Sometimes match-ups that appear obvious, can’t-miss attractions, just don’t happen for whatever reason. Such was the case with Sugar Ray Robinson and Rocky Graziano. Both were based in New York City and both were big draws, and yet they didn’t meet until after their primes were in the record books. Of course the main reason was that Robinson was a welterweight for most of his career, while Rocky plied his trade at 160. But in 1951 Sugar Ray won his second world title when he stopped Jake LaMotta in the famous “St. Valentine’s Day Massacre,” the same title Graziano had held for a year in the midst of an incredibly violent trilogy with Tony Zale, which had been concluded in 1948 when “The Man Of Steel” knocked Rocky out for the second time.
But since that defeat Graziano had regrouped and put together an impressive run, including big wins over Charley Fusari and Tony Janiro. Meanwhile, Robinson, whose Hall of Fame credentials were already well established, had suffered a massive upset defeat to Randy Turpin the previous July before regaining the title from the Englishman in highly memorable fashion at the Polo Grounds. He then journeyed to San Francisco to take a 15 round decision over Carl “Bobo” Olson in March. By that time the Graziano match was already booked for Chicago as Robinson looked to stay busy and take advantage of his still spry 31-year-old legs.
While Robinson vs Graziano was a hot ticket and drew a huge crowd to Chicago Stadium, few gave “The Rock” much more than a puncher’s chance as the undeniable fact was that Graziano was as limited as Robinson was gifted. Rocky could only box one way: guns blazing behind his cannon of a right hand. Sugar Ray was a much more versatile pugilist with a more complete tool kit. Thus, the intrigue of the match beyond the big names and the possibility that a resurgent Graziano’s power might trouble Ray, had everything to do with how Robinson would approach it tactically. Would he box with patience and poise and limit Graziano’s chances, or would he please both the crowd and Rocky and opt for a shoot-out?
To the surprise of many, he clearly chose the latter; instead of boxing on the back foot and staying out of range of the challenger’s dangerous right, Robinson instead came forward from the outset, throwing bombs. The result was a rough-and-tumble battle in round one, with plenty of clinches and mauling, Graziano throwing rabbit punches with abandon as the two wrestled for position. The champion’s hand-speed and accuracy carried the opener as Rocky absorbed numerous hard shots to both body and head, Sugar Ray even pinning Graziano on the ropes at one point and battering him with both hands.
But in the second, Ray, heeding his corner’s advice, looked to slow the torrid pace and took his foot off the gas pedal, but that only allowed Rocky to gain the momentum he was looking for as he stalked Ray about the ring and unloaded some of his trademark power shots. The champion countered with a sustained barrage that briefly knocked Rocky back on his heels but it was still Graziano calling the tune in round two and chasing Robinson, waving to him at round’s end as if to say “I almost got you!”
The slugfest continued in round three with both men throwing the heavy artillery and then it happened: the great Sugar Ray unleashed a two-fisted barrage, hurting Rocky and forcing him to retreat, but as he did so he left himself both vulnerable and off-balance. A desperate right from Graziano failed to land cleanly but still carried enough weight to briefly knock the champion to one knee. Robinson was up without a count and the referee merely acknowledged the knockdown and let the battle continue.
Graziano gave chase, looking to capitalize as Ray back-pedaled and circled the ring. Then, abruptly, Robinson reversed the momentum and backed the challenger to the ropes, landing two quick left hooks and then an absolutely vicious right, the punch landing flush and separating Graziano from both his mouthpiece, which went flying, and his senses. For a split second Rocky remained on his feet, his body limp, his head drooping down, before he crumpled to the canvas. Lying on his side, he gyrated his right leg in a vain attempt to resuscitate himself, but by the time awareness returned and he was vertical again, the referee’s count was done.
“I thought I had time to get up but my legs were gone,” lamented Rocky in his dressing room. “Shouldna been down, anyhow. I had the guy right there and waited too long to throw the right. One second I’m winning, the next I’m hearing the count. Boy, the guy can belt! A great fighter.”
For his part, Robinson was equally charitable, noting that the punch which briefly floored him had landed behind the ear. “Good thing it didn’t get me on the chin,” he said. “I’ve met many tough fighters … but no one ever stung me more than Rocky.”
For Graziano, this was the beginning of the end. Five months later he dropped a decision to rising star Chuck Davey, and while no doubt Rocky could have continued and banked a few more paydays, he wisely hung up his gloves for good and embarked on a career in show business. Ray almost followed an identical path as he lost to Joey Maxim in his next outing and also retired, but less than three years later he returned to embark on another amazing run which included memorable battles against “Bobo” Olson, Carmen Basilio, Gene Fullmer and Joey Giardello. — Robert Portis