Randolph Turpin was black and British. Sugar Ray Robinson was black and American. And as both were great boxers and brought honour to their “nations”, their skin colour was not remembered. Sadly, Turpin could not handle the fame. Clayton Goodwin takes us through memory lane.
Randolph Turpin and Ray Robinson were so different in everything – except in their ability – that they encompassed just about everything in boxing, in sport and in life. Their two contests for the world middleweight crown in the summer of 1951 have passed into fistic legend and are etched in the definition of an age.The duel ended with honours even. Their rivalry created the first individual sports event (as opposed to team matches) that I can remember from my earliest childhood, and their first fight was re-enacted by boys in school-playgrounds throughout the land.
Turpin, 23 years old, was Britain’s first folk-hero of the immediate post-war era. When he won at Earl’s Court in London, nobody called him “black” – that would come later – he was just “Our Randy” who had avenged the Englishman’s resentment of the greater affluence of the American servicemen who had stolen the hearts, and more, of their women and of their own consequent lack of confidence. The Yanks, it was said, were “over-paid, oversexed and over here”. The man Randolph had to face, the 30-year-old Sugar Ray Robinson, was every bit the “flash” American. In short, he was the “greatest” boxer that the world has ever known, according to a number of shrewd commentators, including Muhammad Ali himself. Robinson was so smooth, smooth like sugar, that he was known invariably as “Sugar Ray Robinson”. Although he was born in Detroit, he moved to Harlem in New York as a child and grew up in poverty. He started with nothing and even borrowed his name. That’s right – Mr Robinson didn’t start off as Robinson at all: he was born Walker Smith but “borrowed” another man’s name and identity when he was deemed to be too young to be granted a boxing license.
Because of his subsequent success with his borrowed name, a young contemporary singer named “Ray Robinson” had to change his name to avoid confusion. He retained his forenames and dropped the surname to become “Ray Charles”.
Ray Robinson lived in that age between the social acquiescence of Joe Louis’ era and the more assertive style of Muhammad Ali’s, when the “success” of a black man was measured by the quantity and quality of his possessions and his life-style.
For Sugar Ray that “success” was written large. It has been said that he “rioted in luxury”. He owned half-a-dozen businesses and drove around Harlem in a pink Cadillac, with his huge entourage, dressed in stylish shirts and he ate fancy dinners. He was held to be a credit to his tailor and barber. He was very much the star that people came to see. Angelo Dundee, the trainer of Muhammad Ali, has said: “He would walk into the ring and it was like he was a ballet dancer. Robinson was class. There was a mystique with the guy. There was a silkiness about him. He was magnificent in the ring”. When Ray arrived late for a public dinner on the eve of his second fight with Carmen Basilio – entering the room in pomp and smiling to all around – the chairman, sports writer Dave Condon, welcomed him by saying: “Robbie, I’m afraid we’ve said grace already. We thought perhaps you wouldn’t object if God took precedence for a change”.
Robinson backed up his status by his superb performances in the ring. At the time he came up against Turpin, he was at the pinnacle of his performance. He had lost only one out of his 133 fights. He had avenged that lone defeat by stopping Jake LaMotta (“the Raging Bull” of the film) to win the world middleweight champion after having dominated the welterweights for five years.
He wore down opponents with hard negotiating and psychological warfare in the build-up, and in the ring – making them feel like “bit” players. Ray came to London as the last stop on a European tour on which he had knocked over several national champions.
Turpin could not have been more different. Instead of the pink Cadillac, he travelled on public transport – and would arrive at the press conference on the day after the first fight by underground train clutching the prized belt. He suffered from childhood pneumonia and pleurisy, and was hard of hearing.
The son of a black Guyanese father, who was incapacitated by being gassed on active service in the First World War, and a white mother, Turpin, too, suffered badly from childhood racism. In more intimate provincial Leamington Spa in the West Midlands in England, racism could be considered to be even more personal than the general racism experienced in the more anonymous inner-city metropolis. Turpin’s elder brother, Dick Turpin, was the first black boxer allowed to fight for, and win, an official British title.
Less eloquent than Robinson, who was already a world welterweight champion in December 1946, Turpin let his fists do the talking for him. He was noted for his “quick strike” with either hand and had lost only two of his 43 contests. The British people, coming to their feet gradually after the deprivations of the Second World War, desperately needed to have a hero to get them to believe in themselves again.
Only the previous year their national cricket team had been humbled unexpectedly by the West Indies – in the series of the famous “Calypso Test Match” – and the soccer team had been put out of the World Cup by the USA. What better time than now, 1951, the year of the Festival of Britain. It was difficult to see how Turpin could “deliver” for them against Sugar Ray who was the favourite of 99% of the press and was 4-1 ahead in the booking odds.
The American knew how to make an appearance. Crowds flocked to the weigh-in and there was a capacity attendance of 18,000 at Earl’s Court on 10 July 1951. There is no doubt that Robinson, below form, had seriously underestimated his unheralded opponent, but that should take nothing away from Turpin’s heroic achievement. From the moment he got into the ring, Ray must have known that this would be no ordinary “work-out”. Turpin stamped his authority on the bout from the opening bell by using his greater power to offset the American’s artistry. By the time the visitor scored with his first serious punch in the third round, he had ceded an early lead.
Sugar Ray came away with a serious sliced eye after a clash of heads in the seventh round. Turpin was not tempted into trying to win spectacularly by knockout but boxed within himself to protect his lead on points. By the end of the 15th round, referee Eugene Henderson had no hesitation in raising the hand of the home boxer as the winner. Sugar Ray agreed that the better man on the night had won, and the US press concurred.
The only people who could have been surprised by the verdict were the radio-listeners in Britain. The commentator, so sure that Sugar Ray was unbeatable, could not believe what was happening before his very eyes and gave his words a slant favouring the visitor.
Randolph Turpin – “Our Randy” – was fêted everywhere he went in the country. I doubt if any boxer, or any sportsman, has been so popular. Yet the seeds of his destruction were sown in that victory. The young man could not handle the adulation for his sudden rise from rags to riches. Nevertheless, that was not apparent when he went to New York for the return match with Sugar Ray which had been stipulated in their contract.
If people thought that reaction to the first fight had been extravagant, the Americans taught them otherwise – in the words of the show-business slogan: “You ain’t seen nothing yet”. Some 61,370 spectators crowded into the Polo Grounds on 12 September 1951.
Yet possibly the most significant factor in determining the outcome of the contest went unnoticed at the time. Less than a fortnight beforehand, George Flores had lost his life in a fight in the same city. It was only a minor contest but if a further death had followed in another high-profile contest, professional boxing might well have been banned.
Sugar Ray started as he should have done – and was expected to do – in London. Boxing brilliantly with his left jab, he outclassed the impudent Englishman so completely that he was well ahead on points over the first seven rounds. Then the contest turned.
As Turpin brought his superior power to bear, his opponent wilted. Going into the second half of round 10, Turpin, though still behind on points, seemed to be in control of the contest and was getting stronger. Mid-way through the round, Sugar Ray’s eye was cut – the eye which had given him trouble in the first fight. Referee Ruby Goldstein signalled that if the blood was not staunched, he would have to stop the contest at the next interval. Sugar Ray went “blindingly beserk” as he unleashed a barrage of punches in an attempt to win before the bell intervened.
At first Turpin evaded the assault easily by pulling back – and then Ray connected with a superb right-hand punch. The Briton took a count of “9”. As soon as he regained his feet, Sugar Ray hustled him to the ropes. With Turpin swaying helplessly and suffering a terrible beating without reply, Goldstein stopped the contest. Sugar Ray Robinson was again the world middleweight champion. British fans, my young self included, were convinced that the Americans had cheated “Our Randy” out of his title.
Whether it was out of national bias or fear of another ring death, we “knew” that the referee had stopped the fight too soon. Years later I bought a video of the fight to prove that very point, but on seeing the film I have to admit now that Referee Goldstein’s action was right. When the fight was stopped, only 8 seconds of the 10th round remained. Why hadn’t Turpin gone down for a second voluntary count? If he had stayed down for those seconds, too few for him to be counted out, he would have survived and his adversary would have been stopped on a cut eye. Turpin replied that a further count might have forced the referee, fearing a repeat of the Flores fatality, to have stepped in even more certainly.
Ten years after these two contests, Sugar Ray was still fighting for the world middleweight crown. He was never quite the same after he had challenged Joey Maxim for the heavier world light-heavyweight crown in June 1952. The weather was exceptionally hot at 40 degrees Celsius. Referee Goldstein was overcome by the heat and was replaced. Sugar Ray was a long way ahead on points but he had to retire on his stool at the end of the 13th round suffering from heat exhaustion. Afterwards he quit the ring for three years.
When he returned in 1955, he won, lost, regained, and lost the world title several times. Ray was still fighting at the highest level into the 1960s but, now a shadow of his former self, lost more frequently than before and retired in November 1965. That was only six months before Turpin committed suicide. The intervening years had not been good for him. His personal life was a mess with divorce and a “breach of promise” action – women generally were his problem, and money troubles. His business collapsed. He just could not cope with the fame and fortune. For a time, his boxing ability did not seem to be affected.
He even knocked out Don Cockell, the British light-heavyweight champion, who went on to challenge Rocky Marciano for the world heavyweight crown. Then Turpin started to lose the occasional contest, and then he lost more frequently. The end came when Yolande Pompey of Trinidad knocked him out in the second round in 1958. The press photograph which showed the once great champion crawling around on the canvas, apparently unaware as to where he was, said it all.
After that, Turpin humbled himself in moving “down market” into boxer-v-wrestler charades, but nothing worked for him. On 17 May 1966, he killed himself by shooting. The celebrated commentator Harry Carpenter wrote, while Randy was still alive: “No British boxer of modern times ever captured the public’s affection as Turpin did … or lost it as tragically”.
Not long before his death, Turpin told a reporter: “When I was on top they turned me into a peepshow – but all the while they were making speeches, people were tapping me. I never knew who my real friends were. There were hangers-on wherever I went. Every time I shook hands it cost me money. Yes, I’ve lost a fortune and you could say it was largely through my own stupidity. But I’ve no regrets, not one day of it. Memories are worth more than money”.
Sugar Ray, you may suspect, rather liked being “turned into a peepshow”. He knew how to control it. Turpin and Ray Robinson showed that boxers could be men of courage, character and decency. They were probably, too, the first black men to be considered the popular representatives of their nations, and not just part of the nation, without reference to their race – professionally, at least, though they would have experienced things differently in their personal life.
For example, as a child, in spite of listening to every word on radio and reading newspaper reports, I did not realise that Turpin was black until I saw the fight photographs. They paved the way for those that followed them, including Muhammad Ali, to be heard and recognised. Sixty years on, Sugar Ray Robinson is still regarded by the fistic cognoscenti as being the “greatest boxer” of all time. He was indeed the star that people came to see and who they still wish to remember.