Remembering the writer, who died this weekend at age 75
If Bert Sugar—the boxing writer and historian who died Sunday at age 75 of cardiac arrest following a long bout with lung cancer—had never existed, God would have had a hard time inventing him. He’d have needed help from Ring Lardner, Damon Runyan, and A.J. Liebling. And even when they were done, they’d need a strong assist from Bert himself, who came as close as anyone I’ve ever known to creating a character for himself and then living it.
You could see him almost any night on MSG or some ESPN channel, sitting on a stool wearing his trademark fedora (you can tell what time of year the show as filmed by whether the hat was black or white) with an unlit cigar clenched in his teeth or resting between fingers. I must have appeared on two dozen TV shows with Bert since I first profiled him in the Village Voice in 1983, and I never saw him any other way in Atlantic City, at Madison Square Garden, or holding court at O’Riley’s Pub.
Bert was relentlessly Bert. When they needed someone to play Bert in The Great White Hype or the American remake of Night and the City, they didn’t call Central Casting—they went straight to Bert.
Sifting through the blizzard of obits on Bert that appeared yesterday, I found a swarm of errors and a dozen or more factoids that could just as easily been made up. There’s no point in trying to correct them or blame the writers since nearly everything out there about Bert came from Bert himself.
Here’s the story as best as I know it: He was born to a Jewish father who, he told me, “was descended from a long line of Jewish Hungarian pots-and-pans peddlers” and a mother who, he swore, was descended from the Randolphs of Virginia. He told me he had attended college at both Maryland and Michigan—I believe the latter only because once, at a football game at the Meadowlands between Alabama and Ohio State he showed up only, he said, because he hated Ohio State so much. He said that while at Maryland he once played football against Alabama and Bart Starr. Sometime later I heard him say, “I never actually got off the bench while I was at Maryland.” I said to him, “You told me you played against Alabama and Bart Starr. He said to me, ‘Well, I played for a team that played against Alabama and Bart Starr.'”
As the editor of the legendary Ring magazine—a publication that number among its fans a former French Algerian amateur boxer named Albert Camus—Bert fought the good fight and restored the magazine’s credibility after several editors had been found to be on Don King’s payroll. Pushed out by his partner, former New York Knicks star Dave Debusschere, he bought Boxing Illustrated and turned into a magazine better than even Ring had been.
He wrote more books than he could remember—wrote more books, I once kidded him, than he had actually read. “That’s okay,” he replied. “just as long as people like you read my books.” I did, some of them at least, and they were good, particularly The Thrill of Victory, his history of the rise of ABC Sports, and Jose Torres’s book on Muhammad Ali, Sting Like A Bee, which Bert edited and wrote the introduction for. I also read The 100 Years of Boxing, the single best history of the fight game I’ve ever read, and The 100 Greatest Boxers of All Time (No. 1 was Sugar Ray Robinson, No. 2 Henry Armstrong).
Bert wrote so fast that Irving Rudd, the late legendary publicist for the Garden, once greeted him with, “Bert, I haven’t seen you since last week. Written any new books?”
Bert tried hard to preserve the noble heart of boxing, and much of what was good about the sport in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s came directly or indirectly from his crusading for state athletic commissions to make more honest and fair rankings of fighters. In the end, the crooked promoters who ran the sport won the battle, but Bert made them pay in blistering editorials in print and on TV.
He always had time for a young writer looking for a tip or a lead. I must have called him a couple of hundred times for quotes or to check facts for a story on boxing, baseball or football, and he always had time to talk. (Bert never graduated beyond typewriter and was never on email; about two years ago I interviewed him with the help of his granddaughter, who did his typing on her computer.) He spent more time doing benefits for ailing former boxers than going to new fights. (He once did a book signing to benefit former heavyweight champions Jersey Joe Wolcott, whose real name was Arnold Cream. He had a banner printed up: “Have your coffee with Cream and Sugar.”)
Here’s a Bert Sugar story you can believe. I know—I was there. In 1987 a friend and I flew to Las Vegas to do a story on the Sugar Ray Leonard-Marvelous Marvin Hagler fight. All the hotel rooms were long gone so Bert let us sleep on the floor of his room. On fight night, the odds against Leonard went up to 5-to-1, which seemed to me to be a sign from God. We bet all of our available cash—we even, like idiots, bet our expense money. I don’t think I’ve ever been more nervous at a sporting event, but the gentleman seated to my left kept assuring me that Leonard was indeed wining and the decision would go our way. “Don’t worry,” he told me, Hagler couldn’t hit Leonard with a handful of stones.” He was right. We won, and I came back from the betting window with more money than I’ve ever held in my life. When we walked into the press room, Bert -smile on face fedora on head and cigar in hand—said, “I’d like you to meet a friend of mine, the most knowledgeable fight expert I know.” I turned to shake hands with a beaming Don Rickles, “Nice to meet you,” I said. Bert snickered and poked me in the ribs, “You met him two hours ago. You were sitting next to him during the fight.”
The worst part about Bert’s passing is the tons of information and memories he took with him. He held Mixed Martial Arts in contempt—”Really bad boxing combined with one guy sitting on top of another, punching him in the face. Where’s the martial part? Where’s the arts part?” Now that Bert’s gone they may as well pack up boxing for good. To meet him for a steak at O’Riley’s before a fight was to hear stories about fighters like Joe Louis, Billy Conn, Jack Dempsey, Jake LaMotta, and Willie Pepp and trainers like Angelo Dundee and Eddie Futch and even gossip about the media personalities. I once heard him discussion some controversy with Howard Cosell. “Well, you know, Bert,” Cosell said to him, “I’m my own worst enemy.” “Howard,” Sugar replied, patting him on the shoulder, “Not while I’m alive.” He was kidding, of course—they were pals.
He knew all the gyms and all the fight clubs, all the trainers and hangers-on, all the politicians, gangsters, and movie stars who came around at fight time. I once went to a fight at the Garden with him, where introduced me to Bill Murray then reached into his briefcase to hand Bill the latest copy of Ring magazine. “Have you seen the March issue yet?”
I was proud last summer to have a chance to introduce my daughter Maggie to him at a screening for the John McEnroe-Bjorn Borg HBO movie. He was already ravished with cancer but didn’t look it and didn’t tell me. His death caught me by surprise. I only regret that I can’t introduce you to him personally, but if you make it to heaven, find the press room, look for the guy at a typewriter chewing an unlit cigar with six empty coffee cups in front of him. Feel free to use my name. RIP.
Source: Allen Barra, The Atlantic
Allen Barra writes about sports for the Wall Street Journal and TheAtlantic.com. His next book is Mickey and Willie–The Parallel Lives of Baseball’s Golden Age.