Reflections of Robinson-Turpin I
Patrick Connor reflects on the 64th anniversary of Randolph Turpin's shock win over the masterful world middleweight champion Sugar Ray Robinson.
Already a professional head-knocker for 11 years in 1951, ‘Sugar’ Ray Robinson had little left to prove. There was just something about the adoration spilling his way, the celebrity heaped up on him that had him longing to return to European shores. What is the perfect gift for the man who has everything? Randolph Turpin knew all too well that the answer was humility.
Robinson had previously embarked on a ‘European tour’, fighting five times between France, Belgium, Switzerland and Germany in late 1950. He returned in early 1951 to take Jake LaMotta's middleweight title in the infamous ‘St. Valentine's Day Massacre’. Afterwards, the claim was that the new champion would have to look east for new challenges and it wasn't totally untrue. Of the fighters among The Ring’s annual top 10 for 1951, the only American standing out was a well-weathered Rocky Graziano. The constant grand receptions made the trip an easy sell.
This time, upon landing in Le Havre, France, in early May, 1951, Robinson and his crew were greeted by Jimmy Karoubi, a diminutive actor in French film who literally leaped into Robinson's arms following the champion's uncomfortable Atlantic voyage.
Robinson's manager George Gainford started preliminary talks with London promoter Jack Solomons, known locally as ‘Mr. Boxing’, for Robinson to face European and British Empire middleweight champion Randolph Turpin. "I think my boy is just as good a champion as LaMotta and we want the same amount of money," Gainford told the Associated Press in Paris, where Robinson and his posse had taken the ‘City of Light's’ shine, sailing about in a gaudy Cadillac. Even Karoubi had become part of the traveling circus, which included the former chauffeur to John Ringling of the Ringling Brothers.
Declaring that LaMotta had gotten almost half the gate and $90,000 (to only 15 percent of the gate for Robinson) in their last meeting, Gainford demanded the same deal after his charge triumphed in the first outing of his second European tour by knocking out Kid Marcel, an Algerian who fought mostly out of Paris -- and in the shadow of countryman Marcel Cerdan.
Be careful what you wish for.
Robinson fought six times in just over one month, but smashed the links at the Datchet Golf Club, met with the French President Vincent Auriol and his wife Michelle, and danced with starlets like Martine Carol at the same Paris nightclubs that would have him play drums with the band or tap dance later in the evening. As with any abrupt roadblock in the career of a fistic superstar at the height of his popularity, the writing was on the wall. It was just that Robinson was too busy hamming it up to realize the wall was even there.
On 9 June, one day before trouncing Jan de Bruin, the showdown between Robinson and Turpin was set. The fight wasn't so much about who would win, but whether or not Robinson's star quality would devour the promotion. Indeed, two weeks before the Turpin bout, Robinson became only the third black American to appear on the cover of TIME.
Turpin was quiet and unassuming, especially compared to a figure like ‘Sugar Ray’. Training at Gwyrch Castle in North Wales, Turpin was paid an impromptu visit by 500 fans. Turpin, who had over 100 amateur fights and 40 pro fights to date, said: "This is the first time a crowd has bothered to meet me before a fight, but it does me good. I have never felt better."
Meanwhile, Robinson, a 3-to-1 favourite, trained in the shadow of Windsor Castle. A strange thing happened the day prior to the bout: a young girl named Christine Butcher, aged only seven years, went missing while venturing off to visit Robinson at his camp only 30 metres away, kicking off a feverish police search. An A.P. report out of Windsor read: “Christine had a doll that she imagined looked like Sugar Ray. She set off yesterday to show the doll to the champion. No one has reported seeing her since." It was little more than an afterthought among the more pressing news, like how much heavier than the champion Turpin would scale, but it would later become haunting.
En route to the weigh-in on Windmill Street in London, the streets were so choked with people that Robinson's Cadillac was literally pushing its way through the crowd. Traffic was stopped in all directions at Piccadilly Circus, with reports stating it was the biggest crowd of people to take to the streets of London since V Day -- the day when the Allied powers celebrated victory over the Axis powers six years earlier. Robinson was a half-hour late to the weigh-in because of the traffic.
Prior to the bout with Turpin, a special meeting was set up so that Robinson could become better acquainted with the British ring rules. During his first European tour, Robinson was accused by Belgian Luc van Dam of winning with a kidney punch and, not three weeks before the Turpin bout, Robinson was initially disqualified against Gerhard Hecht in Germany for landing too many kidney shots. The loss, his first since losing to LaMotta in 1943, was later switched to a No Contest and Robinson was even apologized to profusely by the West Berlin Boxing Commission in writing, but fouls were a concern.
They didn't need to be for Robinson, who appeared flat and was being muscled around in the clinch. By round three, Turpin had mussed Robinson's well-combed hair and was having his way inside, where Robinson's tricks often won the day. The sold out crowd of 18,000 spectators watched as Robinson's sly footwork was counteracted by lunging punches when he was pulling away and tight right hands and rabbit punches in close. While both looked to tie up when colliding, Turpin showed his strength and tenacity in keeping his hands moving.
Two left hooks staggered the champion in round five though he quickly recovered. Turpin's inside work showed no let up, though, and Robinson was being manhandled when matters weren't being discussed from range. Continually looking to the referee for support wasn't working, and Robinson's vaunted left hook was off the mark far more often than not; worse, when the hook was on the mark, Turpin absorbed it. In round seven, a headbutt landed and Robinson's left eyebrow was split open, and the window for him to seize control was closed shut.
Having never gone past eight rounds, Turpin was expected to tire, but it didn't happen as it was supposed to. Instead, Turpin coolly sat in his corner between rounds and snapped off Robinson's offense when the fighting resumed. After a bruising 10th round, Turpin again rocked Robinson with a left hook in round 11. The pace did slow down and with that came glimpses of Robinson's speed and accuracy through flurries in rounds 12 and 13, but Turpin's jab interrupted the rhythm quite readily and ‘Sugar’ was getting mugged.
The final two rounds showed that both champion and challenger were weary and ready for an end to the madness. But it was Turpin's hand raised, just seconds after the final bell. It was the only sane decision to make after 15 rounds of an assault on Robinson's record.
As the two men were toiling inside the ring, an investigation was underway; the body of young Christine Butcher had been found not far from Windsor and "a white man in a grey suit" was sought for questioning. Her murder kicked off six weeks of similar crimes, often attributed to serial killer John Straffen.
The horrible news came with the fight reports and often on the same page. But it wasn't quite enough to stymie the pride the came from Britain having its first English middleweight champion since Bob Fitzsimmons 60 years earlier.
Turpin held the title for only 64 days, making no defences before losing it in a rematch when Robinson was finally able to make a dent in Turpin's chin.
Following Robinson's only inside the distance defeat to Joey Maxim (via heat exhaustion) in 1952, Robinson exiled himself back to Paris, where he worked as a dancing performer. So taken with Paris was Robinson that he returned to the States and starred in a French revue in New York, but his face and name remained attached to a number of brands and products in Europe: Carpano vermouth, Cinzano soda, Coca-Cola and more.
Turpin's biographer Jack Birtley said the quiet lad was a "victim of a humble upbringing which left him totally ill-equipped to face fame and fortune." It showed. Turpin continued fighting through the 1950s yet found it impossible to adjust to whatever plagued his life, which he took in 1966.
But, sixty-four years after his greatest night, let us not forget the man who made ‘Sugar Ray’ a mere mortal for an evening: Randolph Adolphus Turpin.