Sugar Ray Robinson: Ring legend

Sugar Ray Robinson
Sugar Ray Robinson was arguably the best there was in the squared circle.
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Tully Corcoran

Tully Corcoran spent seven years covering the Kansas City Chiefs and Kansas Jayhawks for The Topeka Capital-Journal. His work has been honored multiple times by The Kansas Press Association. He most recently wrote for FOX Sports Houston and FOX Sports Southwest. Follow him on Twitter.


If you’ve heard somebody use the phrase “pound for pound,” if you’ve marveled at an athlete’s entourage, if you know who the singer Mark McGrath is, then you know a little something about Sugar Ray Robinson.

“He was bigger than life,” his son, Ray Robinson Jr., told this week. “He was everything to me.”

Muhammad Ali is boxing’s greatest political icon, but no boxer had a more vivid and lasting impact on American culture than Sugar Ray Robinson. Born as Walker Smith Jr., he bypassed an AAU age restriction by borrowing a birth certificate from a friend. The legend goes that a lady in the crowd said he was “sweet as sugar,” and from then on he was Sugar Ray Robinson.

Joe Frazier


Where do Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali rank among the best boxers of all time?

That “sugar” prefix is to fighting what “MC” is to hip hop. To follow were Sugar Ray Leonard, Sugar Shane Mosley, Sugar Rashad Evans and, of course, late-90s pop-rock band Sugar Ray.

But that wouldn’t have meant squat if the man couldn’t fight. Robinson fought as a middleweight and a welterweight, and was so great that boxing writers had to find a way of canonizing him without implying he could beat the heavyweights. So it became that he was “pound-for-pound” the best boxer of all time.

Sugar Ray was a powerful puncher capable of throwing a knockout blow from his heels, but he fought with a musical fluidity.

“Rhythm is everything in boxing,” he said. “Every move you make starts with your heart, and that's in rhythm or you're in trouble.”

Ray Robinson Jr. remembers a charmed childhood in New York. His mother, Edna Mae Holly, was a dancer who used to perform with Duke Ellington at the famed Cotton Club. She was on the debut cover of Jet magazine. Sidney Poitier is his mother’s cousin.

One of his great-grandfathers a few generations back was the first African-American bishop in what is now the Episcopal Church. His father was Sugar Ray Robinson, who drove a pink Cadillac and traveled with an entourage that included everything from a secretary to a voice coach to a dwarf mascot.

“Dad was a hoot,” Ray Robinson Jr. recalls.

This was a black boxer in the 1940s and '50s, in America, who crossed over into mainstream stardom. A celebrity. There had never been anybody like him.

”There was a whole lot of what you could say is black royalty in my lineage,” Ray Robinson Jr. said. “The fact that Frank Sinatra would come to my house or Sammy Davis would come to my house or Quincy Jones would come to my house or Miles Davis would come to my house was regular.”

But Sugar Ray found the world outside New York wasn’t as welcoming. He entered the Army in 1943, and it worked out that Joe Louis happened to be in the Army at the same time. So they’d fight each other in exhibition bouts to entertain their fellow soldiers. That was, until Robinson found out the black soldiers weren’t going to be allowed to watch. He refused to fight.

In the Army, he stood up to superiors he felt were discriminating against him, and after he left the Army to resume his boxing career, he stood up to the Mafia, which in those days had its hands all over boxing. That temporarily cost him a shot at the welterweight title.

From 1943-51, Robinson won 91 fights in a row, the third-longest streak ever. He finished his career 173-19-6, with 108 knockouts, and many boxing historians still consider him the greatest fighter of all time.

His son considers him something else.

”He was the star of my heavens,” he says.

(February is Black History Month and will feature athletes who made significant contributions on and off the field in their lives.)

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