Herb Boyd, editor of The Black World Today and author of many books on black history including Brotherman and We Shall Overcome, sets expectations low at the outset of this book by conceding that he wasn’t able to “corner” Sugar Ray Robinson as a biographical subject. This is an understatement. To employ the mundane boxing metaphors that Boyd uses relentlessly throughout, the author not only doesn’t corner Robinson, he doesn’t lay a glove on him.
Pound for Pound could have redeemed itself with worthwhile descriptions of Robinson’s fights, which are, after all, the reason he is remembered. While plentiful film footage exists of many classic Robinson bouts, Boyd describes them all in a few sentences, or at most a paragraph. It’s not clear that he bothered to watch them.
Jake LaMotta Kid Gavilan Randy Turpin Rocky Graziano Joey Maxim Gene Fullmer Fritzie Zivic Carmen Basilio. Few fighters have had so many formidable, and colorful, adversaries. Yet these men, legends in their own right, waft in and out of Boyd’s slipshod text, not much more distinguishable than the names he drops from Harlem’s nightlife.
Boyd’s approach is best encapsulated by this description of Sugar Ray’s fourth and fifth bouts against LaMotta: “Looming before Sugar was another major hurdle – another certain, bloody showdown with the Bronx Bull, slated for February 23, 1945, in New York City.” Feeling your pulse begin to quicken? Here’s the next sentence: “But this ‘showdown,’ like their second one later that year on September 26 in Chicago, turned out to be more illusion than real, as Sugar easily beat LaMotta on both dates.” Never mind, Boyd seems to say, nothing to see here.
The whole book is like this, a travelogue of fights almost completely indistinguishable from one another. Boyd may as well have just scanned Robinson’s record (which he provides at the end of the book, and which takes considerably less time to read), and jotted down in these pages, “Won. Won. Lost. Won.” It’s a shame, because other than his own autobiography (Sugar Ray, written with the New York Times‘ Dave Anderson), the story of Robinson’s remarkable life and career has not been adequately told. Raised in Detroit’s notorious Black Bottom ghetto, he had the mark of boxing genius on him well before the age of 20. His fame grew to rival that of his friend, Joe Louis. At his peak, he was a Harlem fixture, with a famous nightclub, a ubiquitous pink Cadillac, and an entourage that included barbers, masseuses, and mascots. Inside the ring, he became Muhammad Ali’s boxing idol, a fighter of rare grace and speed who could also punch and brawl when needed, with a fighting heart unsurpassed. The book’s title refers to the honorific that has followed Robinson since he left the ring: the greatest fighter of them all, size held equal.
Sugar Ray Robinson “wouldn’t tell the truth to God,” Carmen Basilio said after fighting him for the first time in 1957. Basilio saw Robinson as an egomaniac, and he saw accurately. Ego was part of what made Robinson great, and it also drove his considerable personal excesses, including insatiable womanizing, lavish spending, and a preening narcissism not immediately distinguishable from that of a child. Far worse, Robinson was an abuser of women.
Boyd is frank, if not detailed, about Robinson’s long career of wife beating. He abused his second wife, Edna Mae, so brutally that their son, Ray II, believes it was the cause of her five miscarriages. Summing Robinson up at the end, Boyd allows that “We may be disappointed that he was not of sterling character and was flawed, as we all are,” dismissing Robinson’s monstrous behavior with a wave of the hand. Boyd’s judgment is in keeping with the laziness he shows as a writer throughout the book. If he is not interested in describing Robinson’s greatest achievements, why should he be any more diligent in examining his gravest sins?
The author’s attempts to weave Harlem’s history throughout the narrative are never integrated into the story in any meaningful way. His retelling of certain incidents, like Malcolm X’s efforts to combat police brutality or Fidel Castro’s visit, relate only tangentially to Sugar Ray, who in any case was mostly apolitical. Boyd is unable to draw any substantial connection between Harlem’s political consciousness and Robinson as a man, other than that Robinson was around at the time.
This is made most clear when Boyd spends a whole page and a half on Robinson’s visit to two Harlem mobsters incarcerated on Alcatraz. Boyd goes to some length (for him) in arguing that one of the men, the infamous Bumpy Johnson, was something of a modern Robin Hood who was (naturally) set up by the cops. He seems much more interested in Bumpy Johnson than in any of Robinson’s ring rivals.
Unfortunately, when Boyd does make attempts at description, he produces painful prose. The boxing metaphors just keep coming. Every setback in life for Edna Mae or Ray is as devastating as one of Sugar’s left hooks. Even in death, Robinson is not spared. Of the mourner’s at the champ’s funeral, Boyd writes: “It would be the first and last time they would see Sugar flat on his back and not getting up.”
From beginning to end, Boyd slaps words and events together without passion, without craft, and without purpose. His writing has none of the urgency with which good biographers communicate their own fascination with an individual life, slyly imposing it on us until we come to share it. He writes like a man hoping to get done with something.
What’s most elusive about Pound for Pound is not Ray Robinson, but an answer to the question of why the author, and the publisher, bothered in the first place.