Remembering Bert Sugar

Mar 26, 2012

By Kieran Mulvaney

Bert Sugar, boxing historian and good friend of HBO Boxing, died on Sunday, March 25th following a battle with cancer. He was 75.

Renowned as much for his bon mots, trademark cigar and fedora as for his boxing knowledge, Sugar was one of the sport's most iconic and recognizable figures. Born in Washington, DC, he briefly flirted with life as a lawyer ("I passed the bar," he would quip of his legal training, "and it was the only bar I ever passed") and as an advertising executive ("We were the original Mad Men") before finding his niche in boxing, a sport for which-with his gift for colorful, expressive writing and his larger-than-life personality-he was perfectly suited.

He sparred with Muhammad Ali, co-wrote the authorized biography of Ali's trainer Angelo Dundee, edited The Ring and Boxing Digest, and penned more than 80 books, many of them on boxing but also on, among other subjects, baseball. (Sugar wrote the official guide to the Baseball Hall of Fame, and even had his own Topps baseball card.) He hosted and pontificated on countless broadcasts, including Ringside on ESPN Classic and, most recently, The Sweet Science with Bert Sugar here on

Sugar was also widely appreciated within the boxing community for the readiness with which he encouraged and supported many up-and-coming writers, including the author of this piece. He liked few things more than to pull up a bar stool and regale friends and strangers alike with tall tales and recollections, frequently convulsing in laughter as he did so.

Often, during such sessions, he would pause, look at the drink in front of him and observe, "I have always said: I would rather be a good liver than have one." And that he certainly was. His was a life well-lived, and his was a presence that will be much missed.

See highlights of the work Bert Sugar contributed to

Bert was a friend and colleague of boxing writers, commentators, analysts and fans at HBO and around the world. We asked some of them to share their thoughts, memories and recollections of the one-of-a-kind historian and writer.  Their responses are reproduced below:

Jim Lampley, HBO commentator: 
I have called fights on TV for 26 years, and though I have from the beginning been an avid fan and lover of boxing, my credentials as a historian are pretty badly frayed for any material prior to the mid-50s-the moment my mother sat me down to watch Sugar Ray Robinson vs. Bobo Olsen II and I began to learn something about a sport she particularly liked.  Over the years I often checked with Bert for his interpretive knowledge of boxing lore, getting clarifications on questions I might also ask from time to time of Larry Merchant and Harold Lederman. As any ring scribe knows, Bert was unfailingly generous, helpful, and enthusiastic about my enthusiasm.

Most of all Bert was fun.  He seemed to have the world pretty much the way he wanted it for a long time, the flourish never vanished from the fedora and the cigar and the brass buttons and madras pants, no socks. He was both an up-to-date thinker and a throwback to another colorful era, and there was only one of him.  Only one.  I suspect I will think of him at some point in every big fight weekend for quite a while now, and nothing could be more appropriate.  For all of us who knew him, he'll be there.

Harold Lederman, HBO's unofficial ringside judge:
I spent a lot of time with Bert. I guess I'm a good listener, because Bert liked to tell his jokes to someone like me who would understand their meaning and laugh at them. We'd sit around telling boxing stories at big fights he'd attend, and invariably Bert would come up with a one liner that would leave me hysterical.
I think he's going to be missed by a lot of us. He was a character who had his own style, with the hat and the cigar and the funny colored pants. His knowledge of boxing and his total recall of the history of the sport were incredible. He'd remember so many fine details about what happened in a fight a million years ago. Half the time I thought he had a computer in his head.
Bert was so respected by the average boxing fan, as well as the hardcore member of the boxing fraternity. The next time they have a big fight, I am going over to the HBO Pay-Per-View table and check the phones, because I don't think Mayweather-Cotto will go on without Bert manning the phones and selling pay-per-view homes. Like they said about Stanley Ketchel a long time ago, "Somebody start counting to ten and he'll probably get up."

Emanuel Steward, trainer and HBO boxing analyst:
He was the most colorful character ever in the sport of boxing and will never be duplicated.

Larry Merchant, HBO boxing analyst: 
He lived the role of the old Broadway Runyonesque fight degenerate, who loved the fights and all the hustlers and rustlers and intrigue that went into the fight game. He saw the fight world in the context of its times and with the skeptical humor that it deserves. He was a warehouse of boxing history, maybe the last one around - and not just the history of who fought who and who beat who, but more of the many awful and wonderful stories about boxing. I knew Bert for decades and decades, and what I was always impressed with was that he almost always got it right. His history was accurate; his take on the fighters was accurate. He was a walking, living resource, not just for the new guys coming into the game but also for the old guys like me who had forgotten about or never knew those stories.

And he was a good companion. He was a good guy to have around. Wherever he was, was where you felt you had to be. 

Mark Taffet, SVP of HBO Sports Operations and PPV:
I love Bert Sugar.  I first met him in 1991 in the early days of TVKO (the predecessor to HBOPPV).  I'll never forget that first encounter. I was sitting in my office reading a contract when out of the blue appeared that fedora, the cigar, the multicolored plaid pants and a huge smile, followed by a big handshake and a loud "Uncle Mark, glad to meet ya!" I said, "How did you get past security?"  And then I heard that big, bellowing laugh for the first time. For the next 21, we laughed and talked our way through 180 pay-per-view fights and I learned a heck of a lot of things about a heck of a lot of subjects that I had never even dreamed of prior.  Bert loved to laugh, and Bert loved to live.  He was a dear friend and a great mentor.  I will never ever forget him and I will miss him dearly.

Will Hart, HBO photographer:
The first time I met Bert Sugar, it was the spring of 1981. I had a dozen 8X10 black and white photos that I had shot of Gerry Cooney working out at the old Gleason's Gym on West 30th St. I had already showed them to Cooney and he loved them. Gerry said to me that I should take them over to The Ring magazine.  Over the phone I somehow arranged a meeting with Bert, looking to sell the photos.  At that time The Ring office was on West 31st near Sixth Ave in a modest ten story building with a slow running rattletrap elevator.

As I rode up that elevator with my precious Cooney photos, I had no idea then that the man that I was about to meet would play a huge part in my professional life for the next 32 years. 

After being escorted past the dusty display cases of boxing memorabilia in the hallway by his secretary's office, I found myself in the inner sanctum of "The Bible of Boxing "-Bert Sugar's office. With a white fedora on his head, unlit cigar in his mouth, and his right hand outstretched to greet me, Bert stood next to a huge pile of scattered papers, haphazard books, and assorted boxes that seemed to levitate up to his waist.  On closer inspection there was a lamp, a chair and a telephone in this debris field.  Sensing my confusion, Bert said to me without missing a beat: "Don't you know a cluttered desk makes for a clear mind?" And burst out laughing hysterically at himself.

After that, how could I not love this guy-most of the time. It marked the beginning of a beautiful professional relationship. RIP Bert Sugar.  I will never forget you and your memory will always make me smile.

Ken Schick, formerly of HBO PPV:
When I think of Bert, I think often of his loyalty and pride of being a member of the HBO team. He did radio, print and TV interviews for us, pitching and predicting every key HBO PPV fight for probably the last 15 years. He would fly out on Wednesday and sit with my colleague Tony Walker and me all day Thursday and Friday before the Saturday fight, doing anywhere between 30-50 interviews over those few days.

He loved doing them and Tony and I would listen in, and even remind him to use key jokes or phrases that we would hear him say throughout the day. While he was known to enjoy some "late night drinking" with friends, the press, etc., it is important to realize that he was a pro and took his job very seriously, only missing or forgetting a handful of interviews over the many years he worked with us. Plus, he pushed Tony and I to set up as many interviews as possible, though he was being paid by the job and not by the quantity of them he did.

Sometimes, he appeared to go out on a limb, to pick the underdog when few others were willing to do so. He could back up those picks with facts, figures, and arguments. But he also joked that he picked the Japanese in World War II so people wouldn't question him after the fact, since he had been wrong in the past.

He also joked that he had been around fights for a very long time, having picked Cain over Abel and that he correctly picked David over Goliath, though Harold Lederman gave the fight to Goliath because of "forward aggression."

Bert was a true treasure whom the world of boxing will never be able to replace.

Kevin Iole, boxing writer, Yahoo! Sports:
I knew of Bert Sugar long before I knew him. Anyone who loved boxing knew of Bert. When I actually got the chance to know him and become friends, I was even more impressed by Bert the man than I was by Bert the legend. He was always willing to lend his time and expertise to young writers looking to break into the business, myself included. He was a font of knowledge and he willingly shared it. He was also quite a dear and loyal friend. He had such a quick wit that he kept a smile on my face from the moment I sat down with him until the moment I walked away. Few could tell a story as well as Bert, and no one I've ever met had as many. He was a giant in the field, and I'm so pleased he was able to not only live to see his induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame, but to live for years after to enjoy it. He was truly a character as well as a giant in our industry. Sadly, he's gone, but we'll be talking about Bert forever.

Colonel Bob Sheridan, boxing commentator:
I knew Bert Sugar for over 35 years, and I will miss him so much. Bert was the last of the old time, cigar-smoking, serious-drinking boxing writers. When I began my boxing career as a kid in the mid-60s, all the writers and men that covered boxing were just like him: they were all great characters, and none were greater than Bert.

It was so much fun listening to the stories: He would sit you in a corner and tell jokes that weren't even funny but everybody would laugh because he was cracking up so much himself. Very few boxing people realize that Bert was not only a boxing historian, but a horse racing and baseball historian as well. He wrote some 80 books and my favorite is, "The Baseball Maniac's Almanac." Bob Costas wrote that, "a baseball maniac is a condition that cannot be cured-it can only be treated. So take two chapters of Bert Sugar's book, and then call him in the morning.'' I took this to heart, being a baseball freak myself.  Many a morning I would call Bert and argue baseball, but I would never question his knowledge of boxing.

Bert Sugar was one of a kind and I loved the man.

Peter Owen Nelson, Director of Sports programming, HBO:
Boxing lends itself in generous excess to great writing, but on occasion, a great writer lends himself in generous excess to boxing. Bert Sugar was just such a noble heart.

He liberally granted any aspiring scribe, impassioned reader, or fighter about whom he wrote his charmed mix of verbal acrobatics and acumen. Prince of press row and king of quips, he wrote of history, spoke in poetry, and made all around him feel welcome to the party of his intellect.

We are forever poorer to be without him, who lent us and boxing the wealth of his humanity.

Thank you, Bert. You were a scholar and a friend.

Those who'd like to make a charitable contribution in Bert's memory can give to the following organizations:

The International Boxing Hall of Fame
The Theodore A. Atlas Foundation
National Research Fund for Tick Borne Diseases

Photo Credit: Will Hart