“Sugar” Ray Robinson (1921-1989)

Sugar Ray Robinson, January 30, 1947
Public Domain Image

“Sugar” Ray Robinson is generally acknowledged as the greatest pound-for-pound fighter in boxing history. Born Walker Smith, Jr. on May 3, 1921, in Detroit, Michigan, to parents Walker Smith, Sr., and Lelia (Hurst) Robinson.  His father was a cotton, peanut, and corn farmer near Ailey, Georgia, who moved north during the early years of World War I.  Robinson’s parents separated, and he moved to New York City with his mother at the age of 12. It was there the underage aspiring boxer became known as Ray Robinson when he borrowed an Amateur Athletic Union membership card from a friend by that name to qualify for a Golden Gloves tournament. When his future trainer, George Gainford, watched him box for the first time and commented that his style and fluid motions were “sweet as sugar,” he became known as “Sugar” Ray Robinson.

An exceptionally gifted fighter, Robinson turned professional in 1940 at age 19 and reeled off 40 consecutive victories before suffering a loss against future middleweight champion, Jake LaMotta, whom he ultimately ended up defeating in four of their five meetings. Astonishingly, between 1943 and 1951, Robinson would go on to win 91 successive bouts after his first defeat, including wins over Tommy Bell on December 12, 1946, for the World Welterweight Title, and LaMotta on February 14, 1951, for the World Middleweight Title, before losing the second time in his career to Randy Turpin later that year in London, England.

After regaining the middleweight title on September 12, 1951, with a ten round technical knockout victory over Turpin, Robinson successfully defended the title two more times before attempting to capture the light heavyweight crown against the reigning champion, Joey Maxim, in June of 1952. Despite a substantial lead on all official cards, Robinson was forced to retire on his stool after the 13th round of the contest, a victim of heat prostration in the sweltering heat at New York’s Yankee Stadium. He subsequently retired from boxing in December of 1952, only to return in 1955. He went on to win and lose the middleweight championship three more times before he finally retired for good in 1965 at age 44.

Known for his flamboyant lifestyle, Robinson was the first boxer to have an “entourage.”  After retirement in 1965, Robinson attempted a career in entertainment but was not successful. In the late 1960’s, he appeared in television series like Mission Impossible and Land of the Giants.  In 1969, he founded the Sugar Ray Robinson Youth Foundation in South Central Los Angeles, California.  During his final years, Robinson suffered from diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease.  He died in Los Angeles on April 12, 1989, at the age of 67.

In 1997, The Ring magazine named him “pound-for-pound, the best boxer of all time.” In 1999, the Associated Press named him both the greatest welterweight and middleweight boxer of the century.