When I was a young boxing writer, I once was invited to watch historic fight films with a small group that included Sugar Ray Robinson, by then long retired from the ring.
Suffice to say, I was -- by several orders of magnitude -- the most ignorant person in the room, but the deference our companions paid even Robinson's briefest comment was striking. For my part, I recall being struck by the unexpected sophistication -- even delicacy -- of his descriptive vocabulary, which was studded with phrases borrowed from the worlds of dance and music, mainly jazz, and framed with a kind of poetic precision.
Reading Wil Haygood's thoroughly marvelous new biography, "Sweet Thunder: The Life and Times of Sugar Ray Robinson," I was transported back to that memorable evening when I came across a phrase that that greatest of fighters had used to describe, in one of the films we watched, an almost imperceptible feint with head and shoulder that set up a winning combination of punches: "The best is always fragile."
With this book, Haygood -- a feature writer for the Washington Post -- completes a biographical trilogy that includes earlier prize-winning volumes on Sammy Davis Jr. and the Harlem congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr., pivotal African American personalities whom the author clearly sees as having tilled the cultural furrows in which the seeds of the civil rights movement ultimately took root.
"Sweet Thunder" is by far the best of these books and, in describing an athlete now universally acknowledged as the greatest prizefighter who ever lived, better also than Robinson's own collaborative autobiography. Anyone who ever saw him in the ring, or has watched a film of one of his bouts, understands why boxing fans paradoxically insist on calling their sport "the sweet science." Because his professional record included multiple welter- and middleweight titles and a stunning overall record of 174-19-6, it's often unappreciated that Robinson was, along with Jesse Owens, the greatest amateur athlete of the 20th century. He won all 85 of his amateur fights, 69 by knockout, 40 in the first round.
Haygood gives a fine account of Robinson's career in the dazzlingly competitive welter- and middleweight ranks of his era, but where this lyrically written biography -- with its jazz-inflected prose -- truly excels is in its evocation of the culturally rich post-renaissance Harlem, where Robinson began boxing as a 9th-grade dropout. (He was born Walker Smith Jr. in Georgia in 1921; he borrowed the name Ray Robinson from a friend so he could take part in AAU competitions while underage.)
It was the culture of Harlem that actually educated, elevated and empowered Robinson, who became the first black fighter to negotiate his own contracts and manage his own affairs. As champion, he opened a popular jazz spot that was frequented not only by Caucasian friends, like Frank Sinatra, but also by other African American cultural giants with whom Robinson enjoyed close associations, including Lena Horne, Miles Davis and the poet Langston Hughes, who always regretted not being able to convince Robinson to appear in one of his stage pieces.
Together, in the postwar years, they came to epitomize what Haygood winningly calls "the Esquire style" -- icons of a personal cool based on that style magazine. "Above 125th Street, the periodical was being flipped open by jazz-playing hands, by young writers and dancers, by young pugilists. It advertised features on 'fiction, sports, humor, clothes, art, cartoons.' By the time that milieu had been mixed and soaked into the brew of uptown, a whole crop of men had emerged joining the well-heeled and their progeny to let them know that they too believed in the magic of art and style. Only these individuals felt compelled to add their own music. And so it was jazz that colored their Esquire-loving signature and came to flood the senses of the young Sugar Ray."
As strong as Haygood is on the active years of Robinson's career, his book is perhaps a trifle light on the formative early life (before he discovered boxing) and on the melancholy twilight that overtook him in Los Angeles when, after the money had run out and his dreams of a fresh start in film or television had come to nothing, he and his wife, Millie, were living in the upper half of a rented duplex on West Adams.