In boxing, as in other avenues of life, it is possible to be too good for your own good. Sugar Ray Robinson is regarded by many as the greatest boxer of all time, but on at least one occasion, his immense talent proved a liability.
By 1952, Robinson’s place in boxing history was more than secure. He had dominated both the welterweight and middleweight divisions like few before and on the way established himself as the finest all-round boxer since Benny Leonard. But, like every other great competitor, Robinson wasn’t satisfied to just bask in the glow of universal admiration.
The next mountain to climb was the light-heavyweight division where Joey Maxim was the current champion. Maxim, while competent and capable, reminded no one of Jack Dempsey, even though he had Dempsey’s ex-manager, Jack “Doc” Kearns, in his corner. Most fight fans agreed, if Sugar Ray had things his way, and size and weight didn’t prove to be significant factors, he would add to his already brilliant legacy by becoming the first welterweight champion in boxing history to win the world light-heavyweight title.
Held in New York’s Yankee Stadium, Maxim vs Robinson was actually scheduled to take place on June 23rd, but a torrential rainstorm had forced a postponement. Two days later and instead of being engulfed by a monsoon, New York was scorched by staggering heat. In fact, to this day June 25, 1952 remains one of the leading contenders for the hottest day ever in New York City. But a second postponement was out of the question. Despite the severe temperatures, Robinson’s challenge for his third divisional title went ahead.
And for ten rounds a successful challenge it was. The smaller man was also the better one as Robinson set the pace and landed far more clean punches. But the smaller man was also the one doing most of the work. For starters, Ray used the ring more, his excellent footwork allowing him to dart in and out, or to gracefully circle away from Maxim. He threw far more punches, and of course every time they went into a clinch, Robinson pushed and pulled more weight, likely as much as 18 pounds more than his opponent.
A boxer less talented than Robinson might have satisfied himself with being more methodical, pacing himself, but Robinson, ever the artist and showman, couldn’t do that. Instead of simply piling up the points, he won rounds with a flourish, dancing in and scoring with sharp combinations. Instead of taking his time and conserving his energy, he set a pace that made his advantages in skill and quickness more pronounced.
Thus, as the bout entered the late rounds, Sugar Ray had given a virtuoso performance and Maxim needed a knockout to win. He didn’t score one; instead the stupendous heat did. It was so bad, numerous spectators had already passed out. In the ring, under all the lights, the temperature soared to 105 degrees Fahrenheit. It was as if Maxim and Robinson were fighting for the title in hell. At the end of round ten the referee collapsed and had to be replaced. And in rounds 11 and 12, Robinson finally showed signs of exhaustion: moving less, missing more, having difficulty maintaining his balance, but still exerting more energy than the patient, plodding Maxim.
As round 13 began, Robinson was clearly losing his equilibrium, and yet he never altered his tactics. Still using movement and speed of foot to outbox the champion, his legs failed him and he began lurching around the ring like a drunk at closing time. Near the end of the round, Ray missed by a mile with a wild right hand and fell flat on his face. He rose and kept slinging punches though it was obvious now he had nothing left. At the bell, he reeled away from Maxim — his legs buckling, his mouth wide open — and, disoriented, searched in vain for his corner. His trainers got to him just as he finally collapsed and dragged him to his stool.
That was it. The challenger couldn’t continue and Maxim retained his title. It would be the only time in over 200 professional fights that Sugar Ray would lose inside the distance. They later weighed Robinson and discovered he had been drained of 16 pounds during the fight; Maxim had lost ten.
In his dressing room immediately after, Robinson was delirious. His trainers forced him under a cold shower, an action that may have saved his life, and the spent fighter, babbling incoherently, ended up pulling several people into the shower with him. “I’m not crazy,” he shouted. “I’m not crazy! You may think I am, but God beat me tonight!”
Of course God didn’t beat Robinson that incredibly hot night in New York City. But one could reasonably say that, in fact, the great Sugar Ray’s God-given talent did.
– Michael Carbert