By Rich Mancuso
NEW YORK -You did not have to know Bert Randolph Sugar on a personal basis. His presence was known with the unlit cigar etched in his mouth, a fedora hat on his head and always a blazer and bright tie, a part of his attire. And, when it came to the sport of boxing, you went to him for an answer.
The 75-year old renowned author and boxing historian succumbed to lung cancer on Sunday. Cardiac arrest was the cause, at Northern Westchester Hospital in the Mount Kisco area of New York. His wife of almost 50- years and his children were by his side.
And, when word came about Sugar’s death, the boxing community was also by his side. He was the old school writer, in an era of new school journalists that Sugar would always have time for. He would always eulogize a fighter that left us. We came to Bert for the history, the memories, and also for his one liners and candid sense of humor.
It is always a difficult task, writing about someone who has passed. This writer, from a personal perspective, can say this is a tough assignment. Bert Randolph Sugar was a mentor and friend, more than a colleague we get to know at ringside. They say it was meant to be, meeting someone in the course of your lifetime who has been instrumental to your career, and he was the one.
Almost 28- years ago, the first boxing press conference assignment at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City and there he was. Cigar in the mouth, the hat, and surrounded by the old school boxing writers: Michael Katz of the New York Times, Ed Schuyler and Bernie Beglane of the Associated Press, the late Pat Putnam, Barney Nagler, and Murray Goodman the late and former publicist for promoter Don King.
“Get over here, kid, and learn something,” said Sugar, who authored over 80 books about boxing, baseball, horse racing, and sports facts. That was the beginning of learning how to be a part of the boxing discussion, and making new acquaintances that you had to know when covering a fight at ringside.
The rest is history. Sugar opened the door. We covered a historic number of fights together at ringside, traveled many miles, and there were tons of stories and laughs. It was the pure old school core of boxing journalism and learning more as the years passed on. He was not seen much at ringside the past year.
Those in the business would ask, and we all assumed, that Bert was writing another book. Then word came that Bert was in the fight of his life and little did we know that it would end so soon.
But that was how “Uncle Bert” was. He was private about his life, with the exception of talking about how his loving wife, Suzanne, could be so patient with him over the years. An inductee to the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2005, he would travel often to see his alma mater Michigan play an important football game. The one-time advertising guru, who studied law, made an annual trip to the Kentucky Derby. He loved the horse game and wrote numerous books about the industry.
There were trips to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, and, a few years ago, he wrote a book about the Hall and the greats who have been enshrined. There was his annual trip to the Bronx for opening Day at Yankee Stadium and to the Baseball Mid Summer Classic, the All-Star Game.
“I don’t belong here,” he said in the press room at the old Yankee Stadium, that cold and rainy day in the Bronx in early April, 2008. It was the last Opening Day at the old stadium and he made a deal to purchase one of the foul poles, some that was housed in the backyard of his home up in Chappaqua, New York.
The game with Toronto was delayed, and eventually postponed, until the next day. Sugar wanted to be with the fans and went across the street, River Avenue, without an umbrella to the Yankee Tavern.
He never returned to the press room. “Had another beer with the folks,” he would say. And Bert told more stories to that crowd, as he would do to the many he met and to those that admired him. When Sugar called you “Uncle” it meant you were a part of his family.
It was good enough to be asked many times, travel with him to the fights. That return airplane trip to New York after a Marvin Hagler-Thomas Hearns thriller. How he told the mother of a crying baby in Row 15 of the plane, “tell the baby to shut up or my friend Nunzio will take care of it.” This writer was his Nunzio.
Or the time when Sugar and this writer shared a room in Las Vegas, only to be taken over by half of the Los Angeles Lakers basketball roster, including Magic Johnson. Sugar gave them a key to the room and we returned from a long night only to trip over, as he would tell many times, “legs and legs, except they were men not pretty women.” He was gracious and always helpful, but held nothing back when it came to opinion.
“My View from the Corner, A Life in Boxing, Angelo Dundee with Bert Randolph Sugar” was also one of his latest works. In the front face, Sugar wrote, as he would always do when presenting this writer a book to review, “Uncle Rich who is still trying to buy back his introduction to Bert R. Sugar.”
Dundee, who passed away in early February, developed a great relationship with Sugar. And, as he was secretly ailing, Sugar was gracious and offered his opinion about Dundee, trainer of the great Muhammad Ali.
After the fights or press conference, Bert Sugar went to the nearest pub. It was his way of enjoying life and sharing the great stories and rich tradition of boxing. Some of his great works and business deals were made over a cocktail, whether at the Betty Boop Lounge, situated at the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas, or his favorite spots in Manhattan. And he was not shy about saying that a “Bloody Mary was as good as waking up in the morning with someone who was not your wife.”
When things went sour with Ring Magazine, and his former partner, Dave DeBusschere, the late and former New York Knicks basketball star, Sugar set up temporary quarters at a table, in the pub, O’Reiley’s, a few minutes from Madison Square Garden. There he wrote more than one book on numerous napkins, of course over a few cocktails.
He would take the Metro North commute to his home in an office full of sports and boxing memorabilia, and started to write on his only typewriter. Bert did not believe in new school technology. The computer and mobile phone were not to his liking.
But it was those stories and opinions that made Bert Randolph Sugar who he was. He never rejected a television or print interview. He had the answer as to why the sport of boxing went into decline. “They don’t make fighters the way they used to be,” he said.
And, of course, the heavyweight champion is not the way it was. “Alphabet soup,” was termed by Sugar about the entire mess of different champions. “You could not tell who is who, even if you put them in a police lineup,” he said about the current state of the heavyweight division that is dominated by names other than American.
The fighters, managers, promoters, and media loved him. His answer to the current cycle of the dominance of Latino’s holding a majority of boxing titles was simple. “Over the years look at the cycle. Italians, Jews, The Irish, Blacks, and now the Latinos are having their turn.”
In one book he authored, “The 100 Greatest Athletes of All-Time,” which had two printings, Sugar had to revise the copy. There was criticism as to why he named Jim Brown as number one, the former great Cleveland Brown football player. Some said it was favoritism.
“No one could ever take the place of Jim Brown,” he said, “the Athlete who best defines great.” Any issue about boxing and it was Bert you went to for an answer. One of the latest, “The Ultimate Book of Boxing Lists,” co-authored with trainer Teddy Atlas, has become a bible for information and used often here.
He said last week, “There is still a lot of fight left with me. The old school guys like you and me have to keep fighting.” Unfortunately, there are not any old school guys remaining, and, until the end, he was writing another book about baseball. It would have been completed in a few months. Sugar had this knack of publishing books frequently. You were perplexed how he would author book with frequency on the old fashioned typewriter.
However, you could never be perplexed about the talent and his humor. Bert Randolph Sugar was the face of boxing, a sport that no longer has an identity.
God Bless. Rest in peace my good friend and “Uncle” Bert Sugar, now with the best ringside seat in Heaven.
E-MAIL RICH MANCUSO: Ring786@aol.com