Sweet As Sugar-The Biography of Sugar Ray Robinson

Sugar Ray Robinson was regarded as America's Greatest Boxer and the first celebrity athlete. He performed at the Welterweight and Middleweight levels and was referred to as the best “pound for pound” boxer. His name was listed in the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990. He had a record of 128-1-2 including 84 wins by knockout. He became the first boxer in history to win the Middleweight Championship five times.

Sugar Ray Robinson was born Walker Smith Jr., on May 3, 1921 in Ailey, Georgia, the youngest of 3 children. When he was 12 his parents separated and he moved to Harlem with his mother. His education was unsuccessful: he dropped out of school in the ninth grade. His original dream of becoming a doctor was replaced by the desire to become the greatest boxer of all time. 

He attempted to enter a boxing tournament when he was 14 but was refused because he didn't have an AAU membership card, only issued to those who were over 16 years old. Walker Smith Jr. found a solution however; he borrowed an AAU membership card from a friend named Ray Robinson. George Gainford, his Manager, later told him—his boxing style was “as sweet as sugar” and Walker Smith Jr. became “Sugar” Ray Robinson. As an amateur, “Sugar” Ray had a record of 85-0 with 69 knockouts, winning the 1939 Golden Gloves Featherweight Championship, and in 1940, he won the organization's Lightweight Championship. 

Robinson became a professional boxer on October 4, 1940 by scoring a 2nd-round knockout over Joe Echevarria. In 1941, he defeated Sammy Angott who was the world champion at that time. In the same year, he also defeated future champion Marty Servo and former champion Firtzie Zivic. 

“Sugar” Ray faced Jake LaMotta for the very first time in October of 1942. The two would fight several times throughout the years, with the first fight being awarded to Robinson, via unanimous decision. Robinson went on to be named “Fighter of the Year” for 1942, finishing the year with 14 victories and no losses. In fact, Robinson would win his first 40 fights. His undefeated record of 40-0 was broken, however, on February 5, 1943. In a rematch with LaMotta, Robinson was knocked completely out of the ring in the eight round beforing wining via decision in 10 rounds.

On February 27, 1943, Robinson joined the United States Army. He served alongside Joe Louis and, often, the two would put on exhibition bouts for troops. Robinson wasn't a fan of being in the military and often would cause trouble. Robinson would argue with supervisors and refuse to fight when black soldiers weren't allowed to watch the exhibitions.

On March 29, 1944, while waiting to be shipped to Europe for more exhibition fights, Robinson disappeared from the barracks. He was referred to as a deserter before waking up in a hospital on Governor's Island. Robinson reported he fell down the stairs but couldn't remember anything since the fall, due to amnesia. According to hospital files, a stranger found “Sugar” Ray in the streets on the first of April and brought him to the hospital. Military authorities concluded that Robinson was telling the truth, but claimed he possessed a mental deficiency. Robinson was granted an honorable discharge in June, 1944 and returned to boxing. His record at this point was still dazzling.

Until this point the only blemish on Robinson's record was the loss to LaMotta. Sugar Ray would go on to fight Jose Basora in 1945 and would not win or lose the fight, instead, settling for a 10 round draw.

By 1946, Robinson amassed a record of 73-1-1 in 75 fights in the Welterweight division. Despite his record, Robinson never received a title shot because he refused to cooperate with the Mafia. The mafia controlled boxing at the time and Sugar Ray wouldn't receive a title shot until December 20, 1946. Robinson defeated Tommy Bell, by decision, in 15 rounds to become the Welterweight champion.

Robinson fought four times before scheduling a title defense. His first defense was scheduled for June 1947 against Jimmy Doyle. The night prior to the fight, Robinson dreamt that he would kill Doyle during the fight. Robinson pulled out of the fight but was later convinced by a priest and minister to enter the ring. Robinson was in control of the contest from the beginning and knocked Doyle out in the eighth round. Doyle was taken directly from the ring to a hospital. He never regained consciousness and died later. He was able to remain champion for 5 consecutive years from 1946 to 1950.

He then moved on to the Middleweight division, saying later in his autobiography, that he was having a hard time reaching welterweight weight limits. One of Robinson's first matches in the new weight class was a rematch with Jose Basora, knocking him out in just 50 seconds. Robinson faced LaMotta for the sixth and final time in a fight dubbed, “The St. Valentine's Day Massacre” because it was held on Valentine's day in 1951 . Robinson defeated LaMotta via technical knockout in the 13th round to claim the world middleweight championship.

Robinson would lose the title in July of 1951 via a 15 round decision to British fighter, Randy Turpin. A rematch was scheduled for three months later, at the Polo Grounds, in New York City. 60,000 fans were in attendance to see Robinson score a knockout win in the 10th round. The win helped Robinson claim the “Fighter of the Year” award for 1951, nine years after winning it the first time.

Robinson suffered his only knockout defeat at the hands of Joey Maxim and Mother Nature. The fight was held at Yankee Stadium in 103 degree heat. The referee had to be replaced midway through the contest. Robinson was able to build a lead with the judges but collapsed from the heat after the 13th round and couldn't answer the bell for the 14th.

Following the fight Robinson decided to retire from boxing with a record of 131-3-1-1. Robinson planned to focus his time on singing and dancing. After spending three years away from the ring and not experiencing the success he'd hoped in performing, Robinson decided to make a comeback.

Robinson kept in shape through dancing and running and won his first fight back and eventually captured the middleweight title for a third time. Robinson won the title with a second round knockout of Bobo Olson. He lost the title to Gene Fullmer in 1957 before winning a rematch and regaining the title later that year. Robinson didn't hold the title long as he lost a fight to Carmen Basilio at Yankee Stadium, also in 1957. The match was named the “Fight of the Year” for 1957. A 1958 rematch would lead to Robinson winning the title for the fifth time, a record setting achievement. The rematch was named the “Fight of the Year” for 1958.

Robinson would only fight once in 1959 and would lose his title in 1960 to Paul Pender, as well as a rematch. Robinson made two more attempts to capture a world title, but was unsuccessful. Robinson retired from boxing at the age of 44 with a record of 175-19-6, scoring 110 knockouts in 200 fights. Of his 19 losses, 16 came after 1955; 5 in his final 15 fights. During his career Sugar Ray fought 18 world champions.

A month after his last fight, Robinson was honored with a Sugar Ray Robinson Night on December 10, 1965 in New York’s Madison Square Garden and presented with a large trophy. Two years after retiring from the ring “Sugar” Ray Robinson was inducted into the Internation Boxing Hall of Fame.

After he retired, he was diagnosed with diabetes and during his last years, he was also diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Robinson died at the age of 67 in Los Angeles.

“Sugar” Ray is widely considered to be the greatest boxer in history and the first celebrity athlete. In 1999, the Associated Press named him “Welterweight of the Century” and “Middleweight of the Century”.

Quotes from other boxers regarding “Sugar” Ray Robinson:

"Someone once said there was a comparison between Sugar Ray Leonard and Sugar Ray Robinson. Believe me, there's no comparison. Ray Robinson was the greatest."

---Sugar Ray Leonard

"The king, the master, my idol."

—Muhammad Ali on Robinson

"Without a doubt the greatest pound for pound fighter that ever lived."

Jake LaMotta

For more information about “Sugar” Ray, visit the resources below:

The official site of Sugar Ray Robinson

The Legacy of Sugar Ray Robinson: Boxer, Celebrity and Businessman

The biography of Sugar Ray Robinson