Last week, the sports world and especially those of us who inhabit that small island where boxing is king, said goodbye to Bert Sugar.
Maybe you did not know Bert like I did, so I’ll tell you who he was the same way I had to with most of my friends and business associates. “You know the guy in the fedora with the cigar you see on HBO and all at big fights and stuff? Well, that’s Bert Sugar.”
When I first began as a reporter in the late 1980’s, my main focus was Saints football. My voice could be heard regularly on New York’s powerhouse sports station, WFAN. Having established a good relationship with the station, I suggested that I cover the opening of The Mirage Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas and the opening’s big event, Duran versus Leonard III.
By pure crazy coincidence, I had ended up being Duran’s dad’s driver leading up to the “No Mas” fight in New Orleans, so I was a natural to cover the “Uno Mas” fight, as it was called.
The event was cool and exciting with Steve Wynn having flown in every major star on the planet, though the fight itself was a bore. After it, I made my way to the media room and began my post fight report when the announcer said, “And now let’s go to boxing expert Bert Sugar…..”
Sugar began talking and didn’t stop. He tossed out bad one-liners and told stories about other rubber matches in the sport’s history. I was relegated to saying things like, “Oh absolutely.” and “Clearly.” Sugar owned the show.
Hours later, in the hotel bar I ran into Bert and introduced myself. There he sat, in regal splendor with his fedora atop his head, his cigar moving from mouth to hand while a glass of vodka alternated from the other hand to his mouth with the regularity of a finely tuned Swiss watch. He had an audience and their cost of admission had been the purchase of a drink for Sugar and to listen and laugh. I bought in and listened.
During a brief and rare lull in the show, I began talking about the fight with Bert and he almost immediately stopped me. “Kid,” he said, “You’re a pretty good reporter but you’re boring.” I think I stared as he began again, “This is just entertainment, so entertain. Now per chance could you buy me a drink? That entertains me.” I did and we became immediate friends.
What I learned from Bert Sugar was that anyone could share the facts into a microphone, but the rarer breed does it as just a part of the total show. I had been a stand up comedian with appearances on Showtime and Comedy Central, so I began to inject humor into my sports reporting and it worked. Within a few months, I had been offered full time jobs at ESPN Radio and WFAN. I stayed in New Orleans.
Bert Sugar and I began a series of pre-fight countdowns prior to major boxing events. Countdown to the Championship, our show, was regularly carried by over a hundred affiliate stations. Most shows started with me at the microphone, waiting for my co-host to arrive.
He would usually waltz in somewhere in the second hour of our two hour show with a fellow celebrity party goer and jokingly blaming the delay on them. Clearly, he had been at a party and all I could do was laugh. It became such a regular occurrence that it became a part of the show.
For one show, Bert arrived late, as usual, with former heavyweight champion Larry Holmes. Both had obviously had a good time and the show was a blast. After the fight, we all met again in the lobby bar. So there I was, a kid from New Orleans with Bert Sugar and Larry Holmes. I loved it and it was not to be the last time I’d be with these guys.
Bert Sugar, with a simple gesture and comment said, “Larry, you should talk to Alan. He’s a smart young man.” Holmes did and that was the start of a long friendship and business relationship, which still exists.
I, like anyone who knew or ever listened to Bert Sugar, will miss the man. I had him in one of my movies and was too tired from a long day shooting to tag along on his crusade for cocktails down Bourbon Street, so I sent three young actors out with him. Last week, when news of his passing went public, each of those actors contacted me to share that memory one more time.
I guess aside from being a treasure trove of information and a raconteur of amazing stories, what Bert Sugar was, more than anything, was memorable.
Bert Sugar is gone but certainly not forgotten. Boxing is often called the Sweet Science. But, without Sugar, it’s just a little less sweet.