The captivating life of the African-American champion who brought grace and style to the boxing ring in the 1940s and ’50s.
Born Walker Smith Jr. in rural Georgia, Sugar Ray Robinson (1921–89) grew up poor in Detroit and Harlem, where he fought his first amateur fights out of a church boxing club and won the New York Daily News’ Golden Gloves tournament in 1939. With his lightning speed and matador moves, the handsome welterweight created a sensation, earning the monikers “Death Ray” and “Sugar Ray,” which stuck. In this insightful, highly readable biography, Washington Post staff writer Haygood (In Black and White: The Life of Sammy Davis, Jr., 2003, etc.) chronicles the intriguing life of this gifted boxer and dandy, who toured Jim Crow America in World War II with fellow serviceman, and heavyweight champ, Joe Louis; had a long-running feud with fighter Jake LaMotta; and pursued the savage sport that held “a kind of sacredness” for him until 1965, when he retired with 173 wins, 19 losses and six draws. No one ever knocked him out, notes Haygood. All the while, the jazz-loving Robinson ran a popular Harlem nightspot, zipped around Manhattan in a flamingo-colored Cadillac convertible with his midget chauffer, Chico, and hung with leading African-American artists and entertainers. Haygood weaves in stories of the boxer’s ties with Lena Horne, Langston Hughes, Miles Davis and others who emerged in the postwar years in the singular “convergence of men, music, and style” that was celebrated by Arnold Gingrich in Esquire. Surprisingly, there has never been a Sugar Ray biopic, but Haygood’s narrative is chockfull of movie-ready scenes: Robinson challenging military-base segregation; knocking out Killer Jimmy Doyle, who died 17 hours later; touring with Count Basie in an ill-advised nightclub act; being received like a movie star in Europe. Always enigmatic, Robinson was an absent father, had a volatile marriage, went mysteriously AWOL in World War II and wound up near-broke. Sportswriter Red Smith called him “a brooding genius, a darkly dedicated soul who walks in a lonely majesty, a prophet without honor, an artist whom nobody, but nobody, understands.”
A wonderful book that deserves a wide audience.