The plan had been for Sugar Ray Robinson to work up through the ranks once more and thus earn his way into what would have been his 16th middleweight championship fight. Only Sugar Ray, and perhaps some of his idolatrous entourage, believed in the plan. He had won that 160-pound championship five times, more than any other man, and the welterweight title once, and he thought that at the age of 45 he could do it again. He must have believed it or else he would not have fought nine times last year and 13 this year, losing to nonentities in the Altoonas of boxing and winning against unknowns, taking his lumps on each occasion for a $1,000 purse here, $2,000 there. A great mystery was made of why he bothered with the travail of training, put up with the one-night stands in tank towns or endured those inglorious lickings he took from fighters who will never fight in Madison Square Garden, Yankee Stadium or Las Vegas.
He did not need the money. The Internal Revenue Service recently turned over to him $344,000 it had withheld, against taxes, since 1957. Robinson owns property in Cleveland and Chicago, having sold his Harlem holdings. He has contracts to make two movies, one a Western, the other a war picture. He is well-fixed financially. In the end, you had to believe that he was striving honestly for a title fight.
He came surprisingly close to getting it. Last week Joey Archer, a fine boxer with but a modest punch, stood between Sugar Ray and an opportunity to meet the middleweight champion, Dick Tiger. If he were to defeat Archer, the No. 1 contender in most ratings—and one good left hook would do it—Sugar Ray would all but surely have earned a sixth chance at the middleweight crown despite his 45 years. So, on a Wednesday night in Pittsburgh, he faced the blue-eyed, broken-nosed Archer before a crowd of 9,023, many of them oldtimers who fondly remembered Robinson in his glory days, and among them a sprinkling of younger men who wanted to see what the legend was about.
Robinson weighed 160 pounds, Archer a pound less. Under the lights of the television cameras at the weigh-in ceremony the tiny, well-healed scars at the outer corner of each of Sugar's eyes could be seen. But there were no other marks to show for his 25 years of prizefighting and 198 bouts. Outwardly his body was as sleek as ever and his waist as trim. What remained inside would be seen that night.
Archer is a superior boxer. He has a classic jab, some effective feints and good footwork. He has lost only once in 47 fights. He has been knocked down but once, too, in one of his early matches, and then only his knee touched the canvas.
As soon as the fight started it became clear that both men intended to follow the same plan—but for quite different reasons. Robinson came out intent on winning early, presumably because he has learned that his aging legs no longer serve him well in the late rounds. Archer's strategy was much the same, for he wanted to press Robinson at all times, and thus drain Sugar Ray of whatever stamina he had as quickly and thoroughly as possible.
With both men charging at each other, it started as an interesting fight and it remained one, even though there was little doubt about the result after the first few rounds. What had happened to Robinson's timing showed with the first hook he threw. It was a long, powerful swing, delivered from far back, precisely the hook with which he knocked out Gene Fullmer in the 1957 title fight, except that it missed Archer's chin by five inches. A minute or so later Robinson tried the hook again and missed again. Archer jabbed and faded out of range, jabbed and faded repeatedly, once scoring prettily with a combination to body and head.
The Robinson strategy still was operative in the second round, and this time it worked a bit better. He started out with a left and right to Archer's body. Joey is one who fights back, and he drove Robinson almost to the ropes with a flurry of head punches. His older brother, Jimmy, who manages and trains him, saw that Archer's temper was showing and shouted at him from the corner. "Loose, Joey," he commanded. "Stick! Stick! Loosen up, Joey!" The moment of danger passed. Joey went back to his jab, and Sugar missed with a right and left. Those misses opened the way for Archer to land eight quick punches to the head, but all were too high to be damaging.
Now it was the third round, and Robinson still was trying for the big punch. He had one hook blocked, he landed a right to the body, and then, with a single brilliant flash of his old talents, caught Archer with a very good hook, closed with him and, as they stood toe to toe, scored with a flurry.
But that was the end. Early in the fourth, after Archer had hooked him twice and landed some light jabs, Sugar missed with a big right hand. A look of concern came over his face. Archer was jabbing and moving, and Robinson was missing with rights and lefts. Then, suddenly, Archer landed a left to the head and followed it immediately with a long right. Sugar Ray went down on the seat of his white silk trunks, rolled to his side and, dazed, took a nine-count resting on one knee. Now Sugar and everyone knew that his fight plan had failed, and so had his grand plan. The last time the light-hitting Archer had knocked a man down was in 1960.
The rest of the fight was nothing but the last steps down for a gallant Robinson. He all but hit the canvas again in the sixth and once again in the seventh, looked better in the eighth and slugged it out with Archer in the ninth. In the last minute of the 10th round men at ringside were standing and pleading, "Don't hit him again, Joey! That's enough!" As the fighters awaited the decision after the final bell tears welled into Robinson's bloodshot eyes. There was a tiny cut, a mere scratch, on his right cheekbone. His nose was ruddy from all those jabs. He was breathing heavily. His legs were leaden. He knew.
It had been a long and glorious trail for Sugar Ray Robinson, who just may have been the best fighter ever. His skills were exquisite, his punch superb, his courage unsurpassed. But, as he had just learned, there always comes a day when only the courage remains.
The soft-spoken Archer held court in his dressing room.
"He's a tough guy," Archer said. "He is one of the cagiest old guys in boxing. He feints—most fighters today can't do that. He is the greatest fighter I ever saw among the middleweights."
And in a nearby room, the bleary-eyed Robinson was refusing to concede that he had fought his last.
"I want to get a night's sleep before I make up my mind," he said.
Next afternoon at the airport, waiting for a plane to take him back to New York, Sugar Ray smiled wanly, hunched his black leather, hip-length coat about his shoulders and said that retirement was the only course open to him now.
"But we have this offer of a return bout with Archer," one of his followers protested.
"Aw, what would be the point?" Robinson said.