From back in the days when boxing was still a sport, when there was only one champion at each weight and the only way to get the title was to beat him, one name shines out above all other others – Sugar Ray Robinson. Fighting between the years 1940 and 1965, the two weight-world champ fought (and beat) some of the most revered names of boxing history, including Rocky Graziano, Kid Gavilan and famously Jake la Motta, who he boxed no less than six times. An artful stylist, smooth of movement and swift of fist, evenly balanced and slick but carrying enough power to record 108 inside-the-distance wins in his career, he remains the most popular pick among boxing scholars as the greatest fighter that ever lived.
66 years ago this weekend, Robinson the superstar was in his heyday and at the tail-end of a European tour, cruising around the continent in a lilac-coloured Cadillac, accompanied by a flock of lady-friends and bizarrely, a midget called Jimmy. Moving from one country to another like a medieval conqueror, the national champions of France, Switzerland, Italy, Belgium and Germany were dispatched with ease over the course of two months. Robinson then arrived in London to fight the British champ Randolph Turpin. It was to prove a landmark fight for both men.
It is probably fair to say that Robinson did not treat his European sojourn with the seriousness it deserved. Before leaving the states his record stood at 123-1 and the ‘one’ (a defeat to La Motta in their first bout) had already been avenged several times over. At 30 he was still perceived to be in his prime and to the eyes of most of the boxing world, virtually unbeatable.
Turpin, on the other hand had carved out a reputation as the best middleweight outside the States. Having endured years of racial prejudice, beginning his career during the days of the colour bar, which forbad black boxers from challenging for the British title, the half- Guyanese tough-nut grew up in Leamington, a provincial town, between the wars. He was made of sterner stuff than the continental fighters Sugar had dismissed while partying and boozing. Robinson underestimated him badly.
Although his name and picture had been in the papers frequently enough, television was yet to become popularised and Turpin apparently travelled to the bout at Earls Court alone, by tube. Robinson, meanwhile, arrived with full entourage in tow and held court in the backstage area.
When the action got underway, from the early rounds Turpin frustrated Robinson, tying him up in the clinches, then leaping in with trademark hooks. Off the pace and off form, the great Sugar Ray began shipping punishment in the last few rounds, appearing hurt several times. Unable to force the stoppage, Turpin received a well-deserved decision and returned home to a civic reception in Leamington. His purse for the fight, £12,000, while paltry by today’s standards was good money for the time and equivalent of about £250,000 today.
For Robinson the fight amounted to a wake-up call. He returned home and trained assiduously for the rematch which took place two months later in New York. Turpin was unable to repeat his domination, although the fight was close enough until a barrage forced controversial tenth round stoppage. (In today’s terms it would be completely justified, but back then it was relatively unusual for a fight to be stopped without knockdowns). Thus the title was returned to the US.
Sugar Ray would go on to defend twice more, then retire. In one of the fight game’s oft repeated and most tragic themes, his retirement only lasted three years. Robinson came back to make an unsuccessful attempt at the light heavyweight title, then dropped back down to middleweight.
He eventually won the 160lb title back in 1955, lost it after a couple of defences, then regained it for a third time in 1958, after two razor-thin split decision contests with Carmen Basilio at the age of 37. The easy dominance of his earlier years was gone and although still capable of mixing with the elite, by then Robinson was just another fighter.
He defended his new belt once, then lost it again, never to win another. Yet from then he went on and on and on. The speed and reflexes deserted him piece by piece and the losses became more frequent, but like so many before and since he was broke, having squandered the approximately $4 million earned during his career. He was eventually to die in 1989, aged 67, after a long battle with illness.
For Turpin, on the other hand, the victory provided a short lived dizzy peak in an otherwise solid career. Never again would he win a world title. He too moved up to light heavy, but looked shot by his late twenties and retired at 35, dabbling in a few unlicensed bouts to make money. Randy ended his days running a Transport Café with his wife and tragically, killed himself in 1966 aged only 37.
A glimpse back into boxing’s golden era – and two men for whom the candle burned twice as bright, but half as long.
My book ‘Journeymen, the other side of the boxing business’ was longlisted for William Hill Sports book of the year and named one of the sports books of the year by The Guardian. It is still available from all usual outlets.
Please listen to this excellent and very topical podcast about the darker side of boxing, featuring interviews with Ryan Rhodes, Paul ‘silky’ Jones, Glyn Rhodes MBE and Jerome Wilson.