The night of June 25, 1952 may not have been the hottest in the history of New York City, but the suggestion that it was not would bring an instant argument from the 47,983 people who sweltered at Yankee Stadium while Joey Maxim fought Sugar Ray Robinson for the light heavyweight championship of the universe.
It was not a great fight. In some respects it was no fight at all. But for an odd set of reasons it was a memorable one.
In the press area we sweltered too, but even without our jackets we looked a tolerably civilized lot. Or so it seemed to me: I was covering the fight as a young correspondent for a chain of newspapers in England, and the thrill of such an event was still untarnished. The clothes I was wearing were lightweight by British Standards, but Americans would have considered them too heavy even for early spring. It is a measure of the night's discomfort that I still remember what I wore. It was agreeable to be in the presence of the sort of VIPs who are often to be found at ringside. In the row behind me and only two seats away sat Governor Thomas E. Dewey of New York and General Douglas MacArthur. The Governor looked a little wilted, but General MacArthur, in a white collar and what might have been a Savile Row suit, set a Starch) example for us all.
It was something of a silver, if not golden, age of the sub-heavyweights, and these fighters were the class of the lot. Joey Maxim was defending the title he had won in 1950 from Freddie Mills of England. Sugar Ray was the middleweight champion of the world, having already held the welter title. He had defeated the middles (Graziano, LaMotta, Turpin, to name just three), and he was trying, as Henry Armstrong had done 12 years before, to hold world titles in three divisions. He was the overwhelming favorite for this fight.
Maxim's reputation was that of a relatively gentle soul with immense Style and boxing prowess. That would have been my impression of him, too, save for One thing. Everyone at some time is told a story so extraordinary that it defies contradiction, a private wisdom that remains an idée fixe in his mind, like a caraway seed in the teeth. Such a thing accounted for my impression of Maxim.
Some months before I was having lunch in Gennaro's Restaurant in London with Freddie Mills. Mills was craggy, tough and decently straight forward. As a boxer he could be described as a minor-league, Cockney version of Rocky Marciano. His only failing seems to have been a rather poor choice of associates. He later opened a Chinese restaurant in the Charing Cross Road, and was found shot dead in his car. Over our lunch Mills told me. "Joey Maxim is the hardest puncher I ever fought."
Astonished, I suggested that surely he had meant Gus Lesnevich, the man from whom he had taken the world title. Everybody knew Maxim could not hit.
"No." he said. "Joey Maxim. He knocked two of my teeth out."
And so, as the tight began that sweltering Bronx night, I was waiting to see the secret, lethal Joes Maxim, a pugilist unknown to anybody but Freddie Mills and myself, knock out the teeth of the incomparable Ray Robinson.
The fight, as it progressed, went exactly as predicted by everybody but Freddie Mills and me. Maxim floundered along, full of good intentions, while Robinson pirouetted around him, hitting him whenever the fancy took him. In fact it was not until the ninth round that Maxim landed a respectable punch.
Inside the ring, under the lights, where the temperature was 104°, both men kept lighting in their respective styles. They sprayed sweat, but neither seemed un-duly weakened. Robinson took the first 11 rounds with ease. In The New York Times next day Arthur Daley reported, "The middleweight king was truly superb. His combination punches rocked Maxim, and raked him to jaw and body. He hooked and he crossed and he jabbed and he delivered uppercuts. In the seventh Maxim was almost on the verge of a knockout and required smelling salts in his corner." In the same paper James P. Dawson wrote, "Fighting out of a crouch, ignoring a weight handicap of pretty close to twenty pounds, Robinson blazed through the rounds, punching Maxim almost at will."
The fight took a surprising turn at the end of the 10th round, but it did not concern either fighter. Ruby Goldstein, the referee, suddenly caved in. His glistening face turned a horrid gray and. at the bell ending the round, he signaled that he could not continue. The heat had become too much for him. Ray Miller took over at the beginning of the 11th.
Then, not quite so suddenly, but plain for the excited crowd to see, the heat began eating into Sugar Rays reserves. The crowd yelled frantically for him to slow down, to coast along to the end and earn one of the easiest victories of his career. But Robinson continued to dance—on legs that were turning to rubber. Maxim took the 12th round, his first so far, and even began to look like the original figment of Freddie Mills' imagination (and mine). In the 13th Robinson's dance turned to a stagger. He lashed Out awkwardly, missed grotesquely and fell flat on his face. Then he pulled himself up and reeled round the ring. Maxim stared at him, flat-footed, nonplussed, possibly suspecting a trick. No wonder. Nothing in Maxim's career had prepared him to deal with this unprecedented opportunity. As the bell rang at the end of the 13th Robinson stumbled to a neutral corner. He had to be helped over to his stool. His head drooped. Massage and smelling sails failed to revive him. and he was unable to come out for the 14th. The doctor later pronounced it a "heat Stroke."
It was in this remarkable fashion that Sugar Ray Robinson suffered the first (and only) knockout of his career. He was half-carried to his dressing room, and he never fought again in the light heavyweight division. Maxim was his amiable self in his dressing room, showing no signs of damage from either the heat or the blows of Robinson. "Couldn't get near enough to the guy to hit him" was his considered judgment of the contest. Maxim went on fighting for another six years, and Robinson for another 13, to the glory of neither.
Through it all I had glanced from time to time at my neighbors in the press section. At the fight's end Governor Dewey looked as if he had been sitting in a hot shower. But General MacArthur was starchier than ever.