The death of a king

As Sugar Ray Robinson lost again to Paul Pender, the image of the master fighter, which had burned so long and so brilliantly, was at last extinguished
June 19, 1960

When Napoleon's son, the King of Rome, was born, there were four physicians, nine ladies, five chambermaids, a nurse and two maids ministering and rooting in the Tuileries. The gate was good, he had 42 dozen splendid diapers to look forward to and he died, a pathetic, melancholy and thwarted young man, at 21.

When, at 39, Sugar Ray Robinson, once welterweight and five times middleweight champion of the world, died as a prizefighter in drafty Boston Garden last week, beaten more by himself than by the dull, fitful blows of Paul Pender, in his corner were his manager, his trainer, his brother-in-law and his valet. Directly below them was the second column: three physicians (Ray was concealing a respiratory virus infection) and Joe Louis, who whispered up advice behind his cocoa straw. (This is in the mumbo jumbo tradition which surrounds Robinson. In the early rounds, for instance, his corner yelled at him in French—"doucement" or "en bas, en bas." In the 10th, however, when Robinson was falling behind, they dropped the conceit. "Let's go, boy," they shouted in desperate clichés, and "That's good" and "You can do it.") Behind the second column and fanning out into the dark Garden was the third column: his mother, his sister, his hairdresser (with an enormous bottle of Wildroot Cream Oil), his bodyguard (who also dances the Madison, including the optional turns known as Birdlands), a reverend doctor and several chicks.

In Robinson's bucket were four bottles, one containing tap water, another mouthwash, another orange juice and honey and the fourth, oxygen. Between the 12th and 13th rounds, the physicians consulted. They argued sharply and briefly about adrenalin but did not use it.

Yout' an' stren't'

Against this well-equipped army was ranged Pender, who had defeated Robinson last January to become the middleweight champion of the world in Massachusetts and New York. Gene Fullmer is champion of the world elsewhere. Pender has a soulful expression and dainty features. He is an intelligent fighter with more vocabulary than punches; he has said, in many more words, that prizefighting is a drag. His skills, measured historically, are minor. He has a smart jab, doubles up on occasion with a left hook, has nimble feet which keep him out of trouble and holds and bangs good inside. His offense, however, was best summed up by one of his fans who shouted to him during the 11th round. "Pender," he said, "show him your yout'." My after-fight cab driver made it a combination. "Pender," he said, "got too much yout' an' stren't'."

Neither of which Robinson has. Nor will he find them in his bottles. "A good fighter," says Harry Wiley, who is Robinson's trainer, "is a fighter with tricks." But tricks are tricks only if they fool someone. Robinson has a bag full, but he no longer has the sleight of hand, yout' or stren't' to fool anyone. Except, perhaps, himself. "I was disgusted with myself, old buddy," he admitted in the group therapy after the fight. But he is not ready to admit out loud how far back his act has gone. "I know I felt good," he said. "But I don't know about the performance. I couldn't see it."

He wouldn't have recognized the guy who played his part. He looked like Robinson, but like most actors he couldn't fight much and like most old men he winded early. In the first round he hit Pender with a long, casual right. It was a good punch, but its success seemed to startle Robinson as much as Pender. Pender got out of the way while Robinson was bemused. In the second round Robinson switched to the body—or en bas. This was according to prefight plan. Since Pender carries his left high, Robinson was supposed to catch him under the heart, slow him and bring his hands down. When Pender brings his arms down he tends to turn. Then Robinson was to go to work on the unprotected kidney. This, like other tricks, didn't really come off.

In the third round Pender's persistent rabbit-punching in the clinches angered Robinson, and he retaliated to the body, but Pender was beating him to the punch. Robinson used the clinches for Rest and Recuperation while Pender clubbed away to body and neck. ("Those rabbit punches," Robinson said gently. "They're not supposed to be. They're annoying. They're not fair.")

The fifth was Robinson's finest three minutes. He hurt Pender with two winging, overhand rights, which drove him against the ropes. ("I had him then," Robinson wistfully recalled, "but he got away.") He never really found him after that. Robinson inhaled from the oxygen bottle and drank from his various fountains of youth, but Pender took the next four rounds. Robinson, as each round drew to a merciful close, rolled his eyes up to find the clock; they looked like the piteous, alarmed eyes of livestock in a flood.

Robinson won the 10th, despite wayward punches and a right leg which dragged, rigid, as though the knee joint had locked. In the 11th Pender was scoring so well with his harsh jab, it was as though Robinson's head were attached to it, like one of those balls which are attached to a paddle by a long rubber band. Pender, a conservative, belt-and-suspenders kind of fighter, became almost cocky in the 14th, opening up with his small-arms fire, but Robinson rallied grandly and took both this and the 15th.

The decision was split, as it was in their first fight (and fair enough, although I called it a draw). One judge, however, had it 149-138, giving only the fifth round to Robinson. Which proved he had nerve, if nothing else. It was what Harry Wiley would call an "ill-gotten gain." Wiley was outraged. "If my fighter lost," he said, "I'd put on my hat and go home." He stayed. "Pender hasn't the guts to meet Ray in New York," he said, "a fair, democratic-decision place."

Robinson had trained for this one. He had fought as hard as he could, and ultimately alone, and as well as his body would let him. He had fought with courtesy and lost with grace. If he had heard Wiley complaining, he would have said quietly, "Oh, Wiley, Wiley." But he insisted, in his stubbornness and pride, that he wanted to fight Pender again—in New York. Though he had complained he was rusty when he lost in January, he said, "Maybe I was wrong. Maybe he was right. I guess he got it. I didn't have what it took to win. I can't make it. I don't know whether I want to quit if I don't fight Pender again. I don't know how I feel now. They have a song, It's Too Soon to Know. I want to go back to New York and think it over." Boston, obviously, was not a city for ratiocination. "But I don't like to get hit." He sat, a towel about his middle, talking softly and smiling for the photographers or sometimes, faintly, for himself. "Man, for the last couple weeks," he said, "it's been Khrushchev on one side of the newspapers and me on the other. I'm tired." He was tired and seemed sort of glad it was over, whatever it was.

"Give me a mirror," he asked. "Let me see how I look." Richard II, another losing king, had asked for a mirror, too. "Was this the face," he said, "that like the sun did make beholders wink?" And they took Richard's crown away, too, old buddy. He asked for a grave, and he got it. "The only thing that'll stop that man is the grave," June Clark, Robinson's valet, said in the car going to the fight. If you got the money, I thought, stop short of the grave—although it's nobody else's business. But you were the best and you came back so often you made Lazarus look like a four-round boy.

Pender, on the other hand, talked of taking on Archie Moore. Now that he's licked age, he thinks he can take on weight, too. As the man said, if you step out of your class be sure to step down.

PHOTOBOWED IN SORROW AND PAIN after his loss, Sugar Ray Robinson wearily leaves the ring with Dr. John L. S. Holloman, whose oxygen bottle could not revive the past.