Sugar Ray Robinson: Fighting Toward Transcendence 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.
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Sugar Ray Robinson: Fighting Toward Transcendence

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Sugar Ray Robinson: Fighting Toward Transcendence

Sugar Ray Robinson: Fighting Toward Transcendence

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: Sugar Ray Robinson, who lived by his fists.

M: I had an uncle who boxed in Columbus, Ohio, and he would watch the Pabst Blue Ribbon fights on Friday nights.

U: What do you have? Well, you're back with us here at Chicago Stadium for round number 10 of the 15-round world middleweight championship bought.

M: I'd be in the kitchen or something or eating, and there were echoes: Sugar Ray Robinson throws a left.

U: The winner by a technical knockout...

M: Sugar Ray Robinson, there was a knockout point. He's down. He's down.

U: And the new world middleweight boxing champion: Sugar Ray Robinson.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

: This Sugar Ray hit his peak in the 1940s and '50s. He slugged it out in the ring and then left the arena in elegant suits, setting a style to which others aspired.

M: He was the first boxer to take dance and culture and music into the ring. He was the first boxer to really fight the mob, to retain ownership of his fight rights. You know, he owned a nightclub, which was really a good rebuke to the segregationist nightclubs in New York. Robinson said, all right. If my friends Lena Horne and Langston Hughes and Miles Davis and Duke Ellington and Billy Eckstine are not feeling welcome downtown, I'll build a swing club for them uptown, and everybody can come.

: What do you mean by wanting to take dance and culture into the ring with him, into this -- 'cause he's doing a very brutal sport here?

M: Yeah. It was. But I think he felt he was writing music in his own mind. I think he wanted to bring a new audience to the fight game. I think he wanted people not just to come and say knock him out, make him bleed. You know, it's you against Jake LaMotta. It's black against white. I think he wanted people to think about this sport on a higher frequency instead of the lower frequencies.

: I'm glad you mentioned Jake LaMotta, because I want to focus on an incredible series of fights that you describe between Sugar Ray Robinson and Jake LaMotta. You've described Robinson as a stylist, virtually a dancer in the ring. What kind of fighter was Jake LaMotta, whom he faced off against six times?

M: Very blunt, very direct, brutish. And he really fought to eat. He really fought to survive the mean streets of New York City. Sugar Ray Robinson wanted to look elegant in the ring, wanted to look beautiful in between rounds. If his marceled, greased-back hair flew out of place, he had a valet to fix it for him.

: That was one of the guys in his corner, was the hair man.

M: Right. You know, he traveled with an entourage, and Jake LaMotta hated that. Everything that Sugar Ray Robinson represented, Jake LaMotta hated. Everything that Jake LaMotta represented, Sugar Ray Robinson found crude.

: One's Italian, one's African-American.

M: Right.

: Each of them, in a different way, has a bit of a chip on his shoulder.

M: Yes.

: Comes from a group that was discriminated against in different ways.

M: Right.

: Talk me through two of the key moments in this six-fight rivalry. One of them is the second fight...

M: Mm-hmm.

: ...when Jake LaMotta throws one amazingly dramatic punch at Sugar Ray Robinson. What happened?

M: Sugar Ray was - he was coming up out of a crouch. Jake LaMotta saw an opening, Sugar Ray's chin, and he threw every inch, every muscle, every pound of extra weight and power into Sugar Ray Robinson and knocked him clean out of the ring, which was, you know, a pretty amazing thing to do.

: You have a photograph in here...

M: Yes.

: ...of Robinson almost doubled over like a jackknife, going between two of the ropes.

M: Yes.

: It looks like the kind of thing you would only see created in a movie by a stuntman or something.

M: You're right. I mean, the force was just that powerful. It was a scary moment for Sugar Ray Robinson. He had never been knocked down in his career, let alone knocked out of the ring. So with something like that happening, it was inevitable that Sugar Ray Robinson would tell his corner man, I have to get him back. I have to avenge this. I cannot let Jake LaMotta walk this earth thinking he's a better fighter than me.

: They fought several more times.

M: Right.

: And the final climactic fight came in 1951.

M: Yes.

U: Jake LaMotta in his corner believes he can whip anybody in the world, and he's trying to prove it tonight. He has set, as you can see, to make an all-out effort to retain that heralded crown.

M: The fight was so physical, by the fourth round, both fighters were bleeding.

U: ...made LaMotta's nose bleed again. However, Sugar Ray isn't unmarked, either. He's bleeding from the mouth.

M: By the sixth round, you could hear the grunts from each fighter. It was almost a fight to the death. It was also the first of their fights that was nationally televised. And many people sat in their living rooms and they were aghast at the amount of blood dripping onto their silk trunks, at the amount of blood flying onto the referee.

U: Robinson seems to be wondering just how much punishment this LaMotta can absorb without hitting the canvas.

U: These are clean, whistling shots, lefts and rights. How he can survive them, nobody knows. Heads shake at the ringside.

M: Robinson won. Robinson showed that style and fleetness of foot would win over power and muscle.

U: And in the 13th round, the hard left round, the championship of the world has changed hands.

: Jake LaMotta did not have a happy life after boxing, or after that defeat, the life that a lot of boxers seem to have. It's hard to transcend a sport. It's hard to move beyond it. Sugar Ray Robinson, though, you say that he aspired to transcend boxing, to go beyond it. Did he succeed?

M: Yes. He was a black man during an era of segregation. Where else could he have made $25,000 in one night, one fight? I think he wished he would have been Billy Eckstine or Duke Ellington. I think he wished...

: ...he'd been a jazz musician?

M: Yes, jazz musician. He loved the freedom of the jazz cats, and I don't think he realized how much of a giant he was to them.

: Wil Haygood is author of "Sweet Thunder: the Life and Times of Sugar Ray Robinson." Thanks for coming by.

M: Thank you for having me, so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

: American lives on MORNING EDITION. You can see that amazing photo of Sugar Ray Robinson being smacked through the ropes and other photos at npr.org. This is NPR News.

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