The Sartorial Sportsman

Wil Haygood’s new biography shows how the boxer Sugar Ray Robinson became a father to athletic style.

Robinson palled around with Langston Hughes and Lena Horne. He created sensations in Paris and London, and faced raw racism at home. His broad embrace by the intelligentsia—like no American athlete before him—was also a tribute to Robinson’s style.

Haygood (Washington Post staff writer and author of In Black and White, an acclaimed biography of Sammy Davis Jr.) shows a command of the minutiae of boxing throughout Sweet Thunder. The narrative of Jimmy Doyle’s tragic in-ring death at Robinson’s hands and that of the subject’s operatic suite of fights with Jake LaMotta are lovingly handled. In lyrical prose, Haygood sets up the boxer’s life beyond a world of violence:

“He was always being hunted. Such is the curse of the champion. There is no place to hide. Champions have always found it difficult to walk away, to take their crown and vanish. In 1952 the great prizefighter had led many to believe he’d had enough of it all. Bright lights shone from another direction in Sugar Ray Robinson’s imagination—from the world of entertainment.”

Haygood sometimes struggles to match that lyricism in sections that are focused outside the ring. We see Robinson’s father, Walker Smith Sr., walk away from his family. Later, we hear the story of how the fighter got his name. His church boxing team trainer mistakenly registered him to compete under another fighter’s name, Ray Robinson. Sugar Ray would never be known as Walker Smith Jr. again.

Haygood paints quick sketches of the boxer’s life in rural Georgia, Detroit and Harlem. Although Robinson’s impoverished family struggles, Haygood doesn’t convey much hunger or shame.