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Sugar Ray Robinson (born Walker Smith Jr.; was an American professional boxer. Frequently cited as the greatest boxer of all time, Robinson's performances in the welterweight and middleweight divisions prompted sportswriters to create "pound for pound" rankings, where they compared fighters regardless of weight. He was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990.
Robinson was 85–0 as an amateur with 69 of those victories coming by way of knockout, 40 in the first round. He turned professional in 1940 at the age of 19 and by 1951 had a professional record of 128–1–2 with 84 knockouts. From 1943 to 1951 Robinson went on a 91 fight unbeaten streak, the third longest in professional boxing history. Robinson held the world welterweight title from 1946 to 1951, and won the world middleweight title in the latter year. He retired in 1952, only to come back two and a half years later and regain the middleweight title in 1955. He then became the first boxer in history to win a divisional world championship five times, a feat he accomplished by defeating Carmen Basilio in 1958 to regain the middleweight championship. Robinson was named "fighter of the year" twice: first for his performances in 1942, then nine years and over 90 fights later, for his efforts in 1951
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 in construction. 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 15, 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 eighteen years old. He received his name when he circumvented the AAU's age restriction by borrowing a birth certificate from his friend Ray Robinson. Subsequently told that he was "sweet as sugar" by a lady in the audience at a fight in New York, 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, and 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.
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. Besides the loss in the LaMotta rematch, the only other mark on Robinson's record during this period was a 10 round draw against Jose Basora in 1945.
In his autobiography, Robinson states that by 1965 he was broke, having spent all of the $4 million in earnings he made inside and out the ring in his career. A month after his last fight, Robinson was honored with a Sugar Ray Robinson Night on December 10, 1965 in New York's Madison Square Garden. During the ceremony, he was honored with a massive trophy. However, there was not a piece of furniture in his small Manhattan apartment with legs strong enough to support it.
Robinson was elected to the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1967, two years after he retired. In the late 60s he acted in some television shows, like Mission: Impossible. An episode of Land of the Giants called "Giants and All That Jazz" had Sugar as a washed up boxer opening a nightclub. In 1969 he founded the Sugar Ray Robinson Youth Foundation for inner-city Los Angeles area.
The foundation does not sponsor a boxing program. He was diagnosed with diabetes mellitus that was treated with insulin. In Robinson's last years, he was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. He died in Los Angeles at the age of 67 and was interred in the Inglewood Park Cemetery, Inglewood, California