Studying Sugar Ray

As a kid growing up in Los Angeles, Kenneth Shropshire knew quite a bit about Sugar Ray Robinson, both the boxer and the Hollywood showman.

“He had a real presence in the neighborhood I grew up in,” says Shropshire, a Wharton Professor of Legal Studies and Business Ethics and director of Wharton’s Sports Business Initiative. “You would see him on variety shows—Ed Sullivan, Mike Douglas, that kind of stuff. He had a whole routine, and then they would show his old boxing clips. So I knew how good he was.” Still, it wasn’t until years later that Shropshire was able to see past the boxer’s showbiz façade and discover that Robinson was much more than a great boxer and entertainer. He was also, says Shropshire, the first black American athlete to shine as an entrepreneur—and as a self-made celebrity.

Shropshire story

Candace diCarlo

Kenneth Shropshire in front of the legendary Blue Horizon boxing venue at 1314 N. Broad St. in Philadelphia.

“He basically owned businesses on an entire city block in Harlem,” Shropshire says. “He had Sugar Ray’s Restaurant, a bar, a barbershop, Edna Mae’s Lingerie for his wife, real estate businesses. And he had all of this stuff in the early 1950s. I said to myself, ‘Huh, I wonder how this guy did that—and how you could compare him to the athletes of today?’”

Shropshire answers that question, and more, in his new book, “Being Sugar Ray: The Life of Sugar Ray Robinson, America’s Greatest Boxer and First Celebrity Athlete.”

This is Shropshire’s first attempt at biographical writing, though he’s previously authored several books on sports business and law, including “The Business of Sports; In Black and White: Race and Sports in America” and “Basketball Jones: America Above the Rim.” A one-time sports agent, Shropshire has consulted for the NCAA, the National Footbal League and the United States Olympic Committee.

In “Being Sugar Ray,” Shropshire offers a fresh look at an athlete who helped pave the way for later black athletes such as Muhammad Ali and Jim Brown.

Q There were so many famous athletes before Robinson’s time. So how can you say he was the first real celebrity athlete?
A He wasn’t the first, but he was the first to do it on a large scale. He was the first, for instance, to popularize the word “entourage.” He traveled with a bunch of people. He drove a pink Cadillac. He was one of the first athletes to really be involved with a charity that was his, the Sugar Ray Robinson Youth Foundation. He did all of it in a way that I didn’t see athletes do before him. Of course, the deeper I got into it, I discovered he also had problems with the IRS, he was a womanizer, he was accused of being a deserter from the Army. So a lot of that stuff was there, too, and it was easy to make a comparison, which the book does, between him and some of the athletes of today.

Q Why isn’t he better known today, compared to people like Muhammad Ali?
A Definitely, people know a lot less about him than you would think, given the magnitude of his career, but there are a lot of reasons for that. Even during his prime, there was no ESPN, no CNN, all of those things that exist today. And if you think of the people who are bigger than him from that era—Joe Louis, Babe Ruth—you had Joe Louis who had the whole World War II, fighting-for-America kind of thing. And baseball players like Ruth had film clips, and baseball was the national pastime. Turns out that for a lot of the early part of Robinson’s career, there were no films that exist. He wasn’t a heavyweight, he was a middleweight and welterweight, so he wasn’t in the most popular weight class. So in some way, you really had to be there at the time to appreciate the magnitude of his fame. But he was global. He was on the Champs-Elysées—he actually had his Cadillac shipped over there, and there are photographs of people just following him down the street. By the time this whole celebrity worship thing really hit hardcore, he’s out of it. And unlike [his rival] Jake LaMotta, who people know from “Raging Bull,” there was no motion picture based on his life.

Q What was Robinson’s relationship with the press? Was he protected in the same way Babe Ruth was?
A Pretty much. What you find is that the most negative stuff was said about him in the black press. You do find some reporters referring to his arrogance and that he’s difficult to deal with, but for the most part, it’s, “What a wonderful boxer he is.” But there was a little negative undercurrent about Robinson that didn’t exist with anyone else, because he was actually pretty aggressive in bargaining and trying to get his share in boxing purses and that kind of thing. He would do things like not show up for bouts because he wasn’t getting paid what he thought he should.

Q What were his peak boxing years?
A Probably the early 1950s. In the early ’50s he wins the welterweight title. Then he tries to win the light heavyweight title in a big fight against Joey Maxim at Yankee Stadium. He ends up passing out from heat exhaustion with a round to go, but everyone says he was ahead on points. Then he retires. He says, “I’ve had enough,” decides he’s going to be an entertainer. He does this stage show where he sings, he tells jokes, he dances. Years later Woody Allen would say that he was a simply terrible singer. Still, he’s doing this show and, in 1953, making $10,000 to $15,000 a week. But like some people said—he didn’t have many return visits. He was as famous from the ring as he was famous for being famous, the way a lot of people are today.

Q What was his greatest fight?
A He had six fights with Jake LaMotta, and you pick out the one you like the best. The curious thing about this rivalry is that they fight six times. The first time, Robinson wins. The second time, LaMotta wins. Then Robinson wins the next four, but everyone kept thinking the whole time that LaMotta could take Robinson again because he took him once. Probably the fight among those that gets the most coverage was the bout where Robinson wins the middleweight title from LaMotta on Valentine’s Day. That’s the fight of the famous scene in “Raging Bull,” at the very end, where Robinson wins on a TKO and LaMotta legendarily says—though nobody but those two men would know if he really said it—“You didn’t put me down, Ray.”

Q Robinson fought during the early days of the civil rights struggle. Did he contribute?
A I like to say that he helped set the stage for the guys who stepped up and did more later. The story that is not told too often is this: There was a Joe Louis boxing troupe [that Robinson was part of] during World War II, and their job was to box and entertain the troops. There were a couple of instances where Joe and Robinson were asked to box before segregated audiences, but they declined, and said they wouldn’t fight unless the audiences were integrated. This was a big civil rights stance, and certainly surprising by an athlete or otherwise. That was Robinson’s big moment as far as his involvement. But he wasn’t at the forefront of the movement. He wasn’t like Harry Belafonte, or others that you saw at the time there. And he certainly wasn’t at the level of Muhammad Ali, or John Carlos, or Jim Brown, and those guys that came along later on.

Q Could he have done more? Or was the time just not right for Robinson?
A That’s tough to know. Before Joe Louis, the best-known black athlete was probably Jack Johnson, back in the early 1900s. He won the world title but he really was this hated figure—dating white women, marrying white women. He was brash, so much so that blacks weren’t allowed to fight for the heavyweight title for nearly 30 years, until Joe Louis comes along. So Joe’s handlers told him, “Don’t stand and smile over your opponent when you knock them down, don’t be photographed with white women, don’t be seen going into night clubs.” And at the same time, Jackie Robinson comes into Major League Baseball and he follows the guidance of Branch Rickey, who tells Jackie to turn the other cheek for three years—then you can do whatever you want. But Sugar Ray Robinson was the first black athlete with any fame, any celebrity, to say, “I’m going to be myself.” He was this key transitional figure, because he said it’s OK not to play by those rules. He took an important first step.

Q Robinson fought more than 200 fights. How unusual is that? Did he suffer health issues because of it?
A He fought 201 or 202 fights, depending on what’s counted. 202 is more fights than Muhammad Ali and Joe Louis fought, combined. That’s a huge number of fights. With Ali and his Parkinson’s, people try to draw the straight line between the two. I’m not a doctor so I can’t give you an answer, but there is some dispute about that. With Robinson, Alzheimer’s disease and diabetes were the things in his later years that he had to endure. Most people also drew that straight line with the Alzheimer’s. He’s a guy that didn’t get hit a lot, and like Ali, he still looked great in his later years. But if you get hit even once per fight in 202 fights, that’s 202 more punches than the average person receives in a lifetime.

Q Did he understand the risks of what he was doing? How did he feel about boxing in general?
A In the late 1940s he fought a kid named Jimmy Doyle. And he killed him. Before that fight, it’s clear that Robinson loved the game and the sport. Right after that fight, he begins to talk about not liking it and that it was a horrible business and that it was just a way to make an income.
During the inquest after Jimmy Doyle’s death, one of the questions for Robinson during the process was, “Did you know you had him in trouble?” And Robinson replied, “Mister, it’s my business to get them in trouble.” That was reflective of what his attitude became—more like, “OK, this is my business, and I’ve got to do it.” There aren’t a whole lot of positive references about the sport. And there were a lot of clips about him saying, “This is what I do, as opposed to what I am,” and I think that’s also why he had so many other parts to his life.

Originally published on April 12, 2007