SUGAR RAY ROBINSON - THE GREATEST
After Floyd Mayweather Jr's victory over Saul Alvarez last night, the comparison of Mayweather to the all time greats of the sport (e.g. Robinson, Armstrong, Tunney, Louis, Ali etc) is again inevitable. I'm not going to dwell on Mayweather's career, but instead focus on Robinson's career which is perhaps somewhat forgotten, shamefully, as time moves on.
I will look at a few of the comments that get thrown the way of those who claim Robinson is the greatest and i will also analyse his accomplishments.
"Robinson never won world titles at five weight classes whereas Mayweather has".
Nowadays plenty of fighters have some form of title, whether it be a "genuine" world title, or an interim belt, or "super world title". There are at least four world titles per weight class and that doesn't include the Ring Magazine title (which many claim should be the real lineal world title), or upcoming orgs such as the IBO or WBU, or the titles the more prestigious orgs create just in order to charge sanctioning fees.
Back in the 1940s-1950s when Robinson was in his prime, numerous weight classes didn't exist. The weight classes which exist today, but not back then, include: cruiserweight, super middleweight, light middleweight, light welterweight (returned in 1959), super featherweight (returned in 1959), super bantamweight, super flyweight, light flyweight, and minimumweight.
This means Robinson had no chance of winning titles at a few weights where he possibly could have (i.e. super middleweight, light middleweight, light welterweight). Had they existed, he'd have been a five weight world champion.
More to the point though, back in those days it was less about money and more about prestige. Having some cheap leather strap around your waist, which you can buy online nowadays, was not considered a great thing to do. Beating the best was considered the way to become great. The best back then inevitably held the world title in each division as there was only one widely recognised world title per division.
"Robinson's opponents weren't all very good".
Have people forgotten, or do they just not know? Robinson defeated ten hall of fame fighters and often did so multiple times (e.g. La Motta five times). He also beat sixteen former, reigning, or future world champions.
Fighters he beat included: Jake La Motta, Bobo Olson, Kid Gavilan, Rocky Graziano, Randy Turpin, Carmen Basilio, Gene Fullmer, Denny Moyer, Sammy Angott, Robert Villemain, Fritzie Zivic, Henry Armstrong, Tommy Bell, George Costner, Jose Basora, Charley Fusari, Ralph Dupas.
If fans nowadays haven't heard of these fighters, this doesn't affect Robinson's record in any way. It just means fans have not done the research necessary to offer up an unbiased approach to his place in the history books.
"Fighters back then lost all the time and were bums, whereas Mayweather is 45-0".
That old chestnut. A lot of people don't realise that back in the day fighters barely sparred; at least not as much as they do now. When fighters would sign up to fight as much as twenty or so fights in one year, a large quantity of those would essentially be what we would now call "sparring sessions"; although obviously, they had a competitive edge.
Boxing was also not as much of a business as it is today. There was a business edge to it (people like to earn money), and there was a corruption angle (i.e. the Mafia/Mob influence), but overall there was a much greater sporting and prestige feel to the sport. Boxers wanted to beat the best, end of story. Getting paid to do so was a very nice added incentive but the world title, the ONLY world title, was what it was all really about.
"Robinson ducked Charley Burley".
Whether he "ducked" him or not is debatable. But, what is certain is he didn't fight him. Why? I don't know the answer. One reason i suppose i might consider is that perhaps the fact Burley was black and not too well established (perhaps?) or in the right "crew", this made it easier for Robinson to not have to face him. The same way heavyweights in the late 19th/early 20th century could avoid black challengers if they wished as the black fighters (e.g. Sam Langford, Joe Jeanette, Sam McVey, Harry Wills), had "no right" to be challenging for the world title.
Burley was a part of the infamous "Murderer's Row" of the era; a group of feared black fighters that were "avoided" by many. Alongside Burley were Lloyd Marshall, Holman Williams, Herbert "Cocoa Kid" Lewis Hardwick, Jack Chase, Eddie Booker, Elmer Ray, Aaron Wade and Bert Lytell.
Robinson fought just one of them, Aaron Wade, and it was Wade's very last fight. It must however also be remembered that Robinson didn't make his pro debut until 1940 and fought until 1965 (after a couple of brief retirements). Robinson fought for his first world title in 1946. By this time most of the Murderer's Row fighters were coming to the end of their careers. By that time, the only real credible opponents for Robinson would have perhaps only been Charley Burley and Bert Lytell.
So, i think it's plausible to say Robinson perhaps wasn't keen on fighting Burley or even Lytell, but it isn't plausible to say Robinson outright ducked the Murderer's Row the same way some other fighters did, as their careers were coming to a close when Robinson was making strides in the mid-late 40s.
"You can't know what you haven't seen".
Like gravity, i suppose?
This is a reasonable point, i suppose. It's a known fact that almost no footage of Robinson as a welterweight exists. Some people point to this as a reason to discredit some of Robinson's accomplishments. My problem with it, however, is that it essentially tells us that because we haven't seen a specific fighter, we have no right to say how good he was.
This argument sounds like this: "I have never seen the Loch Ness monster. I therefore don't believe in it." Fair enough.
What about science, though? Have you ever seen any other galaxies from your window? According to scientists there are in excess of two hundred billion of them. Nasa has also been taking photos of outer space for decades. What about dark matter and dark energy? Scientists claim these are key elements of life in the Universe. These aren't 100% proven, as such, but they are "accepted hypotheses" because of the evidence provided. There is no evidence for the Loch Ness monster, despite people certainly looking.
Of course, you could prefer to live in a barn and say things like a "theory is just a theory", thus completely misunderstanding the definition of a "scientific theory", but that's your problem and the world will move on without you.
Scientists accept evidence from those who came along before and this represents my opinion of this argument. I trust boxing historians, i understand how to read records, and i trust those who came before me. If historians say, that without doubt, Harry Greb was the best middleweight of all time. I will certainly look into it, but i don't mind saying "you're right!".
"Fighters weren't as fit back then. They'd never survive in today's era".
Okay, this argument is paraded around every sport. Let's analyse it.
Nowadays, we have fighters pulling out of fights at a week's notice because of a "back strain", or an "elbow problem", or a "hand injury" etc. Should we complain? I say no. After all, this is a dangerous sport and i think it's good to give them the benefit of the doubt. Are all of these injuries genuine though? I'd say possibly not. I think boxers, like all well paid athletes, now have a dollar value on their head and for that reason they need to, to some extent, be wrapped in cotton wool (at least until they get in the ring).
Some people might argue that Wladimir Klitschko's perfect specimen of a body is a result of his hard work in and outside of the ring. He no doubt lives a clean lifestyle and is clearly a consummate professional. On the other hand, we might say Jack Johnson was known for his love of life, especially women. Perhaps a case could be made that if Johnson had fought during this era, he'd have been more professional and even better. But, can't a case also be made that he'd have actually suffered more injuries and such nowadays? Is the training used today actually causing injury? After all, more and more athletes complain of injuries than ever before. Or, is this just a case of human right's kicking in and people feeling a lot more open to asking for help as they know they will receive it, compared to yesteryear when they were told to "get on with it"?
It is also worth mentioning that using this argument is full of bias. If fighters today have better training and are healthier, then it must also be noted that if fighters of the past fought in the current era they too would benefit from such training. The same way if fighters today fought in the past, they would have the same training standards as those back then. This is a very biased argument which favours the view that you want to put across. In my opinion, it is not a good analytical approach.
Let's look at it from another sporting angle: Football (soccer).
The world's most popular sport is riddled with injury complaints ranging from very serious (e.g. broken leg) to very minor (e.g. bit of a cold).
For those who love British football, have a think about this: From 1955-1985, during the golden era of British football, British clubs won a combined 29 European trophies.
This era was not only known for its golden era on the pitch, but also off it too. Players like George Best, Jimmy Greaves, Frank Worthington et al. were as well known for their footballing skill as they were for their love of alcohol and women.
This era of alcohol and drug use went on until the mid 1990s when no-nonsense managers like Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger helped stomp it out for good. Other managers soon followed suit.
If today's athletic era is without doubt better than any before, then why have British teams not had anywhere near the level of success that they once had? Are we to believe that teams nowadays are simply more competitive or better than British teams? Were other teams simply easier to beat back then? Surely nobody actually believes the great Ajax, Bayern Munich, AC Milan or Real Madrid teams during that era were worse than their teams since then?
The same can be said of boxing. There is no direct link to be made between modern healthy living and success. The same way there is no direct link between shenanigans away from the ring/pitch and failure.
Let's also throw in the performance enhancement drugs topic, which has blighted sports for decades. Although the use of PEDs has been around for over two thousand years, and amphetamines were first used by athletes in the 1950s, the modern epidemic of highly evolved drugs is a more recent phenomenon. Fighters in the 1960s and before were most certainly not using any form of PEDs. So, we should make the important statement that boxers of the past, who are still held in a lofty position by modern day fans and historians, were most certainly not on any form of PEDs. Compare this to the modern era where many greats may very well be using PEDs (in fact, many have actually been caught out), but we conveniently sweep their usage under the carpet as to not admit our favourite sports are inundated with PEDs. Take American football, baseball, and cycling as prime examples of sports riddled with drugs, but where fans refuse to accept the truth.
- His amateur record is usually listed as 85-0 with 69 KOs (40 in the first round) but Robinson lost to Billy Graham and Patsy Pesca under his given name, Walker Smith Jr.
- He was undefeated in 91 fights at one stage of his career.
- His record read 128-1-2 before suffering his second loss.
- Robinson retired with a record of 131-3-2 in 1952, having failed to dethrone light heavyweight champion Joey Maxim, but returned to the ring three years later. He retired for good in 1965 with a record of 173-19-6.
- Named Fighter of the Year for 1942 and 1951 by The Ring Magazine.
- Named Fighter of the Year for 1950 by the Boxing Writers Association of America.
- Named Fighter of the Decade for the 1950s by The Ring Magazine.
- Inducted into The Ring Magazine Boxing Hall of Fame in 1967.
- Inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990.
- Named Welterweight Fighter of the Century, Middleweight Fighter of the Century, and Fighter of the Century by the Associated Press in 1999.
- The Ring Magazine ranked Robinson as the best fighter of the last 80 years in 2002.
- The Ring Magazine ranked Robinson as the 11th greatest puncher of all-time in 2003.
- Historian Bert Sugar ranked Robinson #1 in his 2006 book Boxing's Greatest Fighters.
- ESPN ranked Robinson as the greatest fighter in history in 2007.