Looking back through the archives of boxing history presents cases for many to lay claim to being the best, the late, great Muhammad Ali himself trademarked the nickname G.O.A.T (Greatest of all time) but even he bowed at the feet of the immortal Sugar Ray Robinson.
“He was the greatest fighter there ever was and for me to say, that’s something,” – Muhammad Ali
Ali confessed later in years to avidly watching Robinson from afar, copying Ray’s moves, adopting a similar style which served him well in his journey to the top similar to what Robinson himself did on watching Henry Armstrong.
Most fighters have another that they look up to, Robinson was no different, holding the great Henry Armstrong above all else, so when Armstrong lost to Fritzie Zivic it gave Robinson an added intent on gaining revenge for his fallen hero.
Robinson had won his fight on the undercard that night, scrambling backstage to quickly make it back for the main event which featured the aforementioned contest.
Armstrong was the betting favourite, in his twentieth defence of his Welterweight crown but the Triple weight world champion was bludgeoned by Zivic
“I pulled my trunks up and went to work on him, I busted him up, Cut him here and cut him there……..when the eye was cut, I’d rubbed it with the laces of my glove to open it more” – Fritzie Zivic
It was a bittersweet night for Robinson, he had won his debut but seen his hero’s fall from grace, sharing a cab ride home to Harlem with his mom he turned to her and said “I want to face Zivic, I’ll fix him for what he did to Henry Armstrong” his mother scolded him instantly “Junior I don’t want you to ever fight Zivic”
The dye had already been cast, Robinson with revenge in mind fought his way through the opposition to get to Zivic, putting a beating on every man that stood in his path, one being Jack Dempsey’s protege Norment Quarles, a man who had shared the ring with over a hundred opponents facing several hall of Famers, most he took the distance but couldn’t last four full rounds against the future great.
Sammy Angott went the same way, a fighter who was at that time established, winning the National Boxing Association World Lightweight title, Robinson was simply in a different stratosphere to his peers.
Robinson later claimed that Angott only rose from the knockdown because his head was so close to the timekeeper’s hammer which pounded the canvas. Angott did well to go the distance but was widely beaten on the judge’s scorecards.
The boxing community by this time hadn’t just come to the conclusion that this 20-Year-Old was the best fighter on the planet, Robinson pushed the fact with skill unparalleled.
The logical next step was a shot at Lew Jenkins’ Lightweight crown but the challenge was afforded to Angott instead, a challenge which he subsequently won.
Named “The Clutch” for his style of punching an opponent before hanging on for dear life Angott now sat at the top of the division, his crown never fully intended of it’s stay, Angott handed losses to Bob Montgomery (twice) and sandwiched in-between was the victory over Allie Stolz before his second crack at Robinson in a non-title fight.
Once again Robinson took him to school in winning another points victory and there wasn’t a third time lucky for Angott a few years later, Robinson once more coming out on top via a points decision.
Boxing Scribes were finding it difficult to find superlatives for Robinson, by September 1941 they had started calling him Ray “Sugar” Robinson as he continued his climb, all with the focus on righting a wrong for his hero Henry Armstrong years earlier.
RETRIBUTION FOR HENRY
Halloween was the night which Franzie Zivic would receive a nightmare in the shape of a slender figure that glided around a boxing ring.
The contest presented differing styles, If Robinson was an artist, Zivic was a construction worker, a wrecking ball of a fighter who would operate very loosely between the lines of legal and illegal.
“I’d give em the head, Choke em, Hit them in the Balls…..I used to bang them up pretty good” Zivic proudly described his style “Your fighting, Your not playing the Piano you know”
Zivic started the first with the intentions of trying to cause as much harm as humanly possible, scraping his glove down the face of Robinson in an attempt to open a cut, It didn’t stop there either, Zivic hit on the break, rabbit punched often as Robinson wearily walked back to his corner, slumping on his stool with the instructions of trainer George Gainford ringing in his ears.
Gainford knew he had the ace in the pack told Robinson “Don’t let him get in close, use your jab” Robinson got off his stool, doing exactly what he was told, Zivic was dumbfounded on how to counteract the tactic, Robinson’s speed took over the bout on route to winning a decision, an impressed Zivic said afterwards “Everything I done, He did Better”
Robinson had avenged his idol Armstrong, not once but twice as he followed the points win with the stoppage of Zivic two months later.
Robinson was a fighter in ascension whilst Armstrong’s career declined due to wear/tear and father time catching up to him.
PREMONITION & DEATH OF JIMMY DOYLE
Fifty-four fights since avenging that loss to Henry Armstrong, Sugar Ray Robinson had lost just once to Jake LaMotta in 1943, reversing the decision twice whilst also handing defeat to Armstrong which couldn’t have been easy for Robinson.
Everything was moving nicely until tragedy struck in 1947, the boxing world brought to its knees with the first death of a professional boxer in a world championship bout.
The night before the fight awoken by vivid dreams Robinson envisaged the death of Jimmy Doyle in the ring. shaken so badly that he told his team the fight wouldn’t go ahead, reasoning with Ray commenced but it was only until a Catholic priest assured him that his fears were unfounded that he agreed to put his premonitions aside.
An act that would later come back to haunt him, the challenger Jimmy Doyle went seven full rounds before a short left hook in the eighth would be one he would never awake from, dropping to the seat of his pants before his head promptly hit the canvas with a thud.
Robinson was traumatised by the incident, so much so that it had a knock on effect, changing his outlook on life, becoming more self-aware or as some described him a “diva”.
YANKEE STADIUM HEAT PROVES TOO MUCH FOR ROBINSON
Robinson continued his dominance before testing himself further. Ray is probably best known for his duels with Jake LaMotta or being the five-time middleweight champion but it is a slight injustice not to remember the fact he was only moments away from crowning himself Light Heavyweight king, only the heat at Yankee Stadium preventing him from doing so.
In a near faultless display, Robinson had put enough rounds in the bank to displace Joey Maxim who was making the second defence of his crown, scores of 10-3, 9-3-1 and 7-3-3 were tallied up to that point with thoughts fleeting that Robinson had just needed to stay on his feet to capture the crown.
Every step, every move was intensified by the heat so unbearable that the Referee Ruby Goldstein had to be replaced by Ray Miller after the tenth round.
A heat sweltering to 103 degrees Robinson would continue a few rounds more before suffering from heat exhaustion, unable to come out for the 14th round. It was the only time Robinson was stopped in nearly 200 professional fights.
“I was way behind, and I knew it,” said Maxim afterwards “But I also knew I had him if I didn’t run out of rounds.”
“Maxim was lucky to stand up to the heat better than I was,” Robinson later reflected “It was too hot for walking let alone fighting. Maxim was nothing. He didn’t hit me for 10 rounds.”
If Robinson had seen out the contest he would have become the first fighter in the history of the sport to capture titles at Lightweight, Welterweight, Middleweight and Light Heavyweight.
The heartache of loss pushed Robinson into retirement but it was shortlived resuming his career in 1955.
THE FAT LADY BEGINS TO SING
Ten years that followed with more up’s than down’s, 1965 signalled the end of a destiny of a man who started with intentions of revenge for the great Henry Armstrong, he dared to once more push the envelope, only himself and his entourage believing that he could capture the title for the sixth time, Joey Archer was the man being used to climb the ladder
“I’m telling you, I’m going to win the title again” Robinson told media, speculation that the fight was made because of money issue were squashed, Robinson had more than enough in that regard, the inland revenue had recently turned over to him $344,000 it had withheld against taxes since 1957, this was about proving to himself that he still had the goods.
Unfortunately he no longer did, realisation quickly setting in that the quickness/elusiveness had failed him in his later years, succumbing to a decision loss to the classy Archer all the while fight fans around ringside could be heard shouting “Don’t hit him Joey” an indication that the mystical fighter had long left, leaving a shell of his former self.
In his prime, there would be no pleas from the fans because quite simply, the opposition couldn’t have hit him with a handful of sand nevermind a meaningful punch.
“He’s a tough guy,” Archer said. “He is one of the cagiest old guys in boxing. He feints—most fighters today can’t do that. He is the greatest fighter I ever saw among the middleweights.”
Retirement was now the only course of action, his mother always said “Get out when you’re ready, not when you’re through”
Whilst Ray himself told media “There ain’t nothing or anyone who can get me back in the ring,”
Robinson danced into the sand scripts of boxing folklore with no other man equal. Even Kings bowed their heads in his presence, acknowledgement of a truly special fighter.
Picture Edit by Mike Ashe / TopClassBoxing