Haunted by a personal tragedy, Sugar Ray Robinson easily could have thrown in the towel.
Instead, the world welterweight champion traveled to Akron, laced up his gloves and rose to the occasion.
Robinson, 26, reclaimed his career when he agreed to headline a boxing match Aug. 21, 1947, at the Rubber Bowl. The fight card was unusual because it also featured world middleweight champion Rocky Graziano in a preliminary, four-round exhibition. Two New York legends shared the bill!
Robinson was scheduled to appear in a 10-round bout against sixth-ranked welterweight Sailor Sammy Secreet, 27, a Pittsburgh pugilist who served in the Navy during World War II. Graziano, 28, was up against Cliff Koerkle, 25, a New York boxer who was best known for losing a split decision to Jake LaMotta.
Returning to the ring was a difficult decision for Robinson. The last time he fought, the results were catastrophic.
Los Angeles boxer Jimmy Doyle, 22, had challenged Robinson to a title bout June 24, 1947, at the Cleveland Arena. Haplessly overmatched, Doyle faced a brutal barrage for eight rounds before Robinson caught him in the jaw with a wicked left hook, sending the challenger flying backward to the canvas, where he struck his head with a horrible thud.
Doyle tried to stand, but lost consciousness. Handlers carried him to an ambulance, which transported him to St. Vincent Charity Hospital.
Robinson’s celebration of a knockout victory in a title bout quickly turned to despair when he learned that his opponent was in a coma. He camped out at the hospital, pleading with Doyle’s trainers: “Is there anything I can do?”
Doctors performed emergency brain surgery on Doyle after diagnosing a cerebral hemorrhage. He never awoke. Seventeen hours after the fight, he was pronounced dead.
“I’m sure sorry about this,” a distraught Robinson told reporters. “I didn’t have any idea he was seriously hurt when I left the ring. He was a great kid and a swell fighter.”
Cuyahoga County Coroner Samuel Gerber ruled the death an accident, saying Robinson was “absolutely blameless” and “unfortunate in being the opposing contestant at the time of Doyle’s fatal injuries.”
Back in the ring
After taking nearly two months off, Robinson was persuaded to return to the ring for a series of charity bouts to benefit Doyle’s family. The Akron fight was the first in the series.
Robinson manager George Gainford and press agent Pete Vaccare were not confident that Robinson was ready.
“Naturally, we don’t talk about Doyle in Sugar’s presence,” Vaccare told the Beacon Journal in 1947. “We just can’t go up to him and say ‘Now, Sugar, we want you to forget all about that affair in Cleveland,’ and we can’t keep asking him if he has wiped it from his mind. …
“We will be watching him closely to see if there are any signs of him pulling his punches or any worrying when his punches connect. Sugar was the greatest fighter in the world at his weight the night he met Doyle, but it doesn’t take very much for a great fighter to lose his edge and to become a has-been.”
Boxing promoter Bob Heath, who owned Kippy’s Restaurant in downtown Akron, welcomed the fight at the Rubber Bowl. Tickets cost $5.50 ringside, $3.50 reserved and $1.50 general admission. The cavernous stadium had about 35,000 seats available — as opposed to the Akron Armory, the usual boxing venue, which had a capacity of only 3,000.
Keeping a low profile, the 152-pound Robinson trained that week at the armory while the 148-pound Secreet worked out at Army-Navy Post 102.
Cleveland promoter Larry Atkins, who arranged the ill-fated Robinson-Doyle bout, had the gall to criticize the Akron fight.
“If Sugar Robinson should kill Sammy Secreet Thursday night in the Rubber Bowl, don’t forget to mention that I warned you it probably would happen,” he told Beacon Journal sports scribe Jim Schlemmer. “This thing is pure murder. Secreet is being licked nowadays by rank preliminary fighters and to send him into action against Robinson is the rankest kind of matchmaking.”
National Weather Service forecaster Ray Robinson — yes, that really was his name — made a bold prediction at Akron Municipal Airport that a warm, dry night was in store for boxing fans.
So, of course, it poured cats and dogs as soon as the matches began. Dreams of a huge walk-up crowd evaporated. Only 4,865 fans showed up in the driving rain.
Foul weather may have had something to do with the sloppiness of the fights.
In preliminary bouts, Sandy Siebert of Pittsburgh clobbered Eddie Cross of Detroit, Danny Peters of New York pummeled Russell Budd of Pittsburgh, and Sammy Schipani of Pittsburgh battered Johnny Chatmon of Buffalo, N.Y. Each win was a second-round knockout.
The Graziano-Koerkle exhibition turned out to be a wash, too, with the fighters wearing helmets and big gloves. The first round was 90 seconds, the second was 60 seconds, the third was 45 and the fourth was 30. Graziano took home $1,050 for 225 seconds in the ring.
Robinson’s previous fight was a tragedy, but this one turned into a comedy. Ringside fans turned their chairs upside down and used them as umbrellas as the rain fell.
Secreet’s handlers carried him to the ring so his shoes wouldn’t get soaked in the wet grass. It didn’t help. The fight was over in one minute and 50 seconds.
“Robinson sparred with him for a full minute, maneuvering him around to a spot where there would be the minimum splash when Sammy hit the canvas,” Schlemmer wrote.
“Then the champion landed a left jab, a left hook and a right stab to the button. Secreet went straight down. Referee Eddie Atlas went through the motions of counting but Secreet had no intentions of getting up.”
Gate receipts for the soggy evening were a disappointing $9,542 — about $110,000 today.
Robinson donated about $700 of the take to Doyle’s family, along with 10 percent of the proceeds from his next three bouts. By November, he had collected enough money to set up a 10-year trust fund to pay $50 a month to Doyle’s mother, Marie DeLaney.
Decades later, Secreet recalled the Akron fight as dreadful but memorable.
“No, I didn’t last long against Robinson, but to be frank with you, it was one of my worst performances and it almost ended my career,” he told a reporter. “I wasn’t in shape and it almost wrecked me. …
“But even if I had been in great shape, I suspect he would have beaten me anyhow.”
Robinson went on to become a five-time middleweight champion. Heralded as one of the greatest boxers of all time, he retired from the ring in 1965, compiling a record of 175-19-6, including 110 knockouts. He was battling Alzheimer’s disease when he died April 12, 1989, at age 67.
Sam Secreet, who also had Alzheimer’s, died Aug. 2, 1999, in Steubenville. He was 79.
Although their match is only a footnote in boxing history, its significance cannot be denied.
On a soggy canvas 65 years ago in Akron, Sugar Ray Robinson found his footing and regained the will to fight.
Beacon Journal copy editor Mark J. Price is the author of The Rest Is History: True Tales From Akron’s Vibrant Past, a book from the University of Akron Press. He can be reached at 330-996-3850 or firstname.lastname@example.org.