If Boxing were nothing more than two muscular men bashing each other about the head and body, its integrity as a sport would be as questionable as that of some who make a living off the pure, strong bodies of boxers. Its virtue, though, lies in something deeper. There is a family resemblance between the swift, smashing moves of the fighter and the slow, pondered moves of the chess player. Both are games in which success depends upon the proper application of speed and power, guided by intelligence. One waits in chess for the right moment, but one prepares for it too.
It was so the other night in Los Angeles when Sugar Ray Robinson, who had done it twice before, knocked out Bobo Olson, thereby retaining the middleweight championship of the world he had won from Olson last December. The real question was not so much whether Robinson could beat Olson—he had beaten him three times, once by decision—but what method he would use for the kill this time. The last time out Olson had succumbed to a right-left-right combination, after he had been induced to expose the left side of his jaw. It was reasonable to conclude that this time he would keep a protective glove up there.
Training at Greenwood Lake, New York before moving west to permanent quarters at San Jacinto, California, Sugar Ray applied his best thinking to the problem of how to open up Olson for the knockout punch. He experimented on the speed bag but, while he was able to work the right-left-right there with correct dispatch, he failed miserably on a variation—left-right-left—suggested by his co-manager, George Gainford.
At the same time Olson and his manager, Sid Flaherty, were thinking how they might use Bobo's best assets, stamina and youth, against the 85-year-old-or-thereabouts Robinson, who has been a professional fighter since 1940. The longer the bout lasted the better chance Bobo would have. There is still a doubt whether Robinson's good-looking legs can hold him up for 15 rounds. Bobo was given a rather simple strategy: "Wear Robinson down by body punching, clinching and leaning during the early rounds, and protect your jaw at all times. After he's tired out maybe your infighting will be enough to win a decision."
It was, in fact, about the only strategy possible. In Wrigley Field's little 18-foot ring (in other cities rings go up to 24 feet) there would be small chance for Bobo to stab and run. Besides, that is not his natural style.
There was something else, though, that no strategy could fix. Bobo had to be convinced that he had a chance to win, and it was fairly clear on the day of the fight that this conviction was not in him. If, that is, you can judge what a man feels by noting how he looks and ignoring what he says. At the weighin Bobo was morose and downcast. His skin was a sallow yellow, his eyes moist. He said be felt fine. When Robinson, bright and bouncy, slapped him on the back and whispered a few cheery words to him, Olson's dark-bristled chin sank lower on his chest. He mumbled something.
He had to be weighed twice. With trunks on, he was just a shade over the 160-pound limit. Looking about Hollywood Legion Stadium (the site of the weighin), Announcer Ben Bentley saw a sprinkling of women in the audience and bellowed a prim warning:
"We will not be responsible for what happens when these fighters stand before you nude."
The ladies seemed not to hear.
"Will the ladies on this side of the ring [near the scales] please move to the other side?" Bentley pleaded. "There is a weight situation and he will have to remove his trunks."