The Jazz Swinger
Boxer Sugar Ray Robinson found inspiration among Harlem's culturati
The Life and Times of Sugar Ray Robinson (Borzoi Books)
by Wil Haygood
$27.95 List Price
Few now remember boxer Sugar Ray Robinson, except perhaps as Jake LaMotta's shadowy nemesis in Raging Bull. But through the middle of the twentieth century, Robinson was an American icon of dangerous power expressed with deft artistry and a gentleman's demeanor outside the ring as well as in it. Millions of people hung on the broadcasts of his bouts. When he fought in Europe, he was hailed as royalty. In 1951, his smiling face filled the cover of Time magazine. Women swooned before him. Men dressed like him. Cassius Clay studied him. In his long, bright day, Sugar Ray was a star.
In Sweet Thunder, biographer Wil Haygood sets Robinson's life within a vivid, generous history of African Americans after World War I. The sophisticated fighter emerged out of Harlem's heyday, when the rapidly growing black middle class built enterprises, sent their children to college, supported community organizations, and patronized symphonies, theaters, and newspapers. Haygood demonstrates that this dynamic culture had a profound effect on the youngster, who became one of the greatest boxers of all time.
Robinson was born Walker Smith Jr. in a rough Detroit neighborhood known as Black Bottom. "Black because we lived there," Robinson explained years later, "Bottom because that's where we were at." Junior, as his family called him, was eleven years old in the fall of 1932, when his mother, Leila, fed up with her philandering hepcat husband, loaded the boy and his sisters onto a bus and moved them to New York City. They settled into a small, shabby Harlem apartment, and Leila, a tough woman whom
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