Contending against the odds

A lifelong endeavor: Ray Robinson took up boxing at age 8. He later earned a spot in the USA Boxing Team that traveled to Russia, Turkey and Italy. He collected 11 wins in his first 32 months at a pro, including appearances in New York, Connecticut, Atlantic City, Illinois and Northeast Philly’s own National Guard Armory. MARIA YOUNG / TIMES PHOTO

Pro boxer Ray Robinson gave his first interview when he was 7.

A newspaper reporter was working on a story about the staggering upsurge of children living in Philadelphia’s homeless shelters and asked Robinson what he’d do if he ever saw his abusive absentee father again.

“If I see him, I’ll kill him,” he told the journalist, who published the ominous quote verbatim.

It was May 1993 and Robinson had been living for about a year in a single room of the Stenton Family Manor with five of his six older siblings and their single mother, a recovering drug addict. The cozy-sounding name of the place belied reality. At the time, the Philadelphia Inquirer described it and venues of its kind as “large, loud, dingy, crowded and, by their very nature, unhappy institutions — a tough place to raise a kid. And an even tougher place to be one.”

“One single parent with seven kids, you can imagine what that was like,” Robinson told the Northeast Times during a recent lunch at a sports bar near his Bustleton apartment. “It was just about hardship. You’d see people on the corner who had nice clothes and always had money, but that was the easy part. You’d also see how they were always getting stopped by the cops.”

Robinson, who’s ranked among the top welterweight contenders in the world, acquired much of his toughness at Stenton, but that wasn’t all he got. He also managed to cultivate a profound will to improve his condition without resorting to the self-destructive paths taken by many of his contemporaries.

His stiff jab and savvy ring footwork would come a few years later.

On Friday night, March 24, he’ll be putting it all on the line — his toughness, talent, No. 13 WBC ranking and aspirations of a title shot — when he headlines the first-ever boxing card at the Fillmore in Fishtown. Robinson will battle former Brazilian champ Claudinei “Volcano” Lacerda.

Hard Hitting Promotions, a local company founded by South Philly resident Manny Rivera and Florida native Will Ruiz, will stage the card. They are the same promoters who brought boxing to the nearby SugarHouse casino for the first time last year.

“I didn’t need to get into a bunch of trouble to get into boxing,” Robinson said. “A lot of guys get into it because you’re allowed to hit people. For me, hitting people is cool, but I fell in love with the science part: making someone miss, hit without getting hit, swim without getting wet, playing in the mud and not getting dirty.”

Robinson laughed as he rattled off those old-school training room adages faster than a Mike Tyson flurry. And in an era when top pros seem to make more money feigning each other at press conferences than throwing down in the ring, Robinson is definitely old school.

For starters, there’s his name.

Long before the world had ever heard of Floyd Mayweather, Tyson, Sugar Ray Leonard or even Muhammad Ali, there was Sugar Ray Robinson, a six-time world champion at welterweight and middleweight in the 1940s and ’50s and the guy whom most experts still call the greatest boxer pound-for-pound of all time. He amassed an astounding 175 wins, 109 by knockout, in a 25-year career that included a 91-bout winning streak from 1943 to ’51.

ldquo;When I was 8 or 9, somebody asked me about Sugar Ray Robinson and I really didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know about him,” the younger Robinson said. “So I found a book and read about him. I would love to train to do half the things that man did.”

For “The New Ray Robinson” (that’s his official ring handle), carrying around such a legendary moniker has been less a source of excessive expectations than one of pride and motivation. As an amateur, people called him Ray “Picture Perfect” Robinson, perhaps as a commentary on his unblemished boyish appearance. When he turned pro, he meant to drop the nickname. But as he stepped into the ring on Dec. 8, 2006, for his debut at the Paradise Theater in The Bronx, the announcer blurted out “The New” and the ad lib stuck.

“Growing up, my coach told me, ‘With a name like that, somebody is always going to want to beat you and you’ve got to never let that happen,’ ” Robinson said.

It rarely has. Robinson cut his teeth as an amateur under trainer Howard “Moses” Mosely, who not only taught him the finer points of the sport, but became a much-needed father figure to complement the positive influence of his mom, Diane.

“I not only had a boxing coach. I had a life coach,” Robinson said.

He took up the sport at age 8 and logged more than 100 amateur bouts. Under Mosely’s guidance, Robinson earned an invitation to study and train at the US Olympic Education Center in Marquette, Michigan, for his high school and post-graduate years. He earned a spot in the USA Boxing Team that traveled to Russia, Turkey, Italy and elsewhere for head-to-head competitions.

For the North Philly native, it was a great opportunity to relieve some of the financial burden on his mom — Team USA covered his room and board and paid him a stipend — but it also forced him to get serious about life a lot quicker than many teens.

“I was a young jawn up there. I was living in a college dorm and going to high school,” he said. “It showed me that as a human being, I can adjust to anything, but it was difficult because I didn’t have family around. It was just me. I had to grow up, make sure I got my homework done, my projects done and train on top of that.”

He never reached the Olympics, but earned a technical degree in auto repair and set himself up for a pro career. He returned to Philly in 2006, reunited with Mosley and collected 11 wins in his first 32 months at a pro, including appearances in New York, Connecticut, Atlantic City, Illinois and Northeast Philly’s own National Guard Armory.

On the heels of that streak, Robinson’s old-school nature kicked in. Rather than signing to fight an inferior opponent to pad his win-loss record, Robinson took on another rising talent in undefeated Brad Solomon, who would claim a majority decision in their December 2009 bout. Solomon later improved his record to 26-0 before losing an NABF welterweight title fight at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas 11 months ago.

Robinson returned to the ring seven months after his first loss to take on another undefeated foe, Shawn Porter, who out-pointed him in a unanimous 10-round decision. Porter later ran his record to 24-0-1 and secured a pair of world title shots, losing both.

For his part, Robinson took 14 months off, regrouped and reeled off 11 straight wins, including victories at the SugarHouse on North Delaware Avenue in October and January.

About three years ago, Mosley retired from the gym and left his prize pupil in the hands of another of Philly’s elite trainers, Derrick “Bozy” Ennis, a Pine Valley resident who runs “Bozy’s Dungeon” on the second floor of Harrowgate Boxing Club near Venango and Emerald streets. 

“It is like a dungeon. It’s not one of those super clean gyms. It’s one of those rugged Philly gyms,” Robinson said. “I like it that way. There’s no air conditioning and when I’m working out, I want to sweat.”

Ennis’ stable of fighters also includes Jaron “Bootsy” Ennis, his 19-year-old son who has won his first nine pro welterweight bouts and is considered a future world title contender.

“Bozy is one of the best trainers out there, a really smart guy. He’s offensive and defensive put together, a really smart coach,” Robinson said. “(Mosley and Ennis) have had hundreds of fighters, I feel lucked up having had both of those guys.”

Still, Robinson feels a bit frustrated, too. Even after his two losses, he had been ranked by all the major boxing organizations. The WBC had him as high as the No. 4-ranked contender at one point. But he’s been slipping down the list — probably due in part to inactivity following an auto accident. But by now, he also knows that internal politics play a big part in signing a big money fight. And maybe opponents fear his southpaw style.

“The closer I get to my dream, the farther away it’s seemed because I’ve been ranked for a while now but haven’t gotten my shot yet,” he said. “It’s all about finding that pass code to the bank.”

In light of his humble beginnings, Robinson has already demonstrated a heart of gold. Outside the ring, he runs his own personal training business and raising his 8-year-old daughter Mya, who along with his girlfriend Jaclyne, provide him with all the inspiration he needs.

“From how I grew up, the hard-knock life, from how my mom had seven kids and kept us all together, I feel that’s mentally tough like boxing. It was like training for months before you go to war,” he said. “And everything is together for me now, which is why I appreciate it more. Now I know if I need a meal I can eat. I’m doing OK for myself, but I want more.” ••

Ring master: Ray Robinson, who’s ranked among the top welterweight contenders in the world, points to his belts in his Bustleton home. MARIA YOUNG / TIMES PHOTO
Ready to rumble: Ray Robinson shows off his belts with daughter Mya, 8, and girlfriend, Jaclyne. Robinson will battle former Brazilian champ Claudinei “Volcano” Lacerda in the first-ever boxing card at the Fillmore in Fishtown. MARIA YOUNG / TIMES PHOTO