News May 2019

Watching Sugar Ray Robinson fight live…


By Michael J Jones

The Legendary Robinson

On January 22nd 1960, the legendary Sugar Ray Robinson ventured to Boston, Massachusetts to defend his world middleweight title against local contender Paul Pender.

Even though the great man was by this time 38-years-old, the defence was expected to be of the routine variety. Although a respectable 35-5-2, Pender wasn’t considered a serious threat against a champion of the calibre of Robinson even with the fight taking place in the challenger’s back yard.

While Robinson had dazzled for over twenty years with a sublime mix of precision punching, skill and punching power, 6-1 underdog Pender had beaten only a handful of notable fighters but, at 30-years-old, had strung together a decent run of victories to earn his chance.

By this stage some ten years past his glorious prime, Robinson just kept winning the crucial bouts. Since regaining the middleweight crown from Carl “Bobo” Olsen, Robinson had suffered tough points defeats to both Carmen Basilio and Gene Fullmer yet had avenged both in style.

Since regaining the title in a brutal rematch with Basilio two years earlier, Robinson, in his fourth reign as the middleweight ruler, had failed to defend his title. It lead to him being stripped of his NBA belt for inactivity. Despite this, the “Sugar man” was still universally recognised as the true champion by all but a select few.

At an incredible 142-6-2, Ray also had the distinction of having never lost to the same man twice. Out of Jake La Motta, Randy Turpin, Joey Maxim, Tiger Jones, Basilio and Fullmer, the enormously talented New Yorker had only failed to avenge his reverses to Maxim and Jones.

The prefight detail mattered little once the fight was under way however. At Boston Garden, Pender fought the fight of his life, performing better than he ever had, shaking off a slow start to take control of the bout from midway.

By the later rounds the champion knew he was behind and stepped up to try and gain an advantage over the solid Boston man. At the end of fifteen close rounds the contest was announced as a split decision. While one judge scored widely to Robinson at 147-138, he was overruled by scores of 148-142 and 146-142 making Pender the new world middleweight champion.

Of the Boston crowd of 10,680, a young 15-year-old boy watched the local hero take on the mighty Sugar Ray. Nearly 54-years later David Holman talks to Livefight about the night he watched the greatest fighter who ever lived box in the flesh…

“Firstly I have to say you have to bear with me trying to remember 53 years ago…these days I struggle to remember 53 minutes ago!

There was always a highly competitive nature between Boston and New York in sports events and this fight was no different. I remember being hugely excited before the fight to be able to see Sugar Ray Robinson considering it would be the first championship fight I’d ever seen live.

Pender (left) edges the aging Ray

Before the fight people always talked about Pender’s soft hands. It was the talk of the town that he had bad hands. Because Pender was an Irishman living in Boston it was naturally assumed he suffered soft hands due to drinking (alcohol).

Racism was rife back then and they used to say a man with bad hands shouldn’t hit a black fighter in the head as it would cause damage (to brittle hands). That’s pretty much why I didn’t really give Paul Pender a shot.

On the night of the fight there was a lot of excitement for the Boston fans as our guy was challenging for the world title. The crowd was very loud and vocal in their support and many were tipping Pender to pull it off…but I didn’t. I mean, it was Sugar Ray Robinson wasn’t it?

The thing I remember about that night is the smoke. Smoking was allowed at venues back then and when I took my seat you could just see this big cloud of smoke above the ring. It was like a scene from one of those old Dracula movies!

I recall where we sat for the fight. In the old Boston Garden there was a lower level, a second level, and a third level that ran along the sides. We sat in the first row in the second level on the end of the arena. It was such a grey and dank smelling place.

When the fight started, Robinson began well and bagged quite a few of the early rounds but Pender came on and, towards the later stages, one could sense Pender starting to take control.

Around the time of that fight (January 1960) I was in the gym a lot working out but when I saw the fight between Robinson and Pender unfold I just couldn’t believe the difference in levels between the guys I saw in the gym and those two. I mean Sugar Ray Robinson was speed, power and skill magnified. Even then Ray was no slouch; one can only have imagined the fighter he had been in the welterweight phase of his career. He must have been an incredible fighter.

One thing I do remember which wasn’t a very common thing back then; Robinson would always try and dazzle at the end of a round to try and steal it. He did this in nearly every round.

At the end of the fight my view was that Pender had just about ‘nicked’ the decision. When the scores were announced there was no issue with the split call everyone was just elated that our local guy had won the fight and become the world champion.

Five months later I watched Pender complete the double over Robinson to become the first man ever to beat him twice (also by deserved split decision). Pender was probably the best ‘unknown’ fighter ever, many don’t talk much about him now but he was a good fighter who also beat Carmen Basilio among others.”

Pender-Robinson the aftermath

After beating Robinson for the second time, Pender engaged in a three-bout series against great rival Terry Downes (losing and regaining his title in the process) during which he also ended the career of Basilio. Following further hand trouble and a failure to secure a unification bout with (NBA holder) Gene Fullmer, Pender retired while still champion in 1963 with a 40-6-2 (20) record.

For Robinson it was the beginning of the end of his incredible career as he slumped to many defeats before retiring in late 1965 with a 173-19-6 (108) record. The proud champion was never knocked out in his career * and was a reigning world champion for most years between 1946 and the Pender loss in 60’.

*This was apart from the Maxim fight where he collapsed from heat exhaustion while a mile ahead on points in his attempt to win the light-heavyweight title.

About David Holman

Fight fan David Holman

David Holman has been an avid boxing fan for over 60 years. A nine-year veteran in the US Army, the American worked as a reconnaissance scout (Infantry and Intelligence Operations Specialist) who also served for three years in the Vietnam War. Following his near-decade as a soldier, David later worked in a maximum security prison as an officer before retiring as a superintendent after 32 years there.

The 68-year-old also ran his own business selling sports cards and memorabilia under the name "Delaware Dave" and lists his favourite fighters as Rocky Marciano, Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard and Bernard Hopkins.

Mr Holman, a father of three, still travels to fight shows in Atlantic City and Philadelphia and has also been lucky enough to have seen ring legends such as Ali, Hopkins and Floyd Patterson box live.

David lives in Dover, Delaware with wife of 28 years Barbara (who is also a big fight fan).

In the early 80’s he wrote to the long-retired Ray Robinson for a signed photograph of his old hero. Ray promptly sent one with the message “best wishes Dave…Sugar Ray Robinson”.

Livefight would like to thank David for sharing his story with us.

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