Sugar Ray Robinson Rules a Middleweight Golden Age in the 1950s
What with Sugar Ray Robinson generally considered the greatest middleweight of all time, and his heyday being the 1950s, here’s my list of the five best middleweights of that decade. There’s been no shortage of great middleweights prior to the ’50s — Harry Greb, for instance — as well as since (the name Marvelous Marvin Hagler leaps to mind), but the Eisenhower era was certainly golden.
1. Sugar Ray Robinson (1940-1965; 173-19-6, 108 KOs). One too often hears the expression “born fighter”, but it fits Robinson like a Savile Row suit. He entered the professional ring in 1940, winning 40 bouts in a row, 29 by KO or TKO. Jake LaMotta handed him his first defeat in 1943. The two men fought six times, Robinson winning all but the first.
Five-time holder of the middleweight crown, Robinson first won the title in 1951 by stopping LaMotta in the 13th round of their final fight. He both lost and re-won the belt from Randy Turpin that same year. Robinson retired from the ring in 1952, following a loss to Joey Maxim for the Light Heavyweight Championship of the World, only to return three years later. He won the championship for the third time by knocking out Carl “Bobo” Olson in the second round of their 1955 match.
Gene Fullmer relieved Robinson of the title in 1957, but Robinson won it back the same year, kayoing Fullmer in the fifth, thus becoming the first man in boxing history to win the middleweight crown four times. Carmen Basilio defeated Robinson for the title, also in 1957, (Ring Magazine’s Fight of the Year), but Robinson made him return it in 1958’s Fight of the Year. No one beat Robinson twice.
2. Jake LaMotta (1941-1954; 83-19-4, 30 KOs). The aptly nicknamed “Raging Bull” first boiled onto the professional scene in 1941, winning his first 13 fights. He was aggressive, sure, but a lot cleverer than history has noted. He was a master at lulling opponents into a false sense of security and then unleashing a firestorm of fists. In addition to his enviable combination of brains and brutishness, he was fearless and impervious to pain.
On February 14, 1951 (what’s become known in boxing lore as the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre), LaMotta lost the championship to Sugar Ray Robinson in their sixth and final bout. Robinson had LaMotta helpless on the ropes, punching away with no more risk than he would have had hitting the heavy bag back home. The ref brought it to a halt in the 13th. But LaMotta — as he was pleased to remind Robinson ever after and as he reminds all and sundry to this day — never went down.
3. Carmen Basilio (1948-1961; 56-16-7, 27 KOs). In two all-time great slugfests, Basilio first won, then lost, the championship to Sugar Ray Robinson. In the final round of the first bout, which took place on September 23, 1957, Robinson pulled out all the stops to put down and keep down his blood-streaked opponent. But Basilio fought back with a grizzly-like fierceness, winning the frame. Indeed, it’s generally accepted that it was his performance in the 15th and final round that gained him the split — and the championship.
The rematch of March 25, 1958 was equally grueling for both fighters. This was especially true for Robinson, who was closer than not to 40 at the time. But a fifth-round left hook to Basilio’s left eye marked the beginning of the end. The left side of his head swollen to the size of an orange, with the eye fast-asleep shut, the ever-gutsy Basilio fought the full 15, but lost by split decision.
4. Gene Fullmer (1951-1963; 55-6-3, 24 KOs). Fullmer began his professional career in 1951, winning his first 29 bouts, 18 by KO or TKO. He defeated, among others, Peter Mueller, Ralph “Tiger” Jones, Spider Webb, Carmen Basilio, future welterweight champ Benny “Kid” Paret, and future middleweight champs Paul Pender and Joey Giardello. And, most impressively, Fullmer knocked Sugar Ray Robinson out of the ring in the seventh round of their championship bout and went on to win the title by unanimous decision. Robinson kayoed Fullmer in the fifth round of their rematch, thus winning the crown a historic four times.
5. Rocky Graziano (1942-1952; 67-10-6, 52 KOs). Graziano has fallen somewhat out of favor in recent years, some boxing observers deeming him overrated. But I disagree. He was a tough and able fighter. In Ring Magazine’s Fight of 1946, Graziano, giving his best impression of a butcher pounding veal scallopini, battered Tony Zale to such an extent that spectators yelled themselves hoarse, begging the ref to bring the fight to a merciful end (a bout that Zale won in the sixth). He also defeated Billy Arnold and Al “Bummy” Davis, both in 1945 (the former by TKO in the third, the latter by TKO in the fourth). And, in his second to last fight, he knocked Sugar Ray Robinson to the canvas in their championship match of 1952. Robinson kayoed him in the third.
Sugar Ray Robinson reigned supreme in his day, despite impressive competition. He was the greatest middleweight and pound-for-pound fighter of his — of any — time.