Boxing aficionados will tell you that Sugar Ray Robinson was the best boxer of them all. When he died at age 67 in 1989, Robinson left behind a legacy of six world championships as welterweight and middleweight and a spectacular amateur career that earned him two Golden Gloves. Many sportswriters and fans will tell you that in his prime Robinson could beat any of today’s best boxers in his weight class, including the great Floyd Mayweather.
Robinson racked up lifetime statistics of 175 wins, 110 knockouts, and 19 losses. In his 200+ fights, he received only a single KO (on a technicality), but he was never once physically knocked out. That in itself is a major achievement. He boxed, in the memorable words of a contemporary sportswriter, “as if he were playing the violin.”
Robinson has received numerous posthumous accolades. In 1997 The Ring magazine described him as “pound for pound, the best boxer of all time.” Two years later, the Associated Press named him the 20th century’s best in both the welterweight and middleweight categories. “The Greatest” himself, Muhammad Ali, even referred to Robinson as his idol.
“Sweet as sugar”
Sugar Ray Robinson started life as Walker Smith, Jr. According to his birth certificate, he was born in the small town of Ailey, Georgia, in 1921. In his autobiography, he mentioned being born in Detroit. In any case, he moved to New York City in his teens.
When his mother worried about him potentially falling in with one of the youth gangs in their Harlem neighborhood, she enrolled him in a church boxing club led by a man named George Gainford, who became Robinson’s manager over the length of his career. It was Gainford who is said to have contributed the “Sugar” part of the boxer’s famous name. The story goes that, upon seeing the young man in the ring, Gainford said he was “sweet as sugar.” Another version of the story has it that a reporter gave the phrase to Gainford after one of Robinson’s first bouts.
Then, to get into his first fight, the young man used the Amateur Athletic Union membership ID of another boxer, whose name was Ray Robinson. And that’s the standard account of how Sugar Ray Robinson was born.
From Golden Gloves to professional rivalries
After entering the ranks of New York’s young amateur boxers in 1936, Robinson quickly moved up in the rankings, capturing two back-to-back Golden Gloves titles at the featherweight and lightweight level in 1939 and 1940, respectively.
In 1940 he became a professional, achieving an almost unbelievable string of 40 consecutive wins right out of the gate. But Robinson’s aversion to getting close to the mob cost him. Fans called him the “uncrowned champion” in his sport since Mafia kingpins spent years blocking any opportunity he would have had at competing for the world welterweight title.
In 1943 Robinson lost to Jake “Raging Bull” LaMotta, who became a long-term rival, in their second match-up. However, Robinson ultimately defeated LaMotta in five of their six contests. LaMotta famously said, “I fought Sugar Ray so often, I almost got diabetes."
It wasn’t until after the Second World War that Robinson stepped into the ring to officially win the welterweight crown. In December 1946 he defeated Tommy Bell in a unanimous Round 15 decision for the vacant title. He held the welterweight championship until 1951.
Middleweight champion of the world
And then, he rematched against LaMotta in 1951.
This February 14 fight in Chicago became known as the “St. Valentine’s Day Massacre,” and it would give Robinson his first middleweight title. Robinson exhausted LaMotta, who stumbled around the ring desperately trying to stay on his feet. The referee stopped the fighting in the 13th round, as Robinson began pummeling his opponent into what looked like oblivion.
Robinson went on to box his way across Europe, beating one opponent after another. But in a 15-round decision in London on July 10, 1951, the champion went down to defeat after a 91-fight winning streak. Randolph Turpin had taken away Robinson’s middleweight crown.
But Robinson took back his title in a rematch with Turpin in New York just two months later. He next tried for the light-heavyweight championship in June 1952, going up against Joey Maxim at Yankee Stadium in the 100-degree heat. The heat, and Maxim’s relentless assault, led to one of Robinson’s uncharacteristic defeats.
Winning, losing, and eternal fame
Robinson retired six months after his defeat by Maxim, pursuing business investments and his increasing celebrity recognition value. But in 1955, he beat Carl “Bobo” Olson to take back his middleweight crown, only to lose it a little more than a year later to Gene Fullmer, before defeating Fullmer another few months later and winning it back.
This seesawing pattern continued with Carmen Basilio, to whom Robinson lost the title, and from whom he then regained it. In that spectacular 1958 rematch, Robinson was fighting a virus and showing every one of his 36 years. Nevertheless, he beat Basilio hard, winning the split decision that awarded him his final middleweight title. Two years later, he lost to Paul Pender.
In his later years, Robinson was known as much for his extravagant lifestyle—he drove a pink Cadillac around Harlem and was accompanied by a large entourage virtually everywhere he went—as for his pugilistic skills. He finally retired from the ring for good in 1965, having lost the vast majority of his fights after the age of 40.
But poor later-life business decisions and lavish spending left Robinson financially on the ropes. He moved to Los Angeles and started a film and TV career that helped pay the bills. He also established a foundation to bring sports equity to underserved youth. In 1986 he made one of his last public appearances anywhere, serving as best man at Jake LaMotta’s wedding. He died from complications of diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease.
You can catch footage of Robinson online in most of his notable fights. His legend lives on, including in the names of later boxers like Sugar Ray Leonard and Sugar Shane Mosley. Leonard once said, when asked about comparisons between himself and his namesake, “Believe me, there’s no comparison.” For Leonard, as for most of us, “Sugar Ray Robinson was the greatest.”