Thursday, November 26, 2009

Power and Style, in the Ring and the World
By Dwight Garner, The New York Times
Published: November 24, 2009

SWEET THUNDER The Life and Times of Sugar Ray Robinson
By Wil Haygood Illustrated. 461 pages.
Alfred A. Knopf. US$27.95.

In the late 1930s, when he was still an amateur fighter, Sugar Ray Robinson began lugging an old Victrola record player around with him on the road. He’d bring a stack of records too, the good stuff: some Jelly Roll Morton and Duke Ellington and Fats Waller.

Left -Sugar Ray Robinson, a boxer also celebrated for his elegance. Photo The Times of London.

He’d warm up to these soul-filling sounds and then burst into the ring, Wil Haygood writes in “Sweet Thunder,” his excellent new biography of Robinson, “guided by the jazz in his head and the beckoning lights.”

The jazz that filled Robinson’s head, and that he loved his entire life, spills over into Mr. Haygood’s book like a buoyant soundtrack. Robinson befriended many jazz players over the years (Miles Davis, Billy Eckstine, Dizzy Gillespie). He loved their style, and they loved his. As Mr. Haygood writes, Sugar Ray was “the first modern prizefighter to take culture — music and grace and dance — into the ring with him.”

It was something to see. Robinson really brought it all: the beautiful smile, the finely chiseled body, the thin mustache and wavy hair, the coiled ease with which he moved. Mr. Haygood captures his grace and power, at many disparate moments, as well as it’s been captured: “At times whirling around the ring — as if moving from rock to rock across a shallow lake — he seemed the epitome of lightness and balance, until he stopped to unload a series of punches that drew gasps from onlookers.”

Sugar Ray was the greatest fighter alive during a big part of the 1940s and ’50s, winning five middleweight and one welterweight title, drawing millions of television viewers to his fights and participating in a brutal series of six fights with Jake LaMotta (Robinson won five of them) that riveted the nation.

Sugar Ray was hard to miss. He drove a flamingo-colored Cadillac and owned a popular club, Sugar Ray’s, in Harlem. (The writer A. J. Liebling liked the pork chops there.) In 1951 he became the third African-American to appear on the cover of Time magazine. He traveled in Europe, and one magazine called him “Paris’s No. 1 celebrity in residence.” Robinson had, Mr. Haygood observes, “the insouciance of a jazzy bandleader.”

Robinson’s grace and glamour are there for all to see in “Sweet Thunder,” but a heavier and darker story unfolds as well. Mr. Haygood stares into “the severe intensity” in Robinson’s eyes, and explains how that glowering focus got there.
The full review at NYT.

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