Sugar Ray Robinson’s Last Hurrah
In a very real sense, Sugar Ray Robinson left us long before—on March 4, 1961—the day of the great man’s last title bout. Fifty-two years ago today…
“Age is a question of mind over matter,” said Satchel Paige. “If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.” Well, I do mind and it does matter. Forestall your “Pshaws!”, gentlemen, please. I know what you’re thinking. Yes, all my tresses—of a becoming mahogany shot through with sun-kissed red—are rooted in their proper place, the chest still swells with massive musculature, and the ladies continue to find the George charm hard to resist. A charm as famous in New York as it is in…I think it was Peoria. I hasten to add that my heart belongs to She Who Must Be Obeyed, aka The Dawn of My Existence, and that I’ve never been happier since she pulled me from the gutter of my bachelorhood. Or so she tells me on a more or less daily basis. Still, I know I’m getting older. The unmistakable sign of an aging boxing writer (at least one of my erudition) is the measuring of one’s life by key events in the sport’s history. I recall, for example, exactly where I was on April 12, 1989. I was at work chatting up a recently hired young lady who had done some modeling in London, and whom I took to dinner that evening “chez” Al Lewis’ Grampa’s on Bleecker Street, when I overheard someone mention the passing of the Apotheosis of the Sweet Science—the death of Sugar Ray Robinson. The world has been darker since, and nowhere near as warm.
In a very real sense, Robinson left us long before—on March 4, 1961—the day of the great man’s last title bout. Fifty-two years ago today.
Robinson (173-19-6, 108 KOs) fought from 1940 to 1965, winning his first 40 bouts, 29 by stoppage. His first defeat came in 1943, a unanimous decision loss at the hands of Jake LaMotta. The two would fight five more times, Robinson winning all but the first. In fact, Robinson first won the Middleweight Championship of the World from LaMotta, stopping him in the 13th round of their final fight, in 1951. He lost the title to and won it from Randy Turpin the same year. Robinson retired in 1952, following his loss to Joey Maxim for the Light Heavyweight Championship of the World, but returned to the squared circle three years later. He won the middleweight crown a third time, in 1955, by knocking out Bobo Olson in the second. Robinson lost the title by unanimous decision to Gene Fullmer in 1957, winning it back from him the same year by fifth-round KO. Carmen Basilio won the championship by split decision in The Ring‘s Fight of the Year for 1957, losing it back to Robinson by split decision in Ring‘s Fight of 1958.
Sugar Ray Robinson—five-time winner of the Middleweight Championship of the World. Couldn’t be written as fiction. But wait…there’s more.
Robinson won the vacant welterweight title in 1946 by unanimous decision over Tommy Bell. He defended his title the following year against Jimmy Doyle, stopping him by eighth-round TKO. Robinson had a premonition that he would kill Doyle in the ring, and was reluctant to take on the fight. He was persuaded to do so, and Doyle indeed died of his injuries. “Very trying,” said the champ. Robinson engaged in four title defenses between 1947 and 1950, stopping Chuck Taylor by sixth-round TKO in 1947, beating Bernard Docusen in 1948 and Kid Gavilan in 1949, both by unanimous decision, and beating Charley Fusari on points in 1950.
Although still formidable, Robinson was no longer magical by the time the supposedly groovy 1960s made their miasmic entrance. He lost his middleweight championship by split decision to Paul Pender in 1960 and drew against Fullmer late that year for the NBA version of the title. On March 4, 1961, Robinson again faced Fullmer for the NBA crown, the great one’s last hurrah.
Fullmer (55-6-3, 24 KOs) fought from 1951 to 1963. “The Cyclone” won his first 29 bouts, 18 by stoppage. In addition to Robinson and also Basilio, he defeated Peter Mueller, Ralph Tiger Jones, and Spider Webb, as well as future welterweight champ Kid Paret and future middleweight king Pender. Fullmer demonstrated courage and toughness as wide and deep as the ocean in his 1961 bout with underrated Florentino Fernandez (whom we lost this January). Despite a shattered elbow, Fullmer beat “The Ox” by split decision.
Robinson-Fullmer IV wasn’t a great fight. Robinson no longer had what it took to fend off the awkward but relentless Utahan, who won by unanimous decision. But there’s much more to the match than that skeletal sentence indicates. It’s the last time Sugar fought for a title—and that’s far more bitter than sweet.