In a period when the art of boxing was sliding into its decadence, Sugar Ray Robinson boxed like a throwback to the brilliant 1910s and '20s. In those days when you described a man as a great boxer, you didn't mean that he was merely an elusive footwork artist and rapid but delicate jabber like our Zulueta or Johnny Gonsalves. When you boxed well, you knew not only how to avoid punishment, but how to deal it out strategically.
That was the way of Sugar Ray. I first saw him nearly 15 years ago when he was only a year and a dozen fights out of the amateurs. But he was one of those naturals, like Joe DiMaggio and Ernest Hemingway. He had speed and grace and cleverness and power and endurance and passion. In his second year as a pro he had beaten Sammy Angott, Marty Servo and Fritzie Zivic. His 27th fight, nearly 14 years ago, was a return match with Zivic and he let the fight game know he was ready for the welterweight title by knocking out the ex-champion.
Sugar Ray was a picture fighter in those early '40s. He had the long, slender, rippling-muscled legs of a dancer. If you wanted to box, he outboxed you, and if you wanted to fight, he outfought you. There was not a welterweight in the world who could touch him then; perhaps there never was. They wouldn't let him fight for the title because, held officially by a vincible champion called Red Cochrane, it was the personal property of the boys in the back room. To get work, Ray moved in on the middleweights. He beat Jake LaMotta in October, 1942. Ray had to fight four more years and win 38 more bouts before they finally let him try for the welterweight title. Red Cochrane had ducked him and retired. His successor as "champion," Marty Servo, had ducked him and retired. Now Tommy Bell, a colored welterweight trial horse, met Sugar in an "elimination" bout for the title. Ray was knocked dizzy in the second round. He looked all in at the end of four. It took him a few more rounds to pull himself together again. By the 11th he was the Sugar Ray the Garden regulars had learned never to bet against. After five and a half years of dreary run-arounds, the welterweights had a champion who won his fights in the ring. It was a refreshing change.
There was that winter night in Chicago when Ray challenged LaMotta for the middleweight title. The experts had faulted Robinson as one great welterweight who was too frail, too slight, too short on ruggedness, ever to stay up there with the best of the middle-weights. But that night in Chicago against the vicious bull of the Bronx he fought beautifully, fiercely, until the 13th round, when he hit Jake with enough combinations to drop a dozen middleweights. Jake didn't drop; he just stood there, a bloody, stubborn heap of flesh waiting for more.
Sugar Ray toured Europe, a golden boy with a black skin. He was the darling of Paris. They mobbed his fuchsia Cadillac. It was a wonderful spring and summer in Zurich, Antwerp, Li�ge, Turin—until Randy Turpin, awkward, hard-hitting, a lesser playboy, took his title away in London.
I saw Ray, with a bloody eye, take the title back from Turpin with a passionate outburst in the 10th round in the New York return match. This was a rich, slipping, aging Ray Robinson. Good enough, though, to take the measure of the fading Graziano and an up-and-coming Bobo Olson. Good enough to look like a shoo-in to turn the trick no middleweight champion has ever been able to do: win the light heavyweight crown. After 12 rounds in the Yankee Stadium he was so far in front of Joey Maxim that he couldn't lose unless he was knocked out. But it was 130� under the lights on an airless summer night, and at the end of the 13th, with punchless Joey as an innocent bystander, Ray collapsed from the heat.
Retirement. Honor. Money. I'll know when I'm through, Robinson had boasted. But the big pay nights and the fickle idolaters sing a siren song.
Joe Rindone, who fights as if he was born to suffer, was chosen as victim No. 1 on Ray's retread hit parade. Joe obliged by getting himself knocked out in the sixth round. The durable, forward-moving, uninspired but unintimidated Tiger Jones was nominated as foil No. 2, but this sturdy second-rate Tiger forgot to read the script. He plain beat the starch out of the disenchanted Sugar Ray. Finally they put Ray in with the leading middleweight contender, the slippery and over-cautious Castellani. Ray won on spirit and some two-handed flurries but his legs were dragging at the end of 10.
And now the stage is set for Act III in the drama of Sugar Ray. In the same ring where he won his title gloriously, he aspires once more to rule the middle-weights. It is a fight no fan should miss, if only because it belongs to the history of the ring, to the tragedy of a game that devours even the most gifted and the most canny of its children.
Maybe Robinson, off his timing and slower on his marvelous, dancing legs, can paste together his experience and passion and take the 27-year-old Bobo Olson out early. But the gamblers, who always went with this phenomenal winner (137 pro battles), are laying 3-1 the Sugar has melted away.