sugar finesse

Jesse Marinoff Reyes ( Jesse Marinoff Reyes Design, Maplewood, N.J)

Sugar Ray Robinson (1921-1989)!

---JMR Design---

AKA Walker Smith, Jr., arguably the greatest fighter who ever lived (he was the model for and a hero to Muhammad Ali). To get a sense of how awe-inspiring he was without laying your eyes on any vintage fight films (which run with some regularity on ESPN Classic), you have to stop and consider he was 85-0 as an amateur (69 wins by knockout (KO), 40 in the first round) and after turning pro in 1940 until 1951 went 128-1-2 (the latter two being no decisions or no contests, commonplace in the era when the rules had fights being stopped on technicalities like unintentional cuts, etc.) and holding the world welterweight championship from 1946-51. Late in 1951, he won the middleweight title for the first time, retired in 1952—then made a comeback two-and-a-half years later to regain the middleweight crown in 1955. He would lose the title, then regain it three more times (for a record five times that still stands), battling a laundry list of all-time greats, and challenging and nearly winning the light heavyweight championship from Joey Maxim in an epic bout at Yankee Stadium in 103 degree heat (New York in the summertime? Fahgeddaboudit! It ain’t the heat, it’s the humidity!), whithering in the 13th round—after the heat had forced referee Ruby Goldstein to collapse and requiring his being replaced by Ray Miller—Robinson collapsed, suffering the only career “KO” defeat of his career (Robinson had built a comfortable lead by that point and would have likely won). In all he would fight in 200 bouts—winning 173 (108 by KO), losing 19, with six draws and two no contests.

But see Robinson fight, and the numbers however impressive pale before the skill and artistry of a nonpareil boxer—fluid and graceful immediately come to mind but are to this writer, incomplete superlatives—with lightning-quick reflexes AND impressive punching power. There were truly great “boxers” (as opposed to sluggers) before Sugar Ray, but Robinson redefined what a finesse fighter was and all who have come since have been compared to and have been emulative of him. Muhammad Ali. “Sugar Ray” Seales. “Sugar Ray” Leonard. Pernell “Sweetpea” Whitaker. “Sugar” Shane Mosely (and on and on). Ray’s fistic brilliance was evident early, so that even by 1942, when Hollywood filmed a biopic of another famed “boxer,” the turn-of-the-century heavyweight champion “Gentleman” Jim Corbett—starring Errol Flynn—in the fight scenes showing Corbett’s footwork, it was closeups of Robinson’s fleet feet that dazzled the big screen.

However, history and ring legend come together briefly in Martin Scorcese’s bio pic—and pound-for-pound one of the greatest motion pictures of all time—of Jake LaMotta, Raging Bull, based on LaMotta’s biography of the same name. LaMotta and Robinson fought a brutal six-bout series (dramatized in the film) with LaMotta winning one and Robinson five. But imagine the Ali-Frazier Trilogy DOUBLED and you get Robinson-LaMotta. It was from LaMotta that Robinson won the middleweight crown for the first time, in their last bout in 1951.

In the cartoon foreground of the portrait illustration of this cover design, it is LaMotta wearing the middleweight crown on the steps looking down at his longtime rival, Robinson, then still the welterweight king (the light heavyweight champ is Britain’s Freddie Mills, the heavyweight champ is Joe Louis).

Cover artist Stanley Weston—a fan of The Ring since he was ten years old when his father bought him his first copy—got his start when, as a 13-year old, a neighbor asked if Weston would like a lawn-mowing job. That man was Ring editor Nat Fleischer. The old man and teenager developed a friendship through their common interest in boxing, and by 1937 Fleischer hired Weston to work at The Ring. At first, the artistic Weston’s job was to color other artist’s work (likely black and white renderings that would be mechanically colored using overlays and tint screens) but by 1939 Fleischer had Weston paint his first cover. From 1939-1951 Weston would paint 57 covers (in the ’50s, The Ring would switch to mostly all-photo or graphically-rendered photo covers for several years; illustrated covers would not make a comeback until the 1970s). Interestingly, in 1990, when The Ring was going through a transition much as the sport itself, Weston bought the magazine and became publisher for a time.

The Ring is currently being published by Golden Boy Productions—the business arm of former boxing champ and all-time great, Oscar de la Hoya. Recent issues have featured some beautifully illustrated covers.

The Ring, December, 1949 issue
Illustration/design: Stanley Weston
Editor (defacto art director): Nat Fleischer

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