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In some respects, Ray Robinson’s story is surprising. At a time when much of the boxing business was controlled by gangsters, Robinson managed to step around a lot of the slime. Even as he impressed his fans with his speed and power as a prize fighter, he yearned to succeed as a song-and-dance man. As Wil Haygood suggests many times in Sweet Thunder, Robinson’s rise to prominence merits consideration in the context of the growing popularity of some of his contemporaries, particularly Lena Horne, Langston Hughes, and Miles Davis, all of whom were Robinson’s friends. (It’s worth mentioning that Davis was a good enough friend to urge the boxer to retire and stay retired long before Robinson actually did quit the ring.)
In other respects, though, Robinson’s story is discouragingly familiar. No matter how many championships he won – and he won five as a middleweight alone – they weren’t enough. In his early forties, Robinson was still chasing just one more belt, though he was alone in thinking he deserved another title shot. No matter how much money he earned, it wasn’t enough. At the end of his life, he was dependent on “loans” from friends. Finally, he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in his early sixties, so he ended up as many boxers do: dazed and confused.
Wil Haygood is an admirer of Ray Robinson, and he makes a convincing case that there is much in the man to admire. When he finally did quit boxing, Robinson devoted a lot of his time and energy to helping disadvantaged children. Though he was, for the most part, an absentee father – Haygood maintains that “fatherhood bewildered him” – Robinson was a cheerful advocate for kids who lacked means and one or both parents, and the one sport he did not allow them to embrace in his facility was boxing. Haygood is also a fine and careful writer, and I agree with his contention that since movies have already been made about Rocky Graziano and Jake LaMotta, one ought to be made about Robinson. The inclusion of Miles Davis’s music in the soundtrack would be worth a great deal more than the price of a ticket.
This program aired on November 25, 2009. The audio for this program is not available.
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