In the early 1930s, the legend goes, a boy named Walker Smith, Jr. watched in wonder as Joe Louis (then a young contender) trained at Detroit’s Brewster Wheeler Recreation Center.
Though born in Detroit, Smith’s mother would move the family to Harlem when he was 12. It was in New York that an adolescent Smith joined a church boxing program, bragging to friends that he learned about the sport watching Louis train.
Smith would eventually enter the amateur boxing circuit as Ray Robinson—he used a friend’s ID to sign up for a tournament. The name stuck and boxing writers eventually added the prefix Sugar. Following an amateur and professional career that spanned four decades, Sugar Ray Robinson became known simply as the greatest pound-for-pound fighter it boxing history.
It was a journey that began at the Brewster on Detroit’s east side more than 80 years ago.
That long-vacant facility is now slated for revival by city development officials. Mayor Mike Duggan says he’d like to see the project “celebrate what was here before,” though he is vague on what that might entail. With the project only beginning to solicit proposals, that vagueness is understandable.
The potential project is welcome news in any case, especially if it includes some kind of rec center. Detroit’s kids certainly deserve more and better recreation options. However, a rehabbed Brewster would be even sweeter if it includes a memorial to, not only Joe Louis (that should be a given), but Sugar Ray Robinson as well.
True, Robinson only lived in Detroit as a young boy. However, he fought in Detroit several times as a professional, including two bouts against his greatest rival Jake LaMotta.
More importantly, as the son of southern black transplants, Robinson success embodied the dream of tens of thousands southerners—black and white—who sought a better life for their children in northern cities like Detroit and Chicago during the Great Migration.
Like Bill Russell or Curt Flood, Robinson was among the second wave of African-American athletes able and willing to demand more than just an opportunity to enter the arena.
He also challenged promoters for better purses. He refused demands from hoods like the International Boxing Club’s Jimmy Norris to “hold up” weaker fighters. Robinson then built a post-boxing life that included successful business ventures and appearances on stage and screen.
Later in life, after settling in Los Angeles, Robinson founded a youth foundation that provided the kind of programs he once found at Brewster. Interestingly enough, his organization didn’t offer boxing. The greatest of ex-champs wanted kids to participate in less violent activities.
Like so many mistakes of Detroit’s recent past, it’s time to correct our failure to honor Robinson as one our own.
The Brewster rehab, particularly if it includes a recreation center component, offer that opportunity to properly honor the champ.