“Sugar Ray” is Back in Harlem!

By Peter Weston Wood on March 27, 2016
“Sugar Ray” is Back in Harlem!
“Sugar Ray” commemorates the legacy of the greatest fighter in history. (Gerry Goodstein)

Boxers are men who turn their psychological problems into a paycheck. And Robinson was pretty good at receiving paychecks…

Sugar Ray Robinson’s boxing fan base is alive and kicking. They turned out, en masse, Tuesday night at the New Harlem Besame Restaurant in New York City to watch a one-man dinner-show entitled, Sugar Ray.

The play is primarily casual storytelling, recounting the boxer’s tempestuous teenage years, his womanizing, his three marriages, his major bouts, his retirement and his eventual comeback.

Laurence Holder’s 75-minute script — performed at Sugar Ray’s former bar and restaurant — is sprinkled with significant boxing luminaries: Jake LaMotta, Joey Maxim, Randy Turpin, Joe Louis, Cassius Clay, Bobo Olson, Ralph “Tiger” Jones, Tommy Bell, Marcel Cerdan, Henry Armstrong, Fritzie Zivic, Carmen Basilio, Jimmy Doyle, Rocky Graziano, Phil Moyer, Frankie Carbo, and sportswriter Jimmy Cannon and broadcaster Walter Winchell.

Every name on the list above is a power-packed Hall of Famer who figured prominently in the glorious, colorful, and painful life of Sugar Ray Robinson.

Portraying Robinson is Reginald L. Wilson. Wilson’s “stage” is the entire dining room in the New Harlem Besame Restaurant. Amid the tables and aisles, he occasionally ad-libs in response to audience members, refills diners’ water glasses, and comments on the black and white fight films that are projected onto a screen.

There are only a few stage props — a hat and coat, a chair, a pitcher of water, and a set of Everlast boxing gloves. That’s all that’s needed.

Mr. Wilson embodies Robinson admirably. He was too young to witness “Sugar” in action and has never been a boxer, but he is an ex-marine and has studied martial arts. He bears a marked resemblance to the champion. They are almost identical in size: Robinson was 5’11”; Wilson is 5’10”. 

However, director Woodie King Jr. should have told Mr. Wilson that Robinson was not a southpaw.

The room was packed and the audience included such luminaries as jazz pianist, Emme Kemp and Boxing.com writers, the prolific and erudite Clarence George and “Big” Bob Mladinich, author of Hooked Up for Murder, Lethal Embrace, From the Mouth of the Monster, and a forthcoming coffee-table book entitled, Undisclosed Files of the Police: Cases From the Archives of the NYPD – 1845 to the Present.

This night was truly a Sugar Ray experience, heightened in significance by being performed at the hallowed ground of Robinson’s former restaurant, on a section of Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard that’s been renamed “Sugar Ray Robinson Way.”

Boxers are men who turn their psychological problems into a paycheck. And Robinson was pretty good at receiving paychecks.

In the 1940s, Sugar Ray Robinson was the “King of Harlem,” and eventually owned a whole city block on Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard (then Seventh Avenue) between 123rd and 124th Streets.)

Among the boxer’s businesses along the block were Sugar Ray’s Restaurant and Bar, Sugar Ray’s Barber Shop, his wife’s shop — Edna Mae’s Lingerie, Sugar Ray’s Quality Cleaners (with five outlets), and his business office.

Even though Sugar Ray’s signature pink Cadillac is no longer parked outside on Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard, the spirit and the power of Sugar Ray comes alive for brief moments as Sugar Ray commemorates the life and legacy of the greatest fighter — pound-for-pound in history.

The phrase “pound for pound” was created by sportswriters for Robinson during his career as a way to compare boxers irrespective of weight.

Sugar Ray, born “Walker Smith Jr. on May 3, 1920, in Detroit, continues to be considered — pound-for-pound — the greatest fighter in boxing history. Hall of Fame fighters and writers such as Muhammad Ali, Joe Louis, Roberto Duran and Sugar Ray Leonard, Floyd Mayweather, Bert Sugar and Teddy Atlas all agree to his preeminence. 

New Harlem Besame Restaurant is a bustling family-owned eatery featuring traditional Latin, Caribbean, Soul Cuisine and cocktails. The owner hails from Port Limon, on the Atlantic coast of Costa Rica and is of Jamaican ancestry, which explains the establishment’s fusion menu and lively atmosphere.  The restaurant’s decor includes blown-up photos of a smiling Sugar Ray posing in front of his restaurant with his pink Cadillac convertible. 

Dinner after the show is included; I’ll do double duty as restaurant critic here and recommend the chicken in garlic sauce. I’m told the oxtail and salmon, both served with rice and plantains are excellent.

Sugar, because of popular demand, has been extended to run for an additional month, to April 25th.

Tickets to the play are $49 and include a prix fixe Caribbean dinner (drinks may be ordered à la carte). 

Order all tickets through Smarttix, 212-868-4444, www.smarttix.com.  Additional info and reservations can be obtained by calling the restaurant at 646-261-5397.

Peter Wood is a 1971 NYC Golden Gloves Middleweight Finalist in Madison Square Garden; a Middleweight Alternate for The Maccabean Games in Tel Aviv, Israel, and author of two books: Confessions of a Fighter, and A Clenched Fist—The Making of a Golden Gloves Champion, published by Ringside Books.

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  1. Mike Casey 01:50am, 03/28/2016

    Ray Robinson will never die! Always great to read anything about the Harlem Flash.

  2. Mike Silver 10:15pm, 03/27/2016

    Hey Pete, Clarence and Big Bob! What am I chopped liver? Why wasn’t I invited to this old school shindig!? The salmon and plantains sound delish. You guys better show up at my fabulous book launch! I’ll be taking names.

  3. Beaujack 07:49pm, 03/27/2016

    Peter Wood, I saw Ray Robinson in his welterweight prime ringside, and he was the greatest fighter I ever saw, no doubt.I saw him against Kid Gavilan, Jimmy McDaniels and Henry Armstrong who was past his prime, and SRR “carried” his idol Armstrong. Also saw Robinson with a badly cut eye stop the tough Randy Turpin in the Polo Grounds in 1951. What a night to remember. I sat about 10 rows behind Gen. Douglas MacArthur…There will never be another Ray Robinson. They threw away the mold…

  4. Bob Mladinich 07:30pm, 03/27/2016

    It was a wonderful night of theater and dining with my journalistic colleagues, one of whom had the niftiest pair of multi-colored shoes. One beautiful thing about Harlem is there are no Starbucks and Duane Reade drugstores on every corner. There are still family owned business and independent stores, such as this fine restaurant with a lovely partner we met named Terri Wisdom.  If you let your imagination go, there is a semblance of old New York - in the ambiance of the restaurant, the decor, the crowd, the street.  The audience was terrific. Most were a bit older and had a good sense of nostalgia.  A great night all around. Next stop - Mike Silver’s book launch on the Lower East Side in April. Looking forward to it. As a footnote, the salmon and plantains in Harlem were out of this world.

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