We take the style of sport for granted now, forgetting that sneakers were once inexpensive and blank. We’ve misplaced memories of a time when a pro athlete’s gestures outside the arena were bland and inconsequential. We’re talking no high fives, no fist bumps. No Jay-Z or LeBron.
That was before prizefighter Sugar Ray Robinson broke onto the scene in 1940. Sweet Thunder: The Life and Times of Sugar Ray Robinson, a new biography by Wil Haygood, explores the moment in history when athletes became the epitome of high style.
His approach in the ring blended speed, grace and power that added a whole new flavor to the sport of boxing. Robinson was known to enter the ring in a short white robe, casing his opponents while his processed hair flew.
Just how cool was this mid-century champion? Haygood tells the story of how, in a Pittsburgh dressing room after a bruising loss to Joey Archer, Robinson sat exhausted. Miles Davis sauntered over to him and croaked, “Sugar, it’s time.” And that was it. The boxer hung up his gloves for good.
How awesome is that?
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.
Young Sugar Ray—then known as Walker Smith—takes up boxing after getting into trouble with the law.
Haygood attempts to link New York’s jazz community, Robinson and an upstart magazine called Esquire into a kind of style triad. And while the glossy magazine may have provided mainstream visibility to the black elements of this ring, I’m not totally buying the equation. Unlike Miles and Sugar Ray—and L.A. Sunshine—whose lives were threatened as public black figures, Esquire’s editors were safely cloistered in their Manhattan cocoons.
Also absent from Haygood’s biography are the Upper Manhattan sharpies who undeniably hipped him to a style. More than the nuts and bolts of Robinson’s life, Haygood seems more concerned with how Robinson’s cool is consumed. The street people, for instance, remain largely in the shadows of this 461-page work. I wasn’t totally feeling the book. But even if it does not fully engage with some distasteful truths, Sweet Thunder goes down easy.
Donnell Alexander is a Los Angeles-based writer.