Sweet Thunder

by Wil Haygood

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Sweet Thunder

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2084

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...

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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 released; army officials were fearful of African American G.I.s already infuriated by daily indignities.

Ordered to Europe in 1944, Robinson went absent without leave for six weeks and then checked himself into a hospital claiming amnesia. Not wishing to provoke an embarrassing incident, Army officials granted the deserter an honorable discharge. As sportswriter W. C. Heinz said of Robinson, he was a great con man. Robinson married Edna Mae Holly in 1943 and had a son, Ray, Jr., but he was neither a faithful husband nor a devoted father. Rather, he was a ladies’ man.

White champions commonly shunned African American contenders, but his box-office appeal earned Robinson a title shot on December 20, 1946, against fellow African American welterweight Tommy Bell, and Robinson made the most of it. Fighting at the legendary Madison Square Garden, Robinson was floored in round one, but he earned more points than Bell for the rest of the fight. The following year in Cleveland, challenger Jimmy Doyle collapsed from Robinson’s blows and went to the hospital on a stretcher. Doyle had suffered a serious concussion the previous year, yet he was cleared to fight. He died the next day. Robinson viewed the body in the morgue and subsequently gave money to Doyle’s mother.

Other “ring killers” often lost their knockout punch after accidentally causing a death, but Robinson’s remained as strong as ever. Over the course of nine years beginning in 1942, Robinson fought “Bronx Bull” Jake LaMotta six times, including Robinson’s first defeat, during which he was knocked from the ring. The last of their six fights, on February 14, 1951, televised and for the middleweight crown, became known as the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. In a brutal display, Robinson triumphed by technical knockout in the thirteenth round.

That summer, Robinson’s entourage toured Europe. Based on the French media’s reaction to the boxer, Haygood says that the French loved him. Robinson reveled in the relaxed sexual and racial mores of Parisian society. At the Lido nightclub, he danced cheek to cheek with blond siren Martine Carol, with his “black right hand on her bare white back, both smiling, the music wafting.”

In London, Robinson trained lackadaisically before facing English champ Randy Turpin and got beaten after sustaining a head butt that later required ten stitches. Prior to their rematch, Robinson welcomed Turpin to his nightclub, where Turpin became enamored with Harlem beauty Adele Daniels. At Grossinger’s training camp in the Catskills, Turpin sometimes disappeared to be with her, much to his trainer’s chagrin. The rematch was fought at Polo Grounds before a crowd of sixty-one thousand spectators. In round ten, Robinsonbleeding profusely from a head buttregistered a stunning knockout. Turpin’s career subsequently plummeted. He wrestled professionally for a time and later, succumbing to depression, killed himself and an infant daughter.

So agile that he could floor opponents with a left hook while back-pedaling, Robinson had the balance of a dancer and the power of an anvil. In 1952, he defeated Bobo Olson in San Francisco and Rocky Graziano in Chicago. New York Times scribe Arthur Daley labeled him a cold-blooded machine. Seeking three titles simultaneously, as had African American pioneer boxer Henry Armstrong, Robinson challenged light heavyweight champ Joey Maxim. At Yankee Stadium, with the ring temperature well over 100° Fahrenheit, referee Ruby Goldstein had to be replaced in the tenth round. Three rounds later, Robinson threw a wild punch and collapsed, suffering only the third loss of his career.

Hoping to conquer the entertainment world, Robinson hired a dance coach and had plastic surgery on his nose. Among the glitterati on hand for his French Casino debut were Joe Louis, baseball great Jackie Robinson, comedians Milton Berle and Nipsey Russell, and Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. Robinson went through a half dozen costume changes and bantered between dance numbers. The adulation he received convinced him to take his show on the road, but once the novelty wore off crowds dwindled. He loved seeing his name in lights. Used to headlining, at some stops he got second billing to Count Basie. Gate receipts rarely covered his production costs. With his Harlem businesses also losing money, Robinson returned to what he did best.

At age thirty-five, considered by doubters over the hill after he lost to Tiger Jones, Robinson regained his middleweight crown with a second round technical knockout of Bobo Olson. The normally nonchalant gladiator cried tears of joy afterward. Chicago Defender reporter Russ J. Cowans wrote: “It turns out now that we buried Ray before he was dead.”

In 1957, Carmen Basilio defeated him by split decision. The two men despised each other. Basilio considered his foe an egotistical showboat. Robinson won the rematch, also by split decision. In 1959, Robinson lost to Gene Fullmer but won their rematch, too. In 1960, scrappy Joey Giardello wrested the title from him. Five years later, the forty-four-year-old veteran was still hoping for a chance to become champion for an unprecedented sixth time, but a loss to Joey Archer on November 10, 1965, ended that pipe dream. Afterward, Ray was not up to chatting with fans. Haygood writes: Inside the dressing room, Miles strolled over to the great prizefighter. “Sugar, it’s time, man,” he whispered into Robinson’s puffed-up face. And so it ended there, with [manager] George [Gainford] and [second wife] Millie and the trumpeter at his side. He would never fight again.

Moving to California (his defunct nightclub would become a victim of urban renewal), Robinson appeared on episodes of such television shows as Car 54, Where Are You?, Lost in Space, Mission Impossible, and Julia, but these television bit parts did not lead to film roles. Neither did Hollywood make a movie about him, similar to the Rocky Graziano biopic Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956), as he had hoped. In 1969, he received an invitation to attend British queen Elizabeth’s forty-third birthday party. Prince Philip, referring to the urban riots erupting in America, told him, “Sugar, I believe you could help that.”

Those words inspired Robinson to help found the Sugar Ray Robinson Youth Foundation. Among the many thousands he helped through that program was future Olympian Florence Griffith-Joyner. Diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 1984, Robinson passed away five years later. Members of the Salem Methodist Episcopal Church organized a tribute and, led by his sister Elizabeth, unveiled a plaque at the former site of Sugar Ray’s nightclub dedicated to a “CHAMPION OF CHAMPIONS.” Of the many tributes paid to Robinson, Haygood says, Muhammad Ali provided the summation, calling Robinson, “The king, the master, my idol.”

Haygood’s smooth prose and wealth of knowledge about boxing and show business do justice to the colorful fighter. He provides in-depth portraits of Horne, Hughes, and Davis, as well as coverage of contemporary events pertaining to African American history. Save for a few minor factual errors pertaining to the Scottsboro case and the 1936 Berlin Olympics, for which he relied on secondary sources, Haywood’s “life and times” saga is impeccable. The laudatory biography concludes with a reference to the sheer pleasure this American original gave to those whose lives he touched: The following weekend, there were salutes and toasts to Sugar Ray Robinson at the Showman’s Café, at the Casablanca Café, at 22 West Restaurant, at many of the bars and nightclubs up and down the streets of Harlem. He was yet again, as he had always dreamed, a part of the soliloquies sweeping around town as men and women discussed him.Who is to say that, in the harsh and terrifying world he sprang from, it wasn’t the beautiful end of a beautiful story?


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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 23

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The Economist 392, no. 8654 (October 24, 2009): 96.

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The New York Times Book Review, December 20, 2009, p. 17.

Sports Illustrated 111, no. 25 (December 21, 2009): 70.