Date - 10th July 1951
Venue - Earls Court, London
This bout is one of the biggest upsets in boxing history.
Sugar Ray Robinson’s real name was Walker Smith and according to his birth certificate he was born in Ailey, Georgia (though in his autobiography he claimed he was born in Detroit). He had turned professional as a lightweight in 1940 and was, quite simply, superb. He was a master at every facet of the game; footwork, combination punching, timing, accuracy and defensive techniques. He possessed solid power in both hands as well as impressive hand-speed, stamina and durability. In fact, it was difficult to find a flaw. Many historians regard him as the greatest boxer ever, pound-for-pound, and during his prime he was just about untouchable.
Robinson was easily recognizable
He had won the vacant world welterweight title on 20th December 1946 with a 15-round decision over Tommy Bell in New York City. He went on to make five successful defences and defeated all the leading contenders, including the outstanding Kid Gavilan of Cuba. During his reign as welterweight champion, he engaged regularly in non-title fights, often at middleweight. Going into 1951, the world middleweight champion was Jake LaMotta, who was known as the “Bronx Bull”. Robinson had already faced LaMotta five times and had beaten him on four occasions. He challenged LaMotta on 14th February and in a contest that became known as the “St Valentine’s Day Massacre”, he stopped him in the 13th round to become a two-division world champion.
At that stage, Robinson was at his peak; the best fighter in the world and seemingly in a league of his own. He embarked on a European tour, which involved participating in non-title fights in France, Switzerland, Belgium, West Germany and Italy, and his huge entourage included a personal barber. He was a true showman and had taken his distinctive pink Cadillac with him. He even met with the French President.
The fight was Turpin’s shining moment
The task facing Turpin was monumental. At this point in time, Robinson had just a lone defeat on his record, which was a points loss to LaMotta on 5th February 1943, meaning he had been unbeaten for eight years. He boasted sparkling statistics of 128-1-2 (85), with a single no-contest.
Turpin was born in Leamington, Warwickshire, and entering this world title shot had a record of 41-2-1 (29). He had won the British title on 17th October 1950 with a 5th round KO of Albert Finch in London and then won the vacant European title on 27th February 1951 with a 1st round KO of Luc Van Dam of the Netherlands, also in London. Basically, his record was good but not great and he was given little chance of dethroning the superstar champion. The media generally viewed the contest as being an easy “keep busy” fight for the enigmatic Sugar Ray. But Turpin had not been reading the script.
Earls Court as it looks today
At the weigh-in, Robinson tipped the scales at 154 ½ lbs, with Turpin exactly 4 lbs heavier. The champion was to receive a lucrative purse of $84,000, with the challenger earning $24,000. The referee was Eugene Henderson and a crowd of 18,000 were present to witness the big world title fight. Robinson was a 4-1 favourite.
It is possible that Robinson was taking this fight lightly and was not in a state of supreme fitness. But that should not take anything away from Turpin’s gritty performance. He bullied the champion and dominated the early rounds, throwing hard, accurate punches. Perhaps realizing that he was quickly falling behind, Robinson came to life in the 5th round and landed a big left hook. Turpin did not fold under pressure and in the 7th round an accidental head-butt caused a cut over the champion’s left eye. As the fight passed the half-way stage, Robinson attempted to trade more but Turpin maintained his momentum with his jab. Robinson was hampered by the cut and failed to impose his will on the challenger. Entering the late rounds, Turpin was ahead and was forced to hang on as Robinson rallied.
Despite his efforts, the champion failed to score a KO and the fight went the distance. Turpin was awarded a well-deserved decision and he became the new middleweight champion of the world in a shocking upset. The great Sugar Ray was beaten!
Robinson (left) had trouble keeping Turpin at bay during the early rounds
Afterwards, Robinson acknowledged that Turpin was “a good boy” and denied feeling drained from his hectic schedule. Turpin said that he was never hurt during the 15-round contest and that he was willing to have a rematch.
It was a truly fabulous accomplishment for Turpin to not only become a world champion but to defeat a legend in doing so. There was a rematch on 24th September the same year in New York City and Robinson regained the championship via 10th round KO. Turpin’s reign was sadly brief but all those who witnessed his victory in the first fight would surely never forget it.