Thursday, 12 September 2013

King of the Ring - Sugar Ray Robinson

Sugar Ray Robinson (born Walker Smith Jr. May 3, 1921) was an American boxer.  He turned professional in 1940 at the age of 19 and from 1943 to 1951 had a 91 fight unbeaten streak, the third longest in professional boxing history.

Sugar Ray Robinson sightseeing in Milan, 1951
Sugar Ray Robinson sightseeing in Milan, 1951

Robinson fought 19 times in 1950, including  George Costner, who had also taken to calling himself "Sugar." "Your name ain't Sugar, mine is,"said Robinson at the start of the fight - he then knocked Costner out in 2 minutes and 49 seconds.

Sugar Ray Robinson and George 'Sugar' Costner with doctor
Sugar Ray Robinson and George 'Sugar' Costner with doctor

His most controversial win may have been that against Irish-american boxer Jimmy Doyle, who died in hospital after suffering severe head injuries in the ring.  Criminal charges were threatened against Robinson after his death, including manslaughter, though none actually materialized. It was said later that Doyle kept fighting despite previous head injuries, as he wanted to earn enough to buy his mother a house. Robinson gave the earnings of his next four fights to Doyle's mother, so she could buy that house.

Sugar Ray Robinson vs. Jimmy Doyle newspaper report 1947
Although Robinson apparently loved sweets, that's not how he got his name. A sportswriter once watching the young Robinson fight said to his manager "that's a sweet fighter you've got there."  "Sweet as sugar" was the reply, and so the name was born.

In 1940 Robinson met his second wife, dancer Edna Mae Holly, and they married in 1943. Their son, Ray Robinson Jr. was born in 1949.  they and divorced in 1960 and Robinson married Millie Wiggins Bruce in 1965 and the couple settled in Los Angeles.

Edna Mae Robinson watches her husband shadow boxing during training, 1951
Edna Mae Robinson watches her husband shadow boxing during training, 1951 
Robinson is credited with being the originator of the modern sports "entourage". After winning his second world title, he took an entourage of 13 people on tour of European - complete with his flamingo-pink Cadillac. 

Robinson and his custom pink Cadillac outside his restaurant, 1950s
Robinson and his custom pink Cadillac outside his restaurant

In London, Robinson lost the world middleweight title (and the 40,000 pounds prize money)  to British boxer Randolph Turpin, but three months later the rematch saw him knock Turpin out in ten rounds to recover the title.  In 1951, Robinson was named Ring Magazine's "Fighter of the Year" for the second time, and became the third African-American to appear on the cover of Time magazine.

In 1952 Robinson retired and began a career in show business, singing and tap dancing. He was one of the first African Americans to establish himself as a star outside sports and he was a vital part of the New York social scene in the 1940s and 1950s, and stars such as Frank Sinatra, Jackie Gleason, Nat "King" Cole, Joe Louis, Elizabeth Taylor and Lena Horne frequented his glamorous restaurant, Sugar Ray's. his show business career was not hugely successful, however, and he returned to boxing in 1954, regaining the middleweight title in 1955. 

Sugar Ray Robinson kicks up his heels in London
Sugar Ray kicks up his heels in London
Despite being seen as an astute businessman who owned a brewery, restaurant, barber, laundry and lingerie shop, by 1965 Robinson was broke - he had managed to spend the $4 million he made during his career.  In the late 60s he acted in some television shows including an episode of Land of the Giants ("Giants and All That Jazz") where he played a washed up boxer opening a nightclub. In 1969 he founded the Sugar Ray Robinson Youth Foundation for inner-city Los Angeles area. 

N. R. Brown with Sugar Ray Robinson at the Youth Foundation, c. 1970
Diagnosed with both diabetes and Alzheimer's disease in his later years, he died on 12 April, 1989 in Los Angeles at the age of 67. 

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