Admiring biography of the great fighter that neither glosses over nor dwells on his not-always-great behavior outside the ring.
Boyd (editor, The Harlem Reader, 2003, etc.; African-American Sudies/College of New Rochelle) gets help from Sugar Ray Robinson’s son in portraying a complex man with serious problems—problems outweighed only by the sheer mass of his boxing achievements: 85 amateur wins and no losses; 175 professional wins to only 19 defeats, 6 draws, 1 no-decision, 1 no-contest; a career that lasted from 1940 to 1965. The head-shaking wow of these statistics propels the story forward, since Boyd makes no pretense to being anything more than a journeyman boxing writer. Still, he’s an intelligent student of the sweet science and makes all the right noises about Robinson’s artistry, his “fundamental coordinates of speed and power,” his left hook and right cross. Where Boyd excels, however, is in squaring Robinson’s life (1921–89) to his milieu, which for many years was Harlem. During the neighborhood’s most vibrant years of music, literature, entrepreneurialism, and political activism, Robinson moved through Harlem like a force of nature, starting businesses, serving as an example of success on a large scale, living high and bright. He was not a druggie or a boozer, but he was an insatiable womanizer; he was a miserable father, but he gave to charities; he was never bought by the mob, but he required a huge entourage; he beat his opponents mercilessly, and his women as well. (Their son says his abuse caused Robinson’s wife to have five miscarriages.) He bombed in business, failed to support his family, ingloriously tanked in the ring, was a one-stop garnishing center for the IRS. He soared and crashed, Boyd notes, much like his Harlem.
Not much different from the antics that got Mike Tyson pilloried, though Robinson never chewed off an opponent’s ear. Still, icons get special treatment, Boyd makes clear, and geniuses are forgiven their many trespasses. (8-page b&w photo insert, not seen)