Mama, I want you to buy me a drumstick. If I miss out on boxing, I can always play the drums.
—WALKER SMITH JR., C. 1933
I work harder at this than boxing. You've no idea how difficult it is. Those diatonic scales! This is my next career. I want to sing at the Met.
—SUGAR RAY ROBINSON, 1960
I must have written 100 stories about people in sport, and Sugar Ray Robinson was the only one who called me up and told me he liked what I wrote. "Gil," he said, "people stop me in the street and they say, 'Robi'son, that story is a gas.' " This was in 1960; people said things like "gas" then.
Those who knew him called him Robinson or Robi'son, not Sugar, Sugar Ray, Ray, not Walker Smith Jr., his real name: Robi'son, as though they didn't know him all that well. Maybe they didn't, because, in a way, he made himself up as he went along. He was a performer; he was who he was when he was on stage, which for most of us was most of the time. He so splendidly defined himself raised above us. As he said, "Whenever there's a crowd, you catch me out there. When nobody's there, nothing happens."
And for so many years, his best fights weren't against Carmen Basilio or Gene Fullmer, but that most implacable opponent, time. His mother said, "The older he gets, the more he wants to prove he isn't."
I don't know if Robinson was the best fighter who ever lived, but he was in the highlight film. And you couldn't measure his worth by his record. You don't get to be the middleweight champ five times unless you lose four times. After Robinson beat Bob Young in 1959, Young went to him for advice. "He wants to be champ," Robinson told me. "I told him you got to learn to lose." Then he said, "Other people lose, they go crazy. I always moved ahead."
When I wrote about Robinson he was moving backward—but rarely by backpedaling. He was going backward forward. He lost the last three fights I covered, two to Paul Pender and Fullmer II. And then even he knew he was old. After the second Pender fight, he said, "Give me a mirror. Let me see how I look." As I wrote at the time, Richard II, another losing king, had asked for a mirror, too. "Was this the face," he said, "that like the sun did make beholders wink?" King Richard also asked for a grave, and got that as well. June Clark, Robinson's valet, once said, "The only thing that'll stop that man is the grave." Last week it did.
Robinson evoked these regal allusions. In another piece I spoke of Napoleon's son, the King of Rome, at whose birth four doctors, five chambermaids, a nurse and two maids ministered and rooted. It was Robinson, of course, who brought the art of the entourage to its fullest flower.
Winter 1958, training in Greenwood Lake, N.Y., for his second fight with Basilio (Robinson, W 15). From my notes: "Down from the Cabin in the Sky in a glittering black Imperial he rode, lolling in the back like a king of old France passing through the allèes of Versailles, followed by the whole vaudeville that's always with him, piling down in cars for minutes after. Everyone wore a hat: candy-striped dunce caps, foxy tam o'shanters, berets. Joshing, fiddling, laughing, singing snatches of laments, nine men, four women.
"Robinson smiled in a mirror to see if his hair and the world were right, and went into the ring. The rest hung along the ropes or pulled up chairs to watch him spar.
"Then they went and stood about him, because he had taken up the jump rope. One started to whistle low and Robinson began to dance. Not jumping the rope, but holding it with one hand, he whirled it, slapped it against the floor, dancing swaggering, abandoned, clowning steps. He held his head back on his broad neck like a globe of the world sets on its standard, and lashed mischievously out with the rope, so that those pressing in had to jump back. Another whistler joined in tentatively and the first whistler nodded for him to go ahead without missing a note. They went surely from one song to another and Robinson, grinning, winking the while, played his prancing part in the splendor and knowledge that he could go on forever, but watching the rapt faces about him to see if they knew it too.
"The bell rang and three went quickly to him. Two bent down on either side and massaged his legs, and one held up a towel. The Former and Next gave him his face and when the man took the towel away he was grinning still."
The world isn't like that anymore.
Robinson once said to me, "When I get to the Gates, I'm going to have a couple of questions for St. Peter."
I never got around to asking him what they were.
Rob.: How do I look?
St. P.: Great.
Rob.: How did I do down there?
St. P.: Robi'son, you were a gas.
Rob.: But I never sang at the Met.