The D.C. boxing scene has never been so healthy. Four area fighters—Sharmba Mitchell, Keith Holmes, William Joppy, and Mark “Too Sharp” Johnson—currently hold world titles. Another, Capitol Heights’ own Derrell Coley, makes his play for the big time this weekend, when he’ll step into the ring with the welterweight Midas, Oscar De La Hoya, at Madison Square Garden.
But the least forgettable local product in the Garden on Fight Night won’t be a fighter. He’ll be a writer, a raconteur like those you read about. He’ll be Bert Sugar.
Look for Sugar to be sitting ringside, wearing a nice fedora, and, depending on security, sucking on or smoking a cigar. There’ll be a cocktail or three within reach, no doubt. And everybody around him will be looped and entertained—by Sugar, if not by the fight.
Sugar, 63, lives outside New York and works on Bert Sugar’s Fight Game. But the beloved throwback character that is Bert Sugar was developed in D.C. Sugar grew up in Adams Morgan, and learned about showmanship and self-promotion while watching Gorgeous George style and profile and, oh yeah, wrestle at the old Uline Arena (now a trash dump) over by Union Station. The imbibing started in grade school. He’d sneak away from his family’s downtown Sun Electronics store and get served by friends in the bars and burlesque theaters that used to stand along 9th Street NW.
He got his first job in journalism as a copy boy at the Washington Star when he was still a student at Wilson High. That’s where Sugar decided that if he were ever to be a writer, he’d have to accessorize.
“Whenever you’re trying to be something, you want to look like that something,” he says. “I saw The Front Page and looked around the newsroom at the Star, so I had an idea that’s what real writers looked like.”
The smokes were the last part of his package. Sugar has never been loyal to any particular brand of cigar—”When somebody asks what I’m smoking,” Sugar says, “I tell ’em it’s a Lawrence Welk: just a piece of shit with a band around it. It doesn’t matter”—but he’s always got something to gnaw on or light up. Because where he comes from, that’s what writers do.
Even after three decades on the boxing beat, Sugar boasts, there’s nobody in the sport who could ID him without the tools of his trademark.
“I could go into the witness protection program just by taking off my hat,” says Sugar.
If Sugar were to ever go incognito, reporters and boxing would be the big losers. It’s a rare author or documentarian who doesn’t come Sugar’s way when looking for a quip or a tale about the fight game. When Mike Tyson bit Evander Holyfield’s ear off, Jim Lehrer and PBS ran to Sugar for commentary; when ESPN put its “Athletes of the Century” roster together, it got Sugar’s input.
And with good reason: Sugar rarely lets them, or the sport, down. He’s got the look. And he’s got a punch line to go with it.
Sugar on a sloppy title fight: “If this is the sweet science, I’d hate to see the sour science.”
Sugar on Chuck Wepner, a heavyweight who could have been a contender if only he didn’t cut so easily: “He’d start bleeding somewhere between ‘Oh, say’ and ‘can you see.’”
Sugar on the Mike Tyson-Peter McNeeley mismatch: “I’m going to ask the cabbie to keep the meter running for this one. It’ll be over somewhere between ‘Oh, say’ and ‘can you see.’” (“OK, so I stole a line from myself,” he laughs.)
Sugar on current undisputed heavyweight champ Lennox Lewis’ hyper-boring fighting style: “He comes from a country that thinks Dunkirk was a victory. And he fights every round like it’s the first round of a 50-round fight.”
Though he boxed as an amateur when he was growing up, Sugar never thought of making fighting his life’s work. After graduating from high school and getting a B.A. from Maryland, he studied at Harvard and got a law degree from the University of Michigan. Sugar came home to D.C. with all his letters and had a lawyering career that lasted slightly longer than Tyson-McNeeley.
“I passed the bar—probably the only bar I ever passed—but I didn’t want to be a lawyer,” he says. “I knew that right away.”
He wanted to write. He started a monthly magazine devoted to his favorite sport—baseball—but it failed quickly. When an attempt to get the head public relations job with the expansion Washington Senators failed, Sugar headed for New York in 1963 for a brief sally into advertising. Sugar had his moments as an ad man—he takes credit for writing the Nestle jingle: “N-E-S-T-L-E-S/Nestle’s makes the very best…chocolate!” But Sugar says his days on Madison Avenue ended with an office brawl with his supervisor.
“I won the fight. I lost my job,” he says. “So I decided I was a sportswriter.”
But there were no jobs to be found that involved writing about baseball or football. So he stayed afloat by writing books, including a baseball card collecting guide and a compendium of citizens’ recollections of the great New York power blackout. (He’s now written more than 50 titles.)
Sugar used his book money to buy into Ring Magazine, the self-described “Bible of Boxing,” which had been published since 1922 but had hit the skids by the end of the ’60s. At the time, Sugar’s apparel and hard-living style were falling out of favor in other sporting realms, but not in boxing. Much like Howard Cosell, Sugar carried himself as an expert, and fight fans quickly accepted the debonair new Ring Magazine editor as one. Even big-name fight fans.
“On the morning of the Ali-Holmes fight [Oct. 2, 1980], I get paged by the president of the Dunes, and he tells me to come right over,” Sugar says. “I was hungover, just trying to find my left shoe on my right foot, but I go over to the hotel, and there’s Frank Sinatra and Gregory Peck and Bob Hope and Jimmy Stewart, sitting at a table. They all wanted my information about the fight. I could never turn the discussion around to what I wanted to talk about, which was all their movies. I had to talk about the fight.”
And ever since Cosell bailed on boxing after the Larry Holmes-Randall “Tex” Cobb bloodbath in 1982, Sugar’s been among the most sought-after and respected ring sages around. He’s changed publications over the years, but not his act. The drinking and smoking are here to stay.
“I’ve reached a point where I feel being a good liver is better than having one,” he says. “And somebody asked me recently if they could name a cigar after me. I’ll be a Lawrence Welk soon.”
Sugar’s not planning on getting a wardrobe makeover anytime soon, either. He’ll be in uniform for Coley-De La Hoya. He’s thankful that De La Hoya, more than any other fighter, has kept boxing relevant while the heavyweight division reloads. So Sugar’s not going to let hometown ties affect his prediction for this weekend’s fight.
“It’s going to be De La Hoya by knockout in four,” he says. “But you have to remember, I also picked Custer.”
It’s a not a new line. But it works.—Dave McKenna