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Pound for Pound: A Biography of Sugar Ray Robinson

Pound for Pound: A Biography of Sugar Ray Robinson

4.0 1
by Herb Boyd, George Guidall (Narrated by), Peter Jay Fernandez (Narrated by)

Hailed by Muhammad Ali as "the king, the master, my idol," Sugar Ray Robinson was the greatest boxer America had seen since Joe Louis and is considered by many today to be, pound for pound, the best boxer the sport has ever known. A world welterweight and five-time middleweight champion, he had a career that spanned three decades. With his graceful yet powerful


Hailed by Muhammad Ali as "the king, the master, my idol," Sugar Ray Robinson was the greatest boxer America had seen since Joe Louis and is considered by many today to be, pound for pound, the best boxer the sport has ever known. A world welterweight and five-time middleweight champion, he had a career that spanned three decades. With his graceful yet powerful style and Hollywood looks — which he would use to his advantage upon his final retirement from boxing — he embodied the very essence of the "sweet science." Before he finally hung up his boxing gloves in 1965, at the age of forty-four, Sugar Ray Robinson won 125 consecutive fights, including victories over Henry Armstrong, Kid Gavilan, Carmen Basilio, Jake LaMotta, Rocky Graziano, Gene Fullmer, and Randy Turpin. His successes were not his alone, however. They belonged to his family as well, though those relationships would be marked by neglect and abuse.

At a time still characterized by discrimination, his victories, like those of Jackie Robinson, represented victories for all black America. And they were all the more symbolic because of the place he chose to call home — Harlem. Co-written with Robinson's son, Ray Robinson II, and thoroughly researched by Amsterdam News reporter Herb Boyd, Pound for Pound is not only a definitive portrait of an emotionally complex man and his family, it is also a portrait of Harlem at the apex of its creativity, a time when Miles Davis was playing at Minton's, Langston Hughes was writing his divine poetry, and a boy from Georgia originally named Walker Smith Jr. would take on the moniker "Sugar."

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Robinson, both a welterweight and a five-time world middleweight champion, bested Henry Armstrong, Jake LaMotta, Rocky Graziano, and other great fighters. Journalist Boyd (coauthor, Brotherman) and Ray Jr. draw on the manuscript of the boxer's wife to tell of the boxing great's meteoric rise, long reign, and sad fall, along the way painting a portrait of the lively Harlem in which Robinson was such a star attraction. Sugar Ray's two fights with Carmen Basilio were cited in Don Dumphy at Ringside as among the greatest fights the veteran broadcaster had seen. Robinson's philandering extravagance and illnesses clouded his later life. This candid portrait should be welcome on public library sports shelves, along with Robinson's own Sugar Ray (written with Dave Anderson).-Morey Berger, St. Joseph's Hosp. Lib., Tucson, AZ Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Admiring biography of the great fighter that neither glosses over nor dwells on his not-always-great behavior outside the ring. Boyd (editor, The Harlem Reader, 2003, etc.; African-American Sudies/College of New Rochelle) gets help from Sugar Ray Robinson's son in portraying a complex man with serious problems-problems outweighed only by the sheer mass of his boxing achievements: 85 amateur wins and no losses; 175 professional wins to only 19 defeats, 6 draws, 1 no-decision, 1 no-contest; a career that lasted from 1940 to 1965. The head-shaking wow of these statistics propels the story forward, since Boyd makes no pretense to being anything more than a journeyman boxing writer. Still, he's an intelligent student of the sweet science and makes all the right noises about Robinson's artistry, his "fundamental coordinates of speed and power," his left hook and right cross. Where Boyd excels, however, is in squaring Robinson's life (1921-89) to his milieu, which for many years was Harlem. During the neighborhood's most vibrant years of music, literature, entrepreneurialism, and political activism, Robinson moved through Harlem like a force of nature, starting businesses, serving as an example of success on a large scale, living high and bright. He was not a druggie or a boozer, but he was an insatiable womanizer; he was a miserable father, but he gave to charities; he was never bought by the mob, but he required a huge entourage; he beat his opponents mercilessly, and his women as well. (Their son says his abuse caused Robinson's wife to have five miscarriages.) He bombed in business, failed to support his family, ingloriously tanked in the ring, was a one-stop garnishing center for the IRS.He soared and crashed, Boyd notes, much like his Harlem. Not much different from the antics that got Mike Tyson pilloried, though Robinson never chewed off an opponent's ear. Still, icons get special treatment, Boyd makes clear, and geniuses are forgiven their many trespasses. (8-page b&w photo insert, not seen)Agent: Marie Brown/Marie Brown & Associates
Kevin Powell
"A nuanced, sensitive, critical, and definitive biography of arguably the greatest boxer of all time."
—Kevin Powell
“A nuanced, sensitive, critical, and definitive biography of arguably the greatest boxer of all time.”
--Kevin Powell
“A nuanced, sensitive, critical, and definitive biography of arguably the greatest boxer of all time.”
“A rich history of the athlete, the man, the sport and a fascinating time in African American history.”
“An informative account of the life of Hollywood-handsome middleweight champion Sugar Ray Robison.”

Product Details

Recorded Books, LLC
Publication date:

Read an Excerpt

Pound for Pound

Chapter One

From Red Clay to Black Bottom

Sugar Ray Robinson on the page is almost as elusive as he was in the ring. In the opening chapters of the autobiography that he completed with the assistance of New York Times sportswriter Dave Anderson, Sugar states that he was born May 3, 1921, in Detroit's Black Bottom. While the date of his birth is accurate (though it is listed as 1920 in Ring magazine, boxing's bible), the location he gives is contradicted by a birth certificate that cites Ailey, Georgia, as his place of birth. Whoever filled out the certificate—and it could have been Sugar's father, Walker Smith, Sr.—was only barely literate, since colored was misspelled "colerd." He was named Walker Smith. His mother's name appears to be Lelar, though in his book Sugar refers to her as Leila; her maiden name was Hurst. According to the certificate, Walker, Sr., is twenty-eight and a farmer and Lelar is twenty-three and a domestic. Gene Schoor, who wrote a biography of Sugar Ray Robinson in 1951, notes that Mrs. Smith was born August 25, 1900, which would have made her twenty-one at the time of Sugar's birth, and was one of sixteen children.Walker, Jr.,was the couple's third child. And "Junior" would be the name Sugar would answer to as a boy.

In his autobiography, Sugar writes that his parents were from Dublin, Georgia, which is about 130 miles northwest of Savannah. Both of his older sisters, Marie and Evelyn, were born on a farm not too far from Dublin. In 1980, Walker Smith's funeral announcement states that he arrived in Detroit in 1916; Schoor reported 1917. If either is true, then he must havegone back and forth for the children to be born in the South, or he came alone and his wife came later. This region of Georgia at that time, mainly within Montgomery County, was well-known for three things: cotton, the Ku Klux Klan, and lynching. During thepost–World War I years, particularly 1919, the year Evelyn was born, at least ten black soldiers were lynched, half of them in Georgia. According to author Donald L. Grant, "Many of the demobilized black veterans continued to wear their uniforms, sometimes because they had no other clothes and sometimes because they were proud of their service. Many whites reacted savagely to this practice." Countless numbers of black soldiers who had gone abroad to make the world "safe for democracy" returned home with a newfound spirit of freedom, only to be brutally reminded by the Klan and other white residents that nothing had changed. And to drive this point home, the Klan torched several black churches and lodges, burning them to the ground.

With the cotton infested with boll weevils and the membership of the Klan increasing with each lynching, black farmers had few alternatives but to seek better opportunities elsewhere. Sugar's aunt and her husband were among the migrants who moved north to Detroit looking for a better life. They found a place to live and settled in an area known as Black Bottom. This sector on the city's east side was an outgrowth of the restrictive covenant that confined the movement of African Americans. It contained the most dilapidated houses and received the least services. Even so, it was an improvement over where its residents had lived before. Sugar's aunt and uncle notified Walker, who followed them, gaining employment almost immediately as a ditch digger. "Pop was a wiry little guy," Sugar recalled in his autobiography, "five foot seven and a hundred and fifty pounds, with a dazzling smile that lit up his dark brown face.And he was strong."Much of Walker's strength—and certainly his fatigue—came from wielding a shovel, digging out cellar shells for buildings. Resourceful and hardworking, he was soon behind the wheel of a shiny new black Ford Model T, tooling about town and "styling," like sashaying while driving, just as his son would do years later in flashier automobiles: Cadillacs and Lincolns.

His father's tastes for luxury notwithstanding, he managed to purchase train tickets for his wife and children to join him in Detroit. This act alone distinguished him from so many fathers who, once out of the grip of American apartheid, never looked back or gave a thought to those they left behind. Sugar wrote that he made the trip to Detroit in his mother's womb, coming into the world a few weeks after their arrival. If they left Georgia shortly after he was born, that might account for his recollection that he was born in Detroit, not Ailey, Georgia. Or given Sugar's penchant for invention, this was just another example of his remaking himself, his way of recalling his life the way he wanted it to be, not as it was. Blurring dates, events, even people came as easily, and was probably as necessary, to him as sidestepping a blow or counterpunching opponents with a wicked left hook.

The Smiths' home on Canfield, just north of Black Bottom, and near Paradise Valley, was typical of the small homes in the area. It was a two-story yellow brick house, neat but not pretentious. The neighborhood's citizens, many of them recent migrants from Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi, had begun coming to the city in droves since 1914, shortly after Henry Ford announced the possibility of earning five dollars a day in his automobile plants. The population increased astronomically, from 5,000 to 120,000, between 1910 and 1930. There were jobs for them in the factories, but mainly they were the hardest, most dangerous, lowest-paying, and most unskilled ones. But the majority of these new arrivals were not deterred by the onerous work, since they were used to spending long days under a blazing sun picking and chopping cotton. . .

Pound for Pound. Copyright © by Herb Boyd. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

What People are Saying About This

Kevin Powell
“A nuanced, sensitive, critical, and definitive biography of arguably the greatest boxer of all time.”

Meet the Author

Herb Boyd is a journalist, activist, teacher, and author or editor of twenty-three books, including his latest, The Diary of Malcolm X, edited with Ilyasah Al-Shabazz, Malcolm X’s daughter. His articles have been published in the Black Scholar, Final Call, the Amsterdam News, Cineaste, Downbeat, the Network Journal, and the Daily Beast. A scholar for more than forty years, he teaches African American history and culture at the City College of New York in Harlem, where he lives.

Ray Robinson II is an independent producer who is currently in the process of establishing a museum in honor of his mother and father.

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