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Great Encounters #41: The friendship of Miles Davis and Sugar Ray Robinson

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Miles Davis

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Sugar Ray Robinson

“Great Encounters” are book excerpts that chronicle famous encounters among twentieth-century cultural icons. This edition tells the story of the importance Miles Davis placed on his friendship with boxer Sugar Ray Robinson in 1954, when he was trying to kick his drug addiction.

Excerpted from Miles: The Autobiography, by Miles Davis with Quincy Troupe

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A lot of people thought I was aloof, and I was. But most of all, I didn’t know who to trust. I was leery and so that’s the part of my attitude that many people saw; this wariness of hanging out with people I didn’t know. And because of my former drug habit, I was also trying to protect myself by not coming into close contact with a lot of people. But the people that knew me well knew that I wasn’t the way they were describing me in the newspapers.

I had convinced Bobby McQuillen that I was clean enough for him to take me on as a boxing student. I was going to the gym every chance I could, and Bobby was teaching me about boxing. He trained me hard. We got to be friends, but he was mostly my trainer because I wanted to learn how to box like him.

Bobby and I would go to the fights together and train at Gleason’s Gym in midtown or at Silverman’s Gym, which was up in Harlem on 116th Street and Eighth Avenue (which is now called Frederick Douglass Boulevard above 110th Street) on the fourth or fifth floor in this corner building. Sugar Ray [Robinson] used to train there, and when he came in to train, everybody would stop what they were doing and check him out.

Bobby knew all about the swivel, which is what I call it, the swiveling of your hips and legs when you punched a guy. When you did this when you punched, you got more power into your punches. Bobby was like Joe Louis’s trainer, Blackburn, who taught Joe how to swivel when he punched. That’s why Joe could knock people out with only one punch. So I think Bobby must have learned it from Joe, because they knew each other and were both from Detroit. Johnny Bratton used to do it, too. Sugar Ray also knew about the swivel. It was just one of those moves great boxers used when they were fighting.

It’s a move that you have to practice over and over again until you get it, until it becomes like a reflex action, instinctive. It’s like practicing a musical instrument; you have to keep practicing, over and over and over again. A lot of people tell me I have the mind of a boxer, that I think like a boxer, and I probably do. I guess that I am an aggressive person about things that are important to me, like when it comes to playing music or doing what I want to do. I’ll fight, physically, at the drop of a hat if I think someone has wronged me. I have always been like that.

Boxing is a science, and I love to watch boxing matches between two guys who know what they’re doing. Like when you see a fighter put his jab on the outside of his opponent. If the guy slips the jab, moves to the right or left, you got to know which way he’s going to move and throw your punch at the moment he’s moving his head, so that it comes right into the line of the punch you’ve thrown. Now that’s science and precision, rather than just some kind of fucking mayhem like people say it is.

So Bobby was teaching me Johnny Bratton’s style, because that was the style I wanted to know. Boxing’s got style like music’s got style. Joe Louis had a style, Ezzard Charles had a style. Henry Armstrong had a style, Johnny Bratton had a style, and Sugar Ray Robinson had his style – as did Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard, Marvelous Marvin Hagler, Michael Spinks, and Mike Tyson later. Archie Moore’s peek-a-book style was something else.

But you’ve got to have style in whatever you do – writing, music, painting, fashion, boxing, anything. Some styles are slick and creative and imaginative and innovative and others aren’t. Sugar Ray Robinson’s style was all of that, and he was the most precise fighter I ever saw. Bobby McQuillen told me that Sugar Ray Robinson would put an opponent in four or five traps during every round in the first two or three rounds, just to see how his opponent would react. Ray would be reaching, and he would stay just out of reach so he could measure you to know you out, and you didn’t even know what was happening until, BANG!, you found yourself counting stars. Then, on somebody else, he might hit him hard in his side – BANG! – after he made him miss a couple of jabs. He might do that in the first round. Then he’d tee-off on the sucker upside his head after hitting him eight or nine more times hard in the side. Maybe he’d hit him four or five times hard upside his head. Then he’d switch back to hitting him hard in the ribs, then back to the head. So by the fourth or fifth round, the sucker don’t know what Ray’s going to do to him next. Plus, his head and ribs are hurting real bad by this time.

You don’t just learn any kind of shit that naturally. That’s something somebody teaches you, like when you teach somebody how to play a musical instrument correctly. After you’ve learned how to play your instrument the right way, you can turn around and play it the way you want to, anyway you hear the music and sound and want to play it. But you’ve got to learn how to be cool and let whatever happens — both in music and boxing — happen. Dizzy and Bird taught it to me in music; so did Monk and so did Ahmad Jamal and Bud Powell.

When I used to watch Sugar Ray train up on 116th Street, there was this old black guy in there who they used to call “Soldier.” I never did know what his real name was. Soldier was the only other guy Ray listened to besides his trainer. When Ray came out in the ring, Soldier would slide up to Ray and whisper something in his ear and Ray would just nod. Nobody ever knew what Soldier told Ray, but Ray would go back in the ring and whup up on some sorry motherfucker’s ass like he had done something to Ray’s wife. I really used to watch Ray, idolized him. When I told him one day that summer that he was the prime reason that I broke my heroin habit, he just smiled and laughed.

I remember hanging out at Sugar Ray’s bar up on Seventh Avenue (today called Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard) around 122nd or 123rd Street. Ray would be there. That’s where a lot of hip people and beautiful women hung out, fighters and big-time hustlers. So they all would be standing there, fat-mouthing and high-signing and styling. And so maybe one of the other fighters might challenge Ray in some kind of way and then Ray would look at the motherfucker and say, “You don’t believe I’m the champ today? Right now? Here, as I’m standing and talking to you? You want me to give you some proof, right here, right now, where we standing, while I’m talking to you?” He’d be standing there, shoulders squared, feet apart, holding one hand in the other in front of him, rocking back and forth on his heels, cleaner than a motherfucker, grinning, his hair all processed back, smiling that crooked, cocky smile he used to smile when he was daring somebody to say anything out of the way. Great fighters are testy, just like great artists; they test everybody. Sugar Ray was king of the hill, and he knew it.

He used to come up and tell everyone that I was a great musician who wanted to be a fighter, and then laugh that high-pitched laugh of his. He liked being around musicians because he liked to play drums. He’d come up to me when Johnny Bratton was fighting — because Ray knew I was crazy about Johnny Bratton — and ask, “What’s your boy gonna do?”

So I’d say, “Do about what?”

“You know, Miles, how’s he gonna do in this fight he has coming up? I think that guy’s too strong for him, got a little bit too much weight or a welterweight like Johnny.” Johnny was fighting a middleweight, some guy from Canada Ray had gone ten rounds with. So Ray would shuffle his feet and square up his shoulders, grip his hands in front of him down by his groin and look at me cold, right in the eyes, and smile. Then he’d say, “What do you think, Miles, you standing here telling me he can win?”

Now, he knows I ain’t going to say nothing against Johnny, so when I’d say, “Yeah, I think he’s gonna win!” Sugar would keep smiling that cold smile. Then he would say, “Well, Miles, we’ll see, you know, we’ll see.”

So when Johnny Bratton knocked out the Canadian guy in the first round I said, “Well, Ray, I guess Johnny knew what he was doing, huh?”

Yeah, I guess he did. That time. But wait until he gets in there with me; he won’t be that lucky.” And when Ray did beat Johnny Bratton he came looking for me, then he just stood there like he always stood, rocking back and forth on his heels, crooked smile on his face, and said, “So Miles, what do you think of your boy now?” And the he laughed so hard in that high-pitched laugh of his, I thought he was going to die.

The reason I’m talking so much about Sugar Ray is because in 1954 he was the most important thing in my life besides music. I found myself even acting like him, you know, everything. Even taking on his arrogant attitude.

Ray was cold and he was the best and he was everything I wanted to be in 1954. I had been disciplined when I first came to New York. All I had to do was go back to the way I had been before I got trapped in all that bullshit dope scene. So that’s when I stopped listening to just anybody. I got myself a Soldier just like Sugar Ray had; and my man for talking to was Gil Evans. And I decided if somebody wasn’t saying something important to me, then I would say, “Fuck them.” That got me back on the right track.

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milesbook

Excerpted from Miles: The Autobiography, by Miles Davis with Quincy Troupe

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