Wil Haygood’s Sweet Thunder begins with this description of boxer Sugar Ray Robinson: When he posed for photographers in those halcyon days of the early 1950’s, he looked not like an athlete but a man of leisure. Sugar Ray Robinson was now one of the kings of sepia America, rolling in a rich man’s mist: dinners at the Waldorf, up-close tickets to big sporting events, swaying on dance floors at those charity balls. Sometimes he’d be spotted standing on a Manhattan street corner, in repose, chatting with some anonymous soul. He’d be holding his fedora by his fingertips, as if he might flip it into thin air, daring it not to circle back to him.
Haygood tells the story of a champion. Robinson’s boxing career has become the stuff of legend, and Haygood is up to the task of introducing the accomplishments of this one-of-a-kind pugilist to a new generation of sports fans and social historians.
Named, pound for pound, the greatest prizefighter ever by The Ring magazine and in polls conducted by ESPN and the Associated Press, Robinson went undefeated in eighty-five amateur bouts, winning the Golden Gloves featherweight championship in 1939 and conquering the lightweight division in 1940. Over the next quarter century, he entered the ring professionally two hundred times and held the welterweight or middleweight title on five different occasions. For a quarter century, he vanquished the best those divisions had to offer, including Jake LaMotta, Marcel Cerdan, Randy Turpin, Bobo Olson, Carmen Basilio, and Gene Fullmer. He lost just nineteen matches, mostly when he was past his prime and being hounded by the Internal Revenue Service (which was also the bane of Joe Louis’s existence despite his considerable wartime contributions).
Not only was Robinson a vicious puncher with dizzying speed, but he also displayed a charismatic ring presence that won adoration from fans on two continents. A female admirer declared in 1939, after witnessing him defeat Eastern States amateur champ Dom Perfetti, that he was sweet as sugar, helping give him his nickname. As was also the case with Muhammad Ali a generation later, Robinson’s popularity transcended athletics. He was a fashion trendsetter in the elite subculture of New York City’s Harlem, the unofficial African American capital. In fact, Esquire magazine heralded him as a modern Renaissance man.
Wearing hand-stitched suits, sporting wavy marcelled hair, and chauffeured around town in a flamingo-colored Cadillac, Robinson personified elegance. Robinson’s nightclub, Sugar Ray’s, was a nerve center of postwar jazz society, and he traded intimacies with the likes of gossip columnist Walter Winchell, poet Langston Hughes, and musicians Billy Eckstein, Lena Horne, and Miles Davis. His hair salon and lingerie shop catered to a celebrity clientele. Kids would press their faces to the barbershop window to catch a glimpse of Ray shaking hands, signing autographs or getting a shave, manicure, or curling-iron treatment.
Born Walker Smith, Jr., in Detroit, Michigan, on May 3, 1921, Robinson was never close to his father, who never stayed long in any one place. While his southern-born mother Leila worked as a Statler Hotel maid, sisters Marie and Evelyn tended young Walker as best they could. What kept Walker out of serious trouble was Brewster Recreation Center. Joe Louis Barrow, six years his senior, was also a member.
In 1932, Leila and the children moved to New York City. At Salem Crescent Athletic Club, Walker met trainer George Gainford, who would take fighters up and down the East Coast AAU circuit in a 1931 Model T Ford. In Kingston, New York, the fifteen-year-old Walker substituted for a fighter named Ray Robinson, and, because the young boxer did not have an AAU card, Gainford used the other fighter’s name. The name stuck.
In the years to come, the Salem Methodist Episcopal Church congregation showered its hero with gifts and prayers. After he turned pro, Robinson received financial backing from eccentric millionaire Curt Horrman, but twenty-eight fights later, anxious to avoid anyone controlling his career, he bought the manager out for $10,000. Avoiding mobsters such as Frankie Carbo, who influenced or controlled many other fighters, Robinson was the first African American athlete, Haygood concludes, “to largely own his own fighting rights, and the first to challenge radio and TV station owners about financial receipts.”
During World War II, touring southern Army camps with heavyweight champ Joe Louis, Robinson refused to bow to segregationist practices. In Mississippi, he would not perform before white-only audiences, forcing the military brass to allow African American soldiers to attend. At Camp Siebert in Alabama, Louis was denied entry to a bus into the town of Gadsden reserved for whites. When Louis then used a white-only pay phone to call a taxi, a military policeman raised his billy club as if to strike him. Robinson leaped on the soldier’s back and wrestled him to the ground. Subsequently incarcerated, he was soon...
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