The Boxing Bulletin is pleased to present a new feature series called Bulletin Classics, where we'll be taking an in depth look at some of the sport's greatest battles.
In this opening installment of the series, Andrew Fruman looks back to December 20, 1946, the night the legendary Sugar Ray Robinson finally got a crack at the welterweight title.
Sugar Ray Robinson pulled himself up onto one knee as referee Eddie Joseph barked out the count. Dazed, but coherent, Robinson could see Joseph’s fingers – Five… Six… Seven… Madison Square Garden had been thrown into delirium. The best fighter in the world, about to finally take his place as champion, was on the verge of a shocking defeat. It was a stunning moment.
In a neutral corner, Tommy Bell, the lanky heavy handed slugger from Youngstown, Ohio stood anxiously waiting for his chance to finish. Bell, given little chance by the experts and a sizable 5 to 1 underdog with the bookies, had called this moment. “Just watch - I’ll knock Robinson out,” he’d said to reporters the previous day.
As surprising as it was for the crowd to see Robinson in such desperate trouble, the same thing had happened six weeks earlier in his previous fight against Artie Levine.
In front of a sell-out crowd in Cleveland, Levine, a big punching young middleweight, had flattened Robinson with a left hook. By all accounts, Robinson was badly hurt when he struggled up at the count of eight, and had to summon all his ring guile to survive Levine’s follow-up onslaught. Robinson eventually recovered, but had to endure some more anxious moments, before taking control and knocking Levine out in the tenth round. It was the first time the sturdily built Levine had been stopped in sixty pro fights.
It was a close call, but even if Robinson had lost, except for a slight dent to his invincible reputation, it wouldn’t have mattered much. It was just a stay busy money fight. The second such contest Robinson had taken that week, as only five days earlier, he had beaten Cecil Hudson in Detroit.
This night was different though. After years of frustration, this was supposed to be Robinson's long awaited coronation as welterweight king.
Back in 1941, he thought he’d secured a shot at champion Freddie Cochrane, but negotiations never panned out. Then World War II put a moratorium on all titles held by servicemen, and with Cochrane in the navy, the title was put on the shelf.
After the War, it was expected that Cochrane’s first defense would have to be against Robinson, but instead the chance went to Marty Servo. Servo’s manager, Al Weill, had been quick to put up $50,000 for the title shot, and the New York State Athletic Association approved the bout.
Mike Jacobs, the promoter for Madison Square Garden, defended the decision arguing that a Cochrane/Robinson fight would be a flop at the box office because nobody felt Cochrane had a chance.
The National Boxing Association were trying to enforce a system where merit - not money - determined title chances and objected to the decision as Servo had already lost twice to Robinson.
Robinson and the N.B.A. were settled down by a stipulation in the Cochrane/Servo contract that the winner would have to defend the title against Robinson within 6 months. But after Servo claimed the title by knocking Cochrane out in four one sided rounds, he promptly injured his nose in a non-title fight against middleweight, Rocky Graziano.
Twice, championship fights between Servo and Robinson were signed, only for Servo to pull out due to suffering re-occurrences of the nose injury during training. Finally, after it became apparent to Servo that his injury wouldn’t heal sufficiently, he announced his retirement. This time the N.B.A. and N.Y.S.A.C. were in agreement - the title would have to go through Robinson. He’d waited long enough.
Ranked as the #5 welterweight in the world, Tommy Bell wasn’t originally approved as an opponent for Robinson. Eddie Eagan of the NYSAC possibly felt that Bell wasn’t marketable enough to sell the fight.
Bell had a few things going against him. For starters, he had lost to Robinson two years earlier in Cleveland, and while Bell had made a solid showing, nothing about the bout indicated he had much chance to win a rematch.
Bell had pressed the action that night, constantly moving forward, sticking his jab out and following it up with hooks and straight rights. Robinson had been too quick though, using lateral moment and his own fast sharp jab to prevent Bell from setting his feet and getting leverage on his power punches.
Only in the second half of that fight, did Robinson open up, and gradually ease his offense into high gear. This in turn provided Bell with some of his best moments of the fight, but Robinson still carried most of these later exchanges. In the 10th and final round, with the fight firmly in his control, Robinson put the finishing touches on his victory by sending Bell to the canvas. Bell got up at the count of 8, but was in rough shape, and only narrowly made it the final bell, having to survive a punishing onslaught that left him dazed and bloody.
Being based in Ohio certainly didn’t help Bell’s profile, nor did the fact he wasn’t on a flashy winning streak, and while black fighters were getting more opportunities, they still weren’t on equal footing when it came to getting title chances.
For Eagan, nothing jumped out about Bell that said this is the guy the public will want to see Robinson in with. But with the help of a few prominent New York sportswriters, Bell’s tough talking manager Ernie Braca convinced Eagan otherwise.
Bell had only fought a few times in New York, but two of those bouts had been crowd pleasing battles with top middleweight contender Jake LaMotta. Giving away almost a dozen pounds each time, Bell had stood his ground and gone toe to toe with the Bronx Bull. He had lost both decisions, but his efforts had won him the admiration of the local press and stamped him as someone the fans could count on to get their money worth.
The bout was approved, and on Friday October 4, 1946, Madison Square Garden's promoter Mike Jacobs announced the fight had been signed. Having secured the opportunity of a lifetime, Bell didn’t sign on for any stay busy fights, and a few weeks later headed to Summit, New Jersey for his training camp.
Robinson would also eventually head off to his training camp in Greenwood Lake, New York, but not before hitting the road for fights with Ossie Harris, Cecil Hudson, and of course, Artie Levine. Staying busy, despite having a title fight coming up was a fairly common practice at the time. Few fighters turned down good paydays when they could get them, and Robinson likely needed the money as he was in the expensive process of opening up a restaurant in Harlem called Sugar Rays.
Much to the chagrin of his manager George Gainford, Robinson kept leaving Greenwood Lake and heading back to the city to check on how renovations to the restaurant site were going. Plans were to have the grand opening coincide with the night of the championship fight, but despite work being done around the clock, there was still too much to do to make that plan a reality.
On the morning of the fight, both fighters weighed in slightly under the welterweight limit. Neither was reported to have had any trouble making the weight, as Robinson tipped the scales at a comfortable 146 ½ pounds, while Bell came in a half pound less at 146. This was a little heavier than the weights for their first meeting, when both came in at 145 ½ pounds.
On fight night, Madison Square Garden was the place to be in the boxing world, although rain and snow kept the bout from being a sell-out. A total of 15,670 fans were in attendance, paying anywhere from $1.50 for general admission tickets to $12 for ringside seats. Included among the spectators were such fistic luminaries as Joe Louis, Gene Tunney, Jack Dempsey and a host of other former and current fighters.
Not in attendance were three members of Tommy Bell’s traveling Youngstown contingent, his brothers Shelton and Isaac, and his former trainer, navy veteran Major Hall. The three had been involved in a car accident in Reading, Pennsylvania on the way to the fight. Tragically, Hall would pass away a couple days later due to his injuries. The Bell brothers' injuries weren't nearly as serious, but still required hospital care, as Shelton suffered a broken arm and Isaac injured his leg.
If Bell was aware of the seriousness of the accident, it no doubt must have weighed heavily on his mind, but he could not afford to let his focus waver. His strategy was clear – apply pressure and land something meaningful early. He didn’t have the skills to outbox Robinson and knew he had to hurt his man, to have any chance of winning.
Robinson could punch too, but his exceptional hand and foot speed meant that he could win rounds without risky exchanges. He had followed this plan to perfection in the early rounds of their first fight, before turning up the heat late.
The first round followed the expected script, with Bell forcing the fight, but Robinson countering with the cleaner more effective punches. Fighting out of a tight upright stance, with his gloves up high, Bell pressed forward, leading with his jab, and following up with menacing hooks and right hands. Robinson boxed out of a much looser stance, with his left hand lower, as he used his superior speed and head movement to slip shots and counter, before dancing out of harm’s way.
The second round started off much the same way as the first, with Robinson handling Bell’s pressure. There were no advance warnings of what was about to come. No near misses. No glancing blows that drew gasps. Much like their first fight, Robinson was looking comfortable, appearing to be dictating the fight on his terms.
Bell was known for his right hand – and perhaps Robinson was looking for that. But a perfect left hook did it. It was quick, and delivered with force. If Robinson saw it all, it was too late to do anything about it. The punch landed flush on the jaw.
Robinson went down hard.
His head seemed to hit the canvas before the rest his body. When he rose, just before referee Joseph could reach eight, his legs were unsteady and it was apparent his head wasn’t quite clear.
Joseph gave Robinson’s gloves a quick wipe on his shirt and backed off. There were a full two minutes left in the round - an eternity for a shaken fighter.
Described by one writer as being elated but incredulous to the upturn in his fortunes, the blood rushed to Ohio sharpshooter’s head, as he stormed after Robinson. Ripping hooks and right crosses, all intended to finish matters on contact, Bell’s punches became a little looser and wider. Robinson immediately back pedaled, desperately ducking and dodging the frenzied attack before holding on tight when Bell got too close.
The fans were on their feet, urging the underdog on. With Robinson in full scale survival mode, Bell’s chased. With a little more composure, Bell might have been able to capitalize further, but slowly Robinson became steadier, and a little surer, and when the final bell rang was not just surviving, but gamely firing back.
Photo courtesy of Antiquities of the Prize Ring
Trying to capitalize on the events of the previous stanza, and test Robinson’s resolve, Bell (pictured firing a left as Robinson ducks) came out intent to keep the pressure on. Having rediscovered the composure that eluded him during the frantic push to end matters moments earlier, Bell mixed his attack nicely, using his jab, and going hard to the body.
Robinson tried to re-establish himself in the fight with his jab and keep the action as a comfortable distance, but Bell’s pressure was unyielding. Shaking off whatever Robinson threw; he kept coming forward, and just before the round ended, landed another hard left hook. The punch shook Robinson, but there was no time to follow up.
The next two rounds were also carried by the determined efforts of Bell, who kept shuffling forward, letting his hands go while never taking a backwards step. He once again managed to stagger Robinson, this time near the end of the fifth round with a right cross to jaw.
With a third of the fight in the books, Bell had a clear upper hand – however a slight shift of momentum took place in the closely contested sixth. Robinson managed to bloody Bell’s nose, which bled freely for the rest of the bout. Still Bell had his moments, and just before the bell, landed a grazing left hook, followed by a clean right hand.
Then came the decisive seventh round.
After being forced onto his back foot for much of the fight, Robinson went on the attack. He met Bell head on, and unleashed his full repertoire of dazzling offensive skills, including a relentless hooking assault to the body. Those whip like hooks, digging into Bell’s midsection, finally cracked the Ohio man’s resolve to not move backwards. Sensing his chance, Robinson drove Bell into the corner, where a left right combination late in the round buckled Bell’s knees and had him holding on.
When Bell left his corner out for the eighth, some of the fire appeared to be gone, but he still came out pressing the attack. Softened up and a little slower, but still willing and determined, he was easy pray for Robinson’s punishing counters, and soon was being hammered all over the ring. At one stage, the besieged Bell slipped to the canvas after ducking to avoid a left hook.
In the ninth round, Bell used his jab to good effect, and managed to back Robinson off a little with two hooks to the body. It was only a momentary respite however, as Robinson quickly resumed his assault, and Bell continuously got the worst of the exchanges.
Finally, in the eleventh round, after landing several damaging hooks, Robinson followed up a double left hook combo, with a crunching right hand. The barrage sent Bell toppling to the canvas.
Bell struggled to his feet at the count of 8, but by all accounts, looked a thoroughly beaten man, and Robinson went all out for the finish. He battered his unsteady rival all over the ring, but when the bell rang, Bell was still on his feet.
The twelfth was a one sided barrage.
Just about everyone in the Garden felt Robinson would finish matters, as he unloaded his full arsenal on the exceedingly game, but near helpless Bell.
Robinson wailed away in a bid for the knockout, ripping hooks and right hands to the body and head, as he sent his tottering opponent staggering all over the ring. Through it all, Bell somehow stayed upright. He clutched and grabbed and used his jab as best he could to fend Robinson off, prompting one reporter to refer to Bell's amazing survival act as a miracle of ruggedness.
Coming out for the thirteenth, Bell’s face was a gory mess. His lower lip and nose swollen and bleeding, and his eyes puffy from the pounding he’d received. Robinson looking fresh by comparison was not completely unscathed, sporting cuts around both eyebrows.
Barely able to maintain his footing through the previous three minutes, most expected Bell to resume his survival tactics, yet he discarded the jab and grab of the previous round, choosing to crowd Robinson on the inside, while winging hooks to the body. There was nothing sharp or precise about what Bell could muster, but it was stirring, gutsy stuff that brought the crowd to its feet, and won him the round on the scorecards of many ringside observers.
Bell followed up his effort of the thirteenth, by continuing to bore in and swing away, while Robinson responded with the more precise return fire. Opinions were split on who won the round, with some preferring Bell’s haphazard aggressiveness to Robinson’s accurate counters.
While both men were running on fumes heading into the fifteenth, Robinson hadn’t absorbed close to the same amount of punishment, and had a little more snap in his shots. He again seized control of the battle, catching Bell repeatedly throughout the round. He just didn’t have enough left in the tank to amp up the power on his punches, and couldn’t put Bell into further duress. As the two exhausted fighters battled to the final bell, the appreciative crowd roared their approval.
The crowd applauded, as the two fighters received congratulations from their camps, while awaiting the official result. In the minds of most observers, there was not much doubt over who the winner was, but as with all competitive fights, there’s still a palpable tension in the air while the scores are being tabulated.
“I’m the champ, George.” Robinson said to Gainford as they stood in the corner. Gainford warned him not to be so certain.
After a few minutes, the cards were handed to ring announcer Harry Balogh, who read the verdict.
Referee Joseph and Judge Arthur Schwartz both had Robinson ahead by scores of 10 rounds to 5, while Judge Jack O’Sullivan had Robinson in front by 8 rounds to 6, with one round even. Loud cheers greeted the unanimous decision, although a few scattered boos could also be heard.
The ringside press was in complete agreement with Robinson winning the decision, and with the sentiment that Bell had performed courageously in defeat.
As congratulatory cries rang down from the balcony, tears welled up in Robinson’s eyes.
He’d finally done it. The king now had his crown.
- Andrew Fruman e-mail
Tuesday, March 3, 2009
The Boxing Bulletin is pleased to present a new feature series called Bulletin Classics, where we'll be taking an in depth look at some of the sport's greatest battles.