The Bridge Builder: How Robbie United the Old and New

By Mike Casey on June 14, 2013
The Bridge Builder: How Robbie United the Old and New
Ray Robinson was the man who built the bridge and brought the two camps together.

When most active fighters are prematurely judged against the masters of the past by the boxing fraternity, the usual thing happens…

We all have our different ways of judging fighters in an all-time perspective. I never judge mine until they are home and hosed and safely in retirement. I like to review their career log in its entirety, gather any new facts and figures that have come to light and make allowances where necessary.

For all that, there are times when we just can’t stop ourselves from jumping the gun and having a real-time fiddle with our all time rankings. There is nothing like the emergence of a new superstar to get us all fidgety and analytical.

Back in the eighties, the last truly magical era, I loved nothing more than to move the great quartet of Roberto Duran, Marvin Hagler, Thomas Hearns and Ray Leonard around the board like chess pieces. How great were they? How did they fit into the big historical picture?

Track back another thirty years and the fight beat was on fire over the magic of Sugar Ray Robinson. By the close of 1950, Robbie was just about at the halfway house of his fabulous career, having already compiled a near fictional record. He was twenty-nine years of age, the welterweight champion of the world, two months away from challenging Jake LaMotta for the middleweight championship and sporting a professional record of 119-1-2. Still we gasp when we read those figures.

When most active fighters are prematurely judged against the masters of the past by the boxing fraternity, the usual thing happens. A veritable chasm opens up between the opinions of the old guard and the new. Not so in Robinson’s case. He was the man who built the bridge and brought the two camps together. Even those who questioned his right to the top spot admitted that it was a close thing.

What was quite remarkable about this was the nature of the big question that was posed to the managers, trainers and writers of the day. They weren’t asked if Ray was an all-time great. They were asked if he was the greatest of all over the last 50 years. Since that timespan went back to 1900, they were effectively being asked if Robinson was the greatest boxer of all time.

Jimmy Bronson, a great manager and promoter since the turn of the century, was adamant that Robinson was the king of the great talents. Here is what Bronson said: “I don’t know 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?”

Position

Harry Markson, who held a top position with the International Boxing Club and became matchmaker at Madison Square Garden, said: “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?”

The shrewd and normally measured Irving Cohen, manager of Rocky Graziano, got quite animated when somebody tentatively suggested that his young fighter Terry Young might be a good match for Robinson. “What are you saying?” Cohen spluttered. “Ray Robinson! Why, he’s the greatest fighter that ever lived. I’m a manager, not an undertaker!”

Promoter and matchmaker, Chickie Bogad, was no less emphatic: “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 for from a fighter?”

By contrast, veteran boxing writer Ed Van Every was greatly respectful of Robinson, but couldn’t rate him above Benny Leonard: “For all round ability, the two are 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 Lew 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.”

Lew Raymond, a contemporary of Ed Van Every’s, disagreed: “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 one, but I’ll go along with Robinson.”

Artist

Ted Carroll, a greatly gifted artist and writer for The Ring magazine for many years, presented his own case with typical eloquence: “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 minimum wear and tear to his foe. With punchers he is seldom so charitable, since he cannot afford to be. On those occasions he sends them in as hard as Dempsey or Louis 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 luster two years ago when he razzle-dazzled his way through ten 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.”

Ted Carroll argued that Robinson’s toughness, athleticism and movement were also exceptional: “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.

“In the ring, 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. His lithe, graceful movement can be appreciated by the unitiated as well as the connoisseurs.”

Robinson had to survive a knockdown when winning the vacant welterweight championship from the hard punching Tommy Bell in 1946, prompting fight manager Jimmy DeAngelo to admire Robbie’s grace and elegance in all circumstances:  “That’s the only guy I ever saw who’s got class even on the floor. He even looks good getting knocked down.”

Ah, but Robinson was definitely on the slide as he headed towards his 1951 campaign. Ted Carroll, tongue in cheek, provided the proof: “As wisecrackers point out, Ray has gone back just one minute in five years. On February 14, 1945, he had George (Sugar) 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 Costner.”

Testimonials

Testimonials aside, let us examine the quality of Sugar Ray’s opposition during his peak years. Don’t forget that we have stopped the clock in 1950 and that many more illustrious conquest would follow during Robinson’s thrilling, rock ‘n’ roll reign as the middleweight king. However, Ray’s welterweight phase is sufficiently bulging with achievement to prove our point. The list of the vanquished and their records at the time they met Robinson includes:

Norment Quarles 70-37-5
Sammy Angott 78-22-7
Carl Guggino 106-42-23
Maxie Shapiro 50-6-2
Fritzie Zivic 113-27-6
Marty Servo 43-1-2
California Jackie Wilson 56-13-4
Henry Armstrong 133-17-8
Jose Basora 77-14-7
Jake LaMotta 52-9-2
Izzy Jannazzo 63-42-15
Artie Levine 49-9-5
Tommy Bell 39-10-2
Georgie Abrams 48-6-3
Bernard Docusen 49-2-4
Kid Gavilan 53-6-2
Young Gene Buffalo 111-32-10
Steve Belloise 90-10-3
George Costner 69-10-4
Robert Villemain 44-4-1
Charley Fusari 63-7-1
Carl (Bobo) Olson 41-3-0
Bobby Dykes 71-8-6
Luc Van Dam 87-13-3

No fighter, of course, is ever untouchable, especially where criticism is concerned. The better they are, the more abundant their gifts, the greater the nit-picking. It’s human nature. We long for perfection, but we seldom trust it when we see it. So we put Ray Robinson under the microscope and look for chinks and weaknesses that aren’t there.

When there’s no big stick to beat him with, we revert to the old ‘Who did he duck?’ tactic. We think of those appealingly ghostly danger men who never got a shot at the championship and faded into folklore as King Arthur-like legends. How come the mighty Robinson never fought those fellas?

It is said that Ray never wanted any part of Charley Burley. People love to bat that one around. It always makes for a nice, spicy discussion. But why? Did Robinson seriously believe that Burley might beat him? I don’t think so. Charley was a magnificent boxer, but I feel that his nice little legend, wrapped up in its nice little box of mystique, would not be what it is now if a match with Robinson had come off.

Holman Williams? No again. Holman and Charley each brought a marvelous set of skills to the table. But in terms of all the essential requisites, Robinson’s solid silver set was better and arguably the best ever.

Was the Sugar Baby really the greatest of them all? Quite probably yes in terms of pure talent. But as we know, there are so many yardsticks for measuring greatness. Talent is but one. All round achievement is another, as is defying logic in the manner of Marciano and making the very best of what little you have. Many fighters of lesser talent than Robinson attained greatness for many diverse reasons.

There were significant stylistic differences separating Harry Greb, Henry Armstrong, Bob Fitzsimmons, Mickey Walker Benny Leonard, Jimmy Wilde and Joe Gans, yet all are five-star candidates for the top pound-for-pound honor.  And why is the wonderful Tony Canzoneri rarely mentioned in the same breath? Canzi’s record is quite simply one of the greatest ever compiled.

Rank these men in any order you wish and throw a few more of your choice into the pot as well. Just remember that we are talking about the most exclusive club in boxing, where just to be mentioned is a major honor.

If Sugar Ray Robinson isn’t your top man, I’ll wager that he’s in your top three.

Appreciation

We know that too much wine and romanticism can get us seriously drunk, just as the passing of time can make us misty-eyed. But I ask you, are the fantastic achievements of Sugar Ray Robinson anything else but a picture of stunning sobriety?

When Robbie opened his 1951 account by knocking off Jake LaMotta for the middleweight championship, another glorious chapter began. Ray was off and running again. People said he was no longer as good as he used to be. He wasn’t. Yet he won the middleweight championship five times in spite of that, taking more than two years off at one point to indulge his love of show business.

Robinson was thirty-seven when he won the title for the final time from Carmen Basilio at the Chicago Stadium in 1957. That was some age to be in that red hot era of competition, by which time Ray had extended his monumental record to 140-6-2.

In the now unlikely event that a superior talent should come charging over the horizon, Robbie will need to face his day in court. But let us never allow the great man to be demeaned or demoted by the spurious pap of the ‘controversial’ revisionists who yearn to win a prize without doing their homework.


Mike Casey is a Boxing.com writer and Founder & Editor of ALL TIME BOXING at https://sites.google.com/site/alltimeboxingrankings. He is a freelance journalist and boxing historian and a member of the International Boxing Research Organization (IBRO).

Follow us on Twitter@boxing_com to continue the discussion

Sugar Ray Robinson vs Jake Lamotta



Sugar Ray Robinson knocks out Jake LaMotta II



Sugar Ray Robinson vs Sammy Angott III



Ray Robinson vs Bernard Docusen



Sugar Ray Robinson vs Bobby Dykes Rare footage



Sugar Ray Robinson vs. Delanoit



Ray Robinson vs Bobo Olson II.



Sugar Ray Robinson vs Randy Turpin II



Sugar Ray Robinson vs Rocky Graziano



Ralph Tiger Jones - Sugar Ray Robinson



Sugar Ray Robinson knocks out Gene Fullmer



Carmen Basilio vs Sugar Ray Robinson I



Sugar Ray Robinson vs Carmen Basilio II



Discuss this in our forums

Related Articles

Comments

This is a place to express and/or debate your boxing views. It is not a place to offend anyone. If we feel comments are offensive, the post will be deleted and continuing offenders will be blocked from the site. Please keep it clean and civil! We want to have fun. We want some salty language and good-natured exchanges. But let's keep our punches above the belt...
  1. beaujack 08:28pm, 06/19/2013

    Having seen the great Ray Robinson as a WW several times,along with his great ko of Randy Turpin at the old Polo Grounds, I recall seeing Ray Robinson stepping out of his fuchsia colored Cadillac entering the Coney Island Arena before his bout…What a vivid color that Caddy was…Befit for a “king’ of the ring…

  2. Clarence George 05:48pm, 06/17/2013

    Michael Hegan:  I found another version of the same photo, and the shade of pink is very different—much more salmon:

    http://uptownflavor.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/11/533751381.jpg

  3. Michael Hegan 03:41pm, 06/17/2013

    always remember a whisk of an article I read ...back in the sixties…

    my mind has been dulled over the years by not so clean living and not very much sun.
    ..any way…..a tussel broke out ..sometime at or about 1966…at a HW weigh in…and Sugar Ray put the Korean Death lock on somebody..and stopped it from becoming a brew hah hah…things settled down calmer heads prevailed…and everybody continued…

    Commentator took over

    ...he said…And that is the first one Robinson has won in a while !!

  4. Michael Hegan 03:29pm, 06/17/2013

    Clarence….I lived in Mexico for cupla years…Chiapas and Vera Cruz…..and I was surpised to find that the chicken was yellow…not white…as it is where I’m from…...corn fed I guess….‘sted of grain fed….

    It depends where you’re looking at it from….

    Robinson was passed his proven prowess as a prize fighter in this era…early fifties.
    Ray Robinson…with the same financial literacy of most athletes…just opened shop….(RAY ROBINSON ENTERPRISES….NEXT DOOR)....and lost it all on ....‘ground floor….real ...can’t lose propositions..’.and other high risk ventures…..not to mention the forty plus entourage..

    whatever Robinson got ...it was spent.

    Was he shorted ??  Seems to me he was doing most of the management himself…so at least his end didn’t get split up too much.l..

    Don’t know what the promotion deals were….I heard Sugar got some unique deals…due to his selling power

  5. Clarence George 12:38pm, 06/17/2013

    Michael Hegan:  I’m flattered and honored by your kind attention.

    A Cadillac, eh?  An Eldorado, perhaps?  I would have thought that the fins would be more prominent, but it’s admittedly not an area of expertise.  The name is above and behind the front-left (white-wall!) tire, but I can’t make it out.  As for the color…it’s pink all right!  But not salmon, which would be a bit more orangey.

    Anyway, I’m happy to bow to your superior knowledge, and I thank you for the info. and for clearing things up.

  6. Michael Hegan 08:22am, 06/17/2013

    Clarence   I always read your posts….That is a 1953 Cadillac ...and the colour is pink…......just like the figures of the day , in certain circles wanted…..a pink cadillac.  Photos may alter the real colour…..but I’m pretty sure that is a caddy…..look at those bumps at the back over the tail lights…;..I say ‘53 because it didn’t have a split front windshield…but it could be a ‘54

  7. Ted 06:40pm, 06/14/2013

    Who are they Monte?

  8. Monte Cox 05:57pm, 06/14/2013

    “If Sugar Ray Robinson isn’t your top man, I’ll wager that he’s in your top three.”  That pretty much says it right there. I have a couple of other fighter I rate as great as Robinson, sometimes I have rated them ahead of them but I keep going back to Ray because of his great record, his level of competition, his longevity, and the fact that he could do it all; knock you out with either hand, great chin and recuperative powers, a will to win as great as anyone you care to name, speed, grace, skills and athleticism. He out box boxers and out punch punchers and do it forward or backward and inside and outside. Who else can really make that claim?

  9. Ted 04:53pm, 06/14/2013

    In a career that spanned three decades, Sugar Ray embodied the essence of the Sweet Science. He was a world welterweight champion and held the middleweight title five times. He never lost to a welterweight. When he gave up the 147-pound title to challenge Jake LaMotta for the middleweight championship in 1951, his record was 121-1-2. The lone loss was to LaMotta and both draws were against middleweights. Incredibly, he was so great for so long that he won his first
    Fighter of the Year award in 1942 and his second award in 1951. Talk about bookends! The fact that I don’t have to say much says it all. In 201 fights over an amazing twenty-five-year career, Robinson failed to finish a fight only once when he was felled by heat prostration against Joey Maxim in a fight he was winning handily.

    Lot’s of steal-worthy stuff in this one. thanks.

  10. Mike Silver 04:17pm, 06/14/2013

    If there is one quality to consider that puts Robinson over the few other immortals who deserve to be mentioned in the same breath with him, it is that whatever he did in the ring was done with more grace, style and eloquence than any other fighter before or after.

  11. Rolling Thunder 11:00am, 06/14/2013

    The Greatest - truly and before “The Greatest”.

  12. Mike Schmidt 10:27am, 06/14/2013

    Superb!!!!!!!!!!

  13. Mike Casey 07:49am, 06/14/2013

    Thanks, fellas. Yes, Clarence, that kind of talk always makes me gnash my teeth too. Robbie, Pep et al really did earn their spurs. I never get tired of reading their records. Likewise, Greb and Canzoneri.

  14. Clarence George 07:42am, 06/14/2013

    Outstanding piece, Mike, on the greatest fighter of all time.

    I’m reminded of a bit of nonsense I heard after Rigondeaux beat Donaire, that he was up there with Pep.  If you’ll forgive the piratical language:  Balderdash!

    Great photo, by the way.  I remember my father’s fascination with Sugar Ray’s salmon-pink Cadillac.  But I don’t think that’s a Caddie and it sure as hell ain’t salmon pink.

  15. Matt McGrain 07:30am, 06/14/2013

    Thanks for putting so many quotes in one place Mike, I look forwards to stealing them (-;

    Very nice job this, I like.

Leave a comment