"To be a great champion, you must believe you are the best. If you 're not, pretend you are."
In the fall of 1986, Sugar Ray Leonard signed to fight Marvelous Marvin Hagler. Soon after, a question arose about Leonard. People are civilized now, for the most part, and asked, "Why is he doing it?" Not "Can he win?" but "Why would he risk it?" Was it the money, a guaranteed $11 million? Was it an irrepressible urge that goes with having been a champion? Was it merely ego, a grab for a higher place in boxing history?
No one thought to ask the uncivilized people. Men have lived warmed by the fire of civilization for so long that they have forgotten what it takes to survive with nothing but their wits and bare hands to fend off the jackals that stalk them. So the men who had forgotten this, or had convinced themselves they had, continued to ask, "Why?"
I went to see a man who knows why. He wasn't too hard to find.
July 12, 1987
"Can Sugar Ray Leonard beat Marvelous Marvin Hagler?"
Sugar Ray Robinson didn't answer. It might have been that he couldn't answer. That would seem most likely. There is the advancing Alzheimer's disease to consider, and the medication he is regularly given. He also has diabetes and hypertension. Beyond all this, there are the terrible lessons that 201 fights over 25 years have etched on his mind. Finally, there is Millie, his wife of 22 years. Any or all of these could be reasons why Robinson didn't answer. But it also could have been that he chose not to answer. The one incontrovertible truth is that Sugar Ray Robinson earned his silence the hard way. He didn't have to say anything. He left all the answers in the ring.
The 65-year-old former nonpareil welterweight and five-time middleweight champion smiled, then looked toward his lap. He was watched by Millie Robinson, who sat nearby in the modest offices of the Sugar Ray Robinson Youth Foundation, on Crenshaw Boulevard in the mid-Wilshire section of Los Angeles. It was November 1986. The board of directors of the foundation was meeting. Ray sat at the head of the table, his paper plate laden with meat and exotic fruit. He had not taken a bite. He had no appetite. Business was discussed by six other board members, the officers of his legacy. Robinson was oblivious. He was in his own world.
"Ray will still talk, sometimes, a little bit," Sid Lock-itch had said earlier at his office in Century City. Lockitch, an accountant, has been Robinson's business manager for more than 20 years and is the treasurer of the foundation. "When Millie's not around, he'll say a word or two. But even years ago, Ray was always a gentleman. He would never have said that Marvin Hagler is going to beat the crap out of Sugar Ray Leonard. He would have said luck to them both."
The telephone rang at the foundation office. For Millie.
"Ray, can Leonard beat Hagler?"
Robinson's smile became even broader, even more vacant. Then he leaned close. "Is he sweeter than me?" he asked, cloaking that once satiny voice in a whisper. I conspired with him.
In the spring of 1987, on Monday, April 6, Ray Leonard (33-1), the former welterweight and junior middleweight champion, fought middleweight champion Marvelous Marvin Hagler (62-2-2) in Las Vegas. Leonard, 31, came into the ring after a layoff of more than 1,000 days and with a surgically repaired left eye. The question still hung in the air. Why? Leonard was already known as the greatest welterweight since Robinson. Leonard could never be considered greater than Robinson. Not unless he fought, say, a hundred more times. Certainly not unless he somehow beat Hagler. "I care nothing for history," Leonard said on the Friday before the fight. So saying, he did the improbable—he beat the bigger, stronger man, just as Muhammad Ali had done, more impressively, against Sonny Liston and George Foreman.
"Ali absolutely worshiped Ray," Sid Lockitch says. "Still does. Usually, the greatest fall from grace is by fighters. People tend to avoid ex-fighters. They feel they took one too many. Randy Turpin once asked Ray, "What's worse, being a has-been or a never-was?' Then Randy committed suicide. But the people never forgot Ray. He felt God had made him a boxer for that reason. So he would not be forgotten. So he could help."
It is eerie, the similarity in technique between the three of them—first Robinson, then Ali, now Leonard. It was Robinson who was the original, the handsome master boxer with matchless hand speed, charisma and the fine legs of a figure skater. It was Robinson who went 123-1-2 to begin his career and become the welterweight champion, and it was Robinson who then went on to win the middleweight title those incredible five times. Yet, it was also Robinson who lost six times while fighting for the middleweight title. He won the national Golden Gloves featherweight title in 1939 at age 17, when Joe Louis was heavyweight champion of the world. He lost his final fight at 44, to the No. 1 middleweight contender, Joey Archer, in 1965. when Ali was champ. In the years from 1945 to the middle of 1951 Robinson, at 147 pounds, was unbeatable and irresistible. To the men of that era, and to some of their many sons and daughters, Leonard can only be a Sugar substitute.
"I like Ray Leonard," says Irving Rudd, 69, a veteran boxing publicist with Bob Arum's Top Rank, Inc., promoters of the Leonard-Hagler fight. "I think a lot of him as a fighter. That's why I say that, at his very fittest, he might have gone five rounds before Ray Robinson knocked him out. Five rounds, I say. Tops."
"He was the greatest. A distance fighter. A half-distance fighter. An in-fighter. Scientific. He was wonderful to see." Max Schmeling once said that of Robinson.
"The greatest fighter ever to step into the ring." Joe Louis once said that.
"The greatest...pound-for-pound," wrote the late columnist Jimmy Cannon, who, it is said, was impressed by hardly anyone—except Sugar Ray. When Ali was champ, the acerbic Cannon told him to enjoy it while he could, because the jackals would come for him one day.
In February 1964, when he was still known as Cassius Clay, a long shot who was about to fight Liston for the heavyweight title, Ali had invoked the name of Robinson, who was in Miami for the bout. "You tell Sonny Liston I'm here with Sugar Ray!" In a weigh-in performance that almost assuredly convinced Liston that he would be defending his title against a madman, Ali screamed to the press at the top of his lungs. "Sugar Ray and I are two pretty dancers. We can't be beat."
"Ray was the pro's pro," says Rudd. "When they told him he had a fight, Ray never asked who the opponent was or where the fight was going to be. Ray only asked, 'How much?' "
The general reaction of the middle-aged and older American public to Sugar Ray Robinson could best be summed up by a reminiscence of the late Red Smith. Smith was reminded of Robinson while visiting the zoo one day. When the columnist stood transfixed at the cage where a jaguar paced back and forth, he gazed at the superbly muscled predator and said, "Good morning, Ray. You're looking good, Ray."
Ray isn't looking so good anymore. "It's very painful to see him like this. The situation is not going to get any better," Lockitch says. Lockitch is referring to Robinson's deteriorating health, but another officer of the youth foundation adds, "It's like Ray is in prison. Millie treats him like a child. She lets him go nowhere with no one. Not even his own son."
Robinson's 37-year-old son, Ray Jr., says, "My father is virtually being held captive."
I had only wanted to go with Sugar Ray to the barbershop and ask him if Leonard could beat Hagler, and how. That's all. I knew Robinson still went to the barbershop at least once a week, sometimes more often. So I asked Millie about it and she said, "I take care of Uncle Wright. He's 87.1 take care of Ray. He's my husband. I love him. I've been what I've been to him for all these years. I could hire help, but I don't mind doing it. I don't need help. I have tears in my eyes, I'm trying so hard. Ray's going to get better. He's not better now. He's not going to the barbershop with you because I'm by his side every minute. He goes to five different barbershops. Only I know which ones. My husband is not a yo-yo for people to jerk around as they please. I'm in charge now. I take care of Ray. I'm the one in control."
"Now...." Millie fixes me with a defiant gaze. There's only one thing she wants to know. She asks, "How much?"
It might seem odd, wanting to watch Sugar Ray Robinson get his hair cut. But, being one of the younger baby-boomers, I am not old enough to remember what it was like to see the Sugar fight in his prime, much less to anticipate his fights, to go through the sweet agony of not knowing...and then to be so utterly convinced by his skill. I had missed the pleasure of that tension. I had only seen the old films. The fights had long been decided, the participants' places in history secured.
I first learned of the emotion stirred by Sugar Ray when, as a boy, I went to the barbershop, that sanctuary of masculinity and tonic with the striped pole outside. Inside, hair fell to the floor and the smell of talc hung in the air. Cokes cost a dime. Razor straps were used for their intended purpose. It was a place that buzzed. Great lies and great truths were tossed about like glances.
When I was a boy in the barbershop, one name would come up louder than the rest. The name was Cassius Clay. There would be a great deal of murmuring assent—and an occasional derisive sneer—that a real tough guy would eventually show the kid what for. Probably Liston. Then someone would reply: "Liston won't see what hit him. And neither will you." But there was at least one barber—he almost always seemed to be the one holding a pair of scissors perilously close to my ear—who would become agitated and say, "Hold on. Let's get it straight in here. That boy is good. He's good. But he ain't no Ray Robinson. There ain't but one Sugar—and Sugar give you diabetes quick."
After Ali had gone through the best part of his career and had endured a three-year layoff because of his refusal to be drafted, he signed to fight Oscar Bonavena on Dec. 7, 1970. That was to be a warmup before his real comeback fight—his epic loss to Joe Frazier in Madison Square Garden in March 1971. At the weigh-in with Bonavena, the Argentine attempted to get Ali's goat. He succeeded, to his later sorrow. "Clay? Clay?" Bonavena mocked. He spoke little English. "Clay.... Why you no go in ahrrmy? You cheeken? Peep-peep-peep...peep-peep-peep."
A look came over Ali's face that I had not seen before—true anger. Usually, Ali was like Robinson, and Ray usually held his temper. "Don't get mad," Robinson liked to say. "Get even."
Ali grimly asked Bonavena what seemed to be a curious question: "Did you cut your hair?"
"Whaat?" replied Bonavena.
"Did you cut your hair? "
"I'll cut your hair," said a deadpan Ali, who would knock out Bonavena in the 15th round.
Robinson, for his part, had a nickname for his youngest son. From the time Ray Jr. was a child his father has called him "Trimmer."
"Oh sure, Ray loves to get his hair cut. Loves it," Lockitch says. "He's still vain that way. He wouldn't dream of going anywhere without going to the barbershop. Whenever he'd go to New York, that was the first thing he'd do."
Before he became the fighter's business manager, before he became involved with the foundation, Lockitch was one of the men for whom Robinson was the Sugar. Lockitch became Ray's friend when Ray and Millie moved to Los Angeles, back in '65, right after they were married in Vegas. Lockitch was there when the foundation idea was first proposed in 1969, in Millie Robinson's kitchen in the lime green duplex on the corner of West Adams Boulevard and 10th Avenue. The house is owned by 87-year-old Wright Fillmore.
Millie and Ray still live on the second floor; "Uncle" Wright lives on the first. Fillmore, who was a close friend of Millie's parents, is president of the foundation and has been a benefactor of Ray's since '65. Over the years, he has been the owner of a lot of property on West Adams.
"Ray used to say he knew every man," says Lockitch. "Ask him if he knew the chairman of the board for Standard Oil and Ray would say. 'Sure.' What Ray meant was that the guy knew him. All he had to do was call and say 'This is Sugar Ray Robinson,' and the guy would know who he was and do whatever he could to help Ray out."
Ray Robinson's world was a man's world. Women were different, except for his mother, Leila Smith. Women were to be won. They were part of the spoils of war. Even Ray's mother could not completely displace Ray from his male constituency. After young Walker Smith, fighting under the assumed named of Ray Robinson, emerged from anonymity in 1939—by boxing like a dream and being nicknamed Sugar because he fought so sweetly—he was visited by his father, Walker Smith Sr., whom the newly minted Sugar Ray Robinson had not seen in eight years. Robinson happily shelled out some bucks to his pop. When Ray later told his mother what had happened, she was indignant. Walker Smith had walked out on her. On them. Said Robinson to his mother, "That's your business."
Still, she was his mother and his biggest fan. "It didn't matter what weight they were. He was the best," says Leila Smith. It is a cold day in January 1987, and she is sitting in the apartment she shares with her daughter, Evelyn Nelson, on University Avenue in the South Bronx. For a woman of 89 years, Leila Smith is full of wit and vitality. Her memory is sharp.
"That Maxim fight. That's the one that Ray shouldn't have had," she says. "The only one."
During his career, Robinson had 20 or more bouts like the one Leonard undertook with Hagler. After overwhelming the welterweights of his day, Robinson moved up to middleweight in 1950 and was involved in stirring battles with the likes of Jake LaMotta, Randy Turpin, Carmen Basilio, Gene Fullmer, Bobo Olson and Paul Pender. He was not the same fighter at the heavier weight, 160 pounds. He was still a great fighter, but he was not the unbeatable Sugar. Then, on June 25, 1952, when he was 31, Robinson climbed into a ring that had been set up in Yankee Stadium to fight Maxim for the light heavyweight title.
"It was 104 degrees that night. It was 130 degrees ringside, that's what they said. I was there. It felt like it," says Leila Smith. "Whatever you call 'great' nowadays, I guess Ray was that then. I went to his fights. I wasn't superstitious. When Ray sat between rounds that night, I dropped my head. People said, 'Why do you drop your head? You crying?' I was praying."
Robinson wore black that night. His mother wore white. Ray had already won the middleweight title from LaMotta, lost it to Turpin, then regained it from Turpin; then he defended it by decisioning Olson and again by knocking out Rocky Graziano with one perfect right in the third round in Chicago. The right was so devastating that Graziano lay stretched out on the canvas with his right leg twitching.
The whole world seemed to be Sugar Ray's oyster, and the Maxim fight would showcase him in his backyard. Robinson was the pride of Harlem, but admiration of his abilities was not restricted to people of his race. Black heavyweight champions like Jack Johnson and Louis had to bear heavy sociological burdens whether they liked it or not. Ray straightened his hair and he was the Sugar to everybody. "Color means nothing to him," Lockitch says.
It seemed that Ray had many friends when he stepped into the ring to fight Maxim in the sweltering early summer heat and under a battery of hot lights. "I had won welter and middle, beaten most of the people in my class," Ray said once. "People wanted to see me fight Maxim."
Maxim's given name was Giuseppe Antonio Berardinelli. He was born in Cleveland. He was strong even for a 6'1", 175-pounder and he was an earnest campaigner. He had fought 99 times before he met Robinson. He had won 78 times, drawn four. He had been knocked out only once and was better than any light heavyweight in the world except Ezzard Charles, to whom he had lost five times, and Jersey Joe Walcott, who had beaten him twice. As a boxer, Maxim was not in Robinson's class, but he was still an excellent fighter—and two classes above Ray in natural weight. Maxim was 30 years old and the light-heavy champ almost by default, since Charles and Walcott had moved up to heavyweight to meet their fates at the hands of each other and Rocky Marciano. Maxim himself had fought once for the heavyweight title, losing to Charles in 1951.
At the end of the 10th round, the referee, on the verge of collapse, had to quit and a substitute took over. "The world swam before my eyes," says Leila Smith. And it swam before Robinson's. He had used his brilliant moves and blinding hand speed to hit Maxim with every punch in his repertoire. In the seventh, he nailed Maxim with the perfect right—similar to the one that had left Graziano twitching. Maxim was turned sideways by the force of the punch but he did not go down. The light-heavy was too big. Robinson couldn't hurt him. At the end of the 13th, Robinson, well ahead on all cards, was done in by the heat. He staggered across the ring into the arms of his cornermen. He could not answer the bell for the 14th round. If the fight had gone 12 rounds, he would have won. Robinson announced his retirement that December.
"Ray had promised me back in 1940 that I would never have to work again," says Leila Smith. "And I never had to. My son always took care of me."
Upon retirement, Robinson set out for Europe, ostensibly to begin a second career as a tap-dancing troubador and to enjoy the spoils of war. He had been married on May 29, 1944, to Edna-Mae Holly, a beautiful show girl who, in 1949, had borne him Ray Jr. Edna-Mae would later have four miscarriages. Robinson was a man of extravagant tastes, appetites and generosity. He could eat a dozen doughnuts and wash them down with a pitcher of sweet tea. He ordered fuchsia Cadillacs, first-class staterooms and the finest of champagnes for his valets, golf pros, chauffeurs, secretaries and, of course, his barbers. "He wanted to buy me a Cadillac," says Leila Smith. "But I only saw hard men and rough women in those cars. So he bought me a Buick."
Robinson was back in the ring within two years. "Sure, I could use a buck as well as the next guy," he said. "But this was not the reason. I just had the feeling. I got the urge. People wanted to see me fight."
Robinson's ring career would continue for another 11 years and twice more he would hold the middleweight title, but he was never again a god. In 1960, he separated from Edna-Mae, and in the twilight of his boxing days he married Millie Bruce and moved to L.A.
"Now, for four or five years, I don't get nothing, I don't hear nothing," says Leila Smith. "And I don't ask why. Ray had been sick only one day in his life. Pneumonia. Maybe food poisoning. It was before a fight. I had to go to Philadelphia because he wouldn't go to the hospital. He called the hospital a good place to die. He didn't ride elevators, either. Ray is not a man to be trapped."
Five years ago, Robinson fell ill but wouldn't allow Millie to hospitalize him. So Millie sent for Leila Smith. Millie had suffered at Ray's hand physically and she had temporarily moved out. Frank Sinatra, an old friend, called Robinson and told him that Millie would come back to the house if Ray agreed to be hospitalized. But it took Ray's mother to finally convince him to put himself in the doctors' hands.
"The doctor who examined him at the house said his blood sugar was very high. So I went out there," recalls Mrs. Smith. "He wouldn't go to the hospital for nobody but me. He seemed to be delirious. He got upset whenever she [Millie] came near. It was her. Just her. I could go and talk to him. But her—she had gone away, and Ray was waiting for her on the porch. She said Ray had knocked her down before. I told her, 'You better do something or Ray will hurt you.' Sugar is dangerous, you know. She didn't seem to know what was wrong with him.
"That was the last time I saw him. I used to talk to him on the phone. Sometimes, he would repeat himself. Sometimes he'd say, 'Ma, I didn't mean it.' "
Leila Smith took "it" to mean Jimmy Doyle. On June 23, 1947, the night before Robinson fought Doyle in Cleveland, Ray dreamed he killed Doyle with a single left hook. The next morning, a shaken Sugar told his manager, George Gainford, and the fight promoters that he couldn't go into the ring against Doyle, but the promoters brought in a Catholic priest who assured Robinson his fears were unfounded. The fight must go on, that night. In the eighth round Sugar hit Doyle with a textbook left hook. Doyle was taken out of the ring on a stretcher. He died the next day without ever regaining consciousness.
"He meant Doyle. I know my son. But...I can't be sure," says Leila Smith. "Ray used to take care of me. I used to know him. To me, Millie is a Johnny-come-lately. I don't know much about this last marriage."
Mildred Bruce, several years Ray's senior, had two sons and a daughter by a previous marriage. Her younger son died at an early age. The other son, Herman, 50, is now called Butch Robinson. He helps run the activities program for the foundation. "She got her son named Robinson," says Leila Smith. "But when little Ray [Ray Jr.] went out there, he was pushed to the back. Just like Leonard. Just took Ray's glory. Millie doesn't care who doesn't like what. She keeps Ray shut away because somebody would see how bad off he is. Evelyn says it's bad. My chances of ever seeing Ray again are poor. If I didn't have Jesus, I wouldn't survive. I would lose my mind. It would hurt me not to be able to even talk to Ray. It brings tears to my eyes just to think about him. I want to do what's right, but what is right these days?"
Later, I talk to Millie. She is upset, which is not good because she suffers from hypertension. "So, you went and talked to Ray's mother behind my back," she says.
"No, Mrs. Robinson. Not behind your back. Mrs. Smith is Ray's mother. She was very kind."
"Well, I'm his wife."
Leila Smith mentioned when I visited that she was a little bit tired. On Monday morning, Feb. 9, 1987, just after midnight, she suffered gastric distress. She was quickly hospitalized and underwent emergency surgery for an intestinal blockage. She was not strong enough to survive the trauma. Before morning light, the mother of the greatest boxer pound-for-pound that ever lived, died in a small room at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx.
"Do you miss New York?"
A chill wind whips over the burial grounds of Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, N.Y., causing the small gathering of mourners to huddle closer together and pull their winter coats tight. It is Valentine's Day. Edna-Mae Robinson holds her hand over her mouth and leans toward her son, Ray Jr., as the minister says simple words over the casket bearing the remains of Leila Smith.
A large wreath of white carnations stands at the head of the open grave. The banner bears the script: YOUR SON, SUGAR RAY. Blood-red boxing gloves are pinned to the center of the arrangement. Once the minister has finished and the mourners have moved reluctantly away, the gloves are removed by the boldest of the male relatives. Some carnations are plucked as melancholy souvenirs. A letter from Ray to his mother was read at the funeral service. Ray was not present. Millie has to help him when he goes to the bathroom, so a transcontinental trip seemed out of the question.
"Oh, I'm real clear on what kind of person Millie is," says Ray Jr. "I guess she doesn't want him in these surroundings anymore. Or out from under the influence of medication. My father is virtually in prison, yes, but it's a strange kind of prison. He can be pumped up to go to a party at Frank Sinatra's house, but he can't come to his own mother's funeral." Actually, Ray Robinson had been hospitalized the day before his mother's funeral. He had become agitated and his blood sugar had risen.
Seven years ago, Ray Jr. moved to Venice, Calif., to work for the foundation and spend some time with his father. He never got that time—and he never got the job. "My dad had written me an amazing letter. I was thrilled at the chance to get to know him. My father had always been a...businessman. His business kept him away. But he wrote and said he wanted me to work with him. When I got there, I was shocked. He weighed 215 pounds. For 6½ years, I've lived not 20 minutes from them. I been in their house no more than 10 times—most times uninvited."
"I don't want any problems with Millie," says Edna-Mae. "I don't want anything. I used to be the first lady. But she is now. When I found out Ray was sick, I sent out literature on high blood pressure and diabetes and Alzheimer's, and she became very upset. Why? My son was in for a rude awakening when he went out there."
Sugar Ray remained fit for 10 years after he retired in '65. He worked out nearly every day, either on the road or with the bags. Lockitch tried to introduce him to health clubs, but Robinson went into one, looked around and said, "This ain't a gym. It's got to look like a gym. It's got to smell like a gym." And so he went off to find a real gym, and he continued working out until 1975, when he finally let it go. But he couldn't really let it go. After all, he was still the Sugar. That would never change.
"It hurt me when they started calling this new young man Sugar Ray," says Edna-Mae. "It must have hurt Ray." If it did, he didn't show it. Robinson posed for a few photographs with Leonard and never said an unkind word about his fistic namesake and heir.
For a time, Robinson was fanatical about the Dodgers. He became a friend of manager Tommy Lasorda. All it took was an introduction. One day at Dodger Stadium when Sylvester Stallone, the cinematic heavyweight champion, was there, a fan asked to shake the actor's hand. Stallone's bodyguard said, "Mr. Stallone doesn't like to be touched." Then Stallone spotted Sugar Ray. His bodyguard asked Robinson if they could meet. Ray sent a message over. "Mr. Robinson doesn't like to be touched." Ray had enjoyed that.
But baseball and one-upmanship could not satisfy Robinson's soul. Robinson remained a womanizer until the diabetes, hypertension and Alzheimer's began to take their toll. Millie was no fool. Neither was Edna-Mae. When Gainford died in 1981, Ray made a trip to New York unaccompanied by Millie, but with a bodyguard. After the funeral service, Ray met Edna-Mae and suggested they go to his hotel together. "I told him I couldn't do that; we weren't married anymore," says Edna-Mae. "He got very upset. I had to tell his bodyguard to please take him away, because I didn't want to get hurt." Robinson returned to California and Millie.
"I could never understand Millie's attitude," says Edna-Mae. "At first I thought it was just because she was afraid she might not get power of attorney. But she has that. She's his wife. But Ray is his son. Leila was his mother. They should have been allowed in his life. That letter they read at the funeral—Ray didn't write that. It was signed, but he didn't sign it, either. In my 17 years with him, when I think of all the thousands of pictures that I signed, 'Good luck. Sugar Ray'...so I know. That letter wasn't from him. I don't know what Millie is doing. I suppose she's trying to keep alive the myth of Ray's competence."
Katy Riney is the program administrator of the Sugar Ray Robinson Youth Foundation. It was Riney who drafted the letter and sent the floral arrangement to Leila Smith's funeral. These were merely two of her many duties as the foundation's most indispensable employee. And if the foundation were Robinson's only legacy, it would be a good legacy, the very best. Since the organization became active in 1969, thousands of inner-city children have had constructive activities to fill their idle weekends—from volleyball and flag football to pageants and talent shows. The foundation sponsors no boxing programs.
On one Saturday morning 100 girls are playing volleyball in the gymnasium at Bethune Junior High in south-central Los Angeles. It is some weeks before the Leonard-Hagler fight. Riney referees and takes the girls through their paces, team by team. Outside 150 boys under the supervision of Butch Robinson play flag football. There are six community directors present at Bethune. Most have been with the foundation for 10 years or more. One of them is 40-year-old Reniell Beard.
"I've got all Ray's fights on tape," says Beard. "I had four older brothers. Ray was like a god to them. They stopped me from watching The Amos and Andy Show and made me watch Sugar Ray's fights. I guess that's why I do this. It's like repaying a debt. It's nice to do something for the kids, although most of them have no idea who Sugar Ray Robinson is."
One look at these kids at play, keeping amused and interested amid some of the most depressing urban blight to be found in America—in south-central Los Angeles some apartment houses have their street numbers painted on the roofs, the better for police helicopter pilots to identify the buildings—is enough to create genuine admiration for this tangible part of Robinson's legacy.
Michael Dear, 13, has been involved with various foundation programs for one year. I ask him if he knows about Sugar Ray Robinson. "Yeah," he says. "He's fightin' in April." No, that's Sugar Ray Leonard. Sugar Ray Robinson.
"They are not the same?"
Jattea Johnson, 16, has been in the program for four years and is now in high school. She still comes by on weekends. It is a good habit she doesn't want to break. "I know Sugar Ray Robinson is an ex-boxer," she says. "All I know is that one Sugar Ray is older than the other one."
"That's O.K.," says Beard. "And as far as the fight goes, the referee will call it before nine. Leonard is in there with a warmonger."
The Sugar Ray Robinson Youth Foundation must pass the scrutiny of the California state legislature every year, and satisfy the state auditors. It won its funding in the first place because former governor Edmund (Pat) Brown was a great fan of Robinson's. "Dollar for dollar, we're the best bargain they have," Lockitch says.
The foundation receives approximately $488,000 a year from the state and $50,000 from Los Angeles County, and this year it got $71,000 from the Olympic Games surplus funds. Some of the money goes for the buses that transport the children to the activities and pageants. Robinson, as the titular head of the foundation, receives a salary of $37,000. "Millie needs that stipend," says Riney.
And so that is why Millie asked, "How much?" Not that she is to be blamed—no more than Robinson was to be blamed for being paid to fight. You use what you have. Butch received money from a gossip tabloid for "revealing" that Ray had Alzheimer's. Evelyn Nelson's son, Kenneth, asked Millie for permission to use Sugar Ray's name for an Urban Coalition fund-raiser, in conjunction with a showing of the Leonard-Hagler fight at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. (Millie said yes, then at the last minute changed her mind and informed the Urban Coalition that she was withdrawing her permission. It was decided that the event would have to be canceled.)
When Robinson became ill after his mother's death, he was admitted to the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. He remained hospitalized for a week. A few days after he was released, Robinson sat in their yellow Cadillac while Millie went into the foundation offices. Ray no longer wore the vacant smile. I came over and spoke to him. "Ray. How can Ray beat Marvin Hagler?" He didn't respond.
"I don't expect the fight to last long," Ray Jr. had said when he was asked for a prediction. "My father did it, but he always had tune-up fights. And he's my father. There was no one else like him. He was Sugar Ray."
But Leonard did win. He defeated Hagler, in 12 rounds. He is the Sugar now.
Leonard is not to be asked why he fought Hagler. "Why?" is a nervy question to ask a prizefighter. As Robinson often said, "Because it's what people want to see." Leonard fights for us as much as he fights for himself. Like Robinson, like a lot of other people, he can't separate who he is from what he does best.
Sugar Ray Robinson is no different from Sugar Ray Leonard. What he did best was fight. Like Leonard, he's not to be asked why he fought, and these days he can't be asked much of anything. He did indeed leave all the answers in the ring. But Ray Jr. had one thing exactly right about him. While his father may no longer be the Sugar, there was—and is—no one else like him.