You always see the sweetest side of otherwise jaundiced sportswriters when one of their own passes. But even by those standards, the outpouring of love for Bert Sugar, the boxing doyen who died on March 25, is remarkable:
“Quite a Damien Runyon figure — just an amazing guy.”
“ … this bon vivant and raconteur, a lover of all things obsolete and a uniquely New York character …”
“His knowledge of boxing history was unparalleled and his recall was instantaneous. His nickname could have been Google.”
Closest I came to finding a slight against Sugar was the headline from an otherwise cracking obit in the Washington Post, “Bert Sugar, boxing writer and historian known for blustery style.” The adjective seems unnecessarily backhanded there — the New York Times applied the phrase “swagger and panache” to his prose — but if your passion was boxing, bluster may simply have been part of the bargain. Sugar lived the character that was Bert Sugar — always wearing a Panama hat or a fedora, always chomping a stogie the size of a chair leg. Whether the man became the image or vice-versa, you couldn’t deny that Sugar was genuinely a creature of another era, one when men wore hats and chomped cigars and the next heavyweight rumble at the Garden was the hottest topic of lunchcounter conversation, just shy of shots heard ’round the world and Dewey defeating Truman.
Sugar was born in 1937. He earned a law degree from Michigan, seemingly just so he could joke that it was the last bar he ever passed. He made his way in advertising, ditched in ’77 to write sports and edited the boxing magazine The Ring. He hopscotched his way across his typewriter keys on the way to authoring maybe “a couple hundred” books, his friend Wallace Matthews surmised; the International Boxing Hall of Fame welcomed Sugar in 2005. He was married to the same woman for 51 years and was ever quick with quip. When journalist Chris Robinson called to check on him last week, Sugar had just spent three weeks in the hospital and told him: “I had everything from cancer to internal bleeding to pneumonia. They were probably looking for terminal acne — I don’t know what they were looking for.”
Sugar came up in a time when both halves of the title “boxing writer” carried more sway than today. He appeared on ESPN and on HBO Sports with a style that seemed positively Jurassic, speaking calmly and learnedly, cracking lewd jokes that actually landed and swilling a drink, with the ice tinkling against the side of the glass audibly, as he did so. Stick him in front of a camera — practically any camera — and he shined, even if he was an anachronism. The Washington Post noted: “His business card listed his ‘office in exile’ as Manhattan’s O’Reilly’s Pub, where he wrote columns on a typewriter in a back booth.”
You can’t usher a giant out the door these days without also sneezing across the entire profession. An exchange from the Wall Street Journal’s video channel:
Q: “Is that era of that sort of larger-than-life sportswriter and sports chronicler gone forever now?”
Gordon Marino: “That’s what people feel, with Bert.”
Of course, it was Sugar’s style to remind people of where he was from — that age when a writer could be considered larger-than-life without having to be louder than everyone else on the set. His persona was honed, if not designed, to evoke that gravity. His obituaries quietly acknowledge that. For newspaper scribes most of all, Sugar’s appeal came partly from the reassurance, upon seeing him, that this was still the sort of world that could produce a Bert Sugar.