So often match-ups that appear obvious, can’t-miss attractions just fail to materialize, and such was the case with a no-brainer bust-up between ring stars Sugar Ray Robinson and Rocky Graziano in the late 1940’s. Sure, Ray was a welterweight for most of his career, while Rocky plied his trade at 160 pounds, but still, both hailed from New York City and both were big drew big crowds, and yet a Robinson vs Graziano showdown didn’t come together until the best years of both were in the record books. In 1951 Sugar Ray moved up to middleweight and stopped Jake LaMotta in the famous “St. Valentine’s Day Massacre” to win a second world title. That was the same title Graziano had held for a year in the midst of an incredibly violent trilogy with Tony Zale, a series of vicious brawls which concluded in 1948 when “The Man Of Steel” knocked Rocky kicking for a second time.
But Graziano, aka Thomas Rocco Barbella, had regrouped since that defeat and put together an impressive run, including big wins over Charley Fusari and Tony Janiro. Meanwhile, Robinson, aka Walker Smith Jr., whose Hall of Fame credentials were already well established, had suffered a massive upset defeat to Randy Turpin in July of 1951, before he regained the title from the Briton in highly memorable fashion at the Polo Grounds two months later. Ray then journeyed to San Francisco to post a fifteen round win over Carl “Bobo” Olson in March and by that time the Graziano duel had already been booked for Chicago as Robinson wanted to stay busy and take advantage of his still spry 31-year-old legs.
But while Robinson vs Graziano was a hot ticket and drew a huge crowd to Chicago Stadium, few gave “The Rock” more than a puncher’s chance. After all, it was no secret that Rocky could only box one way: guns blazing behind his cannon of a right hand. Sugar Ray was the more skilled and versatile pugilist with talent to spare in terms of footwork, mobility and ring smarts. The intrigue of the match-up, beyond the big names and the possibility that a resurgent Graziano’s power might trouble Ray, had everything to do with how Robinson chose to 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 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 fists.
But in the second, Ray, heeding his corner’s advice, looked to slow the torrid pace and took his foot off the gas pedal, which in turn allowed Rocky to gain the momentum he needed as he stalked Ray 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 chasing Robinson and calling the tune in the second, the gutsy challenger waving to Ray at round’s end as if to say “I almost got you!”
To the delight of the sell-out crowd, the slugfest continued in round three with both men firing the heavy artillery and letting sheer firepower dictate the terms. And then it happened: the great Sugar Ray let fly a two-fisted barrage, hurting Rocky and forcing him to retreat, but in the process Robinson left himself both wide open and off-balance. A desperate, Hail Mary right hand from Graziano failed to land cleanly, but still carried enough weight to briefly knock the champion to one knee. Ray was up without a count and the referee merely acknowledged the knockdown and allowed the torrid battle to continue without interruption.
Graziano gave chase, seeking to capitalize as Ray back-pedaled and circled. Then, abruptly, Robinson reversed the momentum, backed the challenger to the ropes, and got home two quick left hooks and then a crushing right, the shot 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 again vertical, the referee’s count was long finished.
“I thought I had time to get up but my legs were gone,” lamented Rocky in his dressing room. “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 embarked on another amazing run that included memorable battles against “Bobo” Olson, Carmen Basilio, Gene Fullmer and Joey Giardello. — Michael Carbert