Friday, March 8, 2019

Ray Robinson: Tragedy and Hope

Maybe it was when he was five years old and his father threw him down the steps, breaking both of his legs. Or perhaps when he was living in a shelter and his mother was trying to kick drug addiction. Or how about when his mother and seven siblings all lived in a one-room apartment. 

Or maybe when he was nearly paralyzed during sparring as a 13-year-old when an undiagnosed neck injury from that fall down the stairs reared its ugly head. A loose bone from his neck had broken off and he couldn't move his head. Or maybe it was when he had to live in a chair for weeks at a time during his recovery because his family couldn't afford a medical bed. Or perhaps it was just after he received the call that he had been waiting for all his life, to fight on HBO Boxing, only to be rear-ended in a car accident, keeping him out of the ring for another 15 months.

Ray Robinson isn't supposed to still be here.

Despite having myriad reasons for self-pity and the justification many times over to quit, Robinson perseveres, and with a smile on his face, refusing to let a bad hand, or in his case, several bad decks, define him. Through it all, the glories and the down times, hope has sustained him, with boxing his salvation. 

After a year of convalescence following his neck surgeries, he begged his mother and his amateur coach, Howard "Moses" Mosley, to let him go back to the gym. Despite their initial skepticism, his undying passion for the sport convinced them to give him another chance. At first Moses insisted that Ray use the ring and avoid mixing it up in the trenches. Moses had made a promise to Ray's mother that he wouldn't let anything bad happen to her son. But after some amateur losses on the comeback trail, Ray's competitiveness took over. He knew that he needed to stand his ground and fight. 

Within two years of his comeback he was winning national tournaments. He was invited to Northern Michigan University to train with the best amateurs in the country and qualified for Team USA. From barely leaving Philadelphia growing up to fighting in Turkey, Italy and Russia with notables like Tim Bradley and Adrien Broner, it was almost out of a dream. Yes, the lows had been terrible, but the highs were beyond what he could even imagine.

Photo Courtesy of Chris Farina/Mayweather Promotions

Robinson (24-3, 12 KOs) fights welterweight contender Egidijus "Mean Machine" Kavaliauskas (21-0, 17 KOs) at the 2300 Arena in Philadelphia on March 30th. The fight is the co-feature to the Oleksandr Gvozdyk-Doudou Ngumbu matchup and will be televised by ESPN. Robinson knows that he will be the underdog in the bout, but fighting at home and finally having a full training camp, he feels 100% confident. 

When Robinson last fought in February of 2017, he lost to Yordenis Ugas via seventh-round knockout. It was perhaps the only time in his career when he didn't listen to his trainer, Derrick "Bozy" Ennis. They didn't have a full camp and Ennis didn't think that the moment was right. Robinson, who was still upset about missing that date on HBO against Dmitry Mikhaylenko, jumped at the chance. 

"My last fight," said Robinson, "Bozy kind of didn’t want me to take it, but I didn’t agree with him. I said, 'Let’s do it.' Sometimes trainers are right. Sometimes they see things they don’t like. With me and Bozy, it’s about trust. Bozy’s been in the game for a long time, way longer than me...He knows what’s best for his fighters. It’s important that I put trust and confidence in what he says. I felt like I had my back against the wall because of the HBO fight that didn’t happen...everything with the car accident. So this opportunity came and I think that I jumped at it too quick. I think I didn’t have time to prepare properly."

Robinson, a 5'10" southpaw with a slick boxing style, has always struggled to get big fights as a professional. His favorite fighter is Pernell Whitaker, and like Whitaker, very few want to deal with him unless they have to. Even after losing to Ugas, a scenario when the phone often rings because a fighter now looks vulnerable, the calls didn't come. Robinson's manager, David McWater, who has represented him the past three years, is amazed at how challenging it's been to get Robinson fights.

"Ray's a wonderful person," said McWater, "but it's hard because nobody wants to fight a slick southpaw. It's hard to get a break for this kid...Ray is a number-one guy. I love him to death. I would do anything for him, but it's hard. I thought after he lost to Ugas we would get offers right and left. Not true."

But the lack of opportunities or fights on short notice has been a theme throughout his career. Despite his amateur pedigree, he wasn't signed by any of the major powerhouse promoters in boxing. As a young fighter, he faced three undefeated boxers in a four-fight span – Darnell Jiles Jr., Brad Solomon and Shawn Porter – and he dropped decisions to the last two. After the defeat to Porter, he was fed up. He felt mistreated by the industry.

"I was confused," he said. “I wasn’t sure. I was ticked off by managers and my promoters [he was promoted by Star Boxing at the time]. I was a fighter that spoke well in front of the cameras. I wore a suit. I thought they would have taken care of me better, that they wouldn’t have rushed me in there like that. I was irritated and ticked off. After the Porter fight, I found out that certain people were stealing from me. I didn’t understand that side of boxing.

"[Former champion] David Reid was out there with us in Michigan [where Robinson trained for Team USA]. He used to tell me about that side of boxing, that it can be a dirty game if you end up in the wrong hands. I had never really seen that side – basically using you up like a workhorse until they tossed you to the side. That’s how I felt. I was being used for their benefit. So I took some time off."

Robinson got a nine-to-five job working in the auto body industry. He thought he might be done. But as he had more time to reflect, the sport that he fell in love with as an eight-year-old kept calling him back. After a year out of boxing he returned with a renewed commitment to the sport, and he won 13 fights in a row.

Throughout it all, despite tragedies and setbacks that would have made many lesser men quit, Robinson never relinquished his hope, that good things would be in store for him. He still believes that the best years of his boxing career are ahead of him. 

"If you don’t have hope in life" he said, "you’re going nowhere. Because the moment when you’re stuck, the only thing you do have is hope...Never give up. If you have a dream, just go get it. 

"Anything in life – it doesn’t have to be in sports – you have to appreciate your ups and your downs. I had a lot of downs growing up and that gave me my tough skin...With me having a couple of roadblocks in life in general, the shelter, getting thrown down the steps, whatever it may be, it gave me my tough skin. Seeing my mom going through the hell that she went through, I got to have that tough skin.

"Any day you could always get that phone call. Boxing could be that lottery ticket. And I’m not talking about money. But any day you could get that dream call, that dream opportunity that could change your life."

The phone did ring for the Kavaliauskas fight. Robinson and McWater both loved the matchup. "We jumped at the opportunity," said McWater. "Ray thinks it's the perfect opportunity for him now, and so do I. I more than jumped at it. I basically begged [Top Rank matchmaker] Brad Goodman for it. We're excited." 

And Ray has never had an opportunity of this magnitude where he can fight in front of his hometown fans. He thinks it will help propel him in the fight. Even though he might be the "opponent," he's going to be the opponent with a lot of crowd support. 

"This is amazing," he said. "I’m so excited. It’s so weird how the boxing game is. You can be up, but once you get down, you feel like nobody gives you a shot to win the fight. And I’m OK with that. 1000%. I took that one setback and everyone makes it out like I lost nine straight. But things happen for a reason. You can’t stop God’s plans. Maybe if I didn’t fight Ugas I never would have gotten this fight. Maybe these guys think they see something that they can take advantage of, and this is why I got this opportunity. This is the reason why I’m training so much harder."

At 33, there might not be many more chances to get to the big time. Although he is now a veteran fighter, with over 12 years of experience as a pro, his passion for the sport still burns brightly. The science of it keeps him hooked. Hit and not be hit. All those fantastic Philly gym sayings – “swim without getting wet" or "playing in the mud without getting dirty" – continue to speak to him.

Ray has raved about his camp at the Harrowgate Boxing Club. Sparring with his good friend, uber-prospect Jaron "Boots" Ennis, who is also Bozy's son, Ray feels ready for this opportunity. He has no excuses. The problems the plagued him earlier in his professional career – the short camps, the inactivity, the people who weren't looking out for him – that’s all in the past. Yes, his tragedies have helped form who he is, but they don't possess him. He seems to have made peace with his past. He's just looking for that one performance, that one night to put it all together. 

"In boxing," he said, "nothing is guaranteed. Nothing is stamped. Sometimes the fight gods won’t always go your way. What's perfect about boxing is that any given night, anyone could have that big uh-oh, that big moment or that big upset."

He believes that it's his time. "My mindset is perfect. I’m a little bit hungrier. And hopefully I’m a little bit smarter. When you take some downs in your career, or in life in general, you make sure that you make the right choices to be successful. You've also got to love what you do. And I absolutely love this shit."

As harrowing as Robinson's misfortunes have been, he has bigger things on his mind now. In another month, his career, his life, could look completely different. He has a big fight coming up. And he is ready.  

Adam Abramowitz is the founder and head writer of saturdaynightboxing.comHe's a member of Ring Magazine's Ring Ratings Panel and a Board Member for the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board. 
snboxing on twitter. SN Boxing on Facebook.

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