SBJ/April 2-8, 2012/Opinion

Iconic boxing historian was generous with his time, stories

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He showed up for our first all-staff editorial meetings sporting the requisite fedora, an unlit cigar dangling from his lips.

Bert Sugar required no introduction. SportsBusiness Journal most certainly did.
And so it was ever so comforting for those who were here in the magazine’s early days to have Bert on our pages, and even better to have him at our side. Whether it was at a Major League Baseball All-Star Game, where he showed up wearing patchwork, plaid pants; at the Kentucky Derby, where he eschewed the traditional mint julep for his favored scotch; or at a big fight, where he was as indigenous as the ring posts and the bell, Bert let us draft in his substantial wake.

Bert Sugar died on March 25 in Mount Kisco, N.Y. He was 75. Best known as a boxing historian, he wrote or edited more than 80 books. He also wrote a weekly column for this magazine for nearly five years, from its launch in early 1998 through 2002.

A fedora and unlit cigar were Bert Sugar’s signature elements, as were the 80-plus books he wrote.
Photo by: NEWSCOM
If you spent even a little time with Bert, you have a story about him. You will never tell it as well as he could, but you have one.

Like many others you may have read in the days following his death, mine is set in a bar; in this case, the bar at the House of Blues in Chicago, on the weekend before the 2003 MLB All-Star Game. I no longer recall why we were there, of all places, because it was loud and not at all conducive to Bert’s telling of tales, but there we were, waiting impatiently for the band to finish its set.

And then it happened, the sort of thing that could happen when you were with Bert, and especially if you were with Bert at a marquee sporting event. The band’s front man, a bluesy guitarist with a gravelly voice, spotted Bert at the bar, all the way at the back of the room, and stopped singing. He pointed, eyes wide. “Sugar!” the bluesman yelled, jumping up and down. “Sugar!” he yelled again. “You’re Bert Sugar!” When Bert waved and nodded, the band beckoned him to the stage.

While Bert made his way, the bluesman went behind a stack of speakers. When he returned, it was with another guitar. This one was covered with autographs. He handed Bert a Sharpie, asking him to sign.

“Who is he?” someone asked me back at the bar, as Bert basked on stage.

“If you don’t know,” I said, “I can’t explain it.”

About six years ago, Bert visited Charlotte in connection with a charity boxing event. The morning after the fights, he phoned from a hotel down the street.

“I have something for you,” he said. “My flight’s not until later this afternoon. Come have a drink.”

It wasn’t yet noon, and I had a story to finish, but when Bert Sugar invites you for a drink, you find a way to get there.

“Think you’ll still be there in an hour or so?” I asked him.

“Where else would I go?” he said.

When I got there at 1:30, Bert was where he said he’d be. As always, he’d made a couple of new friends. He reached beneath his stool and came up with what was then his latest book, an argument-starter that ranked the great fighters of all time, something Bert did frequently. “I usually sign them,” he said, “but you don’t care about that.”

I told him that, actually, I’d like it if he would inscribe it. I’m glad I asked.

In the days following his death, lots of writers shared their Bert Sugar stories. They described him similarly. He was a character. A storyteller. A throwback to a time that was not only before ours, but before his own. All true.

Bert also was generous. Generous with his time. Generous with his stories. Generous with a smile that spread nearly as wide as the brim of his hat.

The cigar between his teeth was his signature. But I’ll always remember the smile, and the smiles that surrounded him. n

Bill King (bking@sportsbusinessjournal.com) is a senior writer and founding SportsBusiness Journal staff member. He works on special projects and features, and also covers boxing.


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