SI Vault
Richard W. Johnston
November 13, 1972
'I can't tell you the happiness,' Sugar Ray said. There were cheers, certainly, when he left retirement to box a benefit, but it was the kids who turned on the real Ray
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November 13, 1972

'the Best Years Of My Life'

'I can't tell you the happiness,' Sugar Ray said. There were cheers, certainly, when he left retirement to box a benefit, but it was the kids who turned on the real Ray

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There are many ways for an old fighter to disappear. Sometimes it is a deep fade into oblivion—there are a lot of cauliflower ears and broken noses among the empty wine bottles and yellowed newspapers that litter the scabrous doorways of the boweries and skid rows of America. Sometimes it is a short slide into show business and then to obscurity. Sometimes it is as abrupt as a missing-persons report.

Under the big lights in Madison Square Garden one night in 1969, while the principals of the main event stood in puddles of seconds and cut men in their respective corners and an array of old and new champions, looking bulky and uncomfortable in their clothes, straggled about the ring, Announcer Johnny Addie bawled: "And now, ladies and gentlemen, introducing the former middleweight and welterweight champion of the world." There was a hush for a moment as the crowd waited for the ebullient, dapper man in the leopard tuxedo—one boxer who surely would never disappear—to dance up through the ropes, the electric smile flashing from the chocolate face. It was a ritual that he and all of them had observed for the past several years. But hands poised for ovation gradually went limp. Johnny Addie peered into the dark of the crowd. Nobody was coming. "And now," Addie said, pretending nothing had happened. Out there in the dark a hundred fans turned to a hundred strangers and said: "Where's Sugar Ray?" Nobody knew.

One recent night in Los Angeles' venerable Olympic Auditorium, that rusty temple built only for boxing, a similarly expectant crowd—not a big one, maybe four or five thousand—watches impatiently while a little Mexican kid who calls himself Superfly Sandoval swarms over another, bigger Mexican kid named Jos� Salinas. Both are amateurs, and after Superfly wins the decision another amateur—almost an amateur amateur—climbs into the ring, a stocky, pale white 25-year-old from Little Rock. Ark. named Jimmy Richards. Jimmy Richards had had one previous fight—on April 27th he kayoed Jed Walls in two rounds at the Olympic. (Promoter Aileen Eaton usually puts two or three amateurs up front on her cards "to encourage boxing" and, possibly, to cut expenses.) Richards gets only a flutter of applause. Everybody is waiting for his opponent. Attention, New York and Paris and Buenos Aires: your question is about to be answered.

Down the sloping aisle from the dressing rooms comes that familiar figure, dancing along in a robe—not a tuxedo—handlers ahead of him and behind him, his hair trim and tight as always and, as he climbs into this TV-oriented ring with its robin's-egg-blue ropes and canvas, the ovation swells and the crowd comes to its feet. Over the din the announcer shouts: "In this corner, Jimmy Richards, 160 pounds; and in this corner, the former middleweight and welterweight champion of the world, Sugar Ray Robinson, 162� pounds. Three rounds!"

What on earth is Sugar Ray Robinson, age 52, in the opinion of many the best prizefighter in history, doing in a three-round preliminary against a novice on a card with a top ticket of $7.50? The answer is simple, though to a lot of oldtime Sugar watchers it may be stunning: Sugar Ray is doing good. Not necessarily well, but good. This night he is appearing in a three-round exhibition, wearing the big gloves, because promoter Eaton is going to give 20% of the net receipts to the Sugar Ray Youth Foundation, an extraordinary project that came into being not long after Ray abandoned New York three years ago. Sugar's own cut: zero.

It is not, really, a fight. In the first two rounds Ray withholds the long, sinuous left jab that once began so many combinations, and Richards, full of fear and valor, comes inside and whales away. No damage. It is the third round that brings tears to the eyes of those who remember the Zivic and LaMotta and Basilio fights, the nights of blood and skill and terror—yes, and ecstasy—when Sugar Ray demonstrated that prizefighting could indeed be a "sweet science." Once again the marvelous left leaps out, beyond the poised, dexterous feet, and the swift right follows. Are the hands as fast as ever, the feet as nimble, the timing as perfect? Or is it only memory and desire that seem to infuse them with the old mastery? Who can say? Who cares? For a moment, to paraphrase Yeats, a terrible beauty is reborn.

The bell sounds and the referee hoists both fighters' hands—Jimmy Richards, the one-fight veteran, has held Sugar Ray Robinson, 202 fights, 175 victories, 109 knockouts, to a draw. Sugar embraces him and then dances back down the aisle to his dressing room with the crowd roaring joyously.

"Did you enjoy being out there again, Ray?" somebody asks. Panting a little, glistening with sweat, Sugar Ray smiles and says: "I just can't tell you the happiness hearin' that bell...seein' that fellow across the ring...and all those cheers!" (The next day Ray's eyes gleamed and the smile came again as he thought about it. "Man," he said, "like somebody said—it's easier to get into the spotlight than to get out of it. I got a lotta ham in me!")

But now in the dressing room he is quick to connect his pleasure with his mission. "I can't tell you the happiness," he says for the second or third time, but adds, "It jus' makes me want to try all the harder to beat the drugs and the alcohol and all the other things kids are up against." His handlers, most of them white and all wearing T shirts emblazoned "Sugar Ray Youth Foundation," nod approval.

But there are skeptics present. Is this the real Sugar Ray? The Ray Robinson whose opulent apartment housed 1,000 suits, the dandy whose cerise (or was it flamingo) Cadillac was one of the visual delights of New York? The king who toured Europe with an entourage of a dozen or more courtiers (including a jester), the master of a harem of interracial beauties, the midnight playboy who seemed determined to become the sole support of champagne? The fabulous black beauty who earned (and burned) $4 million? Or was that the real Sugar Ray? An unbeliever, looking across the crowded dressing room at the seconds cutting the tape off Robinson's hands, asks: "Where's Sugar Ray? I still don't know."

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