They were nine days that shook the boxing world.
Sugar Ray Robinson lost the middleweight championship to a boxer little known outside Britain and Jersey Joe Walcott finally won the heavyweight title in what have to be two of the biggest upsets in boxing history.
On July 10, 1951, the peerless Sugar Ray boxed Randy Turpin, who had never fought beyond eight rounds, in London in what was his first defense of the title he won by stopping Jake LaMotta earlier in the year.
Boxing fans were still buzzing about Robinson’s first loss in eight years (to LaMotta) when eight days later the 37-year-old Walcott became the oldest heavyweight champion by knocking out Ezzard Charles in the seventh round at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh.
“I thought I was winning all the way,” Turpin said after his clear-cut upset win over a master boxer.
After finally becoming world champion, Walcott dropped to his knees and tried to say something into a radio microphone pushed toward him, but he was speechless
Ranking the 10 biggest upsets in boxing history is an impossible task. Having time on my hands, however, I will now take a shot. Putting James “Buster’ Douglas’s knockout of Mike Tyson on top, here in no particular order are the other seven of my top 10: Jim Braddock’s decision over Max Baer, Leon Spinks’s decision over Muhammad Ali, Max Schmeling’s knockout of Joe Louis, Ali’s technical knockout of Sonny Liston, Fritzie Zivic’s title-winning decision over Henry Armstrong, Ali’s knockout of George Foreman and Ingemar Johansson’s knockout of Floyd Patterson.
Of Turpin’s victory, Peter Wilson wrote in the Daily Express of London, “It was glorious victory for the British boy who few of us thought could survive more than a quarter of an hour with Sugar Ray Robinson.”
The 23-year-old Turpin, however, was anything but a club fighter. He was European and British champion, and a reason he had not gone past eight rounds was because of the punching power that produced 29 knockouts on a 43-2-1 record.
Still Turpin’s achievements paled along Robinson’s two world championships, a record of 128-1-2, 84 knockouts, and an unbeaten streak of 90 fights dating back to a 10-round decision loss to LaMotta in 1943. After holding the welterweight title from 1946 to 1950, Robinson became middleweight champion by stopping LaMotta in the 13th round on Feb. 14 1951. He then went to Europe for six non-title fights. Two of them were very interesting.
Robinson was awarded a technical knockout when his opponent, Jan de Bruin, left the ring in the eighth round on June 10 at Antwerp, Belgium. “The Dutchman said he left the ring because Robinson apparently didn’t put forth his best efforts when he had his opponent cornered in the sixth and seventh rounds,” The Associated Press reported. In other words, De Bruin said he quit because he was not getting beat up enough. Robinson’s version was De Bruin quit because he was getting beat up too much.
On June 24 in Berlin, Robinson apparently knocked out Gerhard Hecht with a body punch in the first round, but the German’s cornermen and the crowd protested that the blow was an illegal punch to the kidneys.
Although Hecht had been counted out Robinson was told by referee Otto Nispel that the fight was not over. “What are you talking about?” Robinson recounted saying in “Sugar Ray,” his 1970 autobiography. “You just counted him out. Yes, I know (Nispel replied) but I’ve got to live here.”
Early in the second round, Hecht went down and out, then a shower of bottles forced Robinson to seek cover under the ring. Robinson was disqualified, but the West Germany Boxing Commission later ruled it was two-round no-contest.
Robinson concluded his European tour with a quiet 10-round decision win over Cyrille Dellanoit of Belgium at Turin, Italy, then he went to London where he defended the title against Turpin before a sellout crowd of 18,000 in Earls Court.
Perhaps the European trip had taken something out of Robinson or he just underestimated Turpin, as many boxing observers did. Whatever the reason, Turpin dominated the action. He had Robinson hanging on in the eighth round and had him in serious trouble in the 14th round. Nobody was surprised when referee Eugene Henderson, the only official, lifted Turpin’s hand in victory. The AP card favored Turpin 9-4-2.
After the fight Turpin visited Robinson’s dressing room and told him “You were a real champion just like they told me.” Replied Robinson, “You were real good just like they said you were. I have no alibis. I was beaten by a better man.”
Before Turpin left the ring, he told the crowd over the public address system, “I hope I am able to keep this for you for a long time.” Two months later in New York, Robinson regained the title by stopping Turpin in the 10th round.
When it was announced Ezzard Charles would defend the heavyweight title against Jersey Joe Walcott, the boxing press immediately dubbed the match the “Why fight?” Wakcott had already lost two challenges to Joe Louis and two to Charles.
After Louis retired following his rematch knockout of Walcott in the 11th round, Charles became recognized as champion by the NBA by outpointing Walcott in 1949. After three NBA defenses, Charles gained recognition as undisputed champion on a decision over Louis in 1950. Charles scored two knockout victories in title fights, then apparently ended Walcott’s championship aspirations with a 15-round decision on May 7, 1951.
Despite Charles being a 6-1 favorite a crowd of 28,272 fans showed up at Forbes Field, the home of the Pittsburgh Pirates, to watch what surely had to be Walcott’s farewell.
This time Walcott, who weighed 194 pounds to 182 for Charles, who never was more than an overweight light heavyweight, fought more aggressively. He hurt Charles with a left hook in the third round and shook him with four hooks in the sixth. Then in the seventh round, Walcott crashed a hook to Charles jaw that dropped the defending champion face down with his gloved fists under him. He raised his head at the count of six and started to rise, but he could get no farther than being on his knees at the count of 10.
“It was a sucker punch,” Charles said. “Why I even got in the way of it I’ll never know.”
It is said that familiarity breeds contempt. Maybe Charles had seen too much of old Jersey Joe to take him seriously.
The two men would meet a fourth time, with Walcott winning a decision in 1952. Later in the same year, he would lose the title when knocked out in the 13th round by Rocky Marciano with arguably the greatest right-hand punch ever thrown.