Living

RIP: Bert Sugar. Iconic Boxing Journalist Dead At 74

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The first feature I wrote for the Village Voice when I came to New York was a profile of Bert Randolph Sugar. It appeared in the May 3, 1983 issue. When it was published, I got a note from Sugar: “Not bad, but you violated one of the cardinal rules of journalism – you buried your lead. You didn’t mention me ’til midway through the second paragraph.”

He was right, and I’ll never do it again (except for right now).

Bert Sugar died yesterday in a hospital in Mt. Kisco, New York, of cardiac arrest following a battle with lung cancer, which I didn’t know he was suffering from. I spoke with him once every couple of weeks for close to 30 years, but he never told me when he was ill. You can still call his home phone in Chappaqua and hear his voice say, “This is Bert. I’m not here, I’m out training for a comeback …”

Comeback? Hell, Bert never left us. 

In the early 1980s, he was the editor of Ring magazine, a
publication that once ruled the world of boxing –“The Bible of Boxing”
it was called — and which he brought back to respectability after Don
King had dragged it down by inducing some of the magazine’s editors to
pad his fighter’s rankings. Bill Veeck, the late great baseball owner
and promoter, told me “He dragged Ring from the jaws of disaster, and for that, if nothing else, he would be the savior of modern boxing.”

Well, as it turned out he wasn’t. He had a falling out with his partner Dave DeBusschere and soon moved his association to Boxing Illustrated,
where he served as editor for several years, and his office to
O’Riley’s Pub near his beloved Madison Square Garden. Every time I
called to meet with him, that’s where he said to come. He even handed
out business cards with O’Riley’s printed for his address.

He wrote books there, though, I don’t know which ones. In fact, I
don’t know how many books he wrote, and I don’t think he did, either. I
never even saw many of them, let alone read them. But I did read some,
and they were outstanding, particularly the Thrill of Victory, his book on the history of ABC Sports, The 100 Greatest Boxers of All Time
(Sugar Ray Robinson was number one) and The SEC, his history on college
football’s greatest conference. Bert knew as much about boxing — and
almost as much about baseball and football — as any man I ever met.

Let me relate just a few memories. The first time I went to a fight
with him at the Garden, he had an armful of the latest issue of Ring. He
nudged me, “Hey, is that Bill Murray over there?” I said yes. “Hey,
Bill,” he said, rushing over to a delighted Murray, “Have you seen the
March issue?”

One time we were on a CBS Sunday morning show together, and I
disagreed with him on something (I forget, exactly, on what). Pulling
his 6″ long unlit cigar out of his mouth, he said with a laugh, “Well
you have to remember Allen writes for the Village Voice, where boxing is the sport of queens.” (Ah, c’mon, people it’s funny.)

In 1987 I went with a friend to Las Vegas to do a story for the Voice
on the Sugar Ray Leonard-Marvin Haggler bout for the middleweight
championship. The town was in a frenzy and the rooms were sold out when
we got there. Bert let us sleep on blankets on the floor of his room.
We stumbled blurry-eyed back into the room at about 2 am. Shortly after,
Bert shuffled in and collapsed on his bed. Three hours later – I
glanced at my watch – he was up doing radio interviews in his socks,
garter, underwear, and his trademark fedora hat – again with the unlit
cigar chomped between his teeth. No method actor ever got so deep into a
character as Bert did into playing himself.

When room service knocked, he put his hand over the phone and said
“Come in.” He muttered “Coffee, orange juice,” then yelled down at us,
“You guys want some Danish? Hey, bring some Danish!” He then went right
back to his interview without missing a beat.

He was the link to the New York of Damon Runyon, A.J. Liebling, and
Red Smith. No fight, scarcely any big sports gathering, was complete
until Bert arrived. I am so glad that last summer, at a screening for
the HBO John McEnroe/Bjorn Borg special, Fire and Ice, I was able to introduce my teenage daughter to him.

Bert Sugar was the real deal, and if you make it to heaven and want
to meet him, go straight to the press room — just look for the guy with the
typewriter with a fedora and unlit cigar.