Bert Sugar, the famous, sublimely entertaining, incredibly knowledgeable, and widely beloved boxing historian and journalist, died last night at 75. The cause of death was a heart attack, though he had also been suffering from lung cancer. It’s difficult to know what he was best known from: cameos in fight movies like The Great White Hype and the most recent Rocky; appearances on HBO; his more than 80 books; his tenures as editor of Boxing Illustrated and, later, The Ring, the premier boxing magazine; or simply his presence as a personality.
Along with such folks as HBO color man Larry Merchant, HBO judge Harold Lederman (whom I profiled last year), and others, Sugar was 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.
For a taste of what to remember Sugar by, I called up Lederman last night. “He was a terrific guy,” he told me. “I’ll really, really miss him a lot. Witty, funny, very sharp, extremely knowledgeable, wrote God knows how many books.” When you’re reminiscing with Lederman (who, yes, did say at least once, “I gotta tell ya”), it’s not long before he is in his mode. “Oh my God, I can hardly remember the first time I met Bert Sugar, it’s been so long,” he said. “Just about the time I started judging professional boxing, which is 1967. I met him way back, we go back so far. He was very close to Michael Katz, Pat Putnam, what’s his name from the Long Island paper—Wally Matthews.”
Sugar’s final book, which he co-wrote with boxing analyst Teddy Atlas, was The Ultimate Book of Boxing Lists, to which Lederman contributed a chapter on the worst decisions of all time (Tyrone Everett-Alfredo Escolara, 1976, at the Philadelphia Spectrum).
“He always knew what he was talking about,” added Lederamn. “If he said Sugar Ray Robinson was the greatest fighter of all time, he was.”
Here is Sugar holding court at a bar, with trademark fedora and cigar.
Related: Punchy [Tablet Magazine]
Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.