The Life and Times of Sugar Ray Robinson
By Wil Haygood
Knopf, Hardcover, 9781400044979, 480pp.
Publication Date: October 13, 2009
From the author of the critically acclaimed In Black and White: The Life of Sammy Davis, Jr., comes another illuminating socio-historical narrative of the twentieth century, this one spun around one of the most iconic figures of the fight game, Sugar Ray Robinson.
Continuing to set himself apart as one of our canniest cultural historians, Wil Haygood 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 had an early childhood marked by the seething racial tensions and explosive race riots that infected the Midwest throughout the twenties and thirties. After his mother moved him and his sisters to the relative safety of Harlem, he came of age in the vibrant post-Renaissance years. It was there that—encouraged to box by his mother, who wanted him off the streets—he soon became a rising star, cutting an electrifying, glamorous figure, riding around town in his famous pink Cadillac. Beyond the celebrity, though, Robinson would emerge as a powerful, often controversial black symbol in a rapidly changing America. Haygood also weaves in the stories of Langston Hughes, Lena Horne, and Miles Davis, whose lives not only intersected with Robinson's but also contribute richly to the scope and soul of the book.
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 show-biz dreams, Haygood brings the champion's story, in the ring and out, powerfully to life against a vividly painted backdrop of the world he captivated.
"Haygood's book is certainly one of the best biographies of a boxer ever written . . . an important contribution to both sports literature and African American studies."
-Gerald Early, Washington Post
". . . Thoroughly marvelous . . ."
-Tim Rutten, Los Angeles Times
"Mr. Haygood captures his grace and power, at many disparate moments, as well as it’s been captured . . . Mr. Haygood . . . is a biographer in his own prime."
-Dwight Garner, New York Times
". . . an ambitious portrait of an American legend."
-Pete Hamill, Sunday Times
". . . insightful, highly readable . . . A wonderful book that deserves a wide audience."
"Haygood's excellent account of Robinson's long, eventful life . . .is packed with anecdotes and lush, pertinent context."
-Katherine Dunn, Bookforum
"Wil Haygood's new biography of Robinson . . .is about as fine a book about a boxer as you will find . . . Who is, pound for pound, the best fighter of all time? Robinson is always in that conversation. And should the topic ever pivot to the best writers about the sport, Haygood should be, too."
-Henry C. Jackson, Associated Press
". . . a compelling, often brilliant biography."
-Rege Behe, Pittsburg Tribune
"Haygood was born to the task . . . a portrayal that resonates with the guts, glitter and gravitas that his subject merits."
-Bijan C. Bayne, The Bay State Banner
"This book is a wonderful mix of reporting and grace, inspired by the thunder and speed of a much forgotten champion. Deeply researched, superbly written, thankfully devoid of dripping sentimentality, Wil Haygood takes an old broom to Harlem history and sweeps out the corners. This is the boxer we never knew."
-James McBride, author of The Color of Water
"The best is always fragile, Sugar Ray Robinson once said, and it took a writer of Wil Haygood's magnificence to appreciate what this meant in bringing the great boxer back to life. Sweet Thunder is a jewel from beginning to end."
-David Maraniss, author of When Pride Still Mattered and Rome 1960
"Finally, a biography worthy of a great athlete and social force, Sugar Ray Robinson."
-Larry Merchant, HBO World Championship Boxing
Wil Haygood talks to Steve Inskeep about the life and career of Sugar Ray Robinson, including his many fights against rival boxer Jake LaMotta. Haygood is the author of a new biography of Robinson called Sweet Thunder. More at NPR.org
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