The record number of straight passes in a dice game, according to Historian John Scarne, is 39, set by a Texas lady at San Juan's Caribe Hilton Hotel casino on January 18, 1952. The odds against the feat are 956,211,843,725 to 1. (Crapshooters will be appalled to learn that she netted a mere $1,600.)
There is luck in prizefighting, but a principal factor is the quality of the opposition. The odds, therefore, are 9 to 5 that Sugar Ray Robinson will not make his fourth straight successful pass at rewinning the middleweight championship, which would be a bit of a record all its own. Though Robinson's punch has, on occasion, upset the odds, the quality of his opposition on the night of March 25 at Chicago Stadium will be Carmen Basilio, a little man but young and tough, a stouter defender than Robinson has recently met.
Robinson's previous rewinnings of the title were against Randy Turpin, Bobo Olson and Gene Fullmer. Since to be cynical is to be rated a knowing one in boxing, Sugar Ray's reputation as a miracle-worker has benefited by a common wise guy belief that he sometimes has lost the title deliberately in order to take advantage of a rematch purse and betting odds. Let us say fie on such notions, which are belied by the pictures on the next few pages. They show Ray was trying against Basilio in their first fight.
The victories cited have been overrated, it seems here, as a gauge to what will happen against Basilio. The second Turpin fight was six years ago, when Sugar Ray was much closer to the prime of his fighting life than he is today. He beat Olson every time they met, which was four times. When he fought Fullmer the second time he took advantage of a country boy's overconfidence.
March 24, 1958
But Sugar Ray is now far past his prime—he is officially 37 years old. He will be fighting a Basilio who has already beaten him, not an Olson who never could beat him. He will be fighting a man who has proved he can take the Robinson punch, as Fullmer could not.
That is the common sense of it. What Robinson has going for him in this fight is largely superstition (Chicago has been a "lucky" town for him, "unlucky" for Basilio) and the memory of what he used to be. Even the superstition doesn't quite stand up for Robinson, though he first won the middleweight title in Chicago against Jake LaMotta, knocked out Rocky Graziano there and beat Olson and Fullmer there. But Chicago luck did him no good against Tiger Jones, who almost wrecked his comeback campaign with a 10-round victory three years ago and never could get a rematch.
The memory of what Robinson used to be returns to his muscles and reflexes now and then in a big fight, as it did last September when Basilio beat him in 15 rounds. There were moments in the fight, and not a few of them, when the Sugar Ray of the glory days seemed born again. But the renascence was in each case much too brief, and that is largely how he lost the fight. Basilio fought full three-minute rounds, never looked brilliant but always looked tough. Robinson fought in flurries.
The flurries were just magnificent, though. With a year or two more of youth on his side, and a year or two less of games and gaiety, Robinson might well have kept his title. At least a couple of his punches were good enough to stagger Basilio.
Those punches, or more like them, are Robinson's big hope. He may rely also on a tendency of Chicago officials to score more heavily on a good defensive showing than is customary elsewhere in the country. He has proved against Fullmer and Basilio that his dancing legs can carry him through 15 rounds without trouble, provided he doesn't use them too much in pursuit of his man.
Well, he won't have to pursue little Carmen. So it could go the distance again.
It could end in another disputed decision, too. Quite a surprising lot of watchers, especially those who saw it on theater television, believed Robinson won the first fight. But Basilio's strong finish, capped by an 11th-round exhibition of pure fury, earned Basilio the decision in the minds of most ringsiders. The 11th saw Robinson driven to the ropes, where only his superb ring wisdom and Basilio's suddenly amateurish eagerness prevented what seemed like an inevitable knockout. A fighter who is ordinarily contemptuous of head-hunters and believes in the virtue of a sound hook to the belly, Basilio forgot his precepts and concentrated on Robinson's well-protected head.
AGE AFFECTS TIMING
He made another tactical error in the early rounds by electing to fight Robinson from an upright stance. He did this because one of Robinson's finest weapons is an uppercut delivered against a crouching fighter. The stance taught him that Robinson has other fine weapons, too, and he quickly shifted to his natural bobbing, weaving style. The shift disclosed that age has affected Sugar Ray's timing on moving targets. He missed repeatedly, and at times when he clearly hoped for a knockout the punches landed in harmless areas or after their maximum force had been spent. Such punches, which do not show clearly on television, or even a few rows back from true ringside, may have accounted for disputes about the decision.
In watching next week's fight it might be well to note how much of each round Robinson spends in actual fighting, how much in resting himself for a spectacular flurry just before the close. He is a better actor than Rocky Graziano, you might say, when it comes to going through the motions without seriously expending an energy that must now be conserved if he is to last through a long bout.
What Sugar Ray needs in this fight is a knockout. These days he loses decisions to rugged, durable fighters like Fullmer and Basilio, men who have the youth and strength to force their kind of fight on him, who can counteract his skills with a kind of desperate doggedness.
He may get his knockout, though it did seem pretty well established last September that Basilio can absorb Sugar Ray's best and come back to inflict dreadful punishment of his own. Basilio never has been knocked out, but neither had Gene Fullmer until he invited a Robinson hook by advancing on one of the ring's great punchers with his guard down.
One of the features of the fight is that in some parts of the country it will be shown on closed-circuit TV in fight arenas as well as movie houses. Some arenas will present live fights as preliminaries, then drop screens on the four sides of the ring for the televised main event. Others, and some movie houses, plan to show the films of the first fight.
That will make it a long evening of Basilio and Robinson but a fight fan couldn't spend it better. Despite the long 9 to 5 odds, which may shorten, this will be a suspenseful affair right from the weighin.
The choice here is with the odds and for Basilio. Robinson can't keep coming back forever, can he?