Considered by many to be, pound for pound, the best fighter in the history of boxing, Sugar Ray Robinson can boast another impressive legacy. Working at a time in boxing when white promoters exploited individual fighters and the whole business was dominated by a seamy underworld, Sugar Ray fought to control his own financial and professional fate.
At a recent event for "Sweet Thunder", Wil Haygood’s comprehensive and elegant new biography of Robinson (recently reviewed in The Economist), a number of people who knew Robinson spoke with admiration for the fighter’s fierce independence. Arthur Barnes, a Harlem native and chairman of the board of the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, mused that, “in his independence as a business person he exercised common sense since he was the one taking the blows.”
Robinson was savvy. He was the first black athlete to own most of the rights to his fights and to negotiate broadcasting deals on radio and television. As Haygood tells it, Robinson would regularly raise the issue of compensation with promoters only after tickets had been sold, when calling off a fight was not a possibility. He would also only agree to fight if mobsters weren't involved. Once he was paid, he spent lavishly on fine clothes, fancy cars (he preferred a pink Cadillac) and an extensive entourage.
But all of this came at a price. Barnes lamented that the sports writers of the time, who had enormous power to build up and then tear down a fighter, soon turned on Robinson and criticised him for his unsportsmanlike greed. Of course many of these same writers happily buzzed around Frankie Carbo and other New York mobsters who controlled the sport at the time.
Robinson’s financial confidence extended beyond the ring. At a time when banks would not lend black people money for businesses, he realised the only way he could become financially independent was to invest his own money. “He knew early on that real estate was the way to go," explained Haygood. After Robinson purchased six buildings in Harlem, "he did not need to go to the bankers ever again“. He owned several businesses, including his famed (and now defunct) nightclub, "Sugar Ray’s", where he and his entourage were known to strut with a style that was as important to him as any knockout or business deal.
"Sweet Thunder: The Life and Times of Sugar Ray Robinson" (Knopf), by Wil Haygood, out now