The Jazz Swinger

Sweet Thunder: The Life and Times of Sugar Ray Robinson (Borzoi Books) BY Wil Haygood. Knopf. Hardcover, 480 pages. $27.

The cover of Sweet Thunder: The Life and Times of Sugar Ray Robinson (Borzoi Books)

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 Robinson lovingly called Punch, went to work as a seamstress.

Robinson was bored in school but intrigued by the streets. If he wasn’t dancing for nickels on the corner, he was shoplifting with his pals. He bragged about knowing Joe Louis back in Detroit, then had to prove himself when, in 1934, he was invited to the basement boxing club of the Salem Methodist Church. There he found his school and his teacher. The coach, former boxer George Gainford, would become Robinson’s trainer and manager for decades, staying with him all the way to world championships in two weight divisions.

Gainford crammed his fighters into an old Ford and drove them to nearby towns for matches. Junior, the smallest, rode in the rumble seat. As Haygood explains, Gainford didn’t think the thirteen-year-old was ready to compete, so there wasn’t an amateur card for Robinson on the day he volunteered to fill in for someone who hadn’t shown up. But Gainford had an unused card for a kid who had dropped out of the club. The name on it was Ray Robinson. Junior won that day and looked good doing it. He fought and lived under that name for the rest of his life. Later, in 1939, after Junior defeated eastern states amateur champ Dom Perfetti in a stunning performance, a reporter who’d noted Robinson’s speed, power, and remarkable grace called him “a sweet fighter” and dubbed him Sugar.

Although a charming kid, Robinson was ferociously ambitious. He hounded Gainford and other boxers with questions, studied fight films, and worked longer and harder than anyone else. He won the New York Golden Gloves in successive weight divisions as he grew. Boxing was popular nationwide, and Robinson saw the ring as his path to the gorgeously tailored, jazz-loving, art-devouring, intellectual side of Harlem. He wanted, Haygood writes, to be a Renaissance man.

These ambitions honed his judgment. At the time, professional boxing was caught between business tycoons and organized crime, yet Robinson was determined to stay independent. In 1940, at nineteen, he turned pro as a 135-pound lightweight, with Gainford as his adviser. In those early years he fought often, sometimes two or three times a month, and he won. He had twenty bouts in 1941, including a victory against the wickedly canny welterweight Fritzie Zivic. At 5’11, Robinson was still thin as he grew into the welterweight division with its 147-pound maximum, but he had such speed and skill that he defeated bigger men, knocking out all but the best of his opponents.

In 1943, with the US in World War II, Robinson was drafted into the army. He danced through basic training and was delighted to find himself in the same unit as his old friend Joe Louis. With several other fighters, they became a traveling road show, entertaining troops with boxing exhibitions. Robinson also managed fourteen professional fights that year, including the second of his six brutal bouts with LaMotta. In the eighth round LaMotta knocked him right out of the ring, and only the bell saved Robinson, giving him time to clamber back in before the next round began (LaMotta won the ten-round decision). When his unit finally prepared to ship out, Robinson disappeared. He turned up back in Manhattan a week or so later, claiming he’d been in an accident and suffered from amnesia. The military gave him an honorable discharge, and Robinson resumed boxing. Haygood doubts the amnesia tale but notes that despite probing by reporters over the years, Robinson’s story never changed.

In 1946, Robinson won the world welterweight championship. In a title defense the following year, the game challenger, Jimmy Doyle, was knocked unconscious and died from a brain injury. The tragedy scarred Robinson but did not stop him. In 1951, still weighing less than 150 pounds, Robinson moved up to win the 160-pound middleweight title in his famous thirteenth-round TKO of LaMotta, in their final bout. The record between them stands as five wins for Robinson, one for LaMotta.

Haygood describes several of Robinson’s other great battles, against opponents from Randy Turpin to Bobo Olson and Carmen Basilio, none of them easy affairs, and he lays out the grim details of the only fight in which Robinson was actually knocked out. This was the catastrophic loss in his 1952 challenge for the light heavyweight title held by Joey Maxim. The fight was outdoors in Yankee Stadium on a 104-degree day. The referee, sick from the heat, had to be replaced midfight. All the judges had Robinson ahead by a wide margin when he collapsed with heat prostration in the thirteenth round. Robinson would not box again for more than two years.

Abandoning his middleweight title, Robinson took up another dream and went on the road as a song-and-dance man, performing with the Count Basie Orchestra. The enterprise failed, and his extended absence resulted in the closing of Sugar Ray’s, his successful Harlem nightclub. Faced with the financial problems he’d always managed to avoid, Robinson returned to the ring in 1954. Soon thereafter, he knocked out Olson in the second round and took his middleweight title back.

In 1957, however, he won a more important battle. He testified in front of the New York State Athletic Commission, naming Jim Norris’s International Boxing Club as a strangling monopoly that siphoned off money rightly belonging to boxers. Haygood describes the fighter preparing for his testimony, “holed up in his office poring over law books, particularly sections on anti-trust law.” Robinson’s eloquent presentation impressed the commission and triggered a US Senate investigation that led to the dissolution of the IBC. Robinson’s fights were enormous occasions, broadcast nationwide, and he won for himself, and every boxer since, the right to a share in those revenues.

Haygood’s excellent account of Robinson’s long, eventful life (he died in Los Angeles in 1985) is packed with anecdotes and lush, pertinent context. He explores Robinson’s gift for friendship —with, among others, Miles Davis, Langston Hughes, and Lena Horne. Davis told Robinson that boxing was the same kind of improvisatory art form as jazz; Robinson insisted that music was the higher art. Robinson loved Hughes’s poetry, and Hughes repeatedly tried and failed to cast Robinson in one of his plays.

Biography as a genre carries a cloud: The end of the story is known from the beginning—the hero always dies. But in Haygood’s hands, no life is an isolated phenomenon. He shows us the wide world that created the man and then shifts the mirror to reveal that man’s impact on the world. Haygood says that artists and poets loved Robinson because “they sensed an originality, the celebration of discipline and genius.” To this day, every scholar’s listing of the best boxers shows Robinson’s close to or at the top. “He lives,” Haygood concludes, “because he lies beyond imitation. He is, as Stravinsky was to music, a wonder, a mystery, a piece of time.”

Katherine Dunn is the author of Geek Love (Knopf, 1989).