Feb 26, 2010
Muhammad Ali’s 70th birthday Jan. 17, 2012, started me thinking about Sugar Ray Robinson, who dominated boxing in the ’40′s and ’50′s. Ray inspired Ali’s fighting style, with his speed, punching power, boxing skill, and ring savvy. Both were articulate and movie-star handsome. Both transcended sports and became cultural icons.
In Martin Scorsese’s film “Raging Bull,” with Robert de Niro as Jake LaMotta, Sugar Ray Robinson was LaMotta’s opponent in the brutal fight the movie re-created.
Ali had Robinson’s combination of speed, punching power, boxing skill, intellect, and charisma. Ali said he patterned his style after Robinson’s, the sincerest form of flattery..
In the biography “Sweet Thunder: The Life and Times of Sugar Ray Robinson,” (Alfred A. Knopf, 2009, 413 pp.), author Wil Haygood explores Robinson as a cultural icon, like Ali, as well as the welter- and middleweight champion who dominated the 1940s and 1950s.
He won 191 fights and lost 19. He was never knocked out, and knockeds down only once, in his mid-30’s, against the much larger light heavyweight champion, on a night when the temperature in the ring was more than 100 degrees
In “Sugar Ray’s,” Robinson’s Harlem nightclub, he hosted top black artists and intellectuals: Lena Horne, jazz trumpeter Miles Davis, writer Langston Hughes, Duke Ellington, and the hippest people, white or black, in America. All the New York gossip columnists wrote about Sugar Ray’s as a place to be seen, on a par with The Stork Club, Copacabana, and all the top night spots in Manhattan.
He was an amateur jazz musician and tap dancer, who tried and failed to become a nightclub entertainer. He left the ring to pursue a less dangerous occupation, but he only lasted two years.
He always wore the best designer clothes. It seemed his body was created to model the best of the latest. On TV and radio talk shows, he was relaxed, funny, and enjoyable. He drove an unmistakable flamingo-colored Cadillac he’d had custom made. If it was parked outside his club, people knew he was inside. He always talked to customers, famous or not, and sometimes tended bar.
The La Motta Rivalry
Robinson and La Motta had six fights between 1942 and 1951; Robinson won 5. It was one of the greatest personal rivalries, a clash of opposites, in sports history.
The LaMotta fights showed opposite fighting styles and personal backgrounds. The fights were so close that people, including the fighters themselves, kept demanding rematches. No pair of fighters sold more tickets.
LaMotta was a bull, whose style was to keep charging, trying to land one good punch, which he knew could take out an opponent. Robinson’s style was to avoid getting hit hard. His punches came in flurries, so fast an opponent did not always see the knockout punch.
LaMotta was a natural light heavyweight (175 pounds), who had trouble making 160 or 165 pounds to fight Robinson as a middleweight. Robinson, the welterweight champion, had to gain weight to fight as a middleweight. (Later, Robinson grew to become a natural middleweight.)
There was always pre-fight speculation about whether LaMotta would be weakened by the weight loss, or if the extra weight would slow Robinson down. Each time, LaMotta outweighed Robinson. Each time, the two fighters barely survived.
LaMotta was a dirt poor, uneducated, uncouth immigrant, who spoke and fought like a thug.. Robinson was the height of fashion, sophistication, and style, a media darling, beloved by the intellectual and artistic elite. For him, boxing was an art. One was Italian; one was black. Entire ethnic groups rallied behind “their” fighter
Robinson loved children. He usually stopped to chat with them. After he quit boxing, he started an after-school youth foundation, where kids could learn boxing and other sports, dancing, music, acting, poise, and confidence after school. He was giving kids an alternative to the streets. A youth boxing league started by Harlem ministers saved him from the streets, and he wanted to give back. The program still exists.
Like many fighters, he went broke, and fought much longer than he should have to pay his debts. Like Ali, he took too many punches in his too long career, and developed dementia. But before that, he enjoyed 25 years of retirement with his second wife in Los Angeles. He once said of his retirement, “I borrow 5 grand, and pay back 3, or I borrow 3 and pay back 2. Then something happens, and I pay everybody back.”
The book contains too much about “the times,” things that are only indirectly related to Robinson’s life. Many of these tangents are interesting, but they are too long, and there are too many of them. The best parts – and they are VERY GOOD – are Haygood’s accounts of Robinson’s important fights.
Copyright Ken Braiterman. Contact the author to obtain permission for republication.