By Albert Samaha
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Sugar has always had good timing, and his pro wrestling book was published in a propitious season: the same winter that Jesse Ventura was elected governor of Minnesota and the World Wrestling Federation placed its first TV ad during the Super Bowl. The New York Times has officially deemed the latter event "emblematic of the increasing importance of so-called sports entertainment in the American commercial and popular cultures."
Translation: gimmicks sell. But the people behind the Complete Idiot's Guide series already knew that. When Macmillan editor Gary Krebs approached Sugar, Sugar enlisted Captain Lou Albano, who began wrestling in 1951. The idea was that Captain Lou would contribute war stories, while Sugar would throw the weight of his craft behind every sentence.
After a few drinks, the writer settles into a booth to explain the real challenge of writing the book: There is no history of pro wrestling in print. "The stories are not in the press," he says, "so I had to go to the sources, the people."
That meant getting on the horn to old-timers like Lou Thesz, a former wrestling great who is now 85 and lives in Virginia Beach, and Norman Kietzer, who has a great photo archive. It meant obtaining the papers of 1920s promoter Toots Mondt, and finding out such essential trivia as the date of the first rigged wrestling match. (That would be January 8, 1925, when a University of Nebraska football player took the heavyweight title from Ed "Strangler" Lewis.)
Then Sugar had to bring the book up to date. After all, if promoter Vince McMahon Jr. hadn't taken over his father's business and put wrestling on cable channels nationwide, it wouldn't be the $500-million-a-year business it is today, with McMahon's World Wrestling Federation struggling to top Ted Turner's World Championship Wrestling.
Asked which of the two dominant entrepreneurs he favors, Sugar demurs. "I try to do as delicate a tap dance between them as Fred Astaire ever did." Indeed, one of Sugar's best sources was Turner Broadcasting president Harvey Schiller, who he played sports with at the University of Michigan. "I called an old rugby friend, and he arranged a meeting with Bill Goldberg." Goldberg, a former NFL player, is one of the fans' favorite wrestlers today.
And it was Goldberg who taught Sugar one of the keys to the current generation of wrestlers. "It's an understatement to say that they're trailer camp kids," says Sugar, forking crab cakes into his mouth. "Lou Albano's father was a doctor. Bill Goldberg's father was an obstetrician and his mother was a concert violinist. I asked Goldberg, 'What did your parents think about you becoming a wrestler?' He said they didn't really like it, until he told them he made five million a year. That's Jewish, isn't it?"
Sugar lets out one of his equine laughs, the kind that gets looks from across the room. "Yeah, it's me," he calls out. "Over here." Yes, he does comes off obnoxious and anti-Semitic, but he is living exactly the life he always wanted.
After getting a law degree from Michigan, Sugar fell headfirst into advertising and then sportswriting. "I wanted to be a writer from the day I arrived in New York in 1963," he says, slurping a cup of coffee. There were too many writers covering baseball, football, and basketball, so he chose boxing.
In 1974, he got a contract to write The Sports Collectors' Bible, the first complete guide to baseball cards. Then he needed an editor, so he hired a 15-year-old kid named Keith Olbermann who recently left MSNBC to become a millionaire sportscaster for Fox.
"He's a great guy and a great friend," says Olbermann, who has called Sugar "the poet of boxing." "And he is one of the great opportunists, in the sense that he has been able to discern in advance obscure things that may be of interest to people."
There's no question the old man loves the attention. "I've been discovered, like Tony Bennett, at a very late age," Sugar quips before heading across town to tape a spot for HBO. Indeed, he seems poised to become a pop culture icon. The February issue of P.O.V. debuts his first advice column, commissioned by editor Randall Lane.
"This guy's an American original," says Lane. "But he's about more than sports. It's history, it's etiquette, it's booze, it's women. And he's got a great memory despite all the Cutty Sarks!" It's that goofy, delinquent quality that makes Sugar as fine a candidate for literary sainthood as William Burroughs ever was.