1951 was in many ways a great year across the cultural landscape. This year saw the arrival of color television in the United States, the first use of the term “rock’n’roll” and the premiere of I love Lucy on CBS. Work was underway on the contraceptive pill. Catcher in the grain was published. You could go to the cinemas and see the Disney adaptation Alice and Wonderland and groundbreaking science-fiction film, The Day the Earth Stood Still.
In boxing, it sometimes felt like one man could make the Earth stand still as he fought and won fans in his own Wonderland. Sugar Ray Robinson had many amazing years. But even by his incredible standards, 1951 was a pretty good year.
By the time he was putting away his Christmas decorations in late 1950, Robinson was the Welterweight Champion of the World. By the time he pulled out the tinsel again as 1951 drew to a close, Ray was the middleweight champion. What happened in between was extraordinary. He won the fight known forever as the Valentine’s Day Massacre and went on a European tour, fighting in places like Turin, Zurich, Antwerp and Paris. He had one fight where his purse was one franc and another where the referee initially disqualified Ray for a foul, saying he just wanted to get out of the ring alive. He lost and regained the middleweight crown in 64 days.
Anyone had a year like Sugar Ray in ’51?
In early 1951, Ray Robinson was 29 years old and had been a pro for 11 years, with 120 wins and only one loss. In the following year, he would go through the ropes 11 times; an unusual figure by today’s standards, but common at the time.
Jake LaMotta’s middleweight challenge on February 14 will be their sixth and final meeting. Although Ray had triumphed on points in four of the previous five, “Bronx Bull” was the man to inflict the only loss in Sugar’s history. After a rough start, Ray was leading on all three scorecards when he was stopped in the 13th round. Unless your name was Billy Fox, winning the Bronx Bull would never be easy.
Mickey Walker and Henry Armstrong were previous welterweight champions who unsuccessfully attempted to claim the middleweight crown. Sugar Ray became the first man to accomplish this feat. Perhaps his habit of drinking bovine blood helped him. LaMotta saw Robinson drinking a glass at a restaurant where Ray claimed he had been drinking it for years, on the advice of Joe Louis’ coach Chappie Blackburn.
After the titanic battle, Red Smith, w New York Herald Tribune, wrote that “the world’s greatest fistfighter was a world middleweight champion, and one of the toughest suffered the first credible knockout of his life. Jake LaMotta was beaten, tortured, flayed, bloodied and beaten today by a better fighter.
Robinson immediately relinquished the welterweight crown and, after recovering from the virus, made his 10-round non-title return to the ring, again with Holly Mills on April 5. Despite scoring, it was a poor showing, for which Robinson blamed the aftermath of illness. That didn’t stop him from returning to the ring just five days later against Don Ellis in Oklahoma City. No excuses were needed this time as Ellis was stopped in just 96 seconds.
Robinson probably wanted an early end to concentrate on packing his bags for his European adventure.
Just weeks later, on May 21, in front of a crowd of 6,000 in Paris, Robinson defeated Kid Marcel in five rounds. Ray earned the princely sum of one franc for his efforts, winning the sympathy of the locals by donating the remainder of his portfolio to a cancer charity.
Around this time, George Gainford, Robinson’s manager, spoke to promoter Jack Solomons. Gainford’s initial $100,000 wallet request for Ray to defend against British middleweight Randy Turpin proved to be a stumbling block. Solomans later returned and agreed to the financial demands, but insisted the fight take place on July 10. Robinson was happy with the financial terms, but the proposed date is just nine days after his sixth and final fight on a tour of continental Europe. . Ray expected these non-title fights to be easy, but was it too much, even for Sugar Man?
Overall, these turned out to be routine attacks, albeit with almost no incidents. Just five days after his fight with Kid Marcel, he returned to the ring against Jean Wanes (John Wayne in French?) in Zurich. Wanes survived to hear the final bell, but only after stepping off the canvas five times.
In Antwerp on June 10, Ray’s Dutch opponent Jan De Bruin was declared the loser by TKO after he walked out of the ring claiming that Robinson wasn’t trying hard enough. Ray wanted to get rounds under his belt in preparation for his proposed Turpin fight, De Bruin apparently just wanted the belt. If there wasn’t a headline somewhere that read “De Bruin’s career in ruins”, it would be a terrible shame.
Ray gave another referee more counting practice when he defeated Jean Walzack six times in Liege, Belgium just six days later, en route to a sixth-round stoppage. Walzack lost his previous 10 fights and never set foot in the ring again.
Next stop Berlin and opponent Gerhard Hecht in front of a crowd of 30,000. In the second round, the German was on the floor twice, allegedly from kidney punches. A riot broke out and initially Ray was disqualified, having to take shelter under the ring for a few minutes to avoid being hit by flying beer bottles. He had to be escorted to safety by the police. The result was later changed to No Contest.
A more appreciative crowd waited for Robinson in Turin on July 1 to see him stop Cyrille Delannoit in three rounds before Ray, along with 100 pieces of luggage and his Cadillac, could travel across the Channel to England and Randy’s much greater challenge Turpin.
Robinson was unprepared for the test that the British middleweight was about to bring. In his biography of Robinson, Sweet Thunder: The Life and Times of Sugar Ray Robinson author Wil Haygood quotes Gordon Parks, who was traveling with Sugar Ray at the time, “There was no training. Sugar Ray played golf all day and played card tables late into the night.
Along with this from Ben Phlagar, a photographer observing the master: “Robinson slept late, played the piano in the morning and took a long walk in the afternoon.”
British fight fans were eager to see Robinson against Turpin, asserting that the 18,000 seat was sold out in two days. It soon became obvious that Robinson’s lack of preparation and Turpin’s quality meant a threat to the champion.
John Jarrett in his book The Sugar Ray Robinson Story: The Return of the Boxing King, writes: “After three minutes of this 15-round fight, Sugar Ray already knew that he left his fight on the boulevards of Paris, left it in continental bistros in Zurich, Antwerp, Liege and Turin, left it on its way through five countries, six fights in 41 days. And now, just nine days later, he was in another country, in another ring, with a heavy 23-year-old who wanted his championship.
At the end of the 15-round contest, the Associated Press scorecard gave Robinson four rounds, with nine rounds for Randy with two equals, reporting that Turpin “was bored from the start to beat, outbox and outsmart the overwhelming favourite.”
Robinson, who suffered a laceration to his left eyebrow in the seventh round, was “beaten hard” by the Englishman but would have an opportunity to get revenge in the rematch on September 12 back at home at the Polo Grounds in New York.
Sugar Ray suffered his second career loss in sportsmanship simply by claiming, “He was better than me.”
After several weeks of recuperation in the warmth of southern France, Ray returned home to prepare for his return. 61,000 people paid record bills for a sub-heavyweight bout to see what Grantland Rice described as a matchup between “Robinson’s skill and experience versus Turpin’s youth, strength and stamina.”
The fight escalated into a 10th-round head-fight which left Robinson bleeding again from his left eye. Fearing the fight might be stopped due to the cut and being declared the loser, Ray opened up with a brutal right that sent Turpin to the canvas. He got up and waved on after referee Ruby Goldstein counted to nine, but the referee stepped in seconds later after Sugar Ray’s flurry of punches. Up to this point the fight was even on the scorecards, but despite protests from the Englishman and his supporters, Robinson brought donnybrook to a dramatic conclusion.
Joe Williams, who was reporting at the time, wrote that it was “probably the hardest punch Robinson ever landed in the ring. It turned Turpin’s head as if on a swivel. His eyes seemed to pop out of his head.”
And with that, Sugar Ray Robinson became champion again. Of course, he had many more ups and downs in his glorious, majestic career; he boxed for another 14 years until he finally called it a day for good in 1965. There will be other great punches, other great fights and other great years. Along with some not so good ones.
But there was something special about 1951. Stopping the Bronx Bull, winning a world title in two weight divisions, a pink Cadillac crossing continents and oceans, adoration in France, riots in Germany, brawls just days apart in different countries, crowded by fans in London, title loan for 64 days and a triumphant victory at the Polo Grounds.
The winner of this year’s Oscars for Best Picture was An American in Paris starring Gene Kelly. However, for boxing fans, there was only one American who mattered in Paris, Italy, Germany, Austria, Great Britain, and then back to the USA. It was Ray Robinson. Sugar Ray could dazzle with both his fists and feet.
Anyone had a year like Sugar Ray in ’51?