A few years ago the BBC World Service ran a sports series entitled Judge and Jury, with a team of experts arguing who was the greatest performer in their field. For boxing it was a toss up between the great Muhammad Ali and the former welterweight and five times middleweight champion ‘Sugar’ Ray Robinson.
- You’re a boxing fan yourself. You watch the fights whenever you can, you know your stuff because you’ve read everything there is to know, inside and out. When a boxing question pops up in a quiz show you get it right every time. The boxing fan sitting next to you, the one debating with you about who the greatest pound-for-pound boxer of all time is, doesn’t know what you know. He thinks he does, but he doesn’t. How could he say that Roberto Duran was better than Ali? Is he crackers? How could he choose Rocky Marciano before ‘Sugar’ Ray Robinson? Please? But don’t act like you don’t like the debate. I know you do.
I like it as much as you do, so I couldn’t resist choosing my greatest ever champion of champions, ‘Sugar’ Ray Robinson.
Every bout in which he appeared,with few exceptions, was thrilling, ring science perfection in all his movements. He was a highly sensitive, smart, quick witted boxer, who always mapped out what he wanted and he rarely failed to completely achieve his aim. He was as near to perfection as a fighter as you could get and could win in any fashion he chose. If skill was required to outscore an awkward opponent, he turned it on in style. He had blinding hand speed and brilliant footwork and could take an opponent out with a blistering combination of punches or a single blow. Robinson transformed a brutal game into an art form and became a legend. But champions don’t become legends just because of their skills and accomplishments, they achieve greatness by also overcoming adversity, which ‘Sugar’ Ray did on a number of occasions during his career.
As an amateur and a professional welterweight he was unbeatable but as a middleweight he had to dig deep within himself at times, such as his return fight after losing to Gene Fullmer, when he scored a one punch KO... and stopping Britain’s Randy Turpin one round after receiving a deep cut over his right eye, with the referee about to stop the fight in Turpin’s favour.
During Robinson’s 25 year career he lost and regained the world middleweight title a record five times between 1951 and 1960, and during his professional career of 202 contests, which included 109 opponents failing to go the distance, the only contest he himself failed to hear the final bell in was when he challenged Joey Maxim for the world light heavyweight title.
He was as near to perfection as a fighter as you could get
Even then it was the effect of the 104 degree heat in New York that beat him when he couldn’t answer the bell for the 14th round, which was longer than the referee who collapsed in the 10th round. However, at middleweight no other boxer beat as many Hall of Fame bound fighters. Robinson’s victories over Jake La Motta (Raging Bull), Carmen Basilio, Gene Fullmer, Bobo Olson and Rocky Graziano cannot be discounted. He had a ridiculously high success rate against a superior collection of middleweight champions and contenders. Few fighters at any weight transcended the fight game the way Robinson did, for he wasn’t just a fighter, he was a star and an immensely popular champion when boxing was filled with exceptionally good, tough, charismatic figures, especially in the welter and middleweight division. The most competitive of boxing’s classic eight weights at that time. In boxing’s world of hyperbole, accolades don’t usually mean anything unless, of course, they come from a jury of peers.
A tearful Mike Tyson said at his funeral, “When you think of the name ‘Sugar’ Ray Robinson you think of class, style and dignity”. Max Schmeling once said, “He was the greatest. A distance fighter. A half-distance fighter. An in-fighter, scientific. He was wonderful to see.”
‘Sugar’ Ray Leonard stated, “Someone once said there was a comparison between me and ‘Sugar’ Ray Robinson. Believe me, there was no comparison Ray Robinson was the greatest.”
Joe Louis remarked, “Robinson was the greatest fighter ever to step into the ring.” Even the amazing Muhammad Ali once said, “Some say there’s no such thing as a perfect fighter, but ‘Sugar’ Ray Robinson came as close to it as makes no difference. This was the man who could do it all. He’s the only one who was better than me.” The great ‘Sugar’ Ray passed away on 12th August 1989, aged 68, after suffering from Alzheimer’s disease for a number of years. But his name will live on in boxing for it still means something special, especially to my generation.
He gave the fight game some of its most classic moments and to me personally, he will always be champion of champions.