It’s a small world; I was in Italy and I ran into Shelly Saltman, and we started to talk about boxing and about our mutual friend Bert Sugar. It turned out that we knew each other many years ago, and he came to a couple of my classes. I’m just passing along an article of his about our friend Bert.
One of the advantages of growing older is that you’ll be able to experience a great many things — good, as well as not so good. Along the way you meet many people. In my case, I have been blessed. I have walked, not only with the great and near great, but I have also had the privilege to rub elbows with many wonderful and legendary characters in my lifetime.
Sunday, I learned that a dear friend and long-time associate has passed on. The headline simply read, “Boxing writer Bert Sugar dies of cardiac arrest.” That is a true statement, but hardly tells what he meant to sports.
Bert Sugar was my friend. The last time I talked to him was approximately three months ago. There was no indication that he was sick, or that he was battling lung cancer. Instead, we talked about all the times we had worked together and what we might do in the future. Obviously, the future never came.
In his lifetime, Bert wrote and had published somewhere between 60 and 80 books. As a man who has only had five published books, I can certainly attest to the difficulty of coming up with something worthwhile to write about. I also understand how meaningful it is to get a publisher to say, “I want to print that.”
More impressive was the fact that in this day of modern technology, Bert never owned a computer and shunned the proprietorship of a cell phone. He did all his work either longhand, or on his longtime friend, the typewriter.
My young readers should know that a typewriter is an ancient, now obsolete, non-electronic term for computers. During my early years, computers never existed.
Bert was hailed in the media as a boxing writer and historian, but that was only a small part of his persona. He was a true sports historian versed on every facet you could name, especially when it came to baseball, horses and boxing.
Bert was familiar to everyone in the world of boxing. He was a pleasant caricature with his white fedora perched at a rakish angle on top of his, I think, bald dome. I never knew!
As a joke, I once asked him if he even wore his hat to bed. His answer was, “Only my wife and I know and neither us will ever tell.”
In his career, Bert had a great many “ups” and “downs.” At one point, he was the owner and publisher of the venerable boxing magazine, The Ring (aka Ring Magazine). Unfortunately, this creative genius only wanted to write, so unscrupulous associates wrested control of the publication from him.
During those dark days, many in the fight game considered him a pariah. He would hold court with his typewriter on a table at a favorite sports watering hole in lower Manhattan, Runyons.
In those days, I was traveling between Los Angeles and New York at least once a month. I would have lunch with Bert each time while he continued to bang out column after column and orchestrated his return to Ring Magazine stewardship. He fought a costly court battle and finally won his right to own and publish The Ring (the Bible of Boxing, the maker of the rankings) once again.
During this hiatus, I put Bert in quite a few of my productions where his wit and knowledge was astounding. Eventually it established him as a boxing spokesperson, leading to many other opportunities.
Back at The Ring, although he was the publisher, all he wanted to do was write. He drove his managing editor bonkers. Fortunately, this time he was in with people who respected him and although they fought his desire to write, they relented and protected his ownership interests at the same time.
My situation at FOX Sports was similar. I had originally cut my broadcasting teeth as a blow-by-blow boxing announcer. Whenever we broadcasted fights and our regular announcer Tom Kelly was unavailable, I desired to be the fill-in. Here, even though I was the boss, my beloved Executive Producer Janice Cassazza never wanted to hire me. Thanks to Clair Higgins, who spoke for the late wonderful female promoter Eileen Eaton, I prevailed.
In 1974, I had the opportunity to be the Toastmaster (The Emcee) of a roast for Bert at the Touchdown Club in Washington, D. C. The outpouring of affection was overwhelming. Here was a native Washingtonian who never forgot where he came from as he scaled the heights of sports journalism.
In 2005, Bert was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame. He constantly astounded all of us with his vast knowledge and encyclopedic memory of events, places and times.
On a few occasions, I had lunch with Bert at another of his favorite Manhattan watering halls, Gallagher’s Steak House. It was here, on at least three luncheons, when Bert was accosted by Howard Cosell, Cosell being the self-proclaimed, all-knowledgeable sports maven. He was forever questioning Bert’s awareness of a particular sports subject. It eventually would end up in a bet for something like dinner. I am here to tell you, Bert ate free at Howard’s expense many times.
Bert, when he was your friend, never turned away if you needed help. One time, when I was still doing publicity, I mentioned in passing that I had an event that was in need of placement and I was short on media names. I mentioned it only once and then forgot about it.
I was living in Palm Desert, Calif. at the time when a week later a bulky overnight mail envelope arrived at my house. Bert had heard my plight and had taken upon himself to supply me more than 500 names with addresses and phone numbers (e-mail didn’t exist at that time), all written in longhand. This proved invaluable and made me indispensable to my client. When I wished to repay him, he wouldn’t hear of it. In fact, he felt insulted!
Bert was a showman and he reveled in creating that impression. His public persona was that of a gregarious, flamboyant Damon Runyon character. But in fact, he was pensive and studious as well as modest. He had a wit and a sense of humor without parallel. He never took himself seriously.
In boxing, when a champion dies, the ringside bell is stuck ten times indicating a knockout. Bert is down for the count, but his legacy will never suffer.