This is part of The Shadow League’s Black History Month In Focus series celebrating Black excellence in sports and culture.
When Jack Johnson was already established as the baddest man on the planet within the boxing ring and outside of it, there was another on the rise.
Walker Smith, Jr., professionally known as Sugar Ray Robinson, started a movement in boxing that wouldn’t stop for over 20 years. Ranked in five weight classes and a champion in two, Robinson began his career on a tear and when it was over he would forever be known as God’s creation of the perfect fighter. The greatest to ever do it “pound for pound.”
As an amateur, he went 85-0, with 69 of those victories coming by way of knockout, 40 in the first round. After turning professional in 1940 at the tender age of 19, he amassed a professional record of 40-0 within two years. In a world where protecting your “chicken and mentals” is tantamount to success, Robinson fought six times in his first professional year and 20 times in his second year.
His first loss came against Jake LaMotta, the former Middleweight champion that would eventually inspire the 1980 movie Raging Bull. This sparked a series of four fights that over the years strengthened the legend of Robinson in one of the greatest rivalries in boxing history.
In their first fight at Madison Square Garden on October 2nd, Sugar got up from a knockdown and took control of the remainder of the contest, winning a unanimous 10-round decision.
The rematch took place on February 5th, 1943, at Olympia Stadium in Detroit. The eighth round was historic. LaMotta landed a right to Robinson’s head and a left to his body, sending him through the ropes. Robinson was saved by the bell at the count of nine. LaMotta, who was already leading on the scorecards before knocking Robinson out of the ring, pummeled and outpointed him for the rest of the fight. LaMotta won via unanimous decision, giving Robinson the first defeat of his career.
The victory was short-lived, as the two met again just three weeks later in Detroit once again. Robinson was knocked down for a nine-count count in the seventh round, but won the close fight by unanimous decision, utilizing a dazzling left jab and jarring uppercuts.
It would be another three years and 33 straight wins later until Robinson would achieve his first title. Appropriately, in Madison Square Garden, Robinson defeated Tommy Bell via unanimous decision in 15 rounds. Now wielding the welterweight world title, Robinson solidified his greatness, post-Jack Johnson, in a still divided and segregated America.
Robinson did the shake and bake across the fight game for the next four years either knocking out or taking the upside of a decision, revisiting his greatest rivalry in 1951. Robinson faced off against Jake LaMotta again, but this time for the World Middleweight Championship in Chicago Stadium. He won by TKO in the 13th round.
From 1943 to 1951 Robinson went on a remarkable 91-fight unbeaten streak, the third-longest in professional boxing history. Robinson held the world welterweight title from 1946 to 1951 and won the world middleweight title in the latter year. He retired in 1952, only to come back two and a half years later to regain the middleweight title in 1955.
He became the first boxer in history to win a divisional world championship five times, a feat he accomplished by defeating Carmen Basilio in 1958 to regain the middleweight championship. Robinson was named “fighter of the year” twice: first for his performances in 1942, then nine years and over 90 fights later, for his efforts in 1951.
Following in the footsteps of Johnson, Robinson was both celebrated and vilified for his flamboyant lifestyle outside the ring. Floyd Mayweather, Jr. can thank him for creating the modern-day entourage that is the norm for today’s superstar boxing athlete.
From his performances in the welterweight and middleweight divisions, which prompted sportswriters to create the “pound-for-pound” rankings, to being unapologetically black and yet the sweetest thing the fight game has ever seen, we celebrate the life and legacy of Sugar Ray Robinson.