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.
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.'"
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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.