigned successfully among heavyweights.
Robinson scaled 157 1/2 to Maxim’s 173 at the weigh-in. That night 48,000 fans paid $421,000 to witness the match in Yankee Stadium, where a thermometer placed on the ring apron registered 104 degrees. Once again, Goldstein was the referee, and, as he recalled, “It was Robinson, of course, who made the action fast and exciting,” bewildering the stolid Maxim, who carefully was pacing himself against the heat, with his foot and hand speed.
At the end of the 10th round, Goldstein signaled he no longer could continue because of the intense heat. He gave his scorecard to a replacement who later said the markings for the eighth, ninth and 10th rounds had become so blurred on the sweat-soaked card they were illegible.
In the 13th round, Robinson sprawled on his face after missing a sweeping right hand and he was unable to answer the bell for the 14th because of heat prostration. The fight went into the record books as a technical knockout for Maxim in the 14th round. After the Maxim fight, Robinson announced his retirement, having lost only three times in 135 contests.
His decision to quit boxing was intentional. He once had said, “See this face? Ain’t no man ever going to bust this face. I won’t stay in this business too long.”
But later when the face had become rough and grainy and scar tissue had collected around both eyes, he commented pensively: “I wanted to quit while I was on top, but you cannot choose your endings.”
For more than two years, Robinson was a cabaret performer, interspersing tap-dance routines with bits of patter. In the beginning, he was in considerable demand and commanded as much as $15,000 a week. But his bookings fell off when his value as an entertainer waned and, at the same time, his Harlem investments soured. In need of cash, he decided to return to the ring at the age of 33 in 1954.
He fought an exhibition, then won a 10-round decision over a run-of-the-mill foe in Detroit in early 1955. But in a second regulation bout, he was soundly defeated by Tiger Jones, an oft-beaten middleweight. Robinson, whose timing had deserted him during his long layoff, did not win a round on one judge’s scorecard and did poorly on the other two. Robinson was “humiliated.”
After the Jones loss, Robinson scored four consecutive victories, the last a 10-round split decision in San Francisco over 3-1 favorite Rocky Castellani, who knocked Robinson down in the sixth round but could not follow up that advantage. That bout, on July 22, 1955, earned him a shot on Dec. 9 in Chicago against then middleweight champion Carl (Bobo) Olson.
Although a 4-1 underdog, Robinson knocked out Olson, whom he had decisioned in a title defense three years earlier. Robinson was middleweight champion for a third time. But waiting for his financial payoff were agents of the Internal Revenue Service, who placed a lien on his $50,000 winnings for back taxes. Almost inevitably that would be the case in future fights; IRS agents would be on hand to attach part of his purses.
Robinson gave Olson a rematch May 18, 1956 at Los Angeles’ old Wrigley Field, that time finishing him in four rounds. But on Jan. 2, 1957 he lost the championship in New York to Gene Fullmer, 11 years his junior, in a 15-round decision.
The two met again in Chicago on May 1, two days before Robinson’s 37th birthday. Robinson had learned a lesson from his first fight against Fullmer: He won in a fifth-round knockout.
Just as Robinson had moved up in weight class when he won the middleweight championship from LaMotta, the then-welterweight division ruler, Carmen Basilio, set his sights on Robinson’s title. The pair engaged in two fierce contests.
In the first, Basilio, a brawler much like Fullmer and LaMotta, won a split 15-round decision¿and with it the middleweight title¿on Sept. 23, 1957, in Madison Square Garden before 38,072 fans, most of whom booed the decision. Robinson thought he had won, and so did the referee who gave him nine of the rounds. But the two judges voted for the challenger.
Robinson, however, regained the championship—his fifth—in his favorite arena, Chicago Stadium, on March 25, 1958.
A third fight against Basilio seemed a natural. But negotiations fell through because of a money disagreement. With Robinson idle for almost a year, the National Boxing Assn. vacated his championship, although he still was recognized as the titleholder in New York, Massachusetts and most of Europe.
Fullmer, meanwhile, knocked out Basilio in the 14th round to claim the NBA championship and when it appeared that he was not eager to defend it against Robinson, the latter fought a skinny Boston Irishman named Paul Pender in Pender’s hometown for that portion of the title to which Robinson still laid claim.
The fight was held in Boston Garden on Jan. 22, 1960. As was the case in the first Basilio fight, again, the referee voted Robinson the winner, giving him an overwhelming majority of the 15 rounds. But Pender’s flicking and moving caught the judges’ fancy. Robinson thought he had been the victim of a hometown decision.
The two met in the same arena the next June 10. Again the referee voted for Robinson, by then nearing 40. But again the judges saw otherwise.
But he got a shot at Fullmer’s NBA title at the Los Angeles Sports Arena on Dec. 3, 1960. This time Fullmer had a better defense, and Fullmer retained the title in a draw. Robinson fought Fullmer again, more than a year later, on March 4, 1961, at the Dunes Hotel in Las Vegas. It would be his last fight for a championship. He lost the decision.
After that the downhill slide began. It came slowly at first. He beat some top contenders. But he also began losing to some.
Soon, he found himself fighting against unheralded foes for paltry purses in such unlikely settings as Norfolk, Savannah, Johnstown, Steubenville and even Tijuana, where, at age 44, he lost to the forgettable Memo Ayon.
Nevertheless, the bright side to that defeat was his marriage immediately afterward to a Los Angeles woman, Millie Bruce, a bond that would continue to the day of his death. He wrote in his autobiography: “I knew she loved me, because there wasn’t anything else for her to love. Only me was left.”
Although 44, Robinson was matched against a leading challenger, Joey Archer, a contest he hoped might lead to one more shot at the championship. The fight took place in the Civic Arena in Pittsburgh on Nov. 10, 1965.
In the third round, Robinson hit Archer, a good boxer but a feather-duster puncher, with the kind of blow that had finished Fullmer eight years earlier. Archer just blinked and in the fourth put Robinson himself on the canvas when he caught the latter off balance. Robinson was embarrassed. Even more ignominious was the decision in favor of Archer. Afterward, Robinson realized he had reached the end. “When a light hitter like Joey Archer can drop me,” he decided, “I know it’s time to quit.”
Exactly a month later, Madison Square Garden organized a sentimental celebration of Robinson’s long and splendid career. Robinson, in boxing togs beneath a hip-length white terrycloth robe, appeared in the Garden ring on Dec. 10, 1965. While Carmen Basilio, Randy Turpin, Gene Fullmer and Bobo Olson watched, the Garden management presented him with a big gold-colored trophy. It was inscribed: “The World’s Greatest Boxer.”
Not long after his retirement, Robinson and his wife moved to her hometown of Los Angeles. During the years that followed, still superbly conditioned, the ex-champion devoted himself to working with underprivileged youngsters. In 1969, he founded the Sugar Ray Robinson Youth Foundation, a non-profit juvenile delinquency prevention organization, supported by many wealthy celebrities. It sponsors cultural, craft and sports programs throughout the Los Angeles area. He also played a few bit parts in movies and television.
SUGAR RAY ROBINSON’S CAREER
May 3, 1921—born in Detroit as Walker Smith Jr.
Oct. 4, 1940—wins first pro fight by KO over Joe Escheverria.
Oct. 2, 1942—wins decision in first of six brutal fights with Jake LaMotta.
Dec. 20 1946—defeats Tommy Bell to win vacant welterweight title.
Feb. 14, 1951—stops LaMotta to win middleweight title.
July 10, 1951—loses middleweight title to Randy Turpin in London.
Sept. 12, 1951—regains middleweight title with KO of Turpin in New York.
Dec. 18, 1952—announces retirement.
Oct. 20, 1954—announces return to the ring.
Dec. 9, 1955—knocks out Carl (Bobo) Olsen to regain middleweight title.
Jan. 2, 1957—oses middleweight title in a decision to Gene Fullmer.
May 1, 1957—regains middleweight title with knockout of Fullmer.
Sept. 23, 1957—loses middleweight title in a decision to Carmen Basilio.
March 25, 1958—regains middleweight title with win over Basilio.
Jan. 22, 1960—loses middleweight title to Paul Pender.
Dec. 3, 1960—draws with Fullmer in bid for NBA middleweight title.
Dec. 10, 1965—Retires. Record: 174 wins (110 by KO), 19 losses, 6 draws.
April 12, 1989—dies in Culver City.
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