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Swift as a Snake, Stylish as Esquire, Sweet as Sugar Ray

By Gerald Early
Sunday, October 18, 2009

SWEET THUNDER

The Life and Times of Sugar Ray Robinson

By Wil Haygood

Knopf.

461 pp. $27.95

Between 1945 and 1960, the three black male icons of cool were singer Nat "King" Cole, trumpeter Miles Davis and boxer Sugar Ray Robinson. It was the era of the rise of the dark-skinned black man, as critic Stanley Crouch has pointed out, especially so if one throws in actor Sidney Poitier for good measure. In "Sweet Thunder," his noteworthy biography of Robinson, Washington Post staff writer Wil Haygood calls them "Esquire men," after the famous men's magazine that started during the Depression. Esquire men dressed well, carried themselves with a muted masculine flair, were aficionados of jazz, sports and the nightlife, and were cosmopolitan in their taste for liquor and ladies. Davis, Cole, Robinson and other black men like them were, in short, the new urban sophisticates, black celebrities who had crossover appeal to white elites as style-setters.

Haygood evokes this world of black glamour with interludes on Davis, singer Lena Horne and writer Langston Hughes. These refined scenes make a stark contrast with his accounts of the world of boxing, where Robinson made his living, a tooth-and-claw Spencerian demimonde of laissez-faire capitalism and savage competition. Robinson's ability to negotiate these worlds was not terribly surprising. Champion boxers, especially of an earlier era, were considered celebrities, hung around with other celebrities, and were expected to be well-dressed, exciting, larger-than-life figures who fanned their money around like the nouveau riche and oozed masculine cool.

Robinson was born Walker Smith Jr. in Detroit in 1921 during the era of the great black migration from the South to Northern, Midwestern and upper Southern cities. (In Detroit, he once carried Joe Louis's bag, as just one of the street urchins who already saw Louis, an amateur fighter then, as a grand hero.) It was the beginning of the Harlem Renaissance, the time when blacks became an urban people. After a brief return to the South, Smith, with his mother and sisters, wound up in Harlem in 1932. There his career as a boxer took off. Smith took the identity of an absent kid named Ray Robinson in a match, and a boxing legend was born.

Robinson was one of the greatest amateur athletes in American sports history. He was ornery and basically became his own manager as a pro. That is rather like being one's own lawyer in a trial, but Robinson made this work. He was one of the few black boxers who spoke for himself and negotiated his own contracts. He was an irritant to boxing promoters, but he seemed to enjoy that. He did not handle his money any better than other boxers: He had an entourage of over a dozen people in his heyday. He strolled the streets of Harlem and Paris like a prince. Robinson, as Haygood points out, was a romantic: "He had an almost messianic drive, and wherever others saw limitation, he saw opportunity. Where others saw the confinement of the athlete, he saw the athlete in transcendence."

Most boxing historians consider Robinson pound-for-pound the greatest fighter in history: explosive power in either of his amazingly fast hands, balletic feet, a man who fought over 200 bouts in the most competitive divisions in boxing -- welterweight and middleweight -- and lost only 19 times. Thirteen of those losses occurred from 1960 on, when he was 40 or more years old and way past his prime. His most famous battles were his six wars with LaMotta and his fights against Carmen Basilio, Randy Turpin and Kid Gavilan. Robinson won the middleweight title five times, but he lost it four times. Because of this, some have argued that Carlos Monzon and Marvelous Marvin Hagler, who were able to keep the title for a long period of time, were superior middleweights.

Robinson tried to cross over by retiring from the ring for a time to become a dancer. It was not so unusual for a boxer to try to be an entertainer: John L. Sullivan, Jim Corbett and Bob Fitzsimmons played on the stage; Jack Johnson did stage and screen, as did Jack Dempsey. Joe Louis starred in a film. Even Muhammad Ali tried acting. But Robinson failed, just as he failed in running race businesses, which dealt almost exclusively with a segregated black clientele that could not take its patronage elsewhere. Haygood does not discuss as much as he should the limitations of the shadow institutions that blacks created during the days of segregation. (These institutions did not succeed very well because they were limited by racism and by structural issues in the black community. A good examination of these limitations can be found in Neil Lanctot's "Negro League Baseball: The Rise and Ruin of a Black Institution.")

Yet Haygood's book is certainly one of the best biographies of a boxer ever written, although it is not quite the tour de force that is David Margolick's "Beyond Glory: Joe Louis vs. Max Schmeling, and a World on the Brink." Like Margolick, Haygood seems to run out of gas, and Robinson's end (he died in 1989) is not nearly as richly evoked as his early life. But Haygood's book is an important contribution to both sports literature and African American studies.

Gerald Early is a professor of English and African American Studies at Washington University in St. Louis. He is the series editor of "Best African American Essays" and "Best African American Fiction."

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