Bert Randolph Sugar: 1937-2012
On Sunday, March 25th, the boxing world lost another icon with the passing of the sport’s greatest writer, Bert Randolph Sugar. Flags at the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, New York were lowered to half-mast to honour the passing of this literary lion of the prize ring.
Bert Sugar was called, “The Greatest Boxing Writer of the 20th Century” by the International Veterans Boxing Association. Truer words have never been spoken. Perhaps no other writer of the 20th century has been so famously associated with any sport as Bert Sugar was with boxing. I was one of the privileged few who knew him as both a friend and a colleague. One thing is certain: Bert Sugar knew more about boxing history than any other historian or writer who ever lived. He never boasted about his vast knowledge of boxing history. He didn’t need to. Bert’s love for the sport was written all over his expressive face. He was always working on his next boxing book or article, always certain that more needed to be written about the sport he so loved.
There is never a good time to die, of course, but Bert’s death will be taken very hard by everyone in the boxing community, coming as it does less than two months after the passing in February of boxing’s greatest trainer and ambassador, Angelo Dundee. I was privileged to have had close relationships with both men, two remarkable figures who greatly influenced my life.
Bert was a brilliant wit and a natural raconteur. One could ask a question about any era in boxing history and he always had a fascinating and funny story to illustrate his point. A veritable human warehouse of boxing knowledge, he fervently believed that to be a good boxing writer required an insatiable and unquenchable thirst to constantly learn more about the sport and its history.
He was an American original, a self-made creation. Over time it became difficult to tell where the creation ended and the real Bert Sugar began. It didn’t really matter though as Bert remained hugely popular. He happily posed for photographs with hundreds of fans every year during Hall of Fame weekend. Everything about Bert was over the top, including his special style of sartorial splendor. If you were to describe Bert’s clothing style with just one word, that word would be “loud.” But the fans warmly embraced Bert’s eccentricities; it was part of the whole package. They looked forward to seeing Bert in his standard get-up of trademark fedora, Dominican cigar and colorful clothing. His persona in the flesh was just as dynamic and charismatic as on TV, if not more so.
Bert Sugar was born June 7, 1937 in Washington, DC. Often when Bert would mention his birth date to an audience, he would pause and add, “No, I wasn’t wearing a fedora when I was born.” He didn’t start his life dreaming of becoming the most successful boxing author of all-time. His mother and father, like many Jewish parents, pushed Bert to get an education and then go into a profession which could keep him employed for the remainder of his life. Bert told me he used his middle name, Randolph, on all of his books and articles as a way of paying tribute to his beloved mother, with whom he was very close. Bert always spoke lovingly of his parents and how they worked to provide him with a world-class education.
After graduating from the University of Maryland, he entered law school at the University of Michigan. Upon obtaining both an MBA and a law degree, Bert successfully passed the bar in the District of Columbia, but practiced law for a very short time. He just didn’t enjoy it. He had an active mind and felt he was wasting his time holed up in his law office while the world passed him by. Bert believed he was destined for greater things.
Pretty soon he relocated to New York, which changed his life for the better and provided him with constant excitement and satisfaction. Bert was an excitement junkie, always wanting to be where the action was, and always craving a great cigar, a great boxing match and, a great time. The light in Bert’s mind was always on and he soon found his true passion – writing! Bert’s passion became his occupation. He loved writing. It was his reason for being.
It didn’t take Bert long after arriving in New York to find work in the burgeoning world of advertising. Bert shone in the world of jingles and slogans. His biggest success was the creation of the world famous Nestles jingle, “N-E-S-T-L-E-S, Nestles makes the very best,” which was a monster hit all over the world and enriched his bank account many times over.
Meanwhile, Bert had a strong attraction to boxing and he soon became a recognized figure in the sport. You could always find Bert ringside at Madison Square Garden, happily conversing with his literary peers. As the 1960’s came to a close, he knew he needed a regular platform for his boxing articles, stories and opinions. He fed his passion and love for pugilism by becoming the editor-in-chief of Boxing Illustrated, which led to him eventually becoming editor of Ring magazine and, years later, Bert Sugar’s Fight Game.
Bert was always engaged and involved, constantly sharing his stories and vast boxing knowledge with other writers and fans. It was his way of making sure his stories would one day outlive him. For instance, while having dinner with Angelo Dundee and Bert one night in New York, Bert leaned across the table and told me that Rocky Marciano had indeed lost a match during his career to a fighter named Ted Lowry; the verdict was changed to a unanimous decision in Rocky’s favor thanks to pressure from the mob.
Boxing books Bert penned include Sting Like a Bee, Inside Boxing, The Great Fights and The 100 Greatest Boxers of All Time. A recipient of the BWAA Nat Fleischer Award for “Excellence in Boxing Journalism,” his writing was featured in countless publications including Sports Illustrated and The New Yorker. A longtime contributor to HBO, Sugar was also no stranger to the Silver Screen, appearing in Rocky, Play it to the Bone, Night and the City and The Great White Hype.
Bert’s contributions to the sport of boxing as a writer, author and broadcast commentator are immeasurable and as long as fight fans continue to read about boxing, Bert Sugar will always be their favorite writer. His typewriter may no longer be active, but his words will remain with us for a long, long time to come. – Lou Eisen