“Sweet Thunder” (Knopf, 464 pages, $27.95), by Wil Haygood: The boxer Sugar Ray Robinson was a man of glittering skill and deep complexity. So complex, in fact, that several writers — including Robinson himself — have tried and failed to render a full portrait.
Wil Haygood’s new biography of Robinson, “Sweet Thunder: The Life and Times of Sugar Ray Robinson,” is about as fine a book about a boxer as you will find — up there with the right-left combo of David Remnick’s “King of the World” and David Margolick’s “Beyond Glory.”
Some of the finest writers alive have endeavored to wax poetic about the brutal sport of boxing. As a topic, Robinson lacks, perhaps, the cultural punch of Ali but one of the many services Haygood provides in “Thunder” is putting a proper historical frame on Robinson.
“Thunder” is the third biography in a trilogy of books by Haygood, a Washington Post writer, about pivotal black figures that also includes Adam Clayton Powell Jr. and Sammy Davis Jr. In each he delivers a comprehensive biography and a compelling case for their cultural importance.
“Sugar Ray Robinson was the first modern prizefighter to take culture — music and grace and dance — into the ring with him,” Haygood writes. “He had convinced himself that style was as much a discipline as boxing.”
Robinson’s evolution was pivotal. His concept of style, swagger and showmanship came to define boxing for generations to come. Without Robinson, in other words, there might not have been an Ali.
Haygood takes us deftly from Robinson’s childhood in Detroit, where he was born Walker Smith, to New York City’s Harlem, where he first took on the name Ray Robinson for a fight. He charts the heights of Robinson’s boxing career, his retirement work with children and ultimately his early death at age 67.
For decades, it seems, boxing scribes have fussed over one of those unending arguments: Who is, pound for pound, the best fighter of all-time?
Robinson is always in that conversation. And should the topic ever pivot to the best writers about the sport, Haygood should be too.