The great Sugar Ray Robinson had retired from boxing, had been singing and tap-dancing for three years. He didn’t have much success, so he came back to the ring in 1955. He was still in shape though, said in his autobiography he would run five miles a day before a gig and then dance for five hours at night.
In that year he goes 6-1, and in the process takes the world middleweight championship from Bobo Olson with a second round knockout. Thinks he should be named Fighter of the Year, but that title is given to welterweight champion Carmen Basilio. Sugar Ray says later this was one of the greatest disappointments of his career.
Basilio had started off 1955 by beating Peter Müller, thus staking his claim as the number one welterweight challenger. In June he knocks out Tony DeMarco in the twelfth round to take the title. He rematches DeMarco later that year and knocks him out again.
Basilio recalled the circumstances leading up to the biggest fight of his career: “Well, we were in a position where he was looking for an opponent and I was looking for an opponent so we thought a Robinson vs Basilio fight would be a good thing for the people. So that’s what happened. They were big world championship fights and I moved up from welterweight into middleweight, to the upper class. One of my great thrills was that I fought him in Yankee Stadium.”
The fight itself is beautiful. Non-stop, fast-paced action, as Robinson works his jab expertly throughout, but Basilio just keeps pressing, bobbing, weaving, always aggressive. In the late rounds they’re both exhausted, but they keep fighting at a savage pace right to the end, neither of them backing down. It’s exciting to see the two men taking themselves beyond the limit, working from some weird otherplace of honour and mutual respect. They just never let up. It was a difficult match to score, because they were both fighting at close quarters for most of it and at a furious pace, both throwing and catching, slipping and blocking. In the end, the cards read 9-5-1 Basilio, 9-6-1 Robinson, and 8-6-1 Basilio, giving the rough and tumble onion farmer the middleweight crown.
Conscious of what the public wanted, not to mention what was most lucrative, Robinson and Basilio had a rematch six months later which saw Ray regain his title by decision in another terrific battle. Like their first clash, Robinson vs Basilio II would receive “Fight of the Year” honors, as Sugar Ray further secured his place in boxing history by winning the middleweight title for an incredible fifth time. And it’s worth noting that each time Ray won the 160 pound title, he beat a Hall of Famer: Jake La Motta, Randy Turpin, Carl Olson, Gene Fullmer and Carmen Basilio — that’s quite a line-up.
Robinson is regarded by many, if not most, as the greatest fighter, pound-for-pound, of all time. His legacy could serve as instructional to some of our more recent title holders who seem averse to taking on the best opposition available, who go to great lengths to avoid the most deserving challengers. I can’t help thinking of Floyd Mayweather who, despite never losing a fight, failed to gain the respect of many in the public and even some of his fellow members of the boxing community. And we all know why.
The fact is, it is one thing to have your boxing skills held in high esteem; it is quite another to be thought of as a true fighter. A real warrior shows up to fight, every time, gives the people a spectacle, puts it all on the line for pride and respect, history and glory. Sugar Ray Robinson suffered defeats in his career, including this first match against Basilio. Yet that night he fought an incredible battle, one that people continue to talk about more than fifty years later. Though it shows as a loss on his record, it is remembered as something more. – David Como