Being Sugar Ray

The Life of Sugar Ray Robinson, America's Greatest Boxer and the First Celebrity Athlete


By Kenneth Shropshire

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And in this corner, hailing from Black Bottom, Detroit by way of Harlem, with more victories than Joe Louis and Muhammad Ali combined, the greatest fighter-pound for pound-of all time: Sugar Ray Robinson. If imitation is truly the sincerest form of flattery then there should be little doubt Sugar Ray Robinson is the greatest and most influential American boxer of all time. Fighters (and the occasional alt-rock band) have been adopting his name, and trying to imitate his inimitable fighting style for decades. Sugar Ray Robinson transcended race and sport to become a celebrity athlete in a way that no one-white or black-had accomplished before him. From his business empire to his prized flamingo pink Cadillac, described as the Hope Diamond of Harlem, Kenneth Shropshire shows Sugar Ray was the trailblazer whom every athlete since has been trying, consciously or otherwise, to emulate.




Agents of Opportunity:
Sports Agents and Corruption in Collegiate Sports

The Sports Franchise Game:

Cities in Pursuit of Sports Franchises,

Events, Stadiums, and Arenas

In Black and White: Race and Sports in America

Sports and the Law: A Modern Anthology

(with Timothy Davis and Alfred Mathewson)

Basketball Jones: America Above the Rim

(with Todd Boyd)

The Business of Sports Agents

(with Timothy Davis)




To my family and friends for their support.
To those who did it right as well as those
who would have, but got stopped short.
Finally, to those who still have the opportunity
to accomplish something special—make it happen.
The moment is over before you know it.

Photo: Corbis.

Boxing is the sport to which other sports aspire.



Concerning athletic stardom, my Stanford football story isn’t very grand. As a successful All-City high school center graduating in 1973 from Dorsey High School in Los Angeles, I had earned a college scholarship to the school that had won the Rose Bowl in 1971 and 1972. My celebrity aspirations were high even though at six foot one and 210 pounds I was small for an offensive lineman. The plan when I was recruited was to shift to a defensive position such as linebacker. I started at center on the Gunther Cunningham–coached freshman team, but at the varsity level that “smooth” transition never really happened. On the few occasions when I was allowed to suit up at the next level, I never got in the game—not for a second. At the end of those games, I would head into the locker room in a clean white uniform alongside the grass-stained, bloody stars who had actually played. On those Saturdays, I never intercepted a pass, sacked a quarterback, or did a dance in the end zone. Still, I had a uniform and I was part of the Stanford University team. To the young children who flocked to our home games, the uniform made me almost as much a star as Tony Hill, the starting wide receiver. The kids wanted autographs. In the fleeting moments when these kids asked me for an autograph, I knew (or at least thought I knew) what it was like to be on the other end when someone thinks you are famous. Not surprisingly, some piece of me loved that instant of celebrity attention and adoration and wished there had been more: at least one Ray Lewis dance after a big tackle. But in the last analysis, I wasn’t at all a celebrity—I was not even ticking a minute off the Warhol fifteen-minute allowance. Still, these experiences were among the first to open my eyes to the powerful narcotic qualities of celebrity—for those on both sides.

Many years later, I would find myself starstruck to a degree that none of those youngsters on any of those Saturdays could possibly have imagined. The scene was the Los Angeles Sports Arena during the 1984 Olympics, and I was the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee executive in charge of Olympic boxing. All in the arena knew my status because I was one of the few wearing a tie in the middle of a typical arid Los Angeles summer. In the midst of the clamoring crowds, I saw him. It was Muham-xii mad Ali, the greatest. Without question he is the biggest celebrity athlete of all time. I saw him, and then lost sight of him. I kept hearing a sound in my ear—like sandpaper on a wooden block—but when I looked there was nothing. After a few such false alarms, I saw a massive commotion at a side entrance. With Don King up front, a dozen or so black men casually strolled into the arena past the bemused and awestruck ticket takers. I blinked again and Ali was standing in front of me, hand extended. The smile on his face impishly said, “Don’t mess with me, I’m having a great time.” I’d seen that same smile, and those eyes, when he’d sparred verbally with Howard Cosell. Television doesn’t do it justice. He was a bad man.

He had me captivated and he knew it, too. He stood not more than a foot away and proceeded to rub his thumb and forefinger together: sandpaper on a wooden block.

With the slightest slur—a preview of the Parkinson’s that would prove him mortal—he said, “You didn’t know what was goin’ on brotha, didya?”

He then struck a boxing pose as fierce and fluid as if it were 1964. I threw my hands up as if to say, “Not me!” Don King cackled at my surrender and yelled, “Let’s go!” When I turned, the Champ was gone—along with his entourage. The next time I saw Ali and his colleagues, they had somehow commandeered ringside seats despite the multiple layers of security we had in place.

No surprise. I’ll admit, Ali was one of few celebrity athletes who seemed capable of taking anyone under his spell. In meeting Ali and in considering how he had gone from being Cassius, the Louisville Lip, to the greatest, one can’t help but think of Sugar Ray Robinson—the man Ali had admittedly emulated early in his own career and whom Ali asked to serve as his manager (Robinson declined). In a discussion of either man, there is an obligation to be clear about the Ali-Sugar Ray connection. No matter how much credit we give (or Ali himself gave) Robinson as a transitional racial celebrity figure, there is no doubt that Ali pushed the issue of racial pride over the hump of public acceptance.

In his wonderful book, Serenity, Ralph Wiley—the wittiest and savviest of sports writers—drew his own conclusions with no prompting from me. Ali “was a Robinson who never deferred to whites,” he wrote. “Convention at that time meant subservience on the part of black men. Muhammad Ali simply said, ‘I am the greatest,’ and in so saying spoke volumes. To me at least.” Just before Ralph died I prodded him, without success, to compare the two great fighters; he simply said, “It was a different time.” Regardless of the nature of the psychic interplay between these two men, the point remains that even Ali, the greatest of all time, would not be where he is had it not been for Sugar Ray.

Celebrity, and nothing else, gave Ali’s entourage access to one of the toughest tickets at the 1984 Olympics. And can I really blame myself for letting Ali and crew breeze by me? As much as I’d worked with other athletes and celebrities as a Century City attorney before taking the Olympic job, like the rest of us, I’m only human. How deeply wired is this reaction to celebrity? Here’s a story that may provide some of the answer.

From inside a small wire cage a tiny, maple-eyed monkey named Wolfgang peers anxiously at a lab-coated technician. Sherry, Dart, and Niko sit nearby, waiting. The young scientist turns a dial and the lights in the windowless lab begin to dim. The café-au-lait monkey, a male rhesus macaque, edges closer to the heavy wires and caresses a button of his own. He knows what’s going to happen.

Wolfgang takes a quick slurp of cherry juice—the drink-of- choice for caged lab monkeys everywhere—from the hollow aluminum tube connected to a small dispenser outside the cage. A moment later, a computer generated image appears in front of him. It shows the hindquarters of a female rhesus, a breeder: slim, maybe or maybe not in heat (there is no telltale pheromone scent to give context to the picture), but judging by Wolfgang’s reaction she’s nothing special as monkeys go. The monkey fingers his control button idly, but doesn’t press it. The monkey takes another slurp of cherry juice and waits. He’s played this game before.

The first image disappears and a second one flashes on the LCD screen. It shows a male: full face, same species. Again there is no scent, only an image. Field records show he was the highest-ranking male in this monkey’s harem. The alpha male.

The computer flashes again and an image of the ordinary female reappears. The young male squawks and madly presses his button. The picture of the celebrity monkey returns. He leans over for a lick of treasured cherry juice, but the dispenser has shut off. Normally, this would bring an angry screech and a rattled cage, but the monkey doesn’t care. He stares at his “hero” contentedly until the image changes again, via the technician’s hand, back to the ordinary female. Once again, the button; once again, no juice. The monkey gets upset whenever his celebrity disappears; he’s willing to forego any amount of juice if he can only gaze at his dream image. The cycle repeats, minute after minute, day after day, with a variety of male macaques, until its meaning is statistically clear.

Even a glimpse of a celebrity is worth all the cherry juice on earth.

You’ve probably seen rhesus monkeys before. They’re as indispensable to medical and behavioral research as computers and white jackets. The Rh factor in your blood was named after tests involving the rhesus. These primates in the Duke University slide experiment were so anxious to see a “celebrity monkey” that they were willing to pay every drop of their most prized possession, cherry juice, for the privilege.

Like most experiments involving the rhesus, this one has enormous implications for we higher, more evolved, more discerning and sophisticated primates. The lab game forced the monkeys to pay for their pleasure with juice—like spending money to buy a ticket for a rock concert, movie, or sporting event—to view the celebrities we want to see up close and personal. Even monkeys, it seems, are obsessed with the stars.

How much would you spend to gaze upon a dream? The paparazzi know a great photo will bring them plenty of juice. Athletes know it, too. They get big bucks for showing their faces on everything from trading cards to credit card commercials—and the gravy train doesn’t stop there. Most celebrities know the value of their likeness: to retailers, to manufacturers, and to Hollywood. But they seldom understand why other people—supposedly rational ticket-buyers and shoppers—do such irrational things just to view their idols or to own a copy of some product they possess. The answer is simple. We all want the rewards—money, jewelry, beautiful cars, mates, accolades, adoration—that celebrities enjoy; we want to be the object of our glowing admiration. Many of us think that maybe by getting closer to celebrities, by learning all about them—even imitating the way they walk and talk and dress—we’ll share a tiny sliver of that magic and ephemeral dream. After all, imitation is more than the sincerest form of flattery: It’s how we learn some of life’s most important lessons, from tying our shoes to raising a family; from how to lose gracefully to ways of looking and feeling like a winner. Like rhesus monkeys, being starstruck is in our genes.

Professor Paul Gilmcher explains the Duke monkey experiment this way: “People are willing to pay money to look at pictures of high-ranking human primates. When you fork out $3 for a celebrity gossip magazine, you’re doing exactly what the monkeys are doing. The difference between [the] study and People magazine is that the monkeys actually know the individuals in the picture.”

Unlike the celebrity monkeys in Gilmcher’s experiments, the human celebrity like Ali is able to use the awe his celebrity inspires for more than juice-related perks. At first it gains small favors—good seats in restaurants (or at Olympic events), better hotel rooms, a doctor who makes house calls at three in the morning. Later, lunch at the White House, keynote speeches at big conventions, and public forgiveness for one’s youthful (or even not so youthful) transgressions. It’s always been that way with big celebrities, and Ali’s understanding of the nuances of fame and the manner in which he cultivated it can be traced directly back to Sugar Ray Robinson. The difference with Sugar Ray was that it seemed to be part of his game plan from the beginning, or at least part of someone’s game plan for him.

Sugar Ray will be our primary guide in this trek through the celebrity athlete’s universe. His image appeared on the covers of Time, Life, Sport, and Sports Illustrated when black faces and the mainstream media didn’t mix. While shadow boxing and skipping rope, his infectious smile was beamed into millions of homes on The Ed Sullivan Show. He built businesses and friendships—in Harlem and abroad. In his constancy of character and continual self-creation, he did more than master a brutal sport and enchant a nation in the grip of hot and cold wars, and he truly led the way by inventing an entirely new industry: the modern black global celebrity athlete.

According to boxing’s bible, The Ring magazine, Robinson logged 175 victories between 1940 and 1965—110 by knockout—and only nineteen losses with two “no decisions,” boxing’s version of a tie. In a sport where most hang up their gloves by their mid-thirties, virtually all of Sugar Ray’s defeats came after his fortieth birthday.

Before Sugar Ray, a boxer could be “a slugger” or “a dancer” or “a showman,” to name a few of the hard-earned epithets sports writers loved to hang on champions. It was the rare boxer who combined even two of those traits. When it came to Robinson—certainly best known for dancing—they simply ran out of superlatives. He did it all. He was dashing, he had a movie-star’s charisma, he had hands faster than Houdini’s and legs that belonged in the New York City Ballet. He could take a punch as well as deliver a knockout blow while moving backwards. Even boxing’s scoreboard ran out of digits. Robinson had already won 126 fights (and lost only one) when he began his reign as middleweight champion—and went from there to win the middleweight title five times. By comparison, Muhammad (“I am the greatest!”) Ali went 56–5 and Joe (the Brown Bomber) Louis, 68–3—for their entire careers.

Uniquely, at his 1950s peak, Robinson owned thriving businesses on the west side of Seventh Avenue between 123rd and 124th Streets in Harlem. Sugar Ray’s Café, Edna Mae’s Lingerie Shop, Golden Glovers Barber Shop, Sugar Ray’s Quality Cleaners, and other businesses offices and apartments were all part of the Robinson empire. It was typical to see his custom pink Cadillac parked out in front of any one of them.

Robinson, like all celebrities, was a product both of his own efforts and of his times. Though he was loved by millions, history dealt him a few cards from the bottom of the deck. Sometimes he got caught reaching for that bottom card as well. There were moments when “America’s favorite fighter” became America’s most notorious military deserter, tax evader, or worse. Sugar Ray was occasionally his own worst enemy. For every person who admired his confidence and success, others stood in the wings just waiting for him to fall.

While he was in his prime, negatives surfaced as his success rose: being difficult to deal with even to the extent of canceling fights, his arrogance in personal relationships—although not projected broadly publicly—his womanizing, and the alleged physical abuse of family members during the prime years of his career. In 1953, the legendary black sports writer Sam Lacy probably captured this dark side best when he wrote in his column, “I have said here many times in the past that, in my opinion, Sugar Ray Robinson was the greatest athlete in a given field I have had the pleasure of observing. . . . I have also said here many times that he can be one of the most disgusting figures one is compelled to meet in his business.” The closer you get in time and space, the less chance there is of finding genuine perfection in any person.

With that and other bumps taken into account, even his name has the power of myth. From Sugar Ray Leonard to Sugar Ray Seales, Sugar Ray Richardson to Sugar Shane Mosley, many other sports figures (and even a modern singing group) have looked to the Robinson legacy for power and permanence. Although they all evoke the patina of the original, none has successfully matched his overall brilliance, nor the range of his success.

Although he was a giant of his times, as compared with Jack Johnson, Joe Louis, and others, Sugar Ray Robinson was not a big man. He was only five foot eleven, and his weight hovered between 150 and 160 pounds for most of his career. But as the perennial basketball all-star Allen Iverson (Sugar Ray’s double in size statistics) proves, size alone does not put points on the scoreboard, nor records in the books. Unlike Louis, Johnson, Jack Dempsey, and Rocky Marciano—human tanks who outweighed Ray by as much as 50 pounds—Robinson was the size of the average man, and that physical similarity, regardless of skin color—was one of the secrets of his tenure as a sports celebrity. Today’s image makers struggle to help fans identify with giants such as Yao Ming and Shaquille O’Neal, but sports fans of the 1940s and ’50s really believed they could “be like Sugar Ray.”

He was the first fully formed celebrity athlete as we conceive of that phrase today. He was black, and he broadly celebrated that blackness as a dominant feature of his life. This was not a moderated image in the style of Joe Louis or Jackie Robinson, nor was it a Jack Johnson type of overblown and intimidating presence. By successfully projecting that he was every man’s “everyman,” even though he was black—and complex—Robinson became a celebrity not just for his times but for the ages.

His legacy still surrounds us. It accrues dividends for sports superstars blissfully unaware—and some supremely grateful—that they were and are his heirs: champions such as Muhammad Ali, Joe Montana, Venus Williams, Michael Jordan, Martina Navratilova, Jim Brown, Kobe Bryant, Magic Johnson, Tiger Woods, John McEnroe, Lance Armstrong, Billie Jean King, and Derek Jeter. These are the modern sports superstars who have redefined athletic celebrity in the twenty-first century. They are the first generation of sports superstars who understand the wisdom—and the power—of being Sugar Ray, even if they know little or nothing about the man.


For the traditional facts of Sugar Ray’s life, I recommend my friend Herb Boyd’s Pound for Pound (2004), an invaluable companion to this rumination. Boyd does a great job exploring the immense positives and negatives of a life, particularly the negatives of Ray’s womanizing and absentee fathering; there are lessons, certainly, to be drawn from those. For the classic “as told to” autobiography, by all means read Sugar Ray (1970), which Robinson coauthored with the New York Times columnist Dave Anderson—although it paints an understandably sunnier picture. Boyd and Anderson were kind enough to speak with me at length as I moved forward on this project. These, as well as Gene Schoor’s 1952 biography, Sugar Ray Robinson, provide good primers for the subject you are about to explore. This is a portrait of an elusive figure whose eyes will follow you around the room. It is the biography of an idea as well as the story of one man.

As is true at the completion of any long-term project, there are many people I should thank, and I’m sure that I will miss half of them. First, Sharese Bullock. I have some notes dated 1998 that she prepared for me as an undergraduate research assistant. That may have been the first moment of commitment by me to get this done. Sharese is now a grown woman. That memo followed Farah Jasmine Griffin’s suggestion that I pursue the project. Then I mentioned it to Keith Harrison, in a casual conversation. He pointed me to an article on Robinson by David A. Nathan in the Journal of Sports History. My good friend and sometime coauthor Todd Boyd jousted with me on a lot of this, as did my writing group/Penn colleagues Tukufu Zuberi, Guy Ramsey, Camille Charles, Barbara Savage, Herman Beavers, and Leslie Callahan.

Research along the way was done by present and former students Scott Brooks (with whom I coauthored a piece), Michael Auerbach, Bridget Lawrence-Gomez, and Melissa Shingles. I thank them all. Thanks also to Susan Rayl for reading an early version of the book proposal. Exceptional research assistance was also provided by a number of librarians at the libraries at the University of Pennsylvania as well as the Library of Congress.

I offer a huge amount of thanks to Jay Wurts who as editor and writing coach played the key role in transitioning me (as far as I’ve made it) to being a writer read by wider audiences. Thanks also to David Shoemaker for first believing in this at BasicCivitas and to Chris Greenberg for picking up the ball upon his departure.

People in and out of the boxing world have given me invaluable help and advice. I particularly thank my one-time client, the former Olympic heavyweight gold medalist Henry Tillman, and his trainer, Mercer Smith, who helped me understand the game. My work at the 1984 Olympics brought me into contact with people patient enough to teach me the basics; and the casual conversations I’ve had with insiders in recent years in order to polish my boxing chops have been enormously helpful. I thank them all.

Thanks go to others, including the boxing historian Bert Randolph Sugar and Robinson’s former business manager, Sid Lockitch, who formally allowed me to interview them. Along with others, they are cited appropriately throughout.

Finally, much here is probably going to strike some negatively. I take all the credit for that.

My now thirteen-year-old daughter, Theresa, spent a good part of her young life watching me read, think, and write about Sugar Ray and celebrity. She would ask, “Daddy, are you still working on that book?” My wife, Diane, and my son, Sam, were a bit more patient. One of my colleagues at another institution put it even more succinctly: “You keep talkin’ about Sugar Ray, man. You gonna write that damn book or not? Just do it!” A bad paraphrase of a good Nike ad, but just as motivational.

Here it is.


On Sale
Jan 1, 2008
Page Count
272 pages
Civitas Books

Kenneth Shropshire

About the Author

Kenneth Shropshire is the David W. Hauck Professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and the Director of the school’s Sports Business Initiative. His work has appeared in USA Today, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Sports Illustrated, as well as on NPR’s All Things Considered, ESPN’s Outside the Lines, and ABC’s Nightline. His previous books include The Business of Sports, In Black and White: Race and Sports in America, and Basketball Jones: America Above the Rim. He lives in Philadelphia with his wife and their children.

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