If Boxing were nothing more than two muscular men bashing each other about the head and body, its integrity as a sport would be as questionable as that of some who make a living off the pure, strong bodies of boxers. Its virtue, though, lies in something deeper. There is a family resemblance between the swift, smashing moves of the fighter and the slow, pondered moves of the chess player. Both are games in which success depends upon the proper application of speed and power, guided by intelligence. One waits in chess for the right moment, but one prepares for it too.
It was so the other night in Los Angeles when Sugar Ray Robinson, who had done it twice before, knocked out Bobo Olson, thereby retaining the middleweight championship of the world he had won from Olson last December. The real question was not so much whether Robinson could beat Olson—he had beaten him three times, once by decision—but what method he would use for the kill this time. The last time out Olson had succumbed to a right-left-right combination, after he had been induced to expose the left side of his jaw. It was reasonable to conclude that this time he would keep a protective glove up there.
Training at Greenwood Lake, New York before moving west to permanent quarters at San Jacinto, California, Sugar Ray applied his best thinking to the problem of how to open up Olson for the knockout punch. He experimented on the speed bag but, while he was able to work the right-left-right there with correct dispatch, he failed miserably on a variation—left-right-left—suggested by his co-manager, George Gainford.
At the same time Olson and his manager, Sid Flaherty, were thinking how they might use Bobo's best assets, stamina and youth, against the 85-year-old-or-thereabouts Robinson, who has been a professional fighter since 1940. The longer the bout lasted the better chance Bobo would have. There is still a doubt whether Robinson's good-looking legs can hold him up for 15 rounds. Bobo was given a rather simple strategy: "Wear Robinson down by body punching, clinching and leaning during the early rounds, and protect your jaw at all times. After he's tired out maybe your infighting will be enough to win a decision."
May 27, 1956
It was, in fact, about the only strategy possible. In Wrigley Field's little 18-foot ring (in other cities rings go up to 24 feet) there would be small chance for Bobo to stab and run. Besides, that is not his natural style.
There was something else, though, that no strategy could fix. Bobo had to be convinced that he had a chance to win, and it was fairly clear on the day of the fight that this conviction was not in him. If, that is, you can judge what a man feels by noting how he looks and ignoring what he says. At the weighin Bobo was morose and downcast. His skin was a sallow yellow, his eyes moist. He said be felt fine. When Robinson, bright and bouncy, slapped him on the back and whispered a few cheery words to him, Olson's dark-bristled chin sank lower on his chest. He mumbled something.
He had to be weighed twice. With trunks on, he was just a shade over the 160-pound limit. Looking about Hollywood Legion Stadium (the site of the weighin), Announcer Ben Bentley saw a sprinkling of women in the audience and bellowed a prim warning:
"We will not be responsible for what happens when these fighters stand before you nude."
The ladies seemed not to hear.
"Will the ladies on this side of the ring [near the scales] please move to the other side?" Bentley pleaded. "There is a weight situation and he will have to remove his trunks."
There was no exodus of women. After all, this is Hollywood. The weighin proceeded. Without trunks, Bobo just made it. Robinson was a half pound lighter, trunks and all.
That afternoon the skies were clear but thunder rolled over Wrigley Field. Uncle Sam was demanding priority on Robinson's share of the purse but settled for a down payment of $25,000 on $89,000 in taxes owed since 1949. Olson's legal wife made a similar move to tie up his earnings but, apparently, Bobo did not learn of this until after the fight. He may have been striving to avoid excuses, for the word was all over town, but Bobo insisted that he did not know of his wife's action until he was served with a paper in his dressing room after the fight.
So, presumably, when he faced Robinson in the ring, Bobo's mind was reasonably clear of those problems that come with dual domesticity. All he had to think about was how to keep from being knocked out for, say, 10 rounds. Then youth would carry him through the other five. That seemed to be enough to worry him, though. He had a sombre look to him. Robinson, on the other hand, was gay and debonair, immaculately groomed. Before he slipped on the orange gloves the high polish on his trimly manicured nails glistened in the afternoon sun.
The announcements were made and the bell rang. At that moment the rival strategies came under test.
Very soon the crowd was yelling in protest because Bobo, true to his plan, was clinching at every opportunity and grimly resisting the efforts of Referee Mushy Callahan to part him from the safety of embrace. Robinson looked amused, in a bored sort of way, and from time to time snapped a left hook to Olson's head or a right to the body. Olson tried lefts to the head, mostly to put him within clinching range. It was Robinson's round.
"The first round," Robinson explained later in a step-by-step summation of his strategy, "was a feeler. I had to see how he was going to fight; we could see then that he was going to try to last."
So then the plan began to function. In the second round Robinson threw left hooks to the head but missed with his right. As in the first round, Olson kept his gloves by his head except when he saw a clear chance to punch or clinch. Robinson was very fast, throwing rights and lefts to head and body. Still, he was not sharp. He took the round by a large margin, mostly because Olson persisted in his holding.
ADVICE EN FRANCAIS
During this round George Gainford began to yell in French at Robinson, who picked up a certain fluency during his dancing days in Paris. "Doucement! Doucement!" Gainford would shout from time to time. It was a plea that Robinson box sweetly and not make a nonsensical try for a knockout before the precise opportunity presented itself. There had been little flurries in which Robinson looked overeager.
In the third round Sugar Ray put into play the essence of his plan.
"You see," he said, "after the first round I knew I had to encourage him to fight. I'd lag my right hand and a couple of times I'd be late with my punching. That way I gave him a little confidence. He hit me once in the belly with a good left hand. It didn't hurt because, after all, he is not a hurting puncher, but it gave him confidence. That was in the third round, I think."
Some gave that round to Olson, some called it even, but it was Olson's best by far. Robinson hit him lightly with a left to the head and a right to the body—the exact opposite of the knockout combination to come—and was clearly slowing down, an impression as calculated as the launching of a guided missile. It was an impression that registered all too well in Olson's keenly observing corner.
The success of the Robinson design for winning was fully confirmed by Olson after the fight.
"I was starting to press harder," he said, discussing the fourth round. "I thought he was getting tired in the third round."
That's what he was meant to think. The fourth round was in its third minute, and Olson, fired with synthetic confidence, was punching much more freely when suddenly there were two loud splats, followed by a roar from the crowd. Olson was down on his back. He had been hit with a paralyzing right hand to the pit of the abdomen, followed instantly by the stunning force of a left hook to the jaw. And there it was again, the old familiar picture—Olson writhing on the canvas, Robinson jumping for joy.
When Olson regained consciousness he was standing in the middle of a crowd in the ring, and from this deduced that the fight was over. What punch, he wanted to know, had knocked him out?
It was, of course, the left hook, delivered with extraordinary impact. It traveled no more than eight inches.
"The first punch," said Robinson, concluding his lecture on the science and esthetics of box-fighting, "was preparatory. I drove it to the belly in order to put him in position for the left hook. It brought his hand down and that was all I needed."
It seems very likely that this match meant the end of Bobo Olson as a fighter, though neither he nor Flaherty would say what plans, if any, they have. But Bobo has been knocked out three times in less than a year, and that, surely, gives a broad hint of what may happen to him if he is allowed to continue in the ring. As a matter of fact, the chances are that Bobo had had it long ago—perhaps on the night that Archie Moore knocked him out. Bobo showed nothing thereafter, very likely because he no longer had anything.
As for Robinson, he wants a rest. He has no other plans. He needs to make money, much of it to pay off back taxes, and will fight as soon as a good gate is assured—perhaps against Carmen Basilio, if Carmen wins back the welterweight title.
He will have a plan for the next one too.