Boxing, back in its late 20th century heyday, at least, seems to have had more than its share of colorful characters, and Bert Sugar, described as the "fedora-topped, cigar-smoking don of ringside sportswriters," (Washington Post), the sport’s “human encyclopedia and flamboyant and ubiquitous presence,” (New York Times) among other epithets, was one of them.
Sugar died March 25 at a hospital in New York from lung cancer.
Sugar moved from the world of advertising to sportswriting in the 1970s, and was editor and publisher of the Ring magazine by 1979. He also wrote numerous books on boxing and other sports (more than 80 by one count). His public persona included a fedora, long cigar and drink in his hand, as well as cameos in fight movies like “The Great White Hype,” and appearances on HBO.
His titles included, Boxing’s Greatest Fighters, 100 Greatest Boxers Of All Time, and Bert Sugar’s Baseball Hall of Fame: A Living History of America’s Greatest Game. His 2006 update of 100 Greatest Boxers offered these rankings: 1. Sugar Ray Robinson 2. Henry Armstrong, 3. Willie Pep, 4. Joe Louis, with Muhammad Ali at 7.
Sugar covered some of the classic fights of the late 20th century in a hyperbolic style quite unlike the self-consciously understated literary polish applied by writers such as Norman Mailer, who also favored the ring. Sugar wrote this about the third fight between Ali and Joe Frazier, 1975’s “Thrilla in Manila”:
“Some day, when ring historians gather ’round boxing’s smoldering campfire to tell stories of great fights, going all the way back to the time when spectators wore grapes in their hair and the lions ate the losers, one fight from that long laundry list will be remembered as having been one of the greatest two-sided fights in boxing history: Ali-Frazier III.”
Along with other obit writers, Tablet’s Marc Tracy spared no cliche and hyperbole in calling the "legendary" Sugar “a vestige of boxing’s days as a clubby, night-on-the-town pastime, almost inseparable from cigar smoke and references to Damon Runyon, and nearly as closely associated with old Jewish kibbitzers.” Even the New Yorker got Jewy in a profile of Sugar once, calling him the “best kibitzer in New York.”
Sugar was born in Washington, DC, and received an MBA and law degree from University of Michigan. He worked for advertising firms J. Walter Thompson and McCann-Erickson, and purchased Ring with NBA Hall of Famer Dave DeBusschere and other partners in 1977, after which he became editor. He was married for 51 years to Suzanne Davis.
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