This Day In History: March 25

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On March 25, 1958, Sugar Ray Robinson defeats Carmen Basilio to regain the middleweight championship. It was the fifth and final title of his career.

Robinson is considered by many to be the greatest prizefighter in history. No less an authority than heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali has said, “My idol will always be Sugar Ray Robinson, who was, and remains, one of the best pound-for-pound fighters to have ever lived in this century.”

Sugar Ray Robinson was born Walker Smith, Jr. in Ailey, Georgia, on May 3, 1921. Smith got his boxing name when he borrowed his friend Ray Robinson’s Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) card to enter a boxing tournament at the age of 16. He won that tournament and, still using the assumed name, turned professional in 1940, winning his debut bout–the first of 40 consecutive victories. Robinson won his first championship in 1946 when he defeated Tommy Bell for the welterweight title, which he held for five years. The next year, at the height of his boxing career, Robinson had a premonition before a fight with Jimmy Doyle that he might kill his opponent. After being convinced to enter the ring, Robinson defeated Doyle, who sustained injuries in the match that led to his death.

Robinson did not lose a professional fight until 1950, when he faced Jake LaMotta as a middleweight. LaMotta was a feared puncher with an iron jaw, and he outweighed Robinson by 16 pounds. In their first of six fights, he knocked Robinson down and out-pointed him on the judges’ scorecards. Robinson, however, would defeat LaMotta in each of their next five fights, including a 1951 drubbing dubbed the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, during his famed 91-fight winning streak. The 1951 fight was portrayed in Martin Scorsese's 1980 LaMotta biopic Raging Bull.

Robinson retired in 1952, and went on to try his hand as a dancer and bandleader in his adopted hometown of Harlem. He returned to the ring in 1955, out of shape and sluggish, but still good enough to regain the middleweight title. He lost the title in 1957 to Gene Fullmer, who knocked him down for the first time since LaMotta sent him to the floor six years earlier. Robinson defeated Fullmer in their rematch, but then lost the title to Carmen Basilio, a steady puncher whose claim to fame was that he had never been knocked down. Going into their championship rematch, held this day in 1958, the once-indomitable Sugar Ray was a 2-to-1 underdog.

Robinson and Basilio traded punches for the majority of the match, with Robinson closing Basilio’s left eye completely by the seventh round. (Basilio later said that he could not see after the fourth round.) In the ninth round, Basilio came out attacking, and Robinson stopped slugging and started to box, dancing and jabbing at Basilio. This was the last great fight of Robinson’s career, and he showcased all of his veteran skills, avoiding Basilio’s punches and delivering a stunner in the 15th that nearly knocked Basilio down. In the end, the three judges awarded Robinson the victory and his fifth middleweight title, a record for any men’s division.