Boxing not the same without Sugar

If dictionary kings were also fans of boxing, they might have included a photo of Bert Sugar alongside the definition of "original" -- or, perhaps, listed a few of his more memorable journalistic turns of phrase.

Of Jack Johnson, one of boxing's greatest and most controversial early stars, Sugar wrote, "In the world of the early 1900s, still awash with Victorian gentility and doily-type embroidery on everything from manners and modes to conversation and conventional heroes, the name of the heavyweight champion stood out in stark relief, a man of swaggering virility who epitomized the turbulent yet proud surety of the populace of a nation destined for greatness."

And just a few years ago, upon listing Mike Tyson at No. 100 in his book "Boxing's Greatest Fighters," he introduced a passage on the ear-biting ex- champion with: "To perplexing questions like 'Why does Hawaii have interstate highways?' and 'Why did kamikaze pilots wear helmets?' can be added another: 'What the hell happened to boxing's kamikaze pilot, Mike Tyson?'"

A prolific author and former editor of The Ring and Boxing Illustrated, Sugar died Sunday at Northern Westchester Hospital in Mount Kisco, N.Y., after a prolonged battle with lung cancer.

News reports said he was 74 years old. But if stories and quips are claims staked on posterity, his persona will live forever.

In its Monday obituary of Sugar, The New York Times wrote: "Garrulous, opinionated, an eager conversationalist who was known to talk with just about anybody, he was an accomplished raconteur with a bottomless sack of anecdotes and an incorrigible penchant for wisecracks and bad jokes. You could pick him out in a crowded room by his voice -- a distinctively upbeat growl -- or by the omnipresent wide-brimmed fedora on his head and the fat cigar in his mouth."

He entered the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2005 and was among the oft-targeted sport's undisputed champions for decades, prompting Allen Barra, a columnist for The Atlantic, to write: "Now that Bert's gone they may as well pack up boxing for good. To meet him for a steak at O'Riley's before a fight was to hear stories about fighters like Joe Louis, Billy Conn, Jack Dempsey, Jake LaMotta and Willie Pep and trainers like Angelo Dundee and Eddie Futch and even gossip about the media personalities."

While I can neither claim a personal friendship with Sugar nor lean on a bookcase of witty anecdotes from times spent in his presence, I was every bit as saddened as a 40-ish or older boxing fan ought to be upon hearing news that he'd passed.

Sugar was the driving force behind The Ring when I bought my first issue in 1980 and I came to recognize him as every bit the human encyclopedia, prolific writer and flamboyant, ubiquitous presence that the Times branded him.

My most prolonged brush with him came five years ago at Madison Square Garden, when, during a long-since forgotten undercard to an equally uninspiring Klitschko-Brock heavyweight main, he used me as cyber-gofer to track that Saturday's college football results -- particularly an ill-advised selection of Boise State against the spread.

He was every bit the character in real life that I'd heard described in prose.

And while I'm not among the fortunate who knew him beyond that casual interaction, I think I understand at least some of what they'll miss.

By the way, his one-on-one feedback back then on a not-quite dominant Wladimir, who won by seventh-round TKO? "He's a big guy and he can punch. So what?" he said. "That's what you knew about him coming in, that he was a big guy and he could punch. This didn't show anyone anything that people weren't already aware of. He's big, he's slow and he can punch. (Brock) didn't push him at all."

Best of luck on the other side, Bert.

I look forward to reading your stuff.

Lyle Fitzsimmons is a veteran sports columnist who's written professionally since 1988 and covered boxing since 1995. His work is published in print and posted online for clients in North America and Europe. Reach him at or follow him on Twitter - @fitzbitz.