Joe Louis and Sugar Ray Robinson are two of the defining figures of boxing’s gloved era. Between them, they loom indelibly large over the history of the heavyweight, middleweight and welterweight divisions. Their championship glory days partially entwined, with Louis’ final four years as heavyweight king running parallel to Robinson’s first four as welterweight champion. Their seven-year age gap meant there was also an element of baton-passing when Louis retired in 1951, leaving the 30-year-old middleweight champion as the sport’s most prominent name. But amongst this glorious symmetry there is a grim link between these two all-time greats. They both died on the same date, eight years apart. For that reason, 12th April will always be the day the boxing died.
Unlike the deaths of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper in 1959, at the height of Robinson’s fourth middleweight title reign, boxing’s generational tragedy did not occur in one fell swoop. But like the ‘Day The Music Died’, this April day is synonymous with the loss of icons that epitomised a genre and an era. While their deaths were not as disturbingly young as the teenaged Valens, they were still premature. Louis was 66 years of age when he passed away from a cardiac arrest, just one day removed from his feted attendance at the Larry Holmes-Trevor Berbick heavyweight title fight. Robinson was just a year older when the Alzheimer’s that had horribly dulled the sharp wit and reflexes of arguably the greatest boxer of them all finally claimed him.
As iconic boxing figures, the two former world champions had a lot in common. Stylistically, they differed in their ring approaches. Sugar Ray was almost undefinable, such was his ability to flit from Michelangelo to Michael Tyson. One second he would have opponents hopelessly swatting thin air on the end of a laser-guided jab. The next, he would bulldoze right through them with combinations as fast as they were ferocious. His most recent equivalent is probably Roy Jones Jr, another fighter who could combine dazzling feats of in-ring sorcery with a punch that could level a skyscraper. Such was Robinson’s comprehensive and elegant brilliance, countless athletes have named themselves after him. Sugar Ray Leonard is the most famous example, and matched the original most closely for both talent and accomplishments. ‘Sugar’ Shane Mosley was another decorated boxer to use the moniker, while former UFC Light Heavyweight Champion ‘Suga’ Rashad Evans adapted the nickname slightly in his own homage.
Louis was a more direct but no less effective kingpin, ruling the heavyweight division largely on account of his incredible power. But ‘The Brown Bomber’ was no mindless slugger, stalking his prey and cutting off the ring with the consideration of a surgeon. Fans weaned on modern “dancing” fighters may find old film of Louis to be plodding and leaden. But to appraise his style this way is to fall into the same trap as many of his opponents. Louis was an artist when it came to the half-step, the slight adjustment needed to keep a foe right where he wanted them. His footwork was deliberate and subtle rather than slow and minimal. Most fighters manoeuvre themselves, Louis manoeuvred his opponent. Then, when the time was right, he lowered the boom that accounted for 52 of his 66 victims.
From their differences back to perhaps their defining parallel. Louis and Robinson were role models for America’s black youth at a time when segregation was still rife across the country. Louis’ 1937 heavyweight title win had brought about the long overdue end of the separate ‘colored heavyweight title’, a horrid offshoot belt created by a deeply racist society. The equivalent welterweight and middleweight belts continued into the 1940s. The sight of two supremely talented black fighters ruling their respective divisions, rather than being confined to separately-created titles, was a powerful one. A whole generation of African-American fight fans were inspired by what Louis and Robinson were able to achieve.
12th April will forever be a solemn occasion for fans of boxing. A day upon which two of the pillars of the sport were lost. But their contributions, their incredible achievements and their wonderful abilities live on. Whether it is someone following the ‘Sugar’ bloodline back through footage of Mosley and Leonard to find Robinson, or a fan finding Joe Louis’ highlight reel while searching for a puncher who could rival Tyson, Foreman and the rest, these totems of the gloved game will live on. On this date every year, we must count the cost of what we lost. But we should also take stock of all the beautiful things Sugar Ray Robinson and Joe Louis gave us.