by Sherwood Ross
Andover, MA - Sugar Ray Robinson, ranked by the Associated Press as the greatest boxer of the 20th Century, also exhibited a caring and compassionate nature that matched his talent. According to a new biography, Robinson would whisper to an opponent he was clobbering, “You aren’t a bum. Lay down. It’s too much.” If the opponent tried to keep his feet, the man’s battering only got worse until he went limp or was knocked out. From his earliest amateur bouts on, Sugar Ray’s opponents didn’t know what hit them. Robinson won 69 of his 85 amateur bouts by knockouts, 40 of them in the first round, and never lost a fight. During his professional career he won 173 more fights, tied six, and the 19 fights he did lose came mostly in his Forties at an age when other fighters had long retired from the sport.
Years after he quit the ring, Robinson would admit he did the opposite of throwing a fight. “I let a fighter survive with me in the ring longer than I had any right to,” his biographer Wil Haygood writes. One example of Robinson’s considerate nature was his agreement to a Madison Square Garden bout with his own idol, boxing welterweight champion Henry Armstrong, so the older man could get a paycheck and quit the ring for good. Sugar Ray again revealed his compassionate side after he knocked out boxer Jimmy Doyle in Cleveland, a young fighter who had been previously warned by his doctor to quit owing to injuries, and who died the next day. Robinson gave six exhibition bouts around the country to raise money to buy Doyle’s mother a house. Later in his career, Robinson donated all but $1 of a purse to cancer research.
Interviewed by Lawrence Velvel, dean of the Massachusetts School of Law at Andover and host of the TV show “Books of Our Time,” biographer Wil Haygood, author of “Sweet Thunder: The Life And times of Sugar Ray Robinson”(Random House), said even as a young boxer Robinson revealed his compassionate side. “It was a very peculiar sentimentality that he had when he was fighting for the Golden Gloves in New York in the 1930s. He would hit somebody so hard that their mouthpiece would fly out, and he would stop the fight, walk over, pick up the mouthpiece, and hand it to the fighter, and ask him if he was OK.”
Out of the ring, Sugar Ray was considerate as well. When struggling jazz musicians dropped into his Harlem nightclub he would feed everybody in their band and if they were going on tour would pack sandwiches for them and slip them a couple of twenty dollar bills. Some never forgot his kindness and when he was attempting after retirement to make a second career as an entertainer they were “eager to include him in their tours, even though he wasn’t on their level musically,” Haygood says.
The biographer sheds new light on Robinson’s Army career when, during World War Two, he staged exhibition bouts with heavyweight champion Joe Louis at U.S. military bases across the South. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt feared black soldiers would be discriminated against when they went into a town and rioting might erupt. She summoned Louis to her office and asked him to tour the bases to promote unity. Louis replied he would go but wanted to take Sugar Ray with him. Significantly, Mrs. Roosevelt agreed, an episode that Haygood says was “amazing,” in that “it was the first time that the U.S. Army had reached out into African-American society and said, we want two of your stars, and we want them to help this government show a unified face.”
At Southern bases where commandants gave orders that no African-American soldiers could watch the bouts, Sugar Ray changed their minds by telling them if African-American troops were barred, he and Louis would not fight. On one occasion in Mississippi when Louis was about to be struck by an MP for attempting to board a bus carrying white soldiers, Robinson rushed over and knocked the MP down. The boxers got a dressing down but that was all because, as Haywood says, “just think how that would look---two black guys on this PR mission for the Army---all of a sudden arrested because of unfair practices on the Army base.” Robinson, the historian adds, was “sort of living out some of the protest poetry of his friend, Langston Hughes.”
Shortly after being notified in February, 1944, that their unit would be shipped overseas, Robinson disappeared from his base only to turn up at a Staten Island, N.Y., hospital suffering from “amnesia.” Haygood says the Army thought this was just too slick an excuse but nevertheless gave him an honorable discharge. Although the sportswriters never forgot about it and at times called him a “coward,” in fact Sugar Ray’s action was an expression of his determination to win the world welterweight title. Not wishing to have blacks dominate the sport at all levels, professional boxing’s white managers rigged the ladder Sugar Ray had to climb to the top. His thinking was, “I’ve already lost valuable time fighting these bums who could have hurt me and destroyed my own career as I’m trying to rise and become a champion. Now the U.S. military wants me to go and maybe get shot, and so I certainly won’t have a chance to get the belt.” In December, 1946, Robinson defeated Tommy Bell for the welterweight crown and in 1952 won the middleweight crown as well.
As Robinson rose professionally he sought to become a figure in the “Harlem Renaissance” with its concept of the “New Negro,” that started around the time of the first World War and whose smoke “was still floating around up under Sugar Ray’s nostrils so that he could get whiffs of that time period.” Haygood says the movement “greatly appealed” to Robinson “because he was poor, and he saw style and culture, which pointed to a heightened sense of self…as a way to get from the poor side of the road to the elegant, highly sought after side of the road, and it meant a lot to him.”
Robinson, who also displayed considerable musical talent, became an intimate of world-class musicians -- band leaders, singers and actors -- Count Basie, Lionel Hampton, Duke Ellington, Nat King Cole, and Cab Calloway all frequented Sugar Ray’s night club as well as band leader-trumpeters Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis. Woodwinds virtuoso Sidney Bechet, Broadway stars Harry Belafonte and Dorothy Dandridge of “Carmen Jones” also stopped by, as did Hollywood’s Sidney Poitier and singer-actresses Lena Horne and Eartha Kitt. Tap dancers Bill Robinson, (a.k.a. Bojangles,) the Nicholas Brothers, and Gregory Hines, also could be seen at the tables as well as Esquire cartoonist E. Simms Campbell, and classical conductor James Reese Europe, among the many “beautiful people” of the era. Poet Langston Hughes would take a first edition of his plays to the night club “and try to convince Robinson to take a part” in one but for all his spontaneity in and out of the ring Robinson appeared stiff as an actor.
How Sugar Ray Become A Champion
Sugar Ray was a child when his family moved from Detroit to New York, where he was often beaten up and came home in tears. His mother, Leila, would tell him, “You can’t come in here and sit on the sofa and cry. You have to go back out there and confront the people who hit you,” biographer Haygood says. Thus encouraged, the child began his amateur career boxing in the basement of the Salem Church Crescent Club with a team of boys the minister hoped to keep out of trouble. “He had a natural athletic instinct…he was agile, he was quick, he had the right physique to be a fighter…and he really wanted to approach boxing as a science…so he would always sort of think about technique. He was the first one to start dancing in the ring (and) the speed of his hands was shocking, just shocking. (Plus) he was very disciplined, he didn’t fool around, he was very focused on boxing as a craft,” Haygood says. Sugar Ray was so powerful that, on one occasion, he knocked out an opponent while he was moving backwards, away from the man, an unheard of feat.
Born Walker Smith, Jr., the future Sugar Ray, then known as “Smitty,” was carrying the bags for his church boxing team one day in 1935 when they arrived in Watertown, N.Y., for a match. The team’s Ray Robinson fell ill and Smitty begged to fill in for him. Since he lacked the official card needed to fight under his own name, the Salem-Crescent manager George Gainford entered Smitty using Ray Robinson’s card, and Watertown sports writer Jack Case wrote up his winning `performance as “sweet as sugar.” Behind his brilliant performances in the ring, Sugar Ray trained hard. Timing and movement were everything, Haygood says, so Sugar Ray trained by running around mountainsides and along rural roads. “He knew that if he was to survive in the ring, he would have to keep from getting hit viciously hard. So one little inch, a half inch that way in a split second might save you from getting knocked out,” the biographer said.
As he piled up victories, Robinson’s celebrity drew fans wherever he traveled. On the occasion he had a practice session in the window of Filene’s department store, 25,000 people outside backed up traffic in downtown Boston. And when he fought Randy Turpin in London in July, 1951, Robinson’s pink Cadillac created traffic jams requiring police to block off the streets. “There were tens of thousands of people who just wanted to get a look at him, to reach out and touch him, that’s how huge he was,” Haygood said. “Turpin was the reigning British champion and he was on his home turf but Robinson stole all of his thunder. Everybody wanted to meet Sugar Ray Robinson.” Unfortunately, Robinson “was going out to many of the (London) night clubs and wasn’t training properly” and Turpin took Robinson’s title. Two months later, Robinson defeated Turpin to regain it.
Besides Turpin, Robinson fought many of the greatest boxers of his day, men who were at the top of their game, such as Fritzie Zivic, Kid Gavilan, Gene Fullmer, and Rocky Graziano, “brawlers who would just pound you and come after you and pound you and pound you.” Haygood describes these actions as “slugfests, tough bouts that often went eight, nine, maybe 10 rounds.” However, Sugar Ray did knock out a lot of opponents in the first round. “Bam, the fight’s over with. I’m going out to a nightclub.” Among the notable rivalries were Sugar Ray’s slugfests with Jake LaMotta, “the Bronx Bull,” who became the first boxer to knock him down in the only one of six matches against Robinson that he won. Sugar Ray more than evened the score when he battered LaMotta in a TKO victory on February 14, 1951, in a bout that became known as “the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.”
Robinson retired as middleweight champion in 1952 after 12 years of pro boxing only to stage a comeback in 1955, when he regained his title. Although ESPN in 2007 called him the greatest boxer in history and The Ring magazine rated him the best pound-for-pound boxer ever, perhaps the highest praise for Sugar Ray came from other boxers. Heavyweight champs Joe Louis and Muhammad Ali were in agreement that Sugar Ray was the greatest of all time, Haygood says.
Although he did not quit the ring until the mid-60’s, as early as 1952 Sugar Ray hired an agent who found gigs for him in show business. Sugar Ray had taken dance lessons, could play the piano, and would often sit in with bands in New York night clubs. He formed what might be called a vaudeville troupe, Haygood says, that would do some dancing routines and then Robinson would play the drums and trumpet. Count Basie took Sugar Ray on the road with him but European audiences were not favorable and Sugar Ray returned to the ring full-time.
After rioting swept black communities in 1968 following the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the next year the retired champ launched the Sugar Ray Robinson Youth Foundation in Los Angeles, where he had moved, to provide year-round activities in sports, fine arts, and performing arts. He hoped through these activities to “get to the children who are not reached by other methods and help keep them out of trouble.”Among the activities there was badminton, soccer, track and field, art, and fashion modeling----but no boxing. Asked why not, Robinson told sport writers, “I just don’t want to see children hitting each other.” Sugar Ray died in 1989. The phrase for which Sugar Ray is most often remembered is the one that hints at the challenges of staying on top: “The best is always fragile.”
Lawrence Velvel, who interviewed biographer Wil Haygood, is dean and cofounder of the Massachusetts School of Law at Andover, a law school purposefully dedicated to providing a rigorous, affordable legal education to students from minority, immigrant, and low-income backgrounds who would not otherwise be able to enter the legal profession. Author Sherwood Ross, is a media consultant to the Massachusetts School of Law