Robinson was named the greatest fighter of the 20th century by the Associated Press, and the greatest boxer in history by ESPN.com in 2007. The Ring magazine rated him the best “pound for pound” boxer of all-time in 1997, and its “Fighter of the Decade” for the 1950s. Muhammad Ali, who repeatedly called himself “The Greatest” throughout his career, ranked Robinson as the greatest boxer of all time. Other Hall of Fame boxers such as Joe Louis and Sugar Ray Leonard said the same.
Renowned for his flamboyant lifestyle outside the ring, Robinson is credited with being the originator of the modern sports “entourage“. After his boxing career ended, Robinson attempted a career as an entertainer, but struggled, and lived in poverty until his death in 1989. In 2006, he was featured on a commemorative stamp by the United States Postal Service.
Robinson was born Walker Smith Jr. in either Ailey, Georgia (according to his birth certificate) or Detroit, Michigan (according to his autobiography), to Walker Smith Sr. and Leila Hurst. Robinson was the youngest of three children; his older sister Marie was born in 1917 and his older sister Evelyn was born in 1919. His father was a cotton, peanut, and corn farmer in Georgia, who moved the family to Detroit where he initially found work as a construction worker. According to Robinson, Smith Sr. later worked two jobs to support his family—cement mixer and sewer worker. “He had to get up at six in the morning and he’d get home close to midnight. Six days a week. The only day I really saw him was Sunday…I always wanted to be with him more.”
His parents separated and he moved with his mother to the New York City neighborhood of Harlem at the age of twelve. Robinson originally aspired to be a doctor, but after dropping out of De Witt Clinton High school in ninth grade he switched his goal to boxing. When he was 14, he attempted to enter his first boxing tournament but was told he needed to first obtain an AAU membership card. However, he could not procure one until he was sixteen years old. He received his name when he circumvented the AAU’s age restriction by borrowing a card from his friend Ray Robinson. Subsequently told that his style was “sweet as sugar” by future manager George Gainford, Smith Jr. became known as “Sugar” Ray Robinson.
Robinson idolized Henry Armstrong and Joe Louis as a youth, and actually lived on the same block as Louis in Detroit when Robinson was 11 and Louis was 17. Outside of the ring, Robinson got into trouble frequently as a youth, and was involved with a violent street gang. He married at 16. The couple, who had one son, Ronnie, divorced when Robinson was 19. He finished his amateur career with an 85–0 record with 69 knockouts—40 coming in the first round. He won the Golden Gloves featherweight championship in 1939, and the organization’s lightweight championship in 1940.
Robinson made his professional debut on October 4, 1940, winning via second-round knockout over Joe Echevarria. Robinson fought five more times in 1940, winning each time, with four wins coming by way of knockout. In 1941, he defeated world champion Sammy Angott, future champion Marty Servo and former champion Fritzie Zivic. The Robinson-Angott fight was held above the lightweight limit, since Angott did not want to risk losing his lightweight title. Robinson defeated Zivic in front of 20,551 at Madison Square Garden—one of the largest crowds in the arena to that date. Robinson won the first five rounds according to The New York Times Joseph C. Nichols, before Zivic came back to land several punches to Robinson’s head in the sixth and seventh rounds. Robinson controlled the next two rounds, and had Zivic wobbly in the ninth. After a close tenth round, Robinson was announced as the winner on all three scorecards.
In 1942, Robinson knocked out Zivic in the tenth round in a January rematch. The knockout loss was only the second of Zivic’s career in more than 150 fights. Robinson knocked him down in the ninth and tenth rounds before the referee stopped the fight. Zivic and his corner protested the stoppage; James P. Dawson of The New York Times stated, however, that “[t]hey were criticizing a humane act. The battle had been a slaughter, for want of a more delicate word.” Robinson then won four consecutive bouts by knockout, before defeating Servo in a controversial split decision in their May rematch. After winning three more fights, Robinson faced Jake LaMotta, who would become one of his more prominent rivals, for the first time in October. He defeated LaMotta via unanimous decision. Robinson weighed 145 lb (66 kg) compared to 157.5 for LaMotta, but he was able to control the fight from the outside for the entire bout, and actually landed the harder punches during the fight. Robinson then won four more fights, including two against Izzy Jannazzo, from October 19 to December 14. For his performances, Robinson was named “Fighter of the Year”. He finished 1942 with a total of 14 wins and no losses.
Robinson built a record of 40–0 before losing for the first time to LaMotta in a 10 round re-match. LaMotta, who had a 16 lb (7.3 kg) weight advantage over Robinson, knocked Robinson out of the ring in the eighth round, and won the fight by decision. The fight took place in Robinson’s former home town of Detroit, and attracted a record crowd. After being controlled by Robinson in the early portions of the fight, LaMotta came back to take control in the later rounds. After winning the third LaMotta fight less than three weeks later, Robinson then defeated his childhood idol former champion Henry Armstrong. Robinson only fought Armstrong because Armstrong was in need of finances. By now Armstrong was an old fighter, and Robinson later stated that he carried Armstrong.
On February 27, 1943, Robinson was inducted into the United States Army, where he was again referred to as Walker Smith. Robinson had a short 15 month military career. Robinson served with Joe Louis, and the pair went on tours where they performed exhibition bouts in front of US troops. Robinson got into trouble several times while in the military. He argued with superiors who he felt were discriminatory against him, and refused to fight exhibitions when he was told African American soldiers were not allowed to watch them. In late March, 1944, Robinson was stationed at Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn, waiting to ship out to Europe, where he was scheduled to perform more exhibition matches. But on March 29, Robinson disappeared from his barracks. When he woke up on April 5 in Fort Jay Hospital on Governor’s Island, he had missed his sailing for Europe and was under suspicion of deserting. He himself reported falling down the stairs in his barracks on the 29th, but said that he had complete amnesia, and he could not remember any events from that moment until the 5th. According to his file, a stranger had found him in the street on 1 April and helped him to a hospital. In his examination report, a doctor at Fort Jay concluded that Robinson’s version of events was sincere. He was examined by military authorities, who claimed he suffered from a mental deficiency. Robinson was granted an honorable discharge on June 3, 1944. He later wrote that unfair press coverage of the incident had “branded” him as a “deserter.”  Robinson maintained his close friendship with Louis from their time in military service, and the two went into business together after the war. They planned to start a liquor distribution business in New York City, but were denied a license due to their race.
By 1946, Robinson had fought 75 fights to a 73–1–1 record, and beaten every top contender in the welterweight division. However, he refused to cooperate with the Mafia, which controlled much of boxing at the time, and was denied a chance to fight for the welterweight championship. Robinson was finally given a chance to win a title against Tommy Bell on December 20, 1946. Robinson had already beaten Bell once via decision in 1945. The two fought for the title vacated by Servo, who had himself lost twice to Robinson in non-title bouts. In the fight, Robinson, who only a month before had been involved in a 10 round brawl with Artie Levine, was knocked down by Bell. The fight was called a “war,” but Robinson was able to pull out a close 15 round decision, winning the vacant welterweight title.
In June 1947, after four non-title bouts, Robinson was scheduled to defend his title for the first time in a bout against Jimmy Doyle. Before that fight, Robinson had a dream that he was going to accidentally kill Doyle in the ring. As a result, he decided to pull out of the fight. However, a priest and a minister convinced him to go ahead with the bout. His foe, however, died from the injuries he sustained. Robinson said that the impact of Doyle’s death was “very trying.”
On the night of June 25, Robinson dominated Doyle and scored a decisive knockout in the eighth round that knocked Doyle unconscious and resulted in Doyle’s death that night.
In 1948, Robinson fought five times, but only one bout was a title defense. Among the fighters he defeated in those non-title bouts was future world champion Kid Gavilan in a close, controversial 10 round fight. Gavilan hurt Robinson several times in the fight, but Robinson controlled the final rounds with a series of jabs and left hooks. In 1949, he boxed 16 times, but again only defended his title once. In that title fight, a rematch with Gavilan, Robinson again won via decision. The first half of the bout was very close, but Robinson took control in the second half. Gavilan would have to wait two more years to begin his own historic reign as welterweight champion. The only boxer to match Robinson that year was Henry Brimm, who fought him to a 10-round draw in Buffalo.
Robinson fought 19 times in 1950. He successfully defended his welterweight title for the last time against Charley Fusari. Robinson won a lopsided 15 round decision, knocking Fusari down once. Robinson donated all but $1 of his purse for the Fusari fight to cancer research. In 1950, Robinson fought George Costner, who had also taken to calling himself “Sugar” and stated in the weeks leading up to the fight that he was the rightful deserver of the name. “We better touch gloves, because this is the only round,” Robinson said as the fighters were introduced at the center of the ring. “Your name ain’t Sugar, mine is.” Robinson then knocked Costner out in 2 minutes and 49 seconds.
Robinson stated in his autobiography that one of the main considerations for his move up to middleweight was the increasing difficulty he was having in making the 147 lb (67 kg) welterweight weight limit. However, the move up would also prove beneficial financially, as the division then contained some of the biggest names in boxing. Vying for the Pennsylvania state middleweight title in 1950, Robinson defeated Robert Villemain. Later that year, in defense of that crown, he defeated Jose Basora, with whom he had previously drawn. Robinson’s 50-second first round knockout of Basora set a record that would stand for 38 years. In October 1950, Robinson knocked out Bobo Olson a future middleweight title holder.
On February 14, 1951, Robinson and LaMotta met for the sixth time. The fight would become known as The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. Robinson won the undisputed world middleweight title with a 13th round technical knockout. Robinson outboxed LaMotta for the first 10 rounds, then unleashed a series of savage combinations on LaMotta for three rounds, finally stopping the champion for the first time in their legendary six-bout series—and dealing LaMotta his first legitimate knockout loss in 95 professional bouts. LaMotta had lost by knockout to Billy Fox earlier in his career. However, that fight was later ruled to have been fixed and LaMotta was sanctioned for letting Fox win. That bout, and some of the other bouts in the six-fight Robinson-LaMotta rivalry, was depicted in the Martin Scorsese film Raging Bull. “I fought Sugar Ray so often, I almost got diabetes,” LaMotta later said. Robinson won five of his six bouts with LaMotta.
After winning his second world title, he embarked on a European tour which took him all over the Continent. Robinson traveled with his flamingo-pink Cadillac, which caused quite a stir in Paris, and an entourage of 13 people, some included “just for laughs”. He was a hero in France due to his recent defeat of LaMotta—the French hated LaMotta for defeating Marcel Cerdan in 1949 and taking his championship belt (Cerdan died in a plane crash en route to a rematch with LaMotta). Robinson met President of France Vincent Auriol at a ceremony attended by France’s social upper crust; following the ceremony he kissed the President’s blushing wife once on each cheek, then repeated the two kisses at the request of press photographers. During his fight in Berlin against Gerhard Hecht, Robinson was disqualified when he knocked his opponent with a punch to the kidney: a punch legal in the US, but not Europe. The fight was later declared a no-contest. In London, Robinson lost the world middleweight title to Englishman Randy Turpin in a sensational bout. Three months later in a rematch in front of 60,000 fans at the Polo Grounds, he knocked Turpin out in ten rounds to recover the title. In that bout Robinson was leading on the cards but was cut by Turpin. With the fight in jeopardy, Robinson let loose on Turpin, knocking him down, then getting him to the ropes and unleashing a series of punches that caused the referee to stop the bout. Following Robinson’s victory, residents of Harlem danced in the streets. In 1951, Robinson was named Ring Magazine’s “Fighter of the Year” for the second time.
In 1952, he fought a rematch with Olson, winning by a decision. He next defeated former champion Rocky Graziano by a third-round knockout, then challenged world light heavyweight champion Joey Maxim. In the Yankee Stadium bout with Maxim, Robinson built a lead on all three judges’ scorecards, but the 103 °F (39 °C) temperature in the ring took its toll. The referee, Ruby Goldstein, was the first victim of the heat, and had to be replaced by referee Ray Miller. The fast-moving Robinson was the heat’s next victim – at the end of round 13, he collapsed and failed to answer the bell for the next round, suffering the only knockout of his career.
After the Maxim bout, Robinson gave up his title and retired with a record of 131-3-1-1. He began a career in show business, singing and tap dancing. In his autobiography, he stated that in the weeks leading up to his debut as a dancer in France, he trained harder than he ever had as a boxer. After about three years, the decline of his businesses and the lack of success in his performing career made him decide to return to boxing. He resumed training in 1954.
In 1955, Robinson returned to the ring. Although he had been inactive for two and a half years, his work as a dancer kept him in peak physical condition: in his autobiography, Robinson states that in the weeks leading up to his debut for a dancing engagement in France, he ran five miles every morning, and then danced for five hours each night. Robinson even stated that the training he did in his attempts to establish a career as a dancer were harder that any he undertook during his boxing career. He won five fights in 1955, before losing a decision to Ralph ‘Tiger’ Jones. He bounced back, however, and defeated Rocky Castellani by a split decision, then challenged Bobo Olson for the world middleweight title. He won the middleweight championship for the third time via a second round knockout—his third victory over Olson. After his comeback performance in 1955, Robinson expected to be named fighter of the year. However, the title went to welterweight Carmen Basilio. Basilio’s handlers had lobbied heavily for it on the basis that he had never won the award, and Robinson later described this as the biggest disappointment of his professional career. “I haven’t forgotten it to this day, and I never will” Robinson wrote in his autobiography. They fought for the last time in 1956, and Robinson closed the four fight series with a fourth round knockout.
In 1957, Robinson lost his title to Gene Fullmer. Fullmer used his aggressive, forward moving style to control Robinson, and knocked him down in the fight. Robinson, however, noticed that Fullmer was vulnerable to the left hook. Fullmer headed into their May rematch as a 3–1 favorite. In the first two rounds Robinson followed Fullmer around the ring, however in the third round he changed tactics and made Fullmer come to him. At the start of the fourth round Robinson came out on the attack and stunned Fullmer, and when Fullmer returned with his own punches, Robinson traded with him, as opposed to clinching as he had done in their earlier fight. The fight was fairly even after four rounds. But in the fifth, Robinson was able to win the title back for a fourth time by knocking out Fullmer with a lightning fast, powerful left hook. Boxing critics have referred to the left-hook which knocked out Fullmer as “the perfect punch”. It marked the first time in 44 career fights that Fullmer had been knocked out, and when someone asked Robinson after the fight how far the left hook had travelled, Robinson replied: “I can’t say. But he got the message.”
Later that year, he lost his title to Basilio in a rugged 15 round fight in front of 38,000 at Yankee Stadium, but regained it for a record fifth time when he beat Basilio in the rematch. Robinson struggled to make weight, and had to go without food for nearly 20 hours leading up to the bout. He badly damaged Basilio’s eye early the fight, and by the seventh round it was swollen shut. The two judges gave the fight to Robinson by wide margins: 72–64 and 71–64. The referee scored the fight for Basilio 69–64, and was booed loudly by the crowd of 19,000 when his decision was announced. The first fight won the “Fight of the Year” award from The Ring magazine for 1957 and the second fight won the “Fight of the Year” award for 1958.
Robinson knocked out Bob Young in the second round in Boston in his only fight in 1959. A year later, he defended his title against Paul Pender. Robinson entered the fight as a 5–1 favorite, but lost a split decision in front of 10,608 at Boston Garden. The day before the fight Pender commented that he planned to start slowly, before coming on late. He did just that and outlasted the aging Robinson, who, despite opening a cut over Pender’s eye in the eighth round, was largely ineffective in the later rounds. An attempt to regain the crown for an unheard of sixth time proved beyond Robinson. Despite Robinson’s efforts, Pender won by decision in that rematch. On December 3 of that year, Robinson and Fullmer fought a 15-round draw for the WBA middleweight title, which Fullmer retained. In 1961, Robinson and Fullmer fought for a fourth time, with Fullmer retaining the NBA middleweight title by a unanimous decision. The fight would be Robinson’s last title bout.
Robinson spent the rest of the 1960s fighting 10-round contests. In October 1961, Robinson defeated future world champion Denny Moyer via unanimous decision. A 12–5 favorite, the 41 year old Robinson defeated the 22 year old Moyer by staying on the outside, rather than engaging him. In their rematch four months later, Moyer defeated Robinson on points, as he pressed the action and made Robinson back up throughout the fight. Moyer won 7–3 on all three judges scorecards. Robinson lost twice more in 1962, before winning six consecutive fights against mostly lesser opposition. In February 1963, Robinson lost via unanimous decision to former world champion and fellow Hall of Famer Joey Giardello. Giardello knocked Robinson down in the fourth round, and the 43 year old took until the count of nine to rise to his feet. Robinson was also nearly knocked down in the sixth round, but was saved by the bell. He rallied in the seventh and eight rounds, before struggling in the final two. Robinson then embarked on an 18-month boxing tour of Europe.
Robinson’s second no-contest bout came in September, 1965 in Norfolk, Virginia in a match with an opponent who turned out to be an impostor. Boxer Neil Morrison, at the time a fugitive and accused robber, signed up for the fight as Bill Henderson, a capable club fighter. The fight was a fiasco, with Morrison being knocked down twice in the first round and once in the second before the disgusted referee, who said “Henderson put up no fight”, walked out of the ring. Robinson was initially given a TKO in 1:20 of the second round after the “obviously frightened” Morrison laid himself down on the canvas. Robinson fought for the final time in 1965. He lost via unanimous decision to Joey Archer. Famed sports author Pete Hamill mentioned that one of the saddest experiences of his life was watching Robinson lose to Archer. He was even knocked down and Hamill pointed out that Archer had no knockout punch at all; Archer admitted afterward that it was only the second time he had knocked an opponent down in his career. The crowd of 9,023 at the Civic Arena in Pittsburgh gave Robinson several standing ovations, even while he was being thoroughly outperformed by Archer.
On November 11, 1965, Robinson announced his retirement from boxing, saying: “I hate to go too long campaigning for another chance.” Robinson retired from boxing with a record of 173-19-6 (2 no contests) with 108 knockouts in 200 professional bouts, ranking him among the all-time leaders in knockouts.