Sugar Ray Robinson was one of the most iconic figures in sports and possibly the greatest boxer of all time. His legendary career spanned nearly 26 years, including his titles as the middleweight and welterweight champion of the world and close to 200 professional bouts. This illuminating biography grounds the spectacular story of Robinson's rise to greatness within the context of the fighter's life and times. Born Walker Smith Jr. in 1921, Robinson’s early childhood was marked by the seething racial tensions and explosive race riots that infected the Midwest throughout the 1920s and 1930s. After his mother moved their family to Harlem, he came of age in the post-Renaissance years. Recounting his local and national fame, this deeply researched and honest account depicts Robinson as an eccentric and glamorousyet powerful and controversialcelebrity, athlete, and cultural symbol. From Robinson’s gruesome six-bout war with Jake Raging Bull” LaMotta and his lethal meeting with Jimmy Doyle to his Harlem nightclub years and thwarted showbiz dreams, Haygood brings the champion’s story to life.
Published: Chicago Review Press an imprint of Independent Publishers Group on Apr 1, 2011
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If you had actually told me I would read a book about a boxer, let alone enjoy it, I wouldn’t have believed you but Wil Haygood has written a very readable biography of professional boxer Sugar Ray Robinson. I decided to read this book as it was a finalist for the 2010 Hurston/Wright Legacy Award for non-fiction. One of my personal reading challenges is to read books that have won or been short-listed for this award. While the book probably won’t satisfy the die-hard boxing fan, I found it quite engrossing.For those unfamiliar with Robinson, he fought professionally in the 1940s and 1950s, winning both the world welterweight and middleweight titles; he won the latter for a second time after coming out of retirement. Hall of Fame boxers such as Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard, and Joe Louis have called him the greatest boxer of all time; while sportswriters concur that he was the greatest “pound for pound” fighter ever.Of course, a lot of the book focuses on the many bouts Robinson fought, some accounts more detailed than others. One of the longer chapters in the book focuses on the boxing rivalry between Robinson and Jake LaMotta and the 6 bouts they fought. In addition to focusing on Robinson’s training and fights, Haygood weaves in personalities and events during Robinson’s lifetime to provide appropriate historical context. These include the post-Harlem Renassiance era, the Great Depression, World War II, the Korean War, and events such as the Scottsboro Boys trial, the Vanzetti and Sacco trial, and integration at Little Rock. They help bring a vividness to Haygood’s storytelling.In short vignettes throughout the book, Haygood focuses on the careers of three other luminaries: actress/songstress Lena Horne, poet Langston Hughes, and jazz musician Miles Davis, and how they intersect with Robinson’s world. Haygood also offers memories from several individuals who would later become prominent politicians, including Charlie Rangel, David Dinkins, Louis and Carl Stokes. Photographer Gordon Parks also shares his reminiscences as he traveled with Robinson on his first European tour. One of the other tidbits I enjoyed about the book, was the learning how Esquire magazine was launched and the juxtaposition of the sartorial style of dressing from the likes of Duke Ellington, Nat King Cole, and, of course, Robinson (no “baggy jeans” here). I even learned a new word — marceled — which is how many Black men of the day wore their hair.Overall, the writing is very accessible to someone who is not really into boxing (I’m definitely not) thanks to the lively commentary on many of Robinson’s bouts and life. I found my attention did not drift while reading about the various bouts.more