The Legend Of Sugar Ray Robinson

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The Legend Of Sugar Ray Robinson

If people thought that reaction to the first fight had been extravagant, the Americans taught them otherwise – in the words of the show-business slogan: “You ain’t seen nothing yet”. Some 61,370 spectators crowded into the Polo Grounds on 12 September 1951.

Yet possibly the most significant factor in determining the outcome of the contest went unnoticed at the time. Less than a fortnight beforehand, George Flores had lost his life in a fight in the same city. It was only a minor contest but if a further death had followed in another high-profile contest, professional boxing might well have been banned.

Sugar Ray started as he should have done – and was expected to do – in London. Boxing brilliantly with his left jab, he outclassed the impudent Englishman so completely that he was well ahead on points over the first seven rounds. Then the contest turned.

As Turpin brought his superior power to bear, his opponent wilted. Going into the second half of round 10, Turpin, though still behind on points, seemed to be in control of the contest and was getting stronger. Mid-way through the round, Sugar Ray’s eye was cut – the eye which had given him trouble in the first fight. Referee Ruby Goldstein signalled that if the blood was not staunched, he would have to stop the contest at the next interval. Sugar Ray went “blindingly beserk” as he unleashed a barrage of punches in an attempt to win before the bell intervened.

At first Turpin evaded the assault easily by pulling back – and then Ray connected with a superb right-hand punch. The Briton took a count of “9”. As soon as he regained his feet, Sugar Ray hustled him to the ropes. With Turpin swaying helplessly and suffering a terrible beating without reply, Goldstein stopped the contest. Sugar Ray Robinson was again the world middleweight champion. British fans, my young self included, were convinced that the Americans had cheated “Our Randy” out of his title.

Whether it was out of national bias or fear of another ring death, we “knew” that the referee had stopped the fight too soon. Years later I bought a video of the fight to prove that very point, but on seeing the film I have to admit now that Referee Goldstein’s action was right. When the fight was stopped, only 8 seconds of the 10th round remained. Why hadn’t Turpin gone down for a second voluntary count? If he had stayed down for those seconds, too few for him to be counted out, he would have survived and his adversary would have been stopped on a cut eye. Turpin replied that a further count might have forced the referee, fearing a repeat of the Flores fatality, to have stepped in even more certainly.

Ten years after these two contests, Sugar Ray was still fighting for the world middleweight crown. He was never quite the same after he had challenged Joey Maxim for the heavier world light-heavyweight crown in June 1952. The weather was exceptionally hot at 40 degrees Celsius. Referee Goldstein was overcome by the heat and was replaced. Sugar Ray was a long way ahead on points but he had to retire on his stool at the end of the 13th round suffering from heat exhaustion. Afterwards he quit the ring for three years.

When he returned in 1955, he won, lost, regained, and lost the world title several times. Ray was still fighting at the highest level into the 1960s but, now a shadow of his former self, lost more frequently than before and retired in November 1965. That was only six months before Turpin committed suicide. The intervening years had not been good for him. His personal life was a mess with divorce and a “breach of promise” action – women generally were his problem, and money troubles. His business collapsed. He just could not cope with the fame and fortune. For a time, his boxing ability did not seem to be affected.

He even knocked out Don Cockell, the British light-heavyweight champion, who went on to challenge Rocky Marciano for the world heavyweight crown. Then Turpin started to lose the occasional contest, and then he lost more frequently. The end came when Yolande Pompey of Trinidad knocked him out in the second round in 1958. The press photograph which showed the once great champion crawling around on the canvas, apparently unaware as to where he was, said it all.

After that, Turpin humbled himself in moving “down market” into boxer-v-wrestler charades, but nothing worked for him. On 17 May 1966, he killed himself by shooting. The celebrated commentator Harry Carpenter wrote, while Randy was still alive: “No British boxer of modern times ever captured the public’s affection as Turpin did … or lost it as tragically”.

Not long before his death, Turpin told a reporter: “When I was on top they turned me into a peepshow – but all the while they were making speeches, people were tapping me. I never knew who my real friends were. There were hangers-on wherever I went. Every time I shook hands it cost me money. Yes, I’ve lost a fortune and you could say it was largely through my own stupidity. But I’ve no regrets, not one day of it. Memories are worth more than money”.

Sugar Ray, you may suspect, rather liked being “turned into a peepshow”. He knew how to control it. Turpin and Ray Robinson showed that boxers could be men of courage, character and decency. They were probably, too, the first black men to be considered the popular representatives of their nations, and not just part of the nation, without reference to their race – professionally, at least, though they would have experienced things differently in their personal life.

For example, as a child, in spite of listening to every word on radio and reading newspaper reports, I did not realise that Turpin was black until I saw the fight photographs. They paved the way for those that followed them, including Muhammad Ali, to be heard and recognised. Sixty years on, Sugar Ray Robinson is still regarded by the fistic cognoscenti as being the “greatest boxer” of all time. He was indeed the star that people came to see and who they still wish to remember.

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