In boxing circles, it’s repeated so often it’s almost become a cliché: the greatest boxer of all-time, regardless of weight, is Sugar Ray Robinson.
It can be puzzling for those of us born too late to be familiar with the career of the “Sugarman.” What is it that makes the selection of Robinson so unanimous and so unquestioned amongst the ring intelligentsia? It’s not as if there’s a shortage of candidates for the mantle of the greatest to ever step through the ropes. Harry Greb, Jimmy Wilde, Benny Leonard, Sam Langford, Joe Gans, Henry Armstrong, Muhammad Ali, Archie Moore, and Joe Louis are just a sampling of top champions that may come to mind when the question is posed. But among those who really know the sport and its rich history, the name ‘Robinson’ usually tops them all.
It’s not just the legendary victories against champions Jake LaMotta, Kid Gavilan, Rocky Graziano, Bobo Olson, Carmen Basilio and Gene Fullmer. It’s not just his having won the middleweight world title (back when the term actually meant something) on five separate occasions, a record to this day. And it’s not just his incredible longevity; Robinson was a champion or top contender for an incredible twenty years.
It’s more about what you see when you watch the old films, now available for all on the internet: the fluid footwork, the snake-like reflexes and the ability to generate knockout power at any given moment with either hand. And to top it all off, no one was tougher. With the exception of his failed attempt to win the light heavyweight title when he was knocked out by the 100-degree heat on a sweltering July night, Robinson was never stopped in an amazing 202 bout professional career.
At his best, Robinson’s blend of speed, mobility, trip-hammer reflexes and power was something close to unbeatable, the evidence being that over the course of a full decade of pro competition he suffered only a single defeat, that being a close decision loss to Jake LaMotta in 1943 when “The Bronx Bull” enjoyed a 16 pound weight advantage. Ray would avenge that loss four times after, most memorably in the famous “St. Valentine’s Day Massacre” in Chicago in 1951. It would be eight years between that loss and his next defeat, a decision loss and huge upset to England’s Randy Turpin, Ray entering the ring that night with an astonishing record of 129-1-2. He would then avenge that defeat as well in the immediate rematch, another famous victory that saw a desperate and badly cut Robinson unleash a two-fisted barrage to gain a critical stoppage win. Think about it: more than decade of activity, 134 bouts, in a time of incredibly fierce competition, and just two decision losses, both against world champions.
Amazingly, Robinson would compete for another fourteen years after he got his revenge over Turpin, before finally retiring when he was almost 45 years old.
Robinson was a boxer, not a brawler, and he prided himself on his technique and ring elegance. But there’s no doubt he had a fighter’s heart, not to mention deadly killer instinct and a wicked punch. In short, he had it all. While those who appreciated the more subtle aspects of ‘the sweet science’ marveled at his precision, footwork, and ability to patiently set up his opponent, those who simply wanted action also loved Robinson for the intensity of his attack and his knockout power.
They say records are made to be broken, but the simple truth is there will never be a boxer to rival Sugar Ray Robinson. If the true glory years of pugilism are in the past, and it’s impossible to argue otherwise, then Robinson himself stands as the pinnacle, a man whose career everything before was leading up to, and almost everything after is a kind of dénouement. Someday a hockey player may top the records set by Wayne Gretzky, or a basketball star will emerge to take the mantle from Michael Jordan. But sadly, we know that no one will ever eclipse the amazing career of Sugar Ray Robinson. He was that good. He was, and is, peerless.
— Michael Carbert