Wil Haygood’s new biography of Sugar Ray Robinson, “Sweet Thunder: The Life and Times of Sugar Ray Robinson,” is a prose that tries mightily to weave in the era Robinson lived and plied his fisticuffs, while integrating the historical and social times of the day, which were negative for most African-Americans in the United States.
Born in Detroit’s Black Bottom in 1921 as Walter Smith Jr., he and his mother and two sisters, after a year of waiting for their father to gain employment, left rural Georgia in search of a better life.
Haygood reflects on how the great migration North indeed gave better earning power to many of the sharecroppers from the southern plantations. However, the newly crowded urban areas, lack of education among its populace, and the mesmerizing allure of the so-called good life proved toxic.
The book chronicles how Robinson’s mother despised “the big city” and its vices. Worried, she paid the 25 cents per month to enroll him at the Brewster Recreation Center. It was the foundation that stayed with him after his mother fled a father in 1932 who had been sucked into the big city life.
Haygood recalls how the Brewster Center got the precocious young Smith off of Hastings Street and into an environment where he could swim, paint, play checkers and basketball. But most importantly, he met Joe Louis, who was just starting to make a name for himself, as he won Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) boxing titles and his trophies were prominently displayed in the Brewster trophy case.
Brewster was the first place that Robinson put on the boxing gloves that would later in life make him an international figure.
Ironically, as his mother fled his father and Detroit’s Black Bottom, she went to a place that had even more social ills: Harlem.
While a young teen in Harlem, Robinson and his family lived in even greater squalor and unpleasantness. And with hopelessness comes futility and pointlessness, which leads to the streets.
Robinson first started to dance in the streets for money, then he graduated to the hoodlum level of Harlem, and for him school became useless. However, he found a divine intervention and a remembrance that brought him back to what he saw at the Brewster Center with Louis.
The bottom line was a poor uneducated man could uplift his position in life if he could command the ring.
Ironically it was at a church, Salem Methodist Episcopal, Haygood wrote, that stepped out the box and implemented a boxing team run by trainer George Gainford. He and Robinson would have a quarter of a century long union.
In the 1040s and 1950s America, there were not many opportunities for African-Americans in sports. Other than a few track Olympians like Jesse Owens and others, and the Negro Leagues Baseball stars, boxing was the major vehicle for poor, hungry and downtrodden individuals to join in the American dream.
Robinson retired from boxing in 1965 with an amazing record of 175-19-6 with 110 knockouts in 200 professional bouts. Almost all of his defeats came at the end of his career when he was doing like his friend Louis, fighting past his prime to pay contrived tax debits.
He held welterweight and middleweight titles and defeated other Hall of Fame fighters such as Jake LaMotta, Carmen Basilio, Gene Fullmer, Carl “Bobo” Olson, Henry Armstrong, Rocky Graziano and Kid Gavilan during his 26 years run at boxing glory.
Robinson fought LaMotta at the Olympia Arena on Grand River before the largest audience ever at the facility. He also fought before almost 40,000 at the Polo Grounds in New York against Joey Maxim.
However, the magic that Haygood weaves in the narrative is the inclusion of Robinson and his intersection with the sepia intellectuals and entertainers of his era. Robinson was one of the first African-American athletes to bring depth, style, swagger, showmanship and entrepreneurship to the Black athlete’s total life.
He drove a flamingo-colored Cadillac, owned a restaurant/club combination, ladies shop for his wife, a barber shop and Sugar Ray Enterprises offices. On any given weekend or day one could find Billy Eckstine or Duke Ellington sitting in a barber’s chair or in the nightclub. Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Langston Hughes, Frank Sinatra, Miles Davis, Lena Horne, Jackie Gleason, Charlie Parker and Louis, just to name a few.
With Hughes, Davis, Louis and Horne as major recurring characters in the narrative, others flow through during Robinson’s travel, adventures and fights, including Eartha Kitt, Dorothy Dandridge, Adam Clayton Powell Jr., Hazel Scott, Walter Winchell, Dizzy Gillespie, Sammy Davis Jr., Nat “King” Cole, Josephine Baker, Gordon Parks, and kings and queens of Europe.
Robinson fancied himself as an entertainer and likened the mysteries of the ring to those of the jazz world. In fact, he relinquished his title in 1952 to pursue a show business career. He traveled all over Europe and throughout the United States singing and dancing. However, the well ran dry and he returned to the ring to win yet another title in 1955.
The book recounts Robinson’s 1943 induction into the u.S. Army, where he served with Louis and the pair went on tours where they performed exhibition bouts in front of U.S. troops. Robinson got into trouble several times while in the military. He argued with superiors who he felt were discriminatory against him, and refused to fight exhibitions when he was told African-American soldiers were not allowed to watch them.
He lasted only 15 months before military authorities claimed he suffered from a mental deficiency, whereby he was granted an honorable discharge.
The narrative also shows that by 1946, Robinson had fought 75 fights to a 73–1–1 record and had beaten every top contender in the welterweight division. However, because of racism and the Mafia, he was denied opportunities.
By all accounts Robinson stayed away from the politics of life; he chose to find inclusion and live his life by example. That is why I think Haygood’s narrative ignores the Bumpy Johnsons of Harlem, the intense poverty of the time and the violent Harlem riots in the 1940s.
Although he did write: “But there existed two Harlems. In one Harlem there were poetry readings and social teas; there were gatherings that featured notable speakers who talked about national affairs and the doings they were privy to in the Roosevelt White House.” The Smiths lived in the other Harlem, “a rough place, a lower-class enclave of broken families, of flophouses and boardinghouses. Of racketeers and gangsters, of big crime and petty crime. Of handouts and hand-me-down clothing, of little boys often scampering about like lambs being hunted.”
Instead, he focuses only on Robinson’s ascension, cool style, the sepia intellectuals of the era and the jazz.
Sugar Ray took the name Ray Robinson as a young amateur because he did not have an AAU fight card, so Walter Smith used another fighter’s card and he never looked back.
Robinson died at 67 from Alzheimer’s disease. But he will always be remember for bringing style to a brutal sport. The ill-fated artist Jean-Michel Basquiat painted a homage to him in 1982. He was also featured on a 2006 United States postage stamp, which reportedly had a circulation of over 100 million.
All in all, “Sweet Thunder” rocks for me in spite of some obvious omissions.
Leland Stein can be reached at email@example.com.