World Middleweight Boxing 1940-60

On 23 May, 1940, Ceferino Garcia, from the Philippines, defended his World Middleweight Championship Title for the fourth time against the American Ken Overlin at Madison Square Garden in New York. He was the only Filippino boxer to have ever held the title at that weight and few expected him to be beaten. He had learned to use his fists on the mean streets of Cebu City.

A blacksmith by trade he was small at only 5’7″ but skilful and quick on his feet. He was also noted for his aggression in the ring and is credited with having invented the Bolo Punch, hence his nickname “Bolo Garcia.” His opponent by contrast had learned his boxing in the U.S Navy. He was two inches taller but few people gave him a chance and he was very much the underdog. But in an uninspiring contest during which the champion seemed strangely disinterested, Overlin cruised to a convincing points, victory.

Ken Overlin, who had lost his only previous challenge for the World Title to a 4th Round knockout by Freddie Steele, was to retain his championship for less than a year. Having successfully defended his title twice against the same man, Steve Belloise, on 4 May, 1941, he was comfortably beaten by Billy Soose. Indeed, the most notable victory in Overlin’s career was to come much later when he defeated the future World Heavyweight Champion, Ezzard Charles. But he was never to get another opportunity to win back his title.

Despite winning the title the enigmatic Soose largely remains an unrealised talent. At 6ft tall he regularly defeated men heavier than himself. He had already defeated Ken Overlin before, and also the legendary Tony Zale, but he never defended his title. After losing a non-title bout to Jimmy Bivins he retired from boxing aged just, 26, he never fought again. But his retirement was to usher in a golden age for middleweight boxing with a host of champions whose names are woven into the fabric of the history of the sport.

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Antoni Florian Zaleski, better known as Tony Zale, was born and raised in Gary, Indiana, a tough steel town in the American mid-west, and Tony Zale was as tough as they came. Boxing as an amateur he turned professional as much to avoid having to work in the steel mills of his home town as for any great love of the sport. With a concussive right-hand and able to soak up the most tremendous punishment he was known as a fighter who regularly snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. His nickname, “The Man of Steel,” was well deserved. He was someone who was feared and no one took the prospect of facing Tony Zale lightly. He quickly began to rise through the pro-ranks.

Following the retirement of Billy Soose, and with recent knockout victories over Steve Mamakos and Al Hostack to his name, Tony Zale was recognised by the boxing authorities as the new World Middleweight Champion. The war now intervened however, and Zale enlisted in the U.S Navy and served throughout its duration. Upon the wars conclusion, and still champion despite not having defended his title for four years, he was to embark on a series of bouts that were to be some of the most brutal ever seen in a boxing ring. His first opponent was to be a new kid on the block – Rocky Graziano.

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Thomas Rocco Barbella was born in Brooklyn, New York, and to describe him as a tearaway would be to do him an injustice. He had been in and out of various correctional institutions all his life, including a brief stretch in the notorious Riker’s Island Prison. Having been conscripted into the U.S Army during the war he went AWOL after assaulting an Officer. During his time on the run he fought a number of pro-fights under the alias of Rocky Graziano. He soon began to make quite a name for himself. Feeling the noose tightening around his neck however, he decided to turn himself in. He expected to receive a severe punishment, possibly even a number of years in prison, but instead, because of the reputation he had built up in the ring, he was offered the opportunity to box for the army. He couldn’t believe his luck.

Despite his lack of experience, the exciting, often reckless Graziano was lined up to fight Tony Zale for the world title. The fight was to be held at the Yankee Stadium in New York on 27 September, 1946, and it was to be every bit as exciting as everyone had hoped.

Graziano had come into the fight determined to take the opportunity that had been offered him. In his anxiety to take the fight to Zale, and in his naivety, he walked into a sucker punch that embarrassingly left him on the seat of his pants; but he rose at the count of six and from that point on he dominated the fight dishing out terrible punishment to the ever resilient Zale who seemed at a loss what to do. In the 6th Round, however, with the referee on the point of stopping the fight in Graziano’s favour he was caught by a tremendous punch from Zale that rendered the young challenger unconscious almost before he hit the canvass. It was classic Zale, and few people had seen it coming. Such was the fight however, that a re-match was inevitable. When they next met in the ring on 16 July, 1947, the exact opposite happened and it was to be Zale who dominated the fight before being knocked out in the 6th Round. Rocky Graziano was the new champion but at one victory each everyone wanted to see a decider.

They fought for the third and last time in New Jersey on 10 June, 1948. Graziano was the firm favourite. After all, he had battered Zale in the first fight and had knocked him out in the second. He was also 8 years younger than the 34 year old former champion. From the first bell, however, the older man took the fight to his younger opponent. He knocked Graziano down in the first round and it was to be a blow from which he never truly recovered. Zale, with his orthodox stance and hands held high was finding the much looser Graziano easy to hit. The champion rallied in the second round and for a time he had Zale pinned to the ropes but the older fighter could take the punishment. In the following round Zale again took control and after straightening Graziano up with a body punch floored him with a devastating left-hook. Graziano struggled to his feet at the count of seven but he was in no fit state to continue. The referee, however, declined to stop the fight and it fell to Zale to batter his opponent into defeat.

The rivalry between Tony Zale and Rocky Graziano, both very different men and very different fighters, had thrilled the boxing public around the world. Two of their bouts had been named fight of the year, but time was beginning to catch up with the ageing Zale. With the threat posed by Graziano put to bed for the time being his next challenge would come from across the ocean in the form of the gritty French and European Middleweight Champion, Marcel Cerdan.

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Marcel Cerdan, was a French-Algerian pied-noir who had learned his trade on the African Continent fighting mostly out of Morocco. He had dominated the European middleweight division for more than ten years and when his opportunity came at last to win the World Title he was determined to seize it with both hands.

Zale and Cerdan fought at the Roosevelt Stadium in Jersey City on 21 September, 1948. Despite being married with three children much of the pre-fight publicity had focused on his relationship with the famous French chanteuse Edith Piaf, and on the night of the fight she sat at ringside with her hands clasped together praying to the heavens for a French victory. Her prayers were to be answered. In a closely fought nip-and-tuck affair the tough and wily Cerdan proved a more difficult man to hit than the always generous Graziano. He outlasted a visibly ageing Tony Zale, and as he began to slow, Cerdan moved in for the kill, administering the coup-de-grace in the 12th Round.

The new World Middleweight Champion Marcel Cerdan returned to France a national hero whilst Tony Zale went into a period of seclusion to lick his wounds, consider his future, and ponder retirement. Cerdan would return to America to make his first defence the following year against a new Italian-American hero, Jake LaMotta – the Raging Bull.

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The always tempestuous and irascible LaMotta was as well-known for his violence outside of the ring as he was inside it. He had been born and raised in the Bronx district of New York and had been encouraged to fight other street kids for dimes by his father who used the money to help pay the rent. By the age of 19 he had already applied for his professional boxing licence. He rejected the subtleties of the science of the sport to fight and he would always remain within the range of his opponents punches so as to land his own. It was a risky strategy but LaMotta was experienced, determined, and had a good chin. Even so, he had to absorb a lot of punishment.

On 16 July, 1949, Marcel Cerdan returned to the United States to defend his much-cherished title against Jake LaMotta in Detroit City. LaMotta was going to take the fight to and stand toe-to-toe with the champion and knocked him to the canvass in the 1st Round. Though it never threatened to be a fight ending punch in hitting the canvass Cerdan had dislocated his shoulder. He was to struggle on for the next nine rounds but hampered by his injury the fight was one-way traffic. At the beginning of the 10th Round the champions Seconds threw in the towel and he quit on his stool. LaMotta was the new Middleweight Champion but because of the circumstances of the victory a rematch was set for later in the year.

The much-anticipated rematch between Jake LaMotta and Marcel Cerdan was never to take place.

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Taking a break from his training regime, Cerdan decided to visit his lover Piaf, who was performing in New York. The plane he was travelling on crashed into Mount Redondo in the Azores and all those on board were killed. Many Believe Cerdan, who lost only 4 times in 114 fights to have been the greatest boxer that Europe has ever produced.

The decade had ended on a controversial and tragic note, but the next would witness in the Middleweight Division the greatest pound-for-pound boxer the world had ever seen.

Middleweight boxing in the years 1950 to 1960 was to be a decade of great champions. Nevertheless, it was to be dominated by one man, a man whose career was to span 26 years, 198 professional fights, and 6 world titles. He is arguably the greatest pound-for-pound fighter in the history of the sport – his name was Sugar Ray Robinson.

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Born Walker Smith in Ailey, Georgia, on 3 May, 1921, but raised in Detroit, Michigan. As a child he had aspirations to be a doctor but once he’d put away such unreasonable expectations in segregated 1930’s America, he chose to do what he was good at, using his fists. He took the name of an older friend, Ray Robinson, as he was too young to apply for an amateur boxing licence. The Sugar would come later as a response to the movement, hand speed, and superior technique he displayed in the ring. He was a sensation almost from the outset with an outstanding amateur record that saw him win 85 fights with no defeats and with 69 won by knockout. On 4 October, 1940 aged just 19, he turned professional.

Fighting in the Welterweight Division he soon earned a formidable reputation as a boxer, rather than a fighter, but also as a man to be avoided. He twice defeated the Welterweight Champion Martie Servo, but on both occasions he had, wisely in light of events, refused to put his title on the line.

On 2 October, 1942, he fought and defeated the future Middleweight Champion Jake LaMotta for the first time in what was to become one of the greatest rivalries in boxing history. Seven months later on 2 May, 1943, they were to fight again. By this time Robinson had notched up a record of 40 straight wins with no defeats. La Motta, however, in this fight was at his imperious best, relentless in his attacks, and pressing Robinson back from the start and at one point almost knocked him out of the ring. He won a deserved unanimous points decision but over the next 30 months they were to fight another three tough and brutal contests, with Robinson winning them all.

Following the outbreak of World War Two, Robinson enlisted in the army where he toured with the Heavyweight Champion Joe Louis putting on exhibition bouts for the troops. But he was a more abrasive character than Joe Louis and never took to army life, particularly the institutionalised racism. When black troops were denied the right to watch the exhibitions he refused to continue doing them. He later went absent-without-leave and his army career was terminated after 15 months.

Back in the ring he continued to win fights but he was still denied an opportunity to fight for the title. At last, on 20 December, 1946, he fought Tommy Bell for the Welterweight Title vacated by Martie Servo. In a closely contested bout during which at times he seemed close to defeat he managed to win a 15 Round decision. He was a champion at last.

Over the next five years he was to fight almost 80 times but he only defended his title on a handful of occasions. In one these defences he defeated the legendary Cuban boxer Kid Gavilan, for the second time.

In June, 1947, he successfully defended his title by knocking out Jimmy Doyle. Later that night Doyle died of his injuries sustained in the ring; boxers dying in the ring or soon after was not uncommon especially in the 1940’s, but it was still a heavy and horrible burden to bear.

So dominant did Robinson become in the Welterweight Division that a move up to Middleweight became inevitable, particularly as at 5’11” he was struggling to make the weight. The Middleweight Champion was his old rival, Jake LaMotta who had earlier taken the title from Marcel Cerdan but a new challenger had to be found following the ex-champions tragic death. The obvious candidate was, Sugar Ray Robinson.

On 14 February, 1951, Sugar Ray Robinson and Jake LaMotta fought for the sixth and last time. As always LaMotta was relentless in his approach and went looking for his opponent but as he did so Robinson picked him off with precision jabs punctuated by crisp right and left hooks. They didn’t prevent LaMotta from still looking for his own decisive blow but they were taking a terrible toll. In what was to become known as the St Valentine’s Day Massacre he took a terrible beating. Eventually, the referee took pity on the bloody, beaten, but as yet unbowed LaMotta, and stopped the fight in the 13th Round. The defeat marked the effective end of LaMotta’s career but for Robinson it heralded a new beginning.

The handsome, flamboyant Robinson now embarked upon a boxing tour of Europe. Always more admired on the European Continent than he ever was in his own country he was feted by the press and was cheered by the crowds who flocked to get a glimpse of the greatest boxer in the world. He also caused quite a stir in his pink cadillac and was rarely seen in public without a beautiful woman on his arm. He was also the first boxer to have his own entourage.

The tour inside the ring did not go quite so well, however. Robinson won his fights as was expected but they were mired in controversy. More than once he was accused of being a dirty fighter and of being less than magnanimous towards his opponents. As much as to restore his reputation as anything else he decided to put his title on the line against the British and European Middleweight Champion, Randolph Turpin.

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Randy Turpin was of mixed race, the son of a Guyanese father and a white mother. At a time when Britain was overwhelmingly white in its ethnic makeup his upbringing in Leamington was often troubled and scarred by racism. He only took up boxing seriously whilst serving in the Royal Navy and very quickly became an outstanding prospect.

Going into the fight Robinson was 91 fights unbeaten and had been on the wrong end of a decision only once, to Jake LaMotta, in a career spanning 132 bouts and eleven years. The larger and heavier Turpin, who was seven years younger than the champion, was considered to be too callow and inexperienced to be entering the ring against Robinson, but he was at the top of his game. He had lost just 3 times in 40 fights and had avenged all those defeats. He had also knocked out ten of his previous eleven opponents. He was confident of victory going into the fight but few other people agreed. The bookmakers had him as a 20/1 underdog.

Sugar Ray Robinson and Randolph Turpin fought at London’s Earls Court on 10 July, 1951, before a sell-out crowd of 18,000. This was a time when British and European boxers rarely got a title shot and the entire nation was gripped by the occasion, though they sat by their radios more out of hope than expectation. Turpin, however, who had never gone beyond eight rounds before, boxed superbly. He dominated the champion in every facet of the fight. In the 8th Round he backed Robinson onto the ropes and had the champion desperately hanging on for the bell. In the 14th Round he almost ended the fight there and then and Robinson had to use all his skill and guile to survive. The fight was destined to go the distance and Turpin won a unanimous points decision. It was a sensational result and Robinson put to rest his reputation for ungraciousness by visiting Turpin in his dressing room after the fight and telling him, “You were real good, just like they said you were. I have no excuses. I was beaten by a better man.”

Turpin had earlier told the crowd that he hoped to hold the crown for them a long time, but it wasn’t to be. Perhaps foolishly, he had agreed to a re-match to take place at the Polo Grounds in New York just 64 days later. This time, before a crowd of 60,000, Robinson was to take no chances. From the first bell he dominated a clearly overawed Turpin who was knocked down twice in the early rounds. The champion remained a formidable puncher, however, and was able to open up a dangerous cut above Robinson’s right eye. Though he was well ahead on points there was still a danger he might lose the fight. In the 10th Round he unleashed a sustained assault to which Turpin had no answer and the fight was stopped.

Sugar Ray Robinson was champion once more and over the next few months he successfully defended his title against the former Middleweight Champion Rocky Graziano whom he knocked out in three rounds and Bobo Olson, to whom he did similar. He now decided to move up in weight and fight Joey Maxim in an eliminator bout to challenge for the Heavyweight Title. At the heavier weight he was found wanting however, and lost comfortably on points. His inability to move effectively through the weights left him bitterly disappointed and on 16 April, 1952, he relinquished his title and announced his retirement from boxing.

Robinson’s retirement provided the opportunity for two of his most recent victims to fight for the now vacant title. Both Bobo Olson and Randolph Turpin had won title eliminator bouts against tough opponents. Indeed, Turpin had responded well to the disappointment of losing to Robinson and had won a number of fights including a victory over Don Cockell, who would later contest the Heavyweight Title with Rocky Marciano.

Olson and Turpin met at Madison Square Garden, New York, on 21 October, 1953. For both fighters it was perhaps a last opportunity and it showed in what was a hard fought, closely contested, but largely unexciting bout that saw Olson crowned the new champion on a split decision.

It was a shattering blow for Turpin who had enjoyed the high-life and the recognition that being world champion brought him. Following his defeat to Olson he relinquished his European Title in a first round knockout to the Italian Tiberio Mtri. Though he continued to fight, and on occasions fight well, his life outside the ring went into a steady decline. He had struggled to live with his fame and had squandered much of his money, but now he found he could not live without it, but try as he might he could not regain his former status. He defeated a number of reasonable opponents but when he came up against a genuine contender in Yolande Pompey he was again knocked out in two rounds.

In 1959, he announced his retirement from boxing but money was short and for a time he took up wrestling but he was no showman and he drew only modest crowds. In 1962, he attempted a comeback but despite winning a couple of fights it soon became apparent that there was no future for him in the sport. For a time he ran a Public House in Llandudno in Wales but he wasn’t just selling alcohol but consuming more and more of it himself. In 1966, he was declared bankrupt. Later that same year he shot himself, aged just 38.

In 1955, after almost three years out of the ring, Sugar Ray Robinson announced his return. Despite losing one of his comeback fights he was soon lined up to challenge Bobo Olson for his title. The fight was almost over before it began with Robinson blasting the unfortunate Olson to defeat in just two rounds. Six months later in his first defence he knocked out Olson once again in just four rounds. The unfortunate Olson fought Robinson four times and lost them all, three by quick-fire knockouts. As long as Robinson was around Olson’s claims to be a genuine champion would always be devalued.

In January, 1957, Robinson lost his title to the aggressive and awkward Gene Fullmer, the “Fighting Mormon” from West Jordan, Utah. In the re-match Robinson changed his strategy and instead of backing off and remaining behind his jab he fought toe-to-toe with Fullmer in the middle of the ring. It was a dangerous strategy but in the 5th Round he caught Fullmer with a peach of a left hook that left the champion unconscious on the canvass. It was described by boxing experts at the time as the perfect punch.

Sugar Ray Robinson was World Middleweight Champion for the fourth time but he wasn’t to be so for long. In his first defence he lost the title to the ex-Welterweight Champion Carmen Basilio.

Basilio, who had been born in Cantosta, New York, and had the unusual nickname of the Upstate Onion Farmer, had been a good if not outstanding Welterweight Champion. Having successfully defended his title in a rematch against the Mafia linked Johnny Saxton, he was encouraged to rise in weight to take on the 37 year old Robinson who some had suggested was vulnerable and had begun to slow, though at only 5’6″ inches tall, Basilio was no natural middleweight.

They fought at the Yankee Stadium in New York before 38,000 people on 23 September, 1957, and there was no love lost between the two. Indeed, Basilio, though he respected Robinson’s talents in the ring, was later to describe him as one of the most arrogant and unpleasant men he ever met. As the fight got underway it soon became apparent that Robinson had slowed and the lighter, quicker Basilio was able to take full advantage. Always first to the punch he used the full space of the ring to keep his distance and pin Robinson with accurate painful jabs. In what was in truth a scruffy if exciting fight, he was able to outpoint the ageing champion on a split decision, though many who were present thought he had won with some ease.

The two men were to fight again on 23 March, 1958, and remarkably a battered and visibly ageing Robinson was given a controversial split-decision victory, though most people thought he had lost. Nevertheless, Robinson had defied the years and won an unprecedented fifth world title.

This was to be the high-water mark of Sugar Ray Robinson’s career and for a time he sat on his laurels only fighting once in 1959. The following year he defended his title against Paul Pender, a decent but undistinguished fighter, whom in his prime Robinson would have disposed of in short-order. But not now, he lost on a split-decision. The ensuing rematch ended in the same result.

Despite these two defeats Robinson remained a box office draw and the title fights continued to come. On 3 December, 1960, he fought Gene Fullmer again for the WBA Middleweight Title. The fight ended in a draw. In the rematch he lost on a comfortable unanimous decision. Time it seemed was at last catching up with the ageing ex-champion and it was to be his last challenge for a world title. He fought on, however, for another five years though it was evident to everyone that his powers were in sharp decline and that there would be no return to former glories.

In 1965, he lost to the competent but not particularly outstanding middleweight contender, Joey Archer. It was an embarrassingly one-sided affair but even as he was being humiliated in the ring the Pittsburgh crowd rewarded him with several standing ovations. Following the defeat to Archer on 3 November, 1965, aged 44 he announced his retirement from the ring. He had won the World Middleweight Title on five separate occasions and successfully defended it many times. Indeed, he was to dominate the Middleweight Division for more than a decade. His record from 200 professional fights was Won 173, Lost 19, with 6 Draws, and 2 No Contests. Many of his defeats had come in the twilight of his career when his powers had declined markedly.

Always a flamboyant character and a sharp dresser, Robinson throughout the 1940’s and 1950’s was a fixture on the New York social scene. He owned the expensive restaurant Sugar Ray’s which was to become a favourite watering hole of the rich and famous. He was also a wealthy man who enjoyed displaying his wealth and he was to become one of the first Afro-American athletes who was to make the crossover from sport to celebrity; but unlike another Afro-American sporting superstar of the future, Muhammad Ali, he was never a divisive public figure and people continued to admire him on the basis of his skill in the ring, and few people begrudged him the money he had made in the blood-stained rings of the toughest sport in the world, though he was never as popular with his fellow fighters as he was with the public.

Sugar Ray Robinson did not retire from the ring a rich man, however. Indeed, he was broke, his extravagant lifestyle having taken its toll. A Benefit was to be held not long after his last fight to raise funds for his retirement.

Later in life he suffered from the onset of Alzheimers Disease and his final years were spent quietly at home. He died on 12 April, 1989, aged 67, a strangely forgotten and unheralded figure.

The retirement of Sugar Ray Robinson marked the end of an era. He had been the only man still fighting from a period that many consider to be the greatest in Middleweight Boxing history, and although the Division was to continue to produce exciting fighters and thrilling match-ups the epic series of encounters of that lost age would not to be repeated until the 1980’s and the grit and genius of Marvin Hagler, Sugar Ray Leonard, Roberto Duran, Tommy Hearns, and those more fallible who vainly tried to topple them.

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