From the Archive: Sugar Ray Robinson The Best
Editor’s Note: The Ring magazine founder Nat Fleischer gives his thoughts on the great Sugar Ray Robinson. The column was originally published in the July 1950 issue and is presented in its original form.
Sugar Ray Robinson the greatest boxer of the last half-century?
Although a recent poll designated Jack Dempsey as the man, with Joe Louis as runner-up, a surprisingly large number of fistic experts, old and new, can’t see anybody but Robinson as the best all-around fighter of the past 50 years.
They have some good, sound, logical arguments to back up their opinions. Let’s lend an ear to the genteel and dignified Mr. Jimmy Bronson, for example. Active as a manager and promoter since the turn of the century, Mr. Bronson certainly qualifies as a genuine authority on things pugilistic, and here’s what he says:
“I don’t see how you can fail to name Ray Robinson the best fighter of the past 50 years, for the simple reason that he can do anything any other boxer could ever do and maybe just a little bit better. Pound-for-pound, I can’t recall a harder hitter. On the other hand, I have never seen anybody who is harder to nail with a good punch. Great hitter, great boxer — what more can one ask?” explained Mr. Bronson.
“I’ve seen them all since (Joe) Gans,” chimed in veteran publicist Francis Albertanti, “but I can’t rate anyone over Sugar Ray. Those four wins over LaMotta sold me — a welterweight licking a good tough middleweight! And what a fighter he is when the chips are down!”
Support for Robinson comes from an unexpected source in the person of the oldest living former world’s champion — Frank Erne. Erne, sprightly, clear-eyed and mentally alert at the age of 75, unhesitatingly ranks Sugar Ray with the greatest of his day.
“This boy is a natural. He does everything just as well as any fighter I have ever seen,” is Frank Erne’s tribute to the current welterweight champion.
As might be expected, the younger generation of boxing observers can’t see anyone but Robinson as top man in the pugilistic parade. The case for Sugar Ray is best expressed here by Harry Markson, mastermind of the International Boxing Club, which stages bouts in Madison Square Garden. Harry, who is still on the youthful side, doesn’t place himself in the same category with long-timers like Bronson, Albertanti or Erne, but reasons it this way:
“With all due respect to all the good fighters who were before my time, I can’t conceive of a better fighter than Ray Robinson, and here’s why: If you take all the requisites necessary for a great boxer, you find that Ray Robinson not only possesses them all, but does everything to perfection. Everybody agrees on that. So, to be better than Ray Robinson you have to improve on perfection. I ask you —
is that possible?”
Most of the old-timers in the fight business agree that only Benny Leonard and Gans rate with the Harlem Hotshot in both the skill and punch departments.
Veteran scribe Ed Van Every, while recognizing Robinson’s greatness, is still loath to rate him above Benny Leonard. Van Every looks at it this way:
“For all-around ability the two were about the same. In my opinion, if there is an edge, I would give it to Leonard because he was such an outstanding repeat performer.
“Take the two Tendler fights, for example. In the first, Tendler gave Benny all kinds of trouble. The second time they clashed, Lew never had a chance. Benny knew what Tendler was going to do before Lew did.
“Now, against Marty Servo, Robinson had to go all out to win both times. I think Leonard would have had Servo pretty well figured out the second time where Robinson still had trouble.”
The equally ancient Lew Raymond doesn’t see it that way.
“Sure, Leonard was a wonder, but he fought a lot of fellows smaller than he was. I know, because he fought some of them for me. I can’t remember ever hearing about Ray Robinson fighting any little fellows. They’re usually bigger than he is. Leonard-Robinson, it’s a close race, but I’ll go along with Robinson.”
Fight people today generally have a class all to himself reserved for Robinson. A typical opinion is voiced by promoter and matchmaker Chickie Bogad:
“I’m ready to argue with any man in the world that Ray Robinson is the greatest fighter that ever lived. They can bring in all the Mickey Walkers, Tunneys, Armstrongs, Dempseys and Louises they want. All those guys were either boxers or punchers. Robinson can box as well as anybody ever could, and for his weight, he hits as hard as anybody ever did. What more can you ask from a fighter?”
The careful and canny Irving Cohen, manager of Rocky Graziano, in one of his rare unguarded moments some years ago, got off an opinion that represents the feelings of most of his fellow managers about Robinson. Cohen was managing tough Terry Young at the time, when someone hopefully hinted at a Young-Robinson match. The audacity of this proposition brought about one of the few moments when Cohen has lost control. Soft-voiced Irving really sounded off as he yelled:
“What are you saying! Ray Robinson! Why, he’s the greatest fighter that ever lived. I’m a manager, not an undertaker!”
Since they don’t come any smoother or smarter than Irving, his words should carry a lot of weight.
Among his battling brethren, Robinson commands a similar respect. Ike Williams is a lightweight champion who would ordinarily be challenging the welterweight title holder, but so long as that title holder is Ray Robinson, Ike admits that nothing is further from his mind.
Such a fight could mean a $50,000 purse for Ike, but it’s still nothing doing. In his own division, things have reached the stage where Robinson, the champ, is willing to make concessions to get a challenger into the ring with him. He even goes so far as to offer to split the purse with capable Charley Fusari.
Fusari is apparently willing to forego a probable 25-grand-plus and a chance at the title, in favor of tangling with middleweights rather than get in there with the welter king. This is unprecedented.
In years gone by, no matter how formidable the champion, the contenders seldom passed up the opportunity for a crack at his title. This is no discredit to Fusari, who is a good welterweight, but just goes to show how far Robinson towers above the rest of his division.
Ray Robinson has been much criticized, and with reason in many instances, but fight followers are unanimous that he is probably the most “humane” of all the great boxers. It is no secret that Sugar Ray often goes in there with the idea of doing as little harm as possible to an opponent. In such cases he puts on a show of every fancy boxing trick ever heard of, to the usual delight of the spectators and with a minimum of wear and tear to his foe.
With punchers, he is seldom so charitable, however, since he cannot afford to he. On those occasions, he sends them in as hard as Louis or Dempsey ever did, pound-for-pound. The George Costner and Steve Belloise fights were striking examples of the power the stylish slugger can generate when such blasting is called for.
Furthermore, for a fighter who features fast movement, Sugar Ray seems to be wearing unusually well. There was some wishful thinking that he may have lost some of his lustre two years ago when he razzle-dazzled his way through 10 not-too-exciting-non-title rounds with Kid Gavilan. He took care of any such opinions along those lines with that snappy snuffing out of Sugar Costner on March 22, last.
As wisecrackers pointed out, Ray has gone back just one minute in five years. On February 14, 1945, he had Costner out of there in a little over one minute; last month it took him all of two minutes, 49 seconds to erase the much-improved Cincinnatian.
Ray’s durability is surprising to many, for at one time it was believed that the blandishments of the bright spots held more allure for the Sugar Baby than the rigors of the ring. Although the owner of one such hot spot himself, Ray concerns himself much more with the cash register than with the revelry. He is a strict teetotaler, and that always helps.
It is becoming more and more evident that the class limit of 147 pounds is no longer his best fighting weight, yet he is still so potent at this poundage that potential challengers invariably have other engagements when a title match with Ray Robinson is suggested. At 154 pounds or thereabouts — his weight for the Costner bout — he 1oses none of his speed while picking up added TNT with the extra poundage.
With an opponent given any kind of a look-in at all by the public, Robinson packs in the customers. In the recent Costner affair, a downpour failed to drench the enthusiasm of 11,592 Philadelphians, who put $53,752 in the till for a non-title fight. There were as many out-of-towners as Philadelphia natives among the crowd who coughed up a whopping $175,754 for the Gavilan title shot last July 11, and good old Steve Belloise drew down the biggest purse of his career when the gate for the New York Robinson-Belloise battle soared to $120,860.
It should be noted that Ray inspired these turnouts, although an odds-on favorite every time.
Unlike some other mechanically able boxers there is nothing drab or uninteresting about his ring technique. Louis, Johnson, Gans, and most of the other great Negro fighters fought with a flat-footed shuffle. Sugar is up on his toes like a ballet dancer.
His lithe, graceful movements can be appreciated by the uninitiated as well as the connoisseurs of fist fighting. In his title-winning battle with Tommy Bell, Robinson took one of his rare trips to the canvas when the hard clouting Bell landed a good one. Sugar went down with a grace that led fight manager Jimmy DeAngelo to crack:
“That’s the only guy I ever saw who’s got class even on the floor. He even looks good getting knocked down.”
Coming out of a rugged neighborhood of the type the social workers call “depressed,” and with a background subject to all the dangers contingent to such environment, no claim is made here that Sugar’s career outside the ring has been exemplary or that he hasn’t made mistakes. The consideration presented here concerns fighting ability pure and simple and when his gifts in this direction are detailed, his ranking as the greatest boxer of them all can’t be belittled.
His purely mechanical assets of unusual skill and power being obvious, they have been dealt with superlatively for years. Other and less readily recognized qualities which add up to making Ray Robinson a near perfect fighting machine are the ability to take a punch unusually well for such a frail appearing fellow, and an ability to maintain full possession of a shrewd fighting brain when he is tagged.
Ray seems immune to panic if the going gets rough. He can whale away and rip and tear like a little Dempsey at times, for all of his skill.
The record book adds more weight to the say-so of Sugar Ray’s acclaimers. He has been beaten only once. That loss was to middleweight Jake LaMotta, present holder of the title, whom he defeated four times out of five. A couple of draws with middleweights Henry Brimm and Jose Basora are the only other blemishes on an otherwise perfect record.
Possibly the greatest tribute of all to this incredible pugilist comes in the suggestion frequently made and seriously received that Ray Robinson challenge Ezzard Charles or light-heavy king Joey Maxim. This proposal has been advanced by none other than New York State Boxing Commission boss Eddie Eagan, who, gazing at the welter king with wondering admiration advised him to build up to 160 pounds and go after the heavyweight title.
The good Colonel was probably thinking of the original Joe Walcott, a 142-pounder, who beat the great light-heavyweight, Joe Choynski, when he came up with that one. Conservative Gene Tunney has been known to express similar sentiments regarding Robinson’s chances against light-heavyweights and heavyweights.
Most folks are inclined to laugh off any attempt to rate any one fighter as the superior of all others past and present. Those who reserve this spot for Ray Robinson counter by defying the questioners to come up with anybody with as strong an argument as they can put up for the Sugar Baby.
Try comparing your own candidate some time with Robinson and you will find that Sugar Ray is hard to top.
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