Move Like Sugar Ray

Sugar Ray Robinson is usually considered the best pound-for-pound boxer ever. Boxing has fallen in prestige a lot in the past 20 years, but for just about all of the 20th century, it was probably the most popular sport in the world, certainly America. Many boxers of nearly a century ago are still well-known names today, Joe Louis for example. Click here for a highlight reel of Robinson’s fights and here for a post I wrote about him a couple years ago, which includes a clip of him training (check out his jump roping, I don’t think he would have any problem with double unders).

Robinson amassed an incredible 85-0 amateur record with 69 knockouts (40 coming in the first round) before turning pro. He then went on a 40 fight win streak before losing for the first time to Jake LaMotta of Scorsese’s Raging Bull fame (Robinson and LaMotta would fight a total of six times with five going to Robinson). Robinson’s professional record was an astounding 173-19 with 108 knockouts across five weight divisions. Most of his losses came in his 40s when he was at the end of his 25-year professional career. He was only knocked out once, when fighting in 103 degree heat in a New York City summer, he failed to answer the bell for the 14 round due to the heat (he was ahead on all three judges score cards when he passed out). The ref had to be replaced twice during the fight.

In 1947, in a title fight, Robinson knocked out his opponent decisively. The opponent never regained consciousness and died later that night. Devastated, Robinson donated the winnings from his next four fights to his opponent’s mother.

Ok, by now you get that Sugar Ray Robinson was a pretty fantastic fighter, worthy of being called the best pound-for-pound boxer ever. He was fast, powerful, strong, and had great endurance and stamina. But, that could describe so many of his opponents as well. Robinson also possessed an absolute abundance of coordination, dexterity, balance, agility. And that’s what made him such an unbeatable fighter. He moved so well that one of the words used to describe him often is ‘graceful’, not an everyday word in conjunction with fighters, or any male athlete.

Robinson was a great dancer, as in professional level. He often credited his boxing ability to his dancing ability. Below is a very interesting clip of the dancer and movie star Gene Kelly and Robinson dancing together. It also shows Kelly imitating the movement of sports stars from that era (1958).

Dancing is a great path to improved coordination, dexterity, balance, agility, and mobility–the very physical attributes so prized by Robinson, but also the ones usually neglected in most CrossFitters’ training. When I watch Rich Froning knock out snatch after snatch in a WOD, or Camille LeBlanc-Bazinet rep out pullups, I’m most impressed with how graceful their movements are, not just how strong they are. It’s that perfect confluence of strength and power and excellence of movement that makes them so good.

Focus on quality of movement–coordination, dexterity, balance, agility, mobility–might not have the short term recognizable progress that a back squat progression might, but it’s that very quality that is possessed by the absolute best in every sport or physical activity.

In the seminal Fitness in 100 Words, CrossFit founder Greg Glassman writes to “regularly learn and play new sports.” Perhaps he should have added to regularly learn and practice new dance styles.