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 reenacted 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 mans 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 fore-names 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...