Flashback: Sugar Ray Robinson Profiled – part 1

By John F. McKenna - 02/07/2024 - Comments

Sugar Ray Robinson, born Walker Smith, Jr. on May 3, 1921, is universally considered by most boxing historians to be the greatest fighter who ever lived. His father, Walker Smith Sr., who was a Georgia Farmer, moved his family to Detroit, Michigan, in hopes of finding a better life for his family. Young Walker Smith wound up living in the same Detroit neighborhood as Joe Louis when he was 11 years old, and Joe was 17 years old.

Walker would find his way to the Brewster Recreation Center, just as Joe Louis had done a few years prior. Young Walker soon developed an interest in boxing and met Louis who he soon began to idolize, even though Joe was unknown at the time.

After his parents separated, Walker moved with his mother to Harlem when he was 12 years old. He continued to show an interest in boxing and when he was 14 years of age expressed a desire to become an amateur fighter even though he was underage.

To circumvent the rules, Walker would use an identification card of a friend named Ray Robinson, which would allow him to fight as an amateur. Shortly thereafter, Walker Smith Jr. became Ray Robinson. When Robinson’s future manager, George Gainford observed him in action, he referred to his style as being “as sweet as sugar”, hence the nickname that would follow Ray throughout his boxing career was born, “Sugar” Ray Robinson.

“Sugar” Ray would go on to engage in a spectacular amateur boxing career, going undefeated in 85 bouts, winning 69 of those bouts by KO, with 40 KOs in the first round. Robinson would win the AAU Golden Gloves Featherweight Championship in 1939 and the AAU Golden Gloves Lightweight Championship in 1940, the same year he turned pro at nineteen years of age.

He would then go on to win his first forty professional fights. Sugar Ray lost his first fight to Jake Lamota, The Bronx Bull, in Robnson’s former hometown of Detroit on February 5, 1943. Ray would avenge the loss to Lamotta 3 weeks later by winning a rematch by decision. After his first loss, Robinson would go on a 91-fight winning streak over a period that stretched from February 19, 1943, to June 16, 1951. This streak, in this writer’s opinion, is the most impressive winning streak in the history of sports.

Robinson faced the best opposition out there, never dodged anyone, and fought as often as fourteen to fifteen times a year. Consider that he fought more times in a year than fighters that we today consider to be “active fighters, fight over a five-year period of time.

This winning streak is the reason that so many boxing historians, writers, fans, and fighters alike consider Sugar Ray to be the greatest fighter pound for pound that ever lived. The term “pound for pound,” in fact, was contrived by boxing writers who were trying to come up with a way of measuring his greatness compared to fighters of the past, such as Harry Greb, Benny Leonard, and Sam Langford, who were also sometimes referred to as possibly the greatest fighters of all time.

More and more during the late 1940s and early 1950s, when Robinson was at the nadir of his career, boxing writers would refer to Sugar Ray as the greatest fighter of all time. Despite the fact that Robinson was named “Fighter of the Year” in 1942 and he continued to dominate his opposition, he was not given a shot at the title because he would not cooperate with the Mafia.

Flashback: Sugar Ray Robinson Profiled – Part 2

Flashback: Sugar Ray Robinson Profiled – Part 3