Starbuck Arena Saw The Birth of “Sugar” Ray Robinson On January 4, 1939
On January 4, 1939, a 17-year-old Walter “Walker” Smith, Jr., would arrive on the boxing scene at Starbuck Arena, in Watertown, N.Y, having assumed the name Raymond Robinson from a friend’s birth certificate in order to meet the age requirements for AAU. Ray would make his Watertown debut on the heels of an outstanding amateur reputation built from fights largely around the New York metropolitan area. Watertown would give him something the New York City area had not: a name that fit like a glove.
Ray’s fight on January 4, 1939 with Eastern Champ Dom Perfetti would see him leaving the ring with the Watertown Daily Times sports editor John “Jack” G. Case proclaiming, “…he was one of the ‘sweetest’ pieces of fighting machine that had been seen here in many months.” While the moment would serve as an important one, the history of time and place would be incomplete without a look at the Starbuck Arena itself.
Built in 1918, the Starbuck Arena was originally the New York Air Brake’s effort to appease thousands of workers who were supporting the WWI effort at the East Plant located on Starbuck Ave. On April 4, 1918, the Watertown Daily Times addressed the Air Brake’s intent to build an employee restaurant–
RESTAURANT TO FEED 1,200 MEN
Operated By Brake Company
The New York Air Brake Company will, within a short time, erect a building on the south side of Starbuck Avenue to be used as a restaurant with accommodations for 1,200 men at one time. The equipment for the restaurant has been purchased by the company and work will be started in the building as soon as possible.
This step was decided upon by the company as the only possible solution to the problem of furnishing eating accommodations to the several thousand men who are to be employed at the east plant. During the last few weeks many complaints have been heard from the men, to the effect that they are unable to get their meals, especially the noon hour meal.
Many of the men brought here from other cities have secured furnished rooms and are taking their meals in restaurants. This method necessitated their getting up at an early hour in the morning in order to have breakfast down town and be at work at 7. They either had to take their dinner with them from some restaurant, or come down town of it. The men claim that it is almost impossible to come down town, get their dinner and be back to work in an hour.
The restaurant will be operated on the cafeteria system, whereby the men will serve themselves. It has been decided that this is the only feasible method of taking care of such a large number of men in so short time. Many of the minor details have not been worked out, but it is planned to make the restaurant one of the most up to date possible and to serve the very best of meals at a nominal cost. The workmen will be able to take all three meals of the day at the company restaurant if they so desire. It is also planned to serve a midnight meal to accommodate the night workers in the shops.
With the thousands of workers settling onto the ever-growing, rough-and-tumble North Side, small neighborhoods such as Watertown Heights and Lansingdorp would develop adjacent to the Air Brake’s plant. New schools such as North Junior and neighborhood grocery stores like Bajally’s couldn’t come soon enough, often years after the growth had already presented its fair share of problems. The addition of a restaurant for the workers was undoubtedly a great benefit for all involved.
Prior to the matches at Starbuck Arena, boxing, or “Fight Club” as it was often called, was held at the Odd Fellows Temple on the corner of Stone and Arcade Streets back in the 1920s. Come 1930, all that would change when the Air Brake Restaurant, noted in a Times article on October 22 as “former,” would now be known as an athletic club.
BRAKE BUILDING IS FIGHT ARENA
Restaurant To Be Known As Olympic A. C.
The new fight club is much larger than the Odd Fellows Temple and it will accommodate about 2,000 fans. The ring will probably be erected in the center of the place with chairs and bleachers on the four sides. During the past two weeks, workmen have been busily engaged getting the place cleaned and the chairs and ring set up for the opening battles.
The Olympic A. C. would host numerous amateur wrestling and boxing matches up until March of 1933 when no further information was found. The A. C. apparently disbanded or moved elsewhere as in the following year, the place was formally introduced in the news as Starbuck Arena for the first time on July 3, 1934 with an article on wresting matches.
Raymond Robinson Makes Memorial Watertown Debut
Contrary to some reports, Ray Robinson wasn’t a relatively unknown when he came to Watertown, NY, to fight on January 4th, 1939. Unknown to Northern New York, perhaps, but there was a buzz about town before his first fight as reported in the Watertown Daily Times on December 30, 1938–
NEW YORK BOYS WILL BOX HERE
Four of New York’s outstanding amateur mittmen will display their fistic skills and hitting power at the Starbuck Arena next Wednesday night, when George Gainford, well known metropolitan fistic trainer, brings a team here to meet some of the leading upstate amateur leatherpushers.
Robinson is probably the outstanding member of the team. He is in great demand throughout the metropolitan section because of his aggressive tactics whenever in the ring. Cox is a willing boxer, who goes best when a foe is willing to trade wallops with him.
Robinson would not end up fighting Cox. Rather, he would take on Eastern States Champion Dom Perfetti. In a retrospective piece from the Daily Times on August 28, 1970 would explain the changes–
Some 18 years after he had won and then lost the middleweight title, when Robinson was trying to make a comeback, Sugar Ray’s tenacity and spirit provoked Jack Case to Thoughts of the incident that lead to his first fight here against Amsterdam fisher Dom Perfetti.
“Gainford (George Gainford, Robinson’s manager), who had been bringing amateur fighters here for a couple of years before Robinson’s first appearance on the horizon, had agreed to have a popular New York scrapper, Dewitt Jenkins, fight Perfetti. The night before the fight, Gainford told Belden and this writer that in a long distance telephone conversation that Jenkins would be unable to come. George said he was brining a new boy, Raymond Robinson.”
“Belden protested loudly over the telephone, saying he didn’t want Robinson, but wanted Jenkins. Gainford assured this writer that Robinson was a good boy–one that would give the fans a great battle. The trainer of the New York scrappers said if Robinson wasn’t as good as he said, it wouldn’t be necessary to give the team any expense money.”
As it were, the decision was made prior to the night before. The headline printed several days earlier on December 31st, 1938 was “Ray Robinson To Battle Perfetti.” Per the article, the discussion actually occurred on December 29th–
“I know that Perfetti is a clever ring performer but I am sure he will get all the fight he wants when Robinson starts showering him with leather,” said Gainsford while talking to Belden over the long distance telephone Thursday night. “If Perfetti is willing to fight, Watertown fans will see a real scrap. I know Ray will throw leather from start to finish.”
January 4th, the day of the fight, would see more barbs thrown in the Daily Times leading up to the main event–
Perfetti made a decided hit with local fans when he fought Pinti. He proved to be a real ring general and a speedy boxer on that occasion. Those who watched Perfetti beat the Roman, feel the New Yorker will have to be a better than average scrapper if he hopes to take the measure of the Amsterdam leather pusher.
Robinson, a newcomer to local fight fans, has an excellent reputation in the Metropolitan area. George Gainford, well known fight trainer, claims his latest ring sensation will knock the crown from Perfetti’s head. Gainford told Belden when he agreed to bring Robinson here that the Gothamite is one of the finest ring performers in Greater New York. The metropolitan scrapper is not only a classy boxer but he is reputed to possess a real knock-out wallop.
The account of “Sugar” Ray’s origin that fight club night, as told in the 1970 retrospective piece continued–
That night, in a five round main bout, Robinson delighted the Watertown audience by defeating Perfetti, both outboxing and out-punching the champ.
Jack Case was standing at ringside when the Harlem fighter emerged from the ring, sweating and jubilant.
“That’s a sweet figure you’ve got there,” he told Gainford, “A real sweet fighter.”
“As sweet as sugar,” Robinson later recalled a woman at ringside chiming in.
The next day The Times sports editor used the magic nickname Sugar Ray in his column. The name, of course, stuck.
Interestingly, and a minor quibble, Case didn’t refer to Ray as “Sugar Ray” for quite some time. Rather, Case would either write “Raymond (Sugar) Robinson,” or “Ray (Sugar) Robinson” in his initial articles. The origins of “As sweet as sugar” would be contradicted by Robinson himself in an interview when he noted the response came from his manager, Gainford.
Nevertheless, the name stuck and the Times noted that, in his Biography, Robinson explained why: “…Like Babe Ruth. When people talk about the Babe, that’s all they have to say, everybody knows who they mean. It got to be that way with me. Sugar Ray was enough.” Sugar Ray would also write at some point, “Sugar Walker Smith doesn’t have the same ring. Sugar Ray Robinson is different. Man it’s sweet.”
A short on Sugar Ray Robinson’s career where Sugar Ray discusses the origins of his name. Video posted on YouTube by Boxing Now.
Sugar Ray Robinson would go on to have a storied career and often be recognized by Hall of Fame fighters and media alike as the best “pound for pound” fighter in boxing’s history. His first professional loss would come at the hands of “Raging Bull” Jake Lamotta, but would take the unanimous decision in a rematch only three weeks later. The two would go on to fight four more times, Sugar Ray winning each fight.
Carmen Basilio would also defeat Sugar Ray Robinson in their first fight, gaining the middleweight title in the process in what arguably may have been his most famous fight. Sugar Ray would win the rematch six months later, winning the title back.
As for the Starbuck Arena, it would continue to host fights to large crowds into the late 1950’s when the venue changed and the Starbuck A. C. began holding events at the State Armory. In addition to boxing, the Starbuck Arena would also hold high school wrestling and amateur wrestling events, along with amateur vaudeville acts in its early years.
In the 1980s, the Air Brake would use the building for die casts and melted scrap aluminum there. I’m sure there’s more I’m missing with this one, feel free to add any additional information below via the comments.
As of 2022, the former arena is home to Paris & Mitchell (P&M) Construction, Inc., which also housed the Watertown Area Boxing Club helmed by Johnny Pepe for several years up until the COVID-19 pandemic broke out that lead to new requirements. They are now currently located at the Top of the Square which means it’s located in the same building undergoing a $20,000,000 capital improvement project for the creation of a downtown YMCA Wellness and Aquatic Center.