Povich Rewind: Sugar Ray Robinson


Povich Rewind: Sugar Ray Robinson
Sep 3, 2019

When we see the brutal MMA action on television these days, it’s interesting to think what sportswriting legends such as Shirley Povich would think about that sport in contrast to the “sweet science” of boxing.

Shirley¬†Povich loved covering boxing. That meant he wrote a lot about comebacks. Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Leonard and Muhammad Ali all climbed back in the ring after they had retired — and the results usually were not pretty.

The Boy named Walker Smith who used to dance for pennies on the sidewalks of Harlem now at 39 is presiding over a shrinking empire as Sugar Ray Robinson, the middle weight champion. The bounce is still in those feet and much of it is synchronized with those fists, but only two of the 48 states recognize him as a champion.

These are New York and Massachusetts, which gave a loud bazzoo to the National Boxing Association edict that stripped Robinson of his title for defending it too infrequently. So on Friday night at Boston, Robinson will strike a blow, or as many as needed, to re-emphasize for his admirers that he is still invincible.

He will wedge his fists into the regulation gloves for the 152nd time in his career and throw confusion at Challenger Paul Pender, barring the upset of the ages. It is scheduled for the championship distance of 15 rounds, but Robinson is expected to resolve it at his convenience.

Pender is fighting Robinson mostly because he is a local box-office as a one-time sensation who won 20 bouts in a row before he chucked the whole business to take steadier employment with the nearby Brookline, Mass., fire department. He is 10 years younger than Sugar Ray and has a creditable record of 35 victories in his 42 fights, but along the line he was knocked out by fellows named Gene Hariston and Jimmy Beau.

Sugar Ray antagonized the NBA by laying off 22 months and was stripped of his title. His defense was that proper financial arrangement for a return bout with Carmen Basilio couldn’t be made. Meanwhile. the NBA recognized the winner of Gene Fullmer-Basilio bout as the champion, and it proved to be Fullmer.

But the elevation of Fuller or Basilio or anybody atop Robinson in the rankings finds little popular support for two wonderful reasons. The last time Fullmer had business with Robinson, he was knocked out at Chicago in the fifth round by a Robinson left hook of such classic beauty it deserved hanging in the Louvre. He didn’t knock out Basilio last time, but it would have been more merciful if he had.

Pender could be a lucky fellow for the fact that it is his first time around against Robinson. Of the five men who have beaten Robinson in his 152 fights — Jake La Motta, Randy Turpin, Basilio, Fullmer and Joey Maxim — only Maxim escaped a brutal beating because there was no return bout between Maxim and Sugar Ray.

Robinson fought in Boston last month, taking a warm-up bout with an obscure middleweight named Bob Young who upset his timetable. Sugar Ray, who said he needed the fight, said he would permit Young to stay around for six-or-seven rounds, but when Young shook him up with a left hook in the first round, he panicked and knocked Young out in the next.

Sugar Ray never lost a professional fight until his 41st bout when he was outpointed by Jake La Motta in 1950. He came back to knock out La Motta and started a new winning streak of 91 straight. Then, fat and saucy on a European tour, he was astonished to learn he couldn’t lick Randy Turpin to regain the title.

He dominated the middleweights by so much that he abandoned that title for a go for Maxim’s light heavyweight crown in 1952. He was beating Maxim for 13 rounds and then, for the first time in his life, was unable to answer the bell. Unmarked and unhurt, he collapsed in his corner from heat exhaustion on a night that was so fiercely hot the original referee couldn’t go the distance, either, and had to be replaced.

After that, Sugar Ray kicked off his boxing shoes in favor of his dancing pumps and set out to make his name on the night club and ballroom circuit with his own band. He could dance and he could play the drums, but he was no champion in those professions, and the crowds didn’t come and Robinson missed the big paydays of his fighting career.

After nearly three years out of the ring, he tried a comeback in 1955. He was slow, fat and a target for third-raters who couldn’t carry his mouth-piece in his glory days. He was so arm-weary and helpless against Tiger Jones in a Detroit bout that Robinson fans turned their heads from their television sets and prayed that he would give up the whole idea of a comeback.

But a few months later, he was the old destroyer again in a match with Bobo Olson, then the middleweight title holder. He belted Olson out in two rounds, held the title for two more years, lost it on a decision to Gene Fullmer in 1957 and was again consigned to the scrapheap as a fellow who had hung around too long. Six months later, he knocked out Fullmer and had the title back. Watch him on television Friday night.

- January 20, 1960

Note: Pender won in a decision and won again in a split decision in June.

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