Considered one of the greatest boxers of all time, Sugar Ray Robinson was born in 1921. He turned pro in 1940 and won his first 40 fights. Over his 25-year career, Robinson won the world welterweight and middleweight crowns and was dubbed "pound for pound, the best." By 1958, he had become the first boxer to win a divisional world championship five times. He finished his career in 1965 with 175 victories. Robinson died in Culver City, California, in 1989.
Sugar Ray Robinson was born Walker Smith Jr. on May 3, 1921, although the location is a source of debate. Robinson's birth certificate lists his place of birth as Ailey, Georgia, while the boxer stated in his autobiography that he was born in Detroit, Michigan. What is known is that Robinson grew up in Detroit, and he was 11 years old when his mother, tired of her husband's absence from the family's life, up and left the city, moving herself, her son and two daughters to Harlem.
But New York proved rough in other ways. With little money—Robinson helped his mother save for an apartment by earning change dancing for strangers in Times Square—the Smiths built their new life in a section of Harlem dominated by flophouses and gangsters.
Fearful that her son would get pulled into this shady world, Robinson's mother turned to the Salem Methodist Episcopal Church, where a man by the name of George Gainford had just started a boxing club.
It didn't take much for Robinson, who'd been a neighbor of heavyweight champ Joe Louis back in Detroit, to strap on fighting gloves. For the first bout of his career in 1936, he borrowed the Amateur Athletic Union card of another boxer, whose name was Ray Robinson, to enter the ring. Robinson wouldn't go by his birth name for the rest of his career. The nickname "Sugar" came from Gainford, who had described the young boxer as "sweet as sugar"; reporters soon began using the moniker.
"Sugar Ray Robinson had a nice ring to it," Robinson later said. "Sugar Walker Smith wouldn't have been the same."
The young boxer quickly moved up the ranks. He won his first Golden Gloves title (featherweight) in 1939, and then repeated the accomplishment in 1940. He turned pro that same year.
In a career that spanned 25 years, Robinson amassed 175 wins, 110 knockouts and just 19 losses.
Robinson began his career with an astonishing 40 straight victories and was called the "uncrowned champion" by boxing fans on account that the mob, who Robinson refused to play nice with, denied him the chance to fight for the world welterweight title until after the war. When Robinson finally did get his shot at the belt in 1946, he took home the crown with a unanimous 15-round decision over Tommy Bell; Robinson would hold the welterweight title until 1951. Six years later, Robinson captured the middleweight title for the first time by defeating Jake LaMotta. By 1958, he had become the first boxer to win a divisional world championship five times.
Robinson's ability to cross weight classes caused boxing fans and writers to dub him "pound for pound, the best," a sentiment that that has not faded over the years. Muhammad Ali liked to call Robinson "the king, the master, my idol." Robinson inspired Ali's famous matador style, which he used to defeat Sonny Liston for the heavyweight title in 1964. In 1984 The Ring magazine placed Robinson No. 1 in its book "The 100 Greatest Boxers of All Time."
Outside of the ring, Robinson relished his celebrity, parading around Harlem with a pink Cadillac and making appearances at his high-profile Harlem nightclub. Wherever he went, he brought a large entourage of trainers, women and family members. Robinson, who was unapologetic for his lavish spending, is estimated to have earned more than $4 million as a fighter, all of which he burned through, forcing him to continue boxing much longer than he should have.
Robinson finally retired from the sport for good in 1965. Two years later, he was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.
In his later years, Robinson worked in show business, even doing some television acting. The work greatly helped salvage his finances and was the reason he eventually settled in Southern California with his second wife, Millie. Robinson, who had a son from a previous marriage, helped raise Millie's two children.
In his last years Robinson battled Alzheimer's disease and diabetes. He died at the Brotman Medical Center in Culver City, California, on April 12, 1989.
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