Lee Groves

10: Most historically significant upsets

8. Randy Turpin W 15 Sugar Ray Robinson I: July 10, 1951, Earls Court Arena, London, England

During the first 11 years of his career Robinson exemplified what the term “pound-for-pound best” meant. Through 132 fights, Robinson’s record was 128-1-2 (84) with one no-contest and since winning the middleweight title from Jake LaMotta in the “St. Valentine’s Day Massacre” Sugar Ray had gone 7-0 (5) with one no-contest. “Invincible” wasn’t too strong a word to describe the 30-year-old Robinson but, in retrospect, the lead-up to his first title defense against Turpin foreshadowed trouble.

First, the Turpin bout was the final segment of Robinson’s second grand tour of Europe, which saw him fight in France, Switzerland, Belgium (twice), Germany and Italy before facing Turpin in England. With Robinson fighting six times in 41 days there wasn’t much time to do much else than fight and enjoy the amenities. Needless to say, Sugar Ray excelled in both activities. That was trouble spot number one.

Trouble spot number two unfolded during the German leg of the tour, which saw Robinson fight Gerhard Hecht in Berlin. Late in round one a right that hit the German in the middle portion of his back as he was turning away caused Hecht to fall and roll around on the canvas as if mortally struck. The bell saved Hecht, who was carried to his corner. Early in round two Robinson landed three rights to the short ribs during a clinch and Hecht fell again, this time claiming an illegal kidney punch. Referee Otto Nispel initially disqualified Robinson but the German commission changed the result to a no-contest.

Robinson’s memories of the Hecht debacle remained fresh in the lead-up to the Turpin fight 16 days later. Knowing that England had a strict policy regarding low blows, Robinson was hesitant to try any body punches lest he be DQ’d after his first offense. Normally an excellent body puncher, Robinson voluntarily jettisoned half his offense in the name of preserving his title.

The third – and most significant – factor that led to Robinson’s defeat was Turpin himself. Unlike the 154½-pound Robinson, the bull-strong Turpin was a full-fledged middleweight that sported the torso of a light heavyweight and the stamina of a triathlete. In building a 40-2-1 (29) record, Turpin had reeled off 21 consecutive victories. Also, the 23-year-old “Leamington Licker” was seven years younger and miles fresher than the party-hearty champion.

From first bell to last an overworked and distracted Robinson was off his game while Turpin was at his positive peak. Turpin’s lunging thrusts, deep knee bends and wide-but-fast power shots short-circuited Robinson’s exquisite timing. It also didn’t hurt Turpin’s cause that referee Eugene Henderson was exceedingly lenient when it came to controlling the clinches. Turpin was masterful during the lengthy infighting as he repeatedly worked his free hand and maneuvered his lithe opponent with startling ease. Finally, every time Robinson scored a direct hit on Turpin’s chin – which wasn’t often – the Briton unflinchingly absorbed the impact and kept boring in.

An accidental butt in the seventh opened a gash over Robinson’s left eye that eventually required 12 stitches. Despite never having gone more than eight rounds in a pro fight – a threshold he reached only nine times coming in – Turpin was the stronger, feistier fighter in the championship rounds.

Referee Henderson, the fight’s lone arbiter under the British system, raised Turpin’s arm moments after the bout ended, making him the first British-born man to win the middleweight title since Bob Fitzsimmons stopped Nonpareil Jack Dempsey 60 years earlier. Though Turpin’s reign would last just 64 days, the impact of his incredible upset remains immortal. 

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