Sugar Ray Robinson was born on this day in 1921. To mark the occasion, we present 21 facts you may not know about the boxer Muhammad Ali once called the greatest fighter of all time.
1. He was born Walker Smith Jr. on May 3, 1921, but no one is exactly sure where. His birth certificate lists his place of birth as Ailey, Georgia, while his autobiography says he was born in Detroit, Michigan. His father was a former cotton, peanut and corn farmer who’d moved to Detroit to work as a cement mixer and sewer worker (while in Detroit, Robinson was a neighbor of Joe Louis, who was six years his senior). When his parents separated, he moved with his mother to Harlem at age twelve.
2. At age 14, he tried to enter a boxing tournament but didn’t have the required Amateur Athletic Union membership card, so he borrowed one from a friend. His friend’s name? Ray Robinson. Future manager George Gainford Smith, Jr. once told him he had a style “sweet as sugar.”
3. Robinson dropped out of school in the ninth grade. By age 16 he was married (though the marriage would be annulled the next year), and by 17 had a child to support. After getting into trouble for his involvement in a street gang, he began to focus more sharply on boxing.
4. As an amateur, Sugar Ray Robinson went 85-0, winning Golden Gloves titles in the featherweight and lightweight divisions. His record didn’t include “bootleg” matches – backroom fights held for gambling purposes.
5. Robinson’s first professional bout occurred in 1940, when he was 19 years old. He would be paid $100. Robinson fought 5 more times that year, winning four matches by knockout.
6. His 1941 fight against Fritzie Zivic in Madison Square Garden brought in one of the venue’s biggest-ever crowds, pulling in 20,551 spectators.
7. In October 1942, he first fought the man he would face six times throughout his career: Jake LaMotta. (LaMotta once joked he fought Sugar Ray Robinson so many times “I almost got diabetes.”) During their first fight, Robinson beat LaMotta by unanimous decision.
8. Finishing 1942 with a record of 14-0, he was named The Ring magazine’s “Fighter of the Year.”
9. Their next meeting saw LaMotta win by decision. Three weeks later, the pair fought again, with Robinson winning.
10. Sugar Ray Robinson was inducted into the U.S. Army in 1943. He served alongside his boyhood idol Joe Louis, with the two fighters staging boxing exhibitions for the troops in Europe. Robinson often fell afoul of military regulations, and got in trouble when he refused to perform unless African-American troops were also allowed to attend. He received an honorable discharge little more than a year later, after disappearing for days and claiming to have no memory of what had happened.
11. In 1946, Robinson finally won his first title, claiming the welterweight championship after a close 15-round fight. Defending the title in 1947, he would accidentally cause the death of challenger Jimmy Doyle. Robinson claimed he’d had a premonition of the death and had tried to pull out of the fight.
12. In 1950, he donated all but $1 of the proceeds made from the last defense of his welterweight title to cancer research.
13. He moved up to middleweight in search of bigger paydays. Robinson was one of the first black boxers who acted as his own manager, negotiating all his fight contracts.
14. The term “pound-for-pound” was invented by sportswriters as a way to compare Robinson to other boxers irrespective of their various weights.
15. In 1951, Sugar Ray Robinson fought LaMotta for the final time in what became known in boxing circles as the “St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.” The fight was stopped, Robinson dealing LaMotta the first TKO of his career. The event was dramatized for one of the more brutal scenes in Martin Scorsese’s 1980 film Raging Bull.
16. After winning the middleweight title, Robinson went on a European tour. Known as the first fighter to have his own entourage, Robinson travelled in a pink Cadillac and brought some 13 people along with him, including his personal masseuse, his hairdresser, and a friend Robinson hired to whistle while he trained.
17. In 1952, Robinson suffered his first knockout. He retired that year and tried – like Jake LaMotta – to launch a career in entertainment. Three years later, he returned to professional boxing. He would fight until 1965. Robinson finished his career with a record of 173-19, with 108 wins by knockout. Most of his losses came in his 40s.
18. Less than a year after retiring, Robinson was broke, having burned through over $4 million he’d made during his career.
19. Robinson was cited as “the best fighter of the 20th century” by AP. The Ring magazine called him the best fighter of all time, as did ESPN.com. Muhammad Ali did the same, as did Sugar Ray Leonard, who was nicknamed in Robinson’s honor.
20. Late in life, Robinson suffered from diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease. He died at age 67 on April 12, 1989.
21. Jake LaMotta, nearly 90 years old, still appears at autograph events and speaking engagements.