Sugar Ray

October 23, 2009

The first program I ever saw on television was a boxing match: Rocky Marciano versus Jersey Joe Walcott, September 23, 1952.

My family didn't have a television at the time, but our neighbors across the street did, and my father, mother, and I were all invited over for the fight. Marciano won handily, but what held us transfixed wasn't so much the fight itself as the idea of watching a live event taking place in Philadelphia from a living room in Dallas, Oregon. My dad resisted most new technologies, but Marciano won him over, and soon we had our own TV.

The peculiar thing about those early years of television was the way the entire family watched whatever was showing, and on Friday nights, we all watched the fights. Quickly, I found my favorite boxer: Sugar Ray Robinson, whose speed, agility, and style set him apart (and would make him a role model for a young boy in Louisville named Cassius Clay). My dad liked the blue-collar brawlers, so as we watched Sugar Ray's classic battles with the likes of Carmen Basilio and Gene Fulmer, it was usually my mother and me in one corner and my dad in the other.

I had no idea at the time that Robinson was such a powerful force in American pop culture and would continue to be so for decades. As Wil Haygood tells it in his moving and insightful biography Sugar Ray: The Life and Times of Sugar Ray Robinson (Knopf, 2009), Robinson refused to be pigeonholed into the narrow slot society assigned to champion boxers-and especially to African-American boxers. Robinson wanted more, and he got it, creating a successful and celebrated life for himself as nightclub owner, piano player, man about town, and eventually philanthropist. Every Broadway Joe Namath or Derek Jeter, who takes sports celebrity into the neon-lit greater world, owes a deep debt to the man who showed the way, Sugar Ray Robinson.

Haygood casts his account of Robinson's rise from the mean streets of Detroit and New York to international celebrity alongside the parallel stories of three other innovative African-American artists whose paths crossed Robinson's: poet Langston Hughes, signer Lena Horne, and jazz trumpeter Miles Davis. Though the book focuses on Robinson's remarkable ring career (the Associated Press named him the greatest fighter of the 20th century), Haygood shows how all of his featured artists refused to accept the limited roles expected of them. Like Davis, who resisted being forced into only one jazz style and who rejected the minstrel-show approach to music, Robinson took boxing to a new level of class and grace. Patterning himself after Davis and the other jazz greats he idolized, he brought rhythm and swing to the ring and sartorial splendor and joie de vivre to his life outside the ropes.

I didn't know what joie de vivre was back in the early 1950s when I first saw Sugar Ray, but I knew he had something those other stick figures on our tiny TV didn't have. It feels great to be right.