LONG READ: Old school: 'The New' Ray Robinson interview
Photos: Top: Ray Robinson Facebook Page; all other photos: Daniel Cork (proamfighttalk.blogspot.com).
Ahead of his fight against Sunderland’s Josh Kelly on the Anthony Joshua vs Andy Ruiz Jr undercard this weekend, welterweight Ray Robinson talks to Luca Rosi about his inspirational life story...
“My whole career I have been fighting Olympians and undefeated fighters that everyone always hypes up until I beat them. This fight against Josh Kelly [for the WBA international welterweight title] is no different, the only difference is that I have been staying busy and only getting better. I’m ready to show everyone at Madison Square Garden on 1 June that it’s my time.”
With a name like his, he had to deal with pressure fast. With a story like his, he had to overcome obstacles that you or I couldn’t even begin to understand. Yet ‘The New’ Ray Robinson has managed that and so much more, as he told us from his Philadelphia home.
“When I first started boxing I learnt about Sugar Ray Robinson whose real name was Walker Smith. So in the gym I knew how important that name was and also that guys would want to fight me because of the name. So I had to make sure I was good and ready, as people always want to say they beat me,” Robinson explained.
“When I turned pro I didn’t have a ring name although in the amateurs I was ‘Picture Perfect’ Robinson so I was thinking of going with that name but wasn’t too sure. When the ring announcer for my first fight [8 December 2006] asked me what it was I said I didn’t have one so when I walked out he said ‘The New’ Ray Robinson, it stuck and everyone went with it. But Ray Robinson is my actual name.”
On 30 March, the Philly fighter took on the much fancied Egidijus Kavaliauskas in his hometown (at the 2300 Arena), the WBO’s number one ranked fighter for the NABF Welterweight title. After 10 rounds of entertaining boxing, the fighters couldn’t be separated on the judges’ cards.
“To be honest I thought I had a better night than he did [Robinson earned a majority draw – scores of 97-93 in his favour and 95-95 for the two other judges, a fight that was on the Oleksandr Gvozdyk-Doudou Ngumbu undercard]. If you look at his previous fights, he always bring pressure and draws a lot more punches, but I feel as though my lateral movement, my jab and feint offset him, it was like the bull versus the matador. It was just smart boxing, it would have been pointless for me to go to war, make it 50-50 and let fight guys determine who gets lucky and who catches who first.
"I felt as though I did enough to win, he normally starts slow and picks up pace breaking fighters down, but with my range I controlled the distance and offset him so he couldn’t do what he had done before. I slowed down to how I wanted it and landed the better shots.
“My coach wanted me told me to be smart and let combinations go so in retrospect I wish I had done more of that. But there was ring rust, I had been out a year and two months [since the TKO7 loss to Miami based Cuban Yordenis Ugas, the 2008 Beijing lightweight bronze medallist and 2005 Mianyang World Amateur gold medallist]. And here I am fighting the number one guy in the world.
"Maybe I did hold back a bit and I’m sure I’ll be better next fight but I thought I did enough to win. We were both trying to counter each other, he had to do his job which was to come forward and bang it out, whereas I was trying to be smart with my jab and lateral movement. I felt I controlled the pace and won to be honest. I know a lot of people have high hopes for this guy, and I always have a lot of respect for my opponents, we’re risking our lives, the boxing game is real.
"But I didn’t see all the hype, and when I got the call I looked him up and I never hesitated. They put the right people in front of him, he is strong, and if you fight his fight you’re in trouble but he never fought no one with lateral movement with a good jab, he never fought anyone tall who knows their distance like me before. He threw wild looping shots which you can see coming, there were a lot of holes in his game, he comes forward, never moves his head doesn’t know how to cut off ring too well.”
Unlike for many of his previous fights, this time the Bustleton resident had time to prepare properly. “Me and my team zoned in on that, worked on it during the whole camp and we knocked it out the park. It’s no good saying I wish I did this or that, it’s not easy when you face someone who wants to knock your head off. We did what we had to do to win the fight. I was never hurt, he never stunned me. It was the longest camp I ever had, normally I have 3-4 weeks to prepare, whereas this time I had 8 weeks so I was in tip top shape, my weight was good, we studied the guy, and I came in shape.
"I really enjoyed the process of going through camp, normally I want it to be rushed as I’m struggling with weight but this time I had time to prepare like I wanted to, so I enjoyed it and didn’t mind camp. I enjoyed the process, I trusted in process, and it showed on fight night. It was hard work but I loved it and was excited to get in the ring and show everyone what we worked on.
“The fight was even better. It’s always amazing to fight in front of my family and friends in Philadelphia [Robinson has fought seven times in his hometown]. When I was younger, there was a lot of pressure on me as I didn’t want to embarrass no one, but as I got older and became more seasoned I now love fighting in my hometown. It gives me extra motivation and the fans pick you up when you’re slowing down. I really enjoy it and appreciate the opportunity to fight in front of my hometown fans. I did myself and Philly proud, I put on a show of good boxing. People forget that boxing is more than just toe-to-toe slugfest, it’s a science, it’s about hitting and not getting hit, boxing smart and outthinking your opponent. It felt great to put on a pure boxing display.”
It’s not in Robinson’s DNA to shy away from a challenge and a risky one at that, especially given that he suffered his only TKO loss to date just over a year before at the Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino in Las Vegas.
“I learnt a lot from the [Yordenis] Ugas fight [17 February 2018]. You can’t always say yes and please people. When I got the call for Ugas my back was against the wall, I didn’t want people saying Ray Robinson doesn’t want to fight so I pressured myself into it. My coaches didn’t want me to take the fight as they knew that it wouldn’t be the best version of me turning up, as I only had a three week camp. But it was a big opportunity which I couldn’t refuse.
"A loss is always hard to swallow, you start to question things and even think about quitting. But I’m lucky to have such a great support group, my girl and family they stuck by me and got me through, and it was great to bounce back against the number one guy.
“I did a hell of a job and thought I won. No one gave me a chance, everyone was saying that I was basically a sparring partner helping him to prepare for a showdown with Terence Crawford because he [‘Bud’ Crawford] turns southpaw at times. But things happen for a reason and if I hadn’t lost to Ugas I wouldn’t have got this fight, so it all worked out. When the Top Rank guys interviewed me before the fight, they were suggesting I had a hometown advantage. I told them be careful when you say that as this is a Top Rank card so that might even itself out.
"You can’t say I have advantage against someone you want to win and have invested in. I was supposed to be a stepping stone for this guy. I took the opportunity and ran with it, and I’m happy they gave me the opportunity and thank them for it but they weren’t doing me any favours. But that’s why I love boxing – anyone on any given day can win and you can destroy the best laid plans.”
Robinson, who turned pro at 20 and won his first 11 fights has had his share of misfortune and setbacks along the way. “Two years ago I was scheduled to fight on a HBO card [against Dmitry Mikhaylenko] and then a car accident put an end to that [following a big win over Uzbekistan’s Sherzodbeck Alimjanov for the WBO NABO welterweight title in April 2015]. I was hit from the backand it tore my back, I couldn’t sit down – my lower back was in terrible shape.
"That was really really hard and I got super depressed. As a kid all I looked at was HBO boxing, fighting on HBO was huge to me, it was a big blow as it was going to be my breakout fight and everyone was going to get to see me, know who I am. That crushed me.
“Before Ugas, I lost two fights in succession against Shawn Porter [UD10, 2010] and Brad Solomon (MD points, 2009). I fought Porter on his promoter card and that night I outboxed him, I had a better night than him. That’s why I love boxing, everyone can have that moment, it’s a like a lottery ticket that can change your life. I thought I beat him that night. Solomon was a helluva fight, one judge scored a draw, the other two gave it to him. I mean we went to war, in that fight I went to get Solomon, so it all depends on what the judges want from you on a given night.
"Nowadays you don’t get prospects that do that, fighting unbeaten fighters and Olympians, but I never had the proper promoter to move me right, and my attitude was to take on the best, I’ve always been like that. Maybe it’s a Philly or old school thing, but the best fight the best, we’ll figure it out when we get in there.”
The slick southpaw who is based at ‘Bozy’s Dungeon’ gym has a great relationship with the eponymous trainer and former pro Derrick ‘Bozy’ Ennis (father of Farah ‘Quiet Storm’ and Derek ‘Pooh’ Ennis who won NABF and USBA titles respectively and the unbeaten 22-0 welterweight prospect Jaron ‘Boots’ Ennis).
“When the trainer who I grew up with and was like a father to me [Howard ‘Moses’ Mosley] stopped training, he brought me to Bozy’s gym, known as the ‘Dungeon’ in north Philly. The cool thing is that he never tried to change my style, the only thing he did was add on to my style, he’s done an amazing job with me and taught me how to fight on the inside. He’s one of the smartest guys I know, who calls the right things at the right time. He has a gift and an eye for telling you the right information and he keeps you calm in the ring. That comes from experience. You just trust him. If he tells me I’ll win the fight, I’ll believe him.
“I first started boxing at the age of eight at the BackAlley gym and then I met Moses at the Joe Hand boxing gym. That man right there is the most unselfish human being you’ll ever meet in your life. He was a really big part in my life, he moulded me like clay and framed me into the man I am today. He helped so many kids growing up and took me off the street. Not only was he my boxing coach but my life coach, and it was an honour for me to call him dad. A helluva guy, I’d love to be a couple of per cent of the man he is.”
Having won two national tournaments at 16, Robinson came to the attention of Al Mitchell, who was the coach for the US Olympic team. “I ended up going to the US Olympic Education Center [USOEC] in Marquette, Michigan. It was a helluva of an experience and got me to where I am now. I had more than 100 amateur bouts and got to fight all over the world. I was the youngest guy up there at 16 and it was the best thing that happened to me. It was also easier for my mum as she’d have one less mouth to feed.
"It was awesome being around talented boxers like Adrien Broner and Tim Bradley. We all made each other better – it was just a beautiful experience to have had at that age. It wasn’t just boxing, you had to achieve a certain grade to stay on, so schoolwork was important. I graduated with honours from high school, then went to college at Northern Michigan University, which is where the USOEC was. I wanted to do family counselling but switched to Auto Body, fixing cars, and got a certificate in that.”
His early years were tough to put it mildly. “Living in Philly is rough, dealing what we had to deal with was even tougher with the type of father I had. My mum [Diane Nettles] had to raise seven kids, five boys two girls, I was the youngest. My father was not a great person, always abusing my mum and he tossed me down the steps, breaking both legs. My mum had to sneak me out of the house even to take me to hospital, I ended up with a body caste and learnt how to walk before I could even crawl. Mum got us into a shelter [Stenton Family Manor] and got away from dad. I shared a cot with my brother, we were a big old family in a little room, until they gave us a home.
“I fell in love with boxing, started doing good and winning fights, then I got a neck injury which I believe was from me being tossed down those steps. They took a bone from my head and put it in my neck, it was a scary thing, I could have died or been paralysed. My journey sounds so rough, but I wouldn’t change nothing that happened to me. I’ve got this tough skin now, which means I’ll fight anybody because of my upbringing. I never saw my mum give up, and we had it rough, not a penny to our name. It was bad. But mum made sure we all stayed together, struggled together and made it through together.
"That’s why I love her §so much. And I believe God doesn’t put you through anything you can’t handle. When my daughter has a career day I always bring in my belts and let kids know that it doesn’t matter how you begin your life, it’s how you finish. It don’t matter how you grow up, it’s all about how you die. We all run into road blocks, but you can’t let it get you down, never give up, don’t let the beginning of your life stop you going after your dreams.
"I repeat that to my daughter and her friends in her school. I love opportunities to tell my story, I’m sure there are kids out there who have had it even rougher than me, so if I can change one life by telling them not to give up it’ll be worth it. Doesn’t matter where you came from or how your parents were, you can still go after something, I don’t care how big your dream is, you can go out and get it.”
Robinson would love to cross paths again with the man he beat in the amateurs. In fact, he is the last person to defeat Terence ‘Bud’ Crawford. “I fought Crawford in the US championships, it was a good contest and I think I won by couple of points. I don’t believe it was a close fight, I won’t say it was easy but I won. It wasn’t a robbery or anything like that. I know he lets his emotions get the better of him, he was trying to fight me outside the ring, him and his family were pretty pissed off. Just because I want to fight the guy doesn’t mean I’m blind. Crawford has done some wonderful things in his career, he’s a world champ and deserves respect.
"Everyone’s career moves differently, he’s had a good promoter but he’s always got the job done. I feel as though styles make fights and me and him would make for an amazing fight, two tall fighters trying to use distance and seeing who stays more disciplined, picking each other off. I would love that fight. My motto has always been to fight the best and in the past it has been frustrating as that world title shot has always eluded me."
Would he entertain a rematch with the tough California based Lithuanian? “I do whatever. If everyone wants me to fight Kavaliauskas again, so be it. But I’d love bigger fights – where do you go after you supposedly beat the number one? Got to go up. I want bigger, I feel I deserve it and I showed I can hang in there with top guys. He [Kavaliauskas] was so hyped, he was meant to be the best thing since pants with pockets, I deserve to fight the top guys so I don’t want anyone watering down his down name, make it that it wasn’t a big deal, I get sick of that. I try to be very honest with things, real boxing fans and people know when you’re lying and telling the truth. I wear heart on my sleeve.”
At 33 years of age, Robinson believes the best is yet to come. “I still got a lot in my tank, you can see the difference that an 8 week camp made, I was a whole different fighter to when I fought Ugas. I did the 10 rounds and outboxed him, everyone thought I would get knocked out. Did no one bother to look at my record? I got stopped one time, fought and beat two Russian fighters who were 25-0 [Aslanbek Kozaev] and 22-2 [Alimjanov], fought guys who hit hard like Porter. I just got caught by one shot. But I shocked the world and proved everybody wrong.”
‘The New’ Ray Robinson documentary (2017) is c. 25 minutes long and well worth a watch.