With the passing of Sugar Ray Robinson, 67, some of the sweetness has gone out of the world of sport. For here was one of the sublime artists of athletics, an artist whose canvas was the ring.
The boxing historians called him the best fighter ever “pound for pound,” or simply the best fighter ever, and Sugar Ray was that and more. “He was a fistic genius,” says the dean of fight trainers, 89-year-old Ray Arcel. “He had grace and rhythm. He could hit and not get hit. You got such pleasure watching him, people used to go to the gym just to see him shadowbox.” Adds former middleweight champ Gene Fullmer, who fought Ray four times: “He could hit you with either hand and knock you out.” Ray influenced countless fighters, including Muhammad Ali, who told him, “You are the king, the master, my idol.”
Born Walker Smith Jr. in Detroit, he became Ray Robinson when he borrowed a retired boxer’s ID card before an amateur bout. After a later amateur fight, a newsman told his manager, George Gainford, “That’s a sweet fighter you’ve got there.” “As sweet as sugar,” remarked a lady at ringside.
Sugar Ray, it must be pointed out, was a great stylist out of the ring as well. He drove a flamingo-pink Cadillac. Liking women nearly as much as cars, he almost always had a new “fancy,” as he called his female friends, on his arm. (Nonetheless he settled into a stable second marriage with Millie, who nursed him in recent years, when he began suffering from heart ailments, Alzheimer’s disease and diabetes.) He traveled with an entourage that included a golf pro, barber, valet and manicurist. And like too many other former champs, he died virtually broke. “I went through 4 million dollars,” Ray once said, “but I have no regrets.”
And no apologies. Before Ray and Millie moved to Los Angeles 27 years ago, they entertained the likes of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in their New York apartment, with its paneled trophy room. One night when they were packing, Millie picked up a white satin robe and said, “Ray, you can’t keep this robe. It has blood all over it.” Said Ray, smiling as sweet as sugar: “It’s not my blood.”