Over four decades have passed since the curtain came down on Sugar Ray Robinson’s career. In many ways it was a conventional end to a fighting man’s career; a denouement that often is at once slow and painful as it is predictable. The irrevocable diminution of his athletic powers was mirrored by the steady regression of his earning power and both were reflected in the sorts of venues where his twilight bouts were staged. There was the penultimate engagement with one Rudolph Bent in the non-descript environs of Steubenville Ohio and before that a range of hotels, auditoriums and even an ice rink in Paisley Scotland. His reputation however, is anything but conventional. For Robinson today is still widely viewed as being the most complete boxer ever to have lived. To study Robinson in the process and construction of his craft, some have argued, is akin to savouring the elemental genius of a Nureyev or a Caruso. “He was,” wrote Jack Newfield, “the Einstein of the geometry of angles and distances. He was to boxing what Shakespeare was to playwriting.”
There are many ways of calibrating the greatness of a fighter. Recourse will often be made to the fighter’s record, his longevity, his punching ability, his resistance to punches and the like. On each criterion, Robinson stands out. Still another gauge of their status tends towards the legacy of gladiatorial drama and the lexicon of phrases which they leave in their wake. Thus where Muhammad Ali is known for his ‘rumbles’ and ‘thrillas’ around the globe and Jack Dempsey for his ‘Battle of the Long Count’; so it is with Robinson that fans delight in recalling his consummate display of pugilistic skill in the ‘St. Valentine’s Day Massacre’; his epic sixth contest with Jake LaMotta, and the ‘Perfect Punch’; a flawlessly executed left hook which knocked out Gene Fullmer in their return contest. And at his peak, when defeat was rare, the folkloric explanation for his lapse against Randolph Turpin was that Sugar Ray had “too much Paris in his legs.”
Robinson transcended the sport. His suave looks, intelligent banter and adeptness at ‘song and dance’ all combined to heighten his appeal to the wider public. He was seen as a pillar of the black community but also had what would later be quaintly referred to as “cross over appeal;” that is, he was well known to and popular among white Americans.
To some, with hindsight, Robinson represented a new form of sporting celebrity in the modern age; one who was able to impress his branded persona (charm and affability packaged within middle class sensibilities) onto the public consciousness while deftly juggling his entrepreneurial interests with his career. Europeans, particularly the denizens of Paris, were taken by him. And while that city had always had a fascination with ‘refugee’ American blacks like the dancer Josephine Baker and assorted Jazz artistes and boxers, Robinson was considered to be deserving of intensive scrutiny by both press and man-in-the-street in a manner surpassing that applied to visiting celebrities of any kind up to that point in time.
The darker aspects of Robinson are alluded to. His imperial-sized ego and aloofness rubbed more than a few people the wrong way leading to many feuds with his promoters as well as the enmity of more than a few fighters; notably in the case of Carmen Basilio. If Robinson felt –with relative measures of justification- that his detractors were merely those promoters and gangsters who were accustomed to exploiting fighters or those who could not stomach the fact that he was a black man calling the shots, there are, nevertheless, many anecdotes that portray him as being brusque and uncaring towards some of the fans and fighters who he encountered. Along with his sense of specialness and at times overweening pride, is the contention of a tendency to selfishness; an accusation made by Basilio who once angrily referred to him as an “arrogant and greedy man.” While Robinson, given his humble origins and the inherent shortness of a career as an athlete, was in essence correct in his mindset of wanting to acquire as much financial advantage as he could out of the game, this would prove counter productive. The mind games which he frequently employed with promoters in order to ratchet up his purses backfired during the negotiations for a third match with Basilio when he effectively manoeuvered himself out of a $750,000 pay day.
The Hughes’ also recapitulate on recently acquired aspects of Robinson’s private life which were suppressed during his lifetime including the reminiscences of Robinson’s son that his father was violently abusive of his wife resulting, it is alleged, in her having to endure several miscarriages.
If Robinson aspired to the sartorial elegance of a Billy Eckstine, the dancing finesse of an Astaire and the commercial savvy of a Rockefeller, he ultimately did not succeed on all counts. His first retirement had to be abandoned because his earnings as an entertainer could not match the levels of remuneration to which he was accustomed as a performer in the squared ring. Also short-lived would be his post-career excursions into Hollywood film and television. But most galling of all, perhaps, was the loss of his wealth in the period when his boxing career was on the wane. For a man who prided himself on his resourcefulness as a businessman, it was ironic that he was forced to live out his retirement years under very modest circumstances. His demise came at the age of 68 after his faculties were slowly and cruelly ravaged by the unrelenting debilitations of Alzheimer’s’ disease.
‘Peerless’ is a solid effort faithfully compiled and penned in a straightforward and unpretentious manner. While there is much in the book which is already known about Robinson, it works as a summation of all the key events of his life and career including the exhaustive coverage of fights, his financial entanglements and those revelations of domestic violence which came to light in the last few years. Muhammad Ali, who idolised Robinson, often conceded that Robinson was the best fighter ever. Indeed, Robinson’s matador-engaging-bull modus operandi was the blueprint for Ali’s victory over Sonny Liston. The authors allude to the serious arguments postulated by some who believe Carlos Monzon to have being a better middleweight and to those others who make great note of their belief that he never truly mastered Carmen Basilio but ultimately conclude that Sugar Ray reigns in the hearts and minds of most aficionados of the sport.
As they remind, he is still peerless.
Peerless: The Sugar Ray Robinson Story by Brain & Damon Hughes is available for purchase at www.brianhughesmbe.co.uk
Proceeds of the book go towards the Collyhurst and Mosten Lads Boxing Club, North Manchester.
Adeyinka Makinde is the author of Dick Tiger: The Life and Times of a Boxing Immortal. His forthcoming book, Jersey Boy: The Life and Mob Slaying of Frankie DePaula is due to be published in 2008.