Monday, March 26, 2012
Bert Sugar, 1937-2012
Bert Randolph Sugar died yesterday at the age of 74. That stinks, worse than any cigar he ever smoked.
Bert was born in Washington, D.C., and attended the nearby University of Maryland. He earned an MBA and a Juris Doctor from the University of Michigan. Those of you who knew about him before, really, can you imagine Bert as a businessman? Or a lawyer? Or... an advertising executive?
Yes, he was an advertising executive. He worked in the industry until 1969, when he heard the Boxing Illustrated magazine was up for sale. This gave him a chance to connect with "the sweet science," his first love. This led to him becoming, if not the last of the old-time wiseguy sportswriters, then a very good approximation of what they were.
He edited Boxing Illustrated, The Ring (a.k.a. the Bible of Boxing), and Boxing Illustrated again.
He wrote over 80 books, mostly but not limited to boxing and its history. Probably the best known is an anthology of his writing, Bert Sugar On Boxing. He was the ghostwriter for the autobiography of 1960s light heavyweight champion Jose Torres. He was called "The Greatest Boxing Writer of the 20th Century" by the International Veterans Boxing Association. He also co-wrote a biography of Harry Houdini with magician James "The Amazing" Randi.
In 1995, Bert published The 100 Greatest Athletes of All Time. His choice for Number 1 was Jim Brown, because he believed Brown to be the greatest performer ever in the history of two different sports: American-style football and lacrosse. While the choice of Brown as the greatest football player ever was backed up by The Sporting News in its 100 Greatest Football Players poll in 1999, I'm not sure how he came by the idea of who the greatest lacrosse player ever was. Maybe he found film of Brown playing the sport at Syracuse University, and looked up lacrosse experts to see who else was great in that sport.
Bert also appeared as himself in several boxing-related films, including Night and the City, The Great White Hype, and the last Rocky film, Rocky Balboa.
Whenever a documentarian needed a boxing expert, Bert was the go-to guy, with his knowledge of the sport's past and present matched only by his personality, aided by his ever-present hat and cigar. Ken Burns interviewed him for Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson. Bert also discussed Johnson and several other fighters as a panelist on ESPN Classic's 1996 feature Fights of the Century.
That special first aired right before the first fight between Mike Tyson -- still considered invincible despite his 1990 loss to James "Buster" Douglas -- and Evander Holyfield. A year earlier, when Holyfield lost to Riddick Bowe for the 2nd time in their 3 fights, Bert went on WCBS-Channel 2's Sunday late-night sports wrapup show, and said that, though he was just 33 at the time, in boxing terms, "Holyfield is a very, very old man."
A year later, not only had Bert changed his tune, but he was perhaps the only boxing expert to believe that Holyfield had a chance against Tyson. He went on the same show afterward, and was asked, "Were you shocked by Holyfield winning?" He said, "Shocked, no. Surprised, yes... I knew Holyfield had the fight won at the end of the first round." He suggested that Holyfield would have studied the Tyson-Douglas fight and realized that the reason Douglas won was because he wasn't afraid of Tyson, thus taking away Tyson's greatest weapon: Fear. This, of course, would be backed up by Holyfield-Tyson II and Lennox Lewis' destruction of Tyson, which Bert seemed to predict: "Buster Douglas was a blip on the radar screen. This is the end of the Tyson legend. 'The Baddest Man On the Planet' ain't, no mo'!"
But all great boxing champions -- Rocky Marciano and the more recent Joe Calzaghe, so far, being exceptions -- must eventually hit the canvas, fighting an opponent they cannot beat. For most boxers, it's not so much a man as Father Time. For Bert, it was an opponent he thought was such a close friend: Cigars. He had battled lung cancer for a few years, and died yesterday. He had lived in Chappaqua, Westchester County, New York. He had been married for 62 years, and had a son, a daughter, and 4 grandchildren.
But he was a winner. And as a storyteller, he is still, the undefeated, the undisputed, heavyweight champion of the world.