The Sordid Details


Last Wednesday, the writing was on the wall for Details editor Michael Caruso, when the New York Post‘s Keith J. Kelly ran a story predicting his demise.

But Caruso was apparently being kept in the dark by his bosses, even as they cast about for his replacement. He called a staff meeting that day, calling the rumors “negative spin” and “a nonstory,” according to one person who was present. “The general tone was, ‘We’re doing great, our numbers are up, uptown says they’re happy with me and let’s crush Maxim, rah, rah!’ ”

Why was Maxim his enemy? Not just because it’s the men’s magazine of the moment. (Maxim picked up 200,000 readers in the last six months, bringing its total rate base to 650,000— compared to Details‘s 525,000.) And not just because last fall, Condé Nast editorial director James Truman nudged Caruso to copy Maxim‘s bikini-
clad cover girls.

In fact, the scent of Maxim was right under Caruso’s nose: Truman was about to dump him for Maxim editor-in-chief Mark Golin. By Friday, several gossip columnists had received calls saying that Caruso was “a dead man walking,” and Golin had begun negotiations for his new job.

According to several Caruso confidants, he believed his job was secure because Details‘s newsstand sales were way up, with the December issue selling 205,000, 20 percent higher than December 1997. But according to Monday’s New York Post, Caruso only gained 50,000 readers in almost two years— small change compared to Maxim‘s leap of 400,000 in 1998 alone.

Over the weekend, Caruso was in Los Angeles making arrangements to launch the April issue, which is devoted to Hollywood. He flew back on Sunday night, and was summoned to Condé Nast headquarters at 350 Madison Monday morning. There, Truman and Condé Nast CEO Steve Florio informed him that he was out of a job. That afternoon, Caruso called a staff meeting in the Details office downtown. “He starts with a joke,” recalled one attendee. “He says, ‘The good news is, I can keep the juke box.’ ” (Caruso kept an old Wurlitzer in his office.)

As he defended his product and thanked the staff, two women began to cry. But at that moment, neither Caruso nor his staff knew the name of his replacement. Later, two staffers said they were stunned it was Mark Golin, because Caruso had been assured that Condé Nast did not want to clone Maxim. Said one, “It’s amazing that they would just eat the competition like that.”

Golin sees it differently. “If I were going to do Maxim, I would stay at Maxim,” he says. But before he starts his new job, Golin has some other details to work out. As of Monday, he was still under contract with Maxim until the end of April.

Caruso could not be reached for comment.

Sugar’s on Top

Bert Sugar is perched on a bar stool, wearing his trademark fedora. The man is a ubiquitous boxing commentator, author of dozens of books, editor of Fight Game magazine— and the last of a dying breed. Today, the lanky old fart is explaining how he came to write what he calls “the seminal book on wrestling.”

“It’s a missing culture,” Sugar says, waving a cigar in one hand and a drink in the other. “Most media don’t want to cover pro wrestling because it’s choreographed. But to me, wrestling is a wonderful spectacle.”

The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Pro Wrestling was published by Macmillan last month. But Sugar, now 62, got his first taste of wrestling in Washington, D.C., in the 1940s. He recalls listening to a morning talk show when the host said a sports question was coming up. “All I remember is, the answer was ‘Jim Thorpe’, and I won two tickets to a wrestling bout.” The match featured boxing champ Primo Carnera and Gorgeous George at the Uline Arena downtown. But Sugar didn’t have a way to get there on a school night, so he invited his mother.

“Mom thinks Primo Carnera is still the heavyweight champion,” he recalls, “so she gets her furs out of storage. She gets a limousine and we go to this bout and I’m in heaven.” The god of the moment was Gorgeous George, a college-trained wrestler who wore long blond hair and a fur-trimmed robe. “When I saw him enter the ring with a valet spraying the corners with a flip can, I just thought he was wonderful. This was showmanship. This was every-girl’s-got-to-have-a-gimmick!”

In his book, Sugar cites the rise of Gorgeous George as the exact turning point between the early days of the sport (“when the whole essence of wrestling was the promoter trying to skim and scam the locals”) and its postmodern incarnation as a tournament for chanting fans who are all in on the joke— but pretend not to be.

“With his bobby pins and his bleached hair, Gorgeous George became the progenitor of most of the performing we see in sports today,” Sugar proclaims, rattling the ice in his glass. “I can’t see a dance in an end zone without thinking, ‘That was Gorgeous George.’ He changed wrestling into the spectacle that it is.”

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.