Being Sugar Ray

Book Reviews | Jul 14th, 2007

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Author: Kenneth Shropshire
Publisher: Basic Books
Genre: Biography
Pages: 246
Retail Price: 9.99
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Being Sugar Ray: The Life of Sugar Ray Robinson, America’s Greatest Boxer and the First Celebrity Athlete bobs and weaves between biography and social commentary, but never delivers a knockout. (Okay, I’ll stop with the boxing puns.)

Kenneth Shropshire’s thesis statement is that Sugar Ray Robinson was the first true celebrity athlete: the first who had a careful public image, the first to drive a gaudy, luxury car (his famed pink Cadillac), the first to travel around with a big entourage, and the first to slap his name onto businesses. Another theme is the white acceptance and even hero worship of Sugar Ray, an African American, before the Civil Rights era.

But Shropshire never addresses his ideas head-on. He occasionally compares Sugar Ray to today’s athletes and their personalities, but doesn’t delve deeply into the sociology of the cult of celebrity and its followers, nor into the facets of race in America. While I didn’t expect an academic treatise, Shropshire’s social commentary is superficial and lacking.

Reading about Sugar Ray’s life and career was interesting – I think he’s the greatest welterweight and middleweight of all time, and yet I didn’t know much about his life, so I appreciated the biographical aspect of this book. But if you’re a fan and want to read a definitive biography of the man, Being Sugar Ray wouldn’t be your first choice. It’s not a straight biography, and the narrative jumps around, leaving gaps of years – I had to rely on Wikipedia to fill in the blanks.

Although lacking in insight, it’s not a bad book. Shropshire writes well, and his strength is in recreating some of Sugar Ray’s most iconic fights. But that’s not the point of Being Sugar Ray, even though the point is elusive enough anyway.

As an aside, no one recreates the great boxing matches, rivalries, and legacies like A.J. Liebling. He wrote an excellent article about Sugar Ray for the New Yorker, which was collected in Liebling’s The Sweet Science – not only a great boxing book, but arguably the greatest sports book of all time. That 10- or 12-page piece had more insight into Sugar Ray, and the people, places, and times of that era, than this entire book.

Bottom Line: Disappoints on its purpose, but a good if disjointed bio.
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