Book Review: Sweet Thunder

Sweet Thunder: The Life and Times of Sugar Ray Robinson

Wil Haygood

461 pp.

Alfred A. Knopf, December 2009

The time is right for a new look at the life of Sugar Ray Robinson, the signature fighter of boxing’s golden era. Robinson, born Walker Smith, Jr. in Detroit in 1921, was by consensus the greatest boxer that ever lived. He was also a man conscious of his place in the world and determined to expand the idea of what a black athlete could be in postwar America. Wil Haygood, the author of acclaimed biographies of Sammy Davis, Jr. and Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., knows the shades and tones of Robinson’s world, and with Sweet Thunder he seeks to give us the man in full: athlete, entertainer, hip Negro, clothes horse, and political conscience. Unfortunately, while Haygood artfully situates Robinson within his place and time, the man himself ultimately remains something of an enigma. The result is a book that succeeds in many ways but feels oddly hollow at its center.

Robinson insisted that boxing was for him principally a way of making a living and nothing like the whole of what he was. Nonetheless, it is what Robinson could do in a ring that made him famous, and Haygood does not stint the fights themselves. Haygood has a real feel for the sport, both in its more technical aspects (he knows his pressure fighters from his power punchers) and as a theatrical milieu. He also displays a winning temperamental sympathy for fighters. His extended treatment of the life of Jimmy Doyle, the fighter Robinson killed in a July 1947 welterweight title bout, strikes the perfect tone: direct regarding the reality of ring violence, unsentimental about the choice Doyle and Robinson made to climb through the ropes. Haygood likewise gives balanced treatment to the great villain of Robinson’s career, Jake LaMotta; though Robinson is his idol and muse, Haygood recognizes that both men were diminished by the exploitation of race in the promotion of their six head to head fights.

The boxing world of the ’40s and ’50s was both glamorous and brutally corrupt, and Robinson fought a long battle with sinister forces for his own dignity and that of other boxers. In 1957, this largely unlettered but intelligent man gave a presentation to the New York State Athletic Commission about the ill treatment of fighters at the hands of promoters and governing bodies, triggering a Congressional investigation that resulted in the dissolution of the then-dominant sanctioning organization, the perfidious International Boxing Club. Robinson ultimately won for himself and others the right to share in gate receipts and television revenues from their fights, giving fighters a chance to take something with them when they left the game. Haygood shows not only how later, politically conscious black athletes like Arthur Ashe and Muhammad Ali benefited from Robinson’s example, but also demonstrates the debt owed to Robinson by boxers of all races who were able to support their families in part because of the rights he helped win.

Robinson as a political figure is inevitably somewhat less vivid, however, than as a man about town. He possessed both ample physical grace and movie star looks (he was a bit player in several movies), and he was admired not only in the United States, but perhaps even more freely in Europe, where black sexuality was a less fraught subject. He befriended popular entertainers like Lena Horne, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, and Sammy Davis, Jr., and after he stopped boxing had a brief show business career of his own. He also cared greatly about his image, from his bespoke clothes to his trademark pink Cadillac. The height of Robinson’s fame coincided with the rise of a sleek but firmly heterosexual masculine style epitomized by the Rat Pack, of which he could almost have been an honorary member. A fine monograph could be written about the way that Robinson, with his medium complexion, marcelled hair, slender but muscular physique, and natty mustache lived his public life in a liminal zone between the black culture of which he was a product and the whiter world of Hollywood that he admired and cultivated. Haygood is alert to Robinson’s crossover appeal, but he is also greatly concerned with reclaiming Robinson as a figure of and for black history. As Haygood reminds us, Robinson’s story sounds many themes in the history of 20th century black America, from the mass migration of Southern blacks to Northern industrial cities, to the Harlem Renaissance, to the rise of the black athlete, even to the history of black Americans in Europe.

Sweet Thunder is an ambitious book, not least in terms of its style. Haygood, like his subject, moves fluidly between different registers, sometimes plodding straight forward, sometimes jabbing allusively at the music, politics and public spectacle of Robinson’s time. Haygood seems to have set out to create a literary style for “Sweet Thunder” that captures something of the restless creativity of Robinson’s own ring style. This single paragraph from the prologue introduces all of Sweet Thunder’s major themes; it also swings:

Sugar Ray Robinson was the first modern prizefighter to take culture – music and grace and dance – into the ring with him. He had convinced himself that style was as much a discipline as boxing. That he dominated both, for so long, causes the world to marvel. Before the headlines of Selma and Montgomery and Little Rock … before all the marches, before it seemed as if a new America had just dropped from the sky right onto the old one’s front porch, there was another America and it swirled in its own lovely mist. And a good amount of that swirling could be seen in the long glass mirror of Sugar Ray Robinson’s nightclub. A jazz-age architect designed the place. Its red neon lettering out front allowed the name of the club – Sugar Ray’s – to fall, at night, right onto the hoods of the long automobiles. It was hard to imagine the proprietor did not plan it that way.

Robinson’s athletic gifts and personal style allow him to occupy a space that is almost beyond analysis, beyond criticism. His biographer’s task is therefore to tease his subject closer, to tell his story without sentiment, and to let the glory of his achievements overtake the reader only in the end. But Haygood also wants to convince us that Robinson is “more”: more than just an athlete, more than just an entertainer, and most of all, more than what white America made of him. This conflict of purpose — the desire to both elevate the subject and serve the truth of his life — is endemic to biography, but perhaps especially intense for a black writer profiling a black subject. Haygood can be forgiven for wishing to give Robinson in death some quantum of dignity that racism sometimes denied him in life.

Still, the hagiographic impulse wins out too often. Robinson’s failings are glossed over, including, glaringly, his evasion of service in World War II (Robinson disappeared shortly before he was to be inducted, then reappeared a week later claiming “amnesia”; he was generously granted an honorable discharge). Perhaps Robinson felt that he did not have a duty to die for a country that denied him the full measure of his humanity; the point, however, does need to be argued, and Haygood largely skirts the issue. This is not to say that Robinson was not a hero; rather that a biography which makes large claims for Robinson’s political consciousness must acknowledge that he was also sometimes self-serving. In glossing over those moments in which Robinson failed to be his best self, Haygood gives us an incomplete picture of the man.

Sweet Thunder glitters and shines; it even achieves occasional moments of greatness. When Haygood observes, apropos of Robinson’s establishment of a Los Angeles youth center, “Fighters often see themselves in children, keenly feeling the echoes of who they were”, he both deepens our sense of Robinson’s motives and speaks to the essential sadness of the retired athlete. Sweet Thunder deftly reintroduces Robinson to those of us for whom he exists largely in legend. The career was extraordinary and the life remarkable, but the man himself remains an enigma.