I'm such a blessed man," Ray Robinson is fond of saying. "God's given me Sugar Ray Robinson." Robinson's original name was Walker Smith Jr. "I gave it away where I started at," he says, "a skinny kid in a hole of a basement gym. I wasn't old enough to fight but this Robinson was and I took his name. I meant to give the guy's name back, but..." The Sugar part he earned. " 'Sweet-looking boy you got there,' man told my manager, George Gainford. 'Sweet as sugar,' George told him." And, "doucement, doucement," Gainford would cry up to him from the corner of the ring in years gone by.
But not last week in Boston, where, fighting with the desperate, jerky violence of a character in an old silent film, Robinson lost his middleweight title, for the fifth time, to Paul Pender, a fireman from neighboring Brookline, Mass.
The decision was split, but if Robinson thought it unfair he did not complain. When Gainford denounced the judges in the dressing room, Robinson put up his hand. "Hey, George," he said, softly. "Sometime they'll give us the better of it. I fought the fight I wanted to fight but I couldn't do the things I wanted to do. Evidently I didn't hurt him."
"That isn't Ray Robinson in there tonight," a fight manager had said at ringside. Will Robinson be in there another night? He is entitled to a rematch within 90 days if he wants it, and he said he did. "I been a winner and a loser," Robinson has said. "Other people lose, they go crazy. I always moved ahead." Moving ahead or back-pedaling, losing or winning, Robinson remains one of the most fascinating men in sport, flamboyant, egocentric, an artist.
February 1, 1960
Robinson is 38 (or 39); he gets injections of B 12, iron and liver and drinks a cup of steer's blood every day, but he refuses to believe he is vanishing, that he is playing with half a deck.
"He's my brother," says his sister Evelyn, "but I don't know which way he's going. He's playing hopscotch. You can't take Robinson for granted. But anything he gets, he deserves."
"He's a very daring boy," says his mother, Mrs. Walker Smith. "Hate for anyone to tell him what to do, not to do. Got that from me. The older he gets the more he wants to prove he isn't. Look the same. If I didn't know he was older, I wouldn't believe it."
"So help me, God," says Robinson, the hot dog, the crowd-pleaser, "I've gotten older but I don't see any difference. I got so much ham, man. They got to kill this ham to stop me. Whenever there's a crowd, you catch me out there. When nobody's there, nothing happens."
"There's a scripture," says Evelyn. " 'But what shall it profit a man if he shall gain the whole world and lose his own soul?' " She is talking about Robinson. "I don't know. Maybe he didn't have a soul or maybe he didn't have time to show it to me. He was my brother but I didn't know him. He's different now. He's got humility."
There is one image of Robinson as a suspicious and arrogant man. It is an image shaped by those who have tried to do business with him and found him an intractable if capricious bargainer. He is acutely sensitive to the harsh fact that Negroes and boxers are exploited, that it requires great wieldings of moxie to survive. "I was born in poverty," says Robinson. "I know what it is to need. Whatever's due me, I'll stand up and fight for." "We're both Taurus," says Evelyn, "bull-headed, stubborn, but we help people in trouble."
Indeed, Robinson is impulsively generous. "I've seen so many poor people all over the world," he says. "They're destitute. I can't say no. I've got tenants three, four months behind in their rent [Robinson owns a number of apartment houses]. What am I going to do? Women, they have to work, support children. I met an old woman—Mom—in this barbecue place fumbling through pennies to eat those greasy ribs. I brought Mom into my club, introduced her to the crew. At least I know she eats. She must be up in her 70s."
Robinson also feels he has been fingered by God. "People say, who are you?" he says. "But I just know I'm a blessed man. The man upstairs picked something for me to do. They can't beat that man up there, man. He's my man." The Robinson religion has to do with thanksgiving and charity. It is not inconsistent, he feels, with the desire he expressed the other day to cruise through the West Indies on a yacht "with a couple of broads." Rumors are that Robinson is separated from his second wife.
There is an image of Robinson as a man of flash, pose and exuberance whose hair is brushed by his valet and tied up and preserved in a pale, flowered kerchief. It is his flourish, his mark. "He is an entertainer," says his mother. "He loves to get a laugh." But no matter how often he looks in the mirror he finds, beneath his glittering hair, himself: inaccessible, ambiguous, vulnerable.
There is an image of Robinson as the finest prizefighter of his age. It is an image flawed by the hard uses of time, but it was true, it was true.
Until last December, Robinson had not fought since he regained his title from Carmen Basilio on March 25, 1958. Because of his inactivity, the National Boxing Association stripped him of his championship (except in New York and Massachusetts, which do not belong to the NBA), an action which Robinson bitterly described as "depriving me of my livelihood."
The December fight was in Boston, too, against Bob Young whom he knocked out in the second round. After the fight he was asked what it was like in there after 21 months. "Well, man," he said, "it was kind of like moving into a new house. The way the crowd was receiving me meant more than my winning. Crazy! God blesses us, makes people respect the old men. You know, that cat Young popped me in the first round, man. Uh-oh. C sharp or B flat."
"What's that mean?" a man asked.
"If you don't see sharp," said Robinson, "you'll be flat."
"I like that," said the man.
"You'll like it better if you get in that ring," said Robinson. "This Young, you know, he told me I've been an idol of his. Swinging! He always wanted to fight on my style. He wanted advice. I told him, don't ever go in anybody's ring unless you're ready. [Robinson is notorious for postponing or canceling his fights.] I told him you got to learn to lose. I told him the most important thing is condition."
"This is the important thing," Robinson reiterated several weeks later, at 6:20 in the morning. He stood in the dark on the cinder track which girdles New York's Central Park reservoir. It had snowed during the night and the weather was what the Army calls realistic: cold and windy. "This is the part they don't know," said Robinson, "getting out in all this weather.
"I run with my shank," he said, holding up a long knife. "Got to have something for protection."
"He was running all the time," his mother says. "A little, thin, skinny boy running around through the streets doing Lord knows what. 'You going to school?' I'd ask him. 'Mama,' he'd say, 'I'll go to school at night.' He didn't go to school. He was fighting all the time."
COLD, CLEAN LIVING
"This is the kind of weather changes a fighter's mind," said Honey Brewer, who is Robinson's brother-in-law. "So much clean living you have to go through." Honey sat in the heated interior of Robinson's Continental Mark V which was parked on Central Park West. It is the latest in a succession of cars all painted the same shade—an iridescent fusion of the color of raspberries, of belly lox, of flamingos, of violets, of orchids. Honey doesn't know the name of the color. He says it's a "loud color," the color of a necktie Robinson once admired around a man's neck.
"I ran around twice," said Robinson when he returned. "You got to do this if you expect them to hold your hand in the air." (In 20 years of professional fighting and 152 bouts they have held Robinson's hand up~ 143 times.) It was light when he drove home to sleep. He had run into the day.
"I start my day at this little church," Robinson said at noon as he parked in front of a church a few blocks from his Harlem cafe. "It's Catholic but I'm not a Catholic. Churches, synagogues, I go to them all. Who can say which is right? I believe in them all."
Robinson waved to a traffic cop and told him he wouldn't be long. (Robinson parks where it pleases him. He usually double-parks in front of his cafe. Earlier the same day a man had come into the place. "Hey, Robinson," he said. "The cop says to tell you there's a parking place." "Give him my keys," said Robinson, "and tell him to park it.")
The church was empty. Robinson knelt at the altar rail for a long time. When he left, he folded a bill and stuffed it in the poor box. "Many's a time," he said, "I put my last $100 in that box. Money is lust. It all passes away. Health, that's man's greatest prize. I have health and strength. I'm so blessed. Some people think to pray means to beg. I think differently. I pray to give thanks."
His next stop was at Professor Hall's, where he has studied classical voice for a year and a half. (Robinson, when he retired from the ring for two years in 1952, had a brief, highly paid and inconclusive career as a song-and-dance man. The feeling was that, for a fighter, he was a first-rate hoofer.) Professor Jarahal Hall is a short, elderly man, with long, white hair parted in the middle, and a serene manner. His studio is a small room in an old building in Harlem. Under his piano is a bongo drum. An electric heater glows orange in the corner.
"Don't jazz Handel," Professor Hall told Robinson when he came in. "You take him straight."
"———Handel," said Robinson.
"This is a very serious business," said Professor Hall. "You have to think and coordinate. Most of us in this hemisphere can't speak. We don't finish sentences. We go um-um. I have a terrible handicap with you. So many things on your mind."
"La-ah-ah-ah," sang Robinson.
"You opened the sound, not the dynamic pyramid," said Professor Hall.
"La, le, li, lo, lu," sang Robinson.
"More tongue," said Professor Hall. "Your tongue is sluggish."
"Ma, me, mi, mo, mu," sang Robinson.
"This is all dental," said Professor Hall. "Use your anatomical balance."
"I accept a challenge," said Robinson, wiping his face with a towel, "but this man is a slave driver. He won't let you settle for this much."
"I'm selfish about my work," said Professor Hall.
"I've been trying to catch him wrong for so long," Robinson said. "I'm going to knock your head just once," he said and drew back his fist. Professor Hall smiled benignly. "Professor Hall can hear a rat spit on cotton, but he and I share the same feeling spiritual-wise."
SCALES AND JUMP ROPES
"I work harder at this than boxing," he said after an aria. "You have no idea how difficult it is. Those diatonic scales! This is my next career. I want to sing at the Met."
"He's a dramatic baritone," said Professor Hall. "Full range. Good G. Very wonderful turn on A flat. He has coordination. With that, it's easy."
"Nothing is easy," said Robinson. "I want to sing at Carnegie Hall."
Robinson sang Handel's Ombra mai fu, and Il Lacerato Spirito from Verdi's Simon Boccanegra. "That Italian," he said. "Nothing more beautiful." He knew the pieces by heart and wandered away from the piano, his eyes half-closed, to where the window looked out on the white winter street. His head was back on his broad neck the way a globe of the world sits on its standard.
It is the way he looks when he is fooling with the jump rope in Harry Wiley's Broadway Gym, where a sign on the wall says, "The gentleman boxer has the most friends," to which somebody has added in pencil "and the most losses." Not jumping the rope, but holding the handles carelessly with one hand, whirling it, slapping it against the floor, dancing abandoned, clowning, swaggering steps as Wiley, his trainer, whistles Come to the Mardi Gras, and maybe another whistler joins in tentatively, and Otis Woodward, his sparring partner, hits the bongo. And so they whistle together, and Robinson, strutting, ragging there, becomes a tenant of some distant stage, some old, gaudy night. The whistlers go surely from one song to another, and Robinson, grinning, winking the while, plays his prancing part in the splendid belief that he can go on almost forever but watching the dedicated faces about him to see if they believe it, too. The bell on the electricround-timer rings, and three go quickly to him. Two bend down on either side and massage his legs, and one holds up a towel. Robinson gives him his face and when the man takes the towel away he is grinning marvelously still.
When Robinson went to his cafe from the gym, a little, ragged kid stood in the entrance, holding out his hand. "Give me a dime, Sugar Ray," he said.
Robinson looked down at the wise face as if he saw Walker Smith Jr., who danced for pennies on the sidewalks of Detroit. "What did I tell you about begging?" he said and entered his place grandly, as if it were Versailles. A square clock on the wall, painted the same elusive color as his car, with gloved arms for hands, miniature ring posts and ropes, told him it was late.