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The Bert Sugar Interview
By Eric Jorgenson
Bert Randolph Sugar is a well-known figure in boxing circles. He's a "character" in the fullest sense of the word - witty, irreverent, intelligent, and deadly honest. And he knows and loves the sport of boxing like only a very few ever have before. I think the CBZ readers will enjoy this interview; I certainly enjoyed conducting it.
Eric: Tell me a little bit about your background: where you grew up, where you went to school, and so on. . .
Bert: I'm from Washington DC, partially raised in Richmond, Virginia. I went to school at Maryland, Harvard, Michigan and American University. Along the line, I got a Bachelors, LLB, JD, MBA, and worked on a Ph.D.
E: No kidding, in what subject working on a Ph.D.?
B: History -- Civil War history. [Laughs] I'm still writing the thesis . . . 30 years later.
E: Do you mind if I ask when you were born?
E: How did you come to get interested in boxing?
B: When I was a kid, I boxed. I fought C.Y.O., I fought Golden Gloves, and I fought for my University team - Maryland. I was terrible. I was The Great White Hopeless. There wasn't anybody who couldn't hit me. I think people would run in from the street when they heard I was sparring just to take a shot at me. They were entirely safe.
E: What did you weigh?
B: Ultimately, I grew into a light heavyweight. Didn't matter, though, featherweights could have had their way with me if they'd moved a little.
E: What time frame are we talking about?
B: 1950s. I went on to play other sports like rugby, which I still do, and other things, but I loved boxing. Always loved the challenge. You don't have to be good to box, you just have to enjoy it. [Laughs]
E: I have taken a few punches in the mouth myself.
B: I think I'm still wearing mine. Like the time I went out to play rugby at a Michigan alumni game, and one of the guys handed me a mouth guard. I said 'what the Hell is this?' He said, 'it's a mouth piece; you use it to protect your teeth'. I said, "what few I have left after boxing, son, are here on the ground somewhere. I lost them about 35 years ago and I come back to visit 'em as a pilgrimage every year. We were once very attached to each other.'
E: So at some point you made the transition from participating in boxing to writing about it. Did you major in journalism?
B: No, I took accounting and I took history as an undergrad at Maryland. After under graduate, I went to law school at Michigan. But, I enjoyed writing. [Chuckles] I gave up the law after one week, and then I came to New York . . .
E: Let me interrupt you real quick -- you got all the way through Michigan Law School but you never practiced law?
B: Stopped after one week. When the bar exam results came out I celebrated. I was the anchor man in my class - dead last; number 313 out of a class of 313. See, I never went to class. I was working on my MBA and also doing some doctoral work at the same time. I showed all of them. . . I never went to any of their damn classes. So, I didn't do all that well in law school [laughs], but, on the bar exam, I actually scored 2nd behind Senator Robert Taft's son, Peter (Taft). Anyway, I went out to celebrate, got drunk as Hell and never went back. I tell people now that I passed the bar exam and that's the only bar I ever passed. Anyway, instead of practicing law, I came to New York to go into advertising, and got a job at McCann, Ericksson.
E: [Laughs.] You're moving too fast for me. Where did you get your MBA from?
E: An MBA and a law degree from Michigan? You went to the best schools, didn't you?
B: Hahaha. I had a choice to go to Harvard or Michigan for graduate work, and Harvard told me to go to Michigan.
E: Either way, you're in the big leagues. So, okay, you show up in New York, MBA in hand, and get a job at an advertising firm. When's this, the late 50's?
B: 1963. They put me on the Nestle account. I was an account man, not a copy writer, but I helped put together a jingle that went like this [sings] "N-E-S-T-L-E-S -- Nestles makes the very best - Chocolate." Then I went to J. Walter Thompson which was going from the 2nd biggest advertising firm in town to the biggest. Then, I rattled around about 4 other agencies, punched the boss in the mouth, and left the business.
E: Where were you when you hit your boss in the mouth?
B: Well, I know where I was afterwards -- I was standing over him. That was one guy who didn't put a move on me. You mean what agency?
B: At the time, I was at a firm called Papert, Koenig, Lois. After that, I went into writing. I figured it was what I always wanted to do anyway, even though my mama had other ideas. I mean, I went to college for almost 9 years. What happened was my parents divorced and my grandfather said "I'll take care of you, son". So, I went to school for 9 years until he died, at which point I had to go out to earn my own money. [Laughs a long time] If he were still alive today, I would still be in college.
E: Did you go straight into sports writing or did you try your hand at something else for a while?
B: First, I wrote a book. I was a baseball memorabilia collector, so I wrote a book called "The Sports Collector's Bible", which basically covered the whole memorabilia field. It listed all the prices of all the cards and pretty much everything else people collect relating to sports. I think that was about 50 books ago. Then I wrote "The Thrill of Victory", "Houdini", and just kept going; I have been writing ever since. But, to get back to your question, no -- I did not write about boxing originally. What happened was, I became editor of Argosy Magazine . . .
E: I didn't know you edited . . .
B: Yeah, I was the last editor of Argosy. The first was Horatio Alger. There must be some symbolic meaning to that somehow, something there that I haven't quite figured out yet. I was the downward spiral Alger never wrote about; he always wrote about upward spiral. Anyway, after editing Argosy, I wanted my own magazine and I started looking around. Some people I knew from my advertising days put me in touch with the people who were trying to sell a magazine called "Boxing Illustrated". That was 1969.
E: Was that Stanley Weston in those days?
B: Well, Weston had left a little while before that and his uncles were the ones trying to get rid of it. And I bought it. I'm a sports writer who became a boxing writer for the same reason that Roy Campanella became a catcher. Roy once told me that, when he was a kid at Overbrook High School in Philly, the coach told everyone at tryouts to take the position he wanted to play. He said he ran to the outfield and he found 80 guys in left and 90 in center and 100 in right, then he looked back to and saw nobody behind home plate. He said that, as fast as his little legs could waddle him, he became a catcher. Well, I wanted to be a sports writer, and I found 70 guys in left covering basketball and 80 in center covering football, and 90 in right covering baseball, or whatever the numbers were, and there was nobody covering boxing.
E: Boxing was not terribly well covered in those days.
B: Right - nobody behind home plate. So, having a masters degree in marketing, I decided to aim for the vacuum. I was clever that way. Plus, I always loved the sport, so it was a good match. That's how I became a boxing writer in 1969.
E: How much did Boxing Illustrated go for?
B: I don't really remember. I remember it was 2 payments, I think it was $50,000.
E: Did you run Boxing Illustrated up until you took over Ring in, when, '79 or '80?
B: '79. No, I ran Boxing Illustrated and Wrestling Revue and then I got overly ambitious. I started a football publication called Gridiron and a basketball publication, I bought Basketball News, and basically overextended myself and lost everything.
E: When was that?
B: '73. Then I went back to writing. In '79 . . .
E: Were you freelancing in those days, between '73 and '79?
B: No, I was writing books. I must have written 20 books, all of which made the remainder table in one week or less, I'm sure. They didn't make me rich, I can tell you that.
E: Well, but they made you enough that you could afford to buy Ring in '79?
B: I bought it with partners.
E: Who were your partners?
B: Dave DeBusschere, the basketball player, Nick Kladis, who was one of the owners of the Chicago White Sox, and another group of guys coming out of IMG. [Note: IMG is a sports agency.] Bill Veeck was going to come in with us but he bowed out at the last minute. I was the managing partner, so it really wasn't my money.
E: I do recall about the time you took over Ring, it was trying to recover from the big ratings scandal, with Nat Loubet . . .
B: Probably the reason it was available.
E: Did Loubet want to get out of the limelight, you think?
B: I think he was embarrassed. The first thing I did when I walked in was fire Johnny Ort. He was the man responsible for selling the rankings to Don King so the guys in his ABC tournament, or whatever it was he called it, began rising in the ratings faster than Lazarus from the dead.
E: Disaster all the way 'round.
B: I said 'the Hell with this', and then I put together that panel of experts to compile Ring's ratings, if you remember.
E: That's right, you had that "international panel" in place for years.
B: That was my idea . . . and I did not have a vote, so I couldn't influence the rankings at all. I was hoping that would restore credibility to Ring's rankings.
E: That was a great system.
B: That basically got it away from the Ring editors, or Johnny Ort, sitting there and picking their favorites; that's what the scandal was about. In other words, I wanted a complete house cleaning, almost a douche.
E: Did you keep anybody on?
B: I kept Herb Goldman. Then, I hired Randy Gordon, and later Nigel Collins, and a number of others.
E: Now what about some of the "Old Guard" Ring writers, like Dan Daniel and Sam Taub. Where they still around?
B: Dan, no, I think he had passed. Sam was still around, but he was like 91. When you say "Old Guard", the operative word is "Old".
E: I remember your first issue when it hit the stands. It was a retrospective on Ali that contained a piece wherein you and your editors matched Ali against the Ring's all-time top 10 in fantasy fights. At least, the Old Guard Ring's top 10. . .
B: . . . which I always thought was farcical. Jim Corbett and Bob Fitzsimmons posed, they didn't fight. I had some damn good writers coming aboard. Nick Cohn, who wrote Saturday Night Fever, did some work for me. We had Bill Gallo, who was one of my favorites. Wally Matthews . . . others . . . you know, I enjoy young talent and helping it develop. Well, it probably developed in spite of me. [Laughs]
E: So how long did you hold the reins at Ring?
B: 'Till '83 - 'till my partners decided they didn't like me -- I guess they had been talking to my wife -- and they sort of forced me out.
E: I didn't realize that.
B: So, I went back to, as you call it, "freelancing". I call it book writing. I did that until '88, when I won a settlement in a lawsuit I'd filed against Ring stemming from my being forced out, and took Boxing Illustrated (which they had bought again).
E: Now what happened to that? Is that what's now called "International Boxing Digest"?
B: Yeah, now it is. They forced me out of Boxing Illustrated too. People tend to get tired of me. Including me. No, those numb-nuts forced me out.
E: When did that happen?
E: Then you started Fight Game in . . .
B: In '98.
E: And is that, I'm sorry, I should know this. Is that still a going concern? I haven't seen it on the shelves lately.
B: It's in suspension . . . publication interruptus . . . . The guy who was backing me ran out of money. But, I'm writing 3 books and a screen play and 2 columns a week and a number of magazine articles these days, so I'm not really looking for more things to do at the moment.
E: One thing I was hoping you would do one of these days is update one of my favorite books of yours - 100 Greatest Boxers of all Time.
B: I guess certain additions would have to be made.
E: Maybe you could make it the greatest 150?
B: Nah, I'd just toss out some and move some new ones in - obviously, Mosley, De La Hoya, Jones, Whitaker, those men belong.
B: Yeah, Trinidad, probably, although I don't think he is as good as some of the others I mentioned. I think he's already on the downward spiral.
E: Looks like he's slowing up a bit.
B: He can't handle movement.
E: What do you think about De La Hoya? You think he still has his head in the game?
B: I don't know where De La Hoya's head is. Did you hear what he just said? In that Spanish paper?
E: No, what did he say?
B: De La Hoya said he "defeated one of the biggest Jews to come out of Harvard," in reference to Bob Arum. Then he came out with an apology on the letter head of a L.A. P.R. firm that I just wrote (in an article I did for Sports Business Journal) was dripping with all the sincerity of a phony sitcom laugh. In the P.R. statement, he said he did not mean to insult Bob Arum or his family or any other ethnic or religious group in any way. Then what the Hell did he mean to do? To give an apology like that is just repeating the insult with variations.
Oscar, I mean, he went away to make music, and I played his music, and the cat hasn't come out from under my sofa in two weeks.
E: So, who in your mind are the best fighters out there today?
B: Sugar Shane Mosley. Hands down. He's got moves I haven't seen since Ray Robinson.
E: He's something else, isn't he?
B: He's got defense, offense, he's got everything. He's got the package. The East Coast doesn't know about him yet. To them, its still an upset that he beat De La Hoya. But, I picked him to beat Oscar -- it was in the papers before the fight.
E: How about Mosley against Trinidad if they ever put that together?
B: Mosley, Mosley, Mosley!
E: I don't think Trinidad could hit him with a bat.
B: He probably will, but I don't think it will have any effect. Mosely takes a helluva punch, and he'll come back with his own. And, Trinidad seems to have a sort of an affinity for the canvas.
E: Well, certainly the first half of a fight.
B: Nobody hits him in the second half because they're too tired. But, if somebody has good stamina, like Mosley does, he'll hit him, and hit him, and hit him some more.
E: Have you got any plans to bring back Fight Game?
B: I'm looking into it, but I'm in no hurry. As I said, I'm working on some books, one of them is with Phil Berger, who unfortunately just passed.
E: I read that. What's the name of the book you were writing with Berger?
B: Total Boxing. I don't know if you know your baseball well enough to know Total Baseball.
B: Well, Total Boxing is going to contain, we hope, almost every fighters' record we can find. I was just going through it this morning; it will list who had the most fights, most knockouts, greatest longevity, longest series, most series, champions from countries, top ten in every division from 1892 up through today, on and on and on -- about a 2,000-page book of boxing.
E: That'll be terrific. That's one thing boxing is really missing that other sports, particularly baseball, seem to have - a lot of "stat books".
B: Again, I go back to loving history. And, I think that much of boxing history is un-documented, and that's something Phil and I wanted to preserve. So, I am now going to finish it in his honor.
E: I hope it will include Bert Sugar's all-time top ten in each division.
B. I might do that. But, overall, it will probably not be a subjective book. It will be an objective book. We'll go division-by-division, list every championship fight, linear descendants, shortest and longest title reigns, shortest and longest title fights, etc., etc., etc. I mean, I've got over 25,000 different lists, not including about the records of about 3,000 fighters going back to 1892.
E: When do you think you will publish that book?
B: As soon as I damn well finish it.
E: When you are good and ready, huh?
B: Well, I'm working on it. That and a movie I'm doing with Spike Lee and Budd Schulberg about the life of Joe Louis.
B: Yes. I'm also writing another baseball book which is called When Baseball Was Baseball; Bucky Dent and Fenway Park and also a children's book I'm writing called O'Lunney The Easter Bunny.
E: This is a stock question, but it will give you a chance to pontificate a bit if you want to. What you think of the state of boxing today?
B: Today we are in a situation similar to the one we were in during the 70's when Larry Holmes was defending his title against the likes of Osvaldo Ocassio and Alfredo Evangelista. So, we had to look to the middle-range weight classes where we found people like Sugar Ray Leonard, Marvelous Marvin Hagler, Roberto Duran, Tommy Hearns and Wilfred Benitez.
B: Well, now we have the heavyweight division which is a bore-snore that's on the cusp of being called off altogether.
B: Lennox Lewis takes care of business, nice and steady, but there is no one around to fight him. Think about it. David Tua completely embarrasses himself and they can only drop him to number 5 because everybody else is terrible. So, as in the '70s, today we have to look to the middle-area weight classes, where we have the likes of Mosley and Trinidad and De La Hoya and Floyd Mayweather and Prince Naseem Hamed and the like.
Unfortunately, though, the peripheral fight fan only thinks of the heavyweight division. It's like a person who calls himself a horse racing fan when all he does is watch the Kentucky Derby every year. He says, 'oh, I'm a boxing fan, I see all the heavyweight championship fights'. But that's not it.
Mostly, heavyweight championship fights are terrible anyway. Maybe that's why so many people want to believe Mike Tyson can some back, which just isn't the case. He can't even find his prime in his rearview mirror anymore. But, people loved him because he did what heavyweight champions are supposed to do -- he knocked people OUT. He did what Dempsey and Louis and Marciano did . . . and what Lennox Lewis does not do.
The other problem is, of course, these damn, and I coined the phrase way back when, "alphabet groups."
E: That was yours?
B: I borrowed it from a guy writing about some of the federal agencies FDR set up during the Depression, like the WPA and the TVA - he called them alphabet soup groups. These WBA, WBC, IBF and who gives a damn -- it's a good thing we only have 26 letters to work with or there'd be more of them -- they are terrible, they have ruined boxing!
Basically, they are a creation of television. The network executives want to make sure they can bill every fight as a "championship" fight, so some clown sitting in his undershirt in Des Moines can say, "Mabel, I can't come to dinner . . . I'm watching a championship fight! I don't know who the Hell they are, but it's gotta be a big deal because one of them is the champion!"
But, boxing will survive. It always does. Me too.
E: I don't doubt that for a minute.
B: You know, I've probably pissed off more people than I probably should have, but I enjoy it. If they can't take a joke, then fuck 'em. Hey, I'll tell you something, if you want to put it in: I think the best boxing writer out there is Mike Katz.
E: That's a pretty nice plug for Mr. Katz.
B: I think there are too many people out there who think they are great writers, but who aren't.
E: You can say that again.
B: [Chuckles] Most of them are writing for International Boxing Digest or whatever the Hell its name is . . . Indigestible.
E: Not a big fan of the new product, I take it?
B: I don't know that there is a "new" product. I never new there was a "product". I mean, it's a piece of shit! All those guys who work for it should be arrested for impersonating writers.
E: Since you sort of brought it up, I may as well ask you. . .
B: Go ahead - ask me anything.
E: Okay. I've heard that you and Herb Goldman had a falling out at some point.
B: Herbert is an unusual man. Maybe "strange" is a better word.
E: Let me preface this by saying that the same issue of the last issue of WAIL!, we published an interview of Herb Goldman conducted by the CBZ's star writer, Kathryn Dunn. He said some nice things about you in his interview.
B: That was decent of him. But that doesn't mean I'm going to reciprocate. Herb is a very, very conscientious historian. Not a writer, an historian. But, Herb has turned against me twice now, and I'm not necessarily a big fan of his for doing so.
I mean, I kept him aboard when I took over Ring, and he joined with the group that forced me out. He even gave a deposition against me in the lawsuit I had against them. Yet, even after all that, I still brought him aboard Boxing Illustrated after the lawsuit was over.
And then, when this yutz named John Ledes came along and organized everyone against me, actually forcing me out of the offices I had rented from him and taking my property; Herb fell right in along behind him. And then Herb managed to piss off Ledes, who turned on Herb the way he turned on me. Ledes' entire philosophy is epitomized in the new musical I just saw the other night - "The Producers", with Nathan Lane: "Who do I have to fuck to get a break?"
E: That's Ledes?
B: That's John Ledes. And I was the fuckee. And Herb took his side, until, as I said, he pissed off Ledes. But Herb has never called me to iron things out, so I figure the Hell with it.
E: That's a shame.
B: I mean, Herb is a talented historian, but I just think that I have no need for him because he obviously has no need for me.
E: I see.
B: And, while I'm on the subject, there was another guy who fucked me royally too -- named Tom Hauser.
B: Oh, don't get me started on this man. His name should be "Ha-User". When I ran out of money at Boxing Illustrated, I owed the Boxing Writers Association $1,000 for an ad.
E: The Association came after you?
B: [Laughs] In the history of the Boxing Writers Association -- going back to 1926 - I am the only man it has ever sued. I take perverse pride in that. Tom Hauser was the moving party - he took it upon himself to file the suit on their behalf without even letting them know about it. Unbeknownst to them, he tucked his own suit against me, personally, in with their suit. He was suing me for a couple hundred dollars for a story he had written for Boxing Illustrated. It wasn't that good a story. And, he's a lawyer, so should have known that all of his checks had come from Boxing Illustrated, Inc. and that was the entity he had written the story for, not me personally. You're a lawyer - you know the legal difference between a corporation and a person, right?
E: I do.
B: So, either he's a dumb lawyer or he's a vengeful person just trying to cause damage by going after me as a "doing business as". P.S., he didn't win. P.P.S., I have paid the Writers Association, but I will never, ever pay him any no never mind, as we say in the South. I mean, I just have nothing nice to say about this man because there is nothing nice to say about him.
E: Let's go back for a minute to the writers whom you like. Mike Katz is your favorite?
B: As a writer, yes. He is the best writer on the beat . . . Mike is the best writer out there.
E: Are you familiar with the column Dan Raphael writes for USA Today?
B: Oh, sure. Dan is very good. I'm a fan of his.
E: He's a real nice guy. I interviewed him once.
B: He is a nice guy - a very sweet man. I am very happy for USA Today and I'm very happy for Dan. The only problem with that is, they make him write on the head of a pin.
E: Yeah, he's good enough that he deserves more space.
B: Exactly. Oh, Dan is damn good! Ray Matthews is damn good too. Also, Mike Hirsley of the Chicago Tribune and Ron Borges of the Boston Globe are damned good too. There are about ten very good writers out there. But, Mike [Katz] is the best.
E: So, anything else you're doing nowadays other than writing 3 books and tons of magazine articles, consulting on a movie and trying to revive Fight Game?
B: [Laughs] That's not enough? I'm enjoying the movie. By the way, I've been in some boxing movies -- they stick me in with my hat and cigar.
E: Which ones?
B: I was in "Play it to the Bone." I was in "The Great White Hype." I was in "Night in the City" with Bobby DeNiro. I was in another one with Fred Williamson, I think it was called "The Last Fight." I gonna be in a couple of more. You know, I enjoy this, and I guess I've got a "look" they like because I wear a hat and hue back to the old days. And a quick story as to why I wear a hat.
E: That I'd like to hear.
B: It's an affectation, but there's a reason for it. In the old days, and I'm sure you've seen pictures, everybody wore hats. And, the reasons they wore hats was because most writers on the old newspapers were on the floor below the Linotype machines. They would write their stories, put them in a pneumatic tube, they would go up, be set, and come back down. And the Linotypers would set the stories on their liner type machines, pounding out metal. And the filaments in the metal would come flying off. See, when you make an "A", the machine throws off everything else. And those metal filiments would float through the non-joist, non-connected wooden floor boards like a steady drizzle of metal onto the heads of the writers on the floor down below. So, they had to wear hats. And, if you remember in the movies, they wear hats inside, not just outside. And I decided, I'm going to be a writer. I'll affect this. And, it's not just to put a press card in, it's because I'm a writer and I'm proud of it.
E: That's a great reason.
B: Well, it's true. I just enjoy writing. It's the most fun you can have with your clothes on.
E: [Laughs] You know, I've heard you described as "Runyonesque."
B: [Laughs] The Time Out New York last week called me a "legendary sports writer" and also "legendary barfly."
E: I've heard that too. One person wanted me to ask you what your favorite drink was.
B: Well, it depends on the season. See, I change hats in the seasons, I'm an old Southern boy, so, I wear a fedora from Labor Day to Memorial Day and a Panama from Memorial Day to Labor Day. No socks and I change my drinks. Duri ng my Fedora season I'm Scotch and Soda -- J&B or Cutty Sark or even Chivas, if I can get my hands on it. In the Summer with the Panama, I go to Vodka and Tonic.
E: That's a true renaissance man.
B: Yeah, I do have a good time at bars. I was in the honorary drinking fraternity in graduate school. [Laughs] So, I can hold my own and I have always enjoyed doing so. I've gotten to a point in my life I believe being a good liver is better than having one.
E: [Laugh] So, sum up for me your feelings about the sport of boxing.
B: Ah, boxing, I mean, the people in it have given me the most fun I have ever had. The people in it are, well, they are not people you are gonna take to a cotillion or the Country Club. But, they are just neat people. They're funny. And even if you have to count not only your rings but your fingers after you shake hands with them, they are storied and they're great copy. They're great copy. And that's what we're all about. If you are a writer you need stories. It sure as Hell beats practicing law.
E: Well, I've really enjoyed talking to you. It was a lot of fun.
B: That's your problem, not mine. Do I sound any different in voice than I do in print?
E: Oh, I've seen you on TV a few times.
B: Do I sound any different now than I did then?
E: No, you sound, you're exactly, and this is a compliment, exactly what I expected. A string of wisecracks and some very interesting comments along the way.
B: I just sit around and I have a good time. And, sometimes I get very toungue-in-cheek. And you know what? That's a fun way to be, if you can get away with it. 'Course, sometimes it depends whose tongue is in whose cheek.
E: Well, once you have a certain amount of credibility built up over the years, you can get away with doing that a lot more.
B: Well, God knows how. I think I just outlived everybody.
E: Thank you very much, sir.
B: Thank you for putting up with me.