By Kieran Mulvaney
I first met Bert Sugar sometime during the week of the first fight for which I was credentialed, the rematch between Oscar De La Hoya and Sugar Shane Mosley in 2003. I asked if I could speak with him because I was planning to write a book on boxing and Las Vegas, and if there were anyone with whom an aspiring boxing writer needed to talk, it was of course Bert.
As it happens, I don’t remember any of the details of that conversation, what I asked him or what he answered. The significance of the discussion was more in the fact that we realized soon that we enjoyed each other’s company; the formal interview in the media room segued swiftly to an informal conversation in the bar, an environment in which he was altogether more comfortable.
The bar was Bert’s milieu, but not because of alcohol per se. Bars are meeting areas and gathering grounds, and so for Bert they were the ideal stage, the perfect places to enjoy the company of friends and strangers, to share the many experiences he had gathered over the decades and to learn many more. For those who met Bert for the first or only time, this was perhaps the most striking aspect: he did not use company solely as a means to talk about himself, but instead genuinely enjoyed meeting and listening to people. He was a collector – of souvenirs and trinkets but also of anecdotes and conversations. He loved boxing, he loved baseball, he loved sport, he loved words, he loved people – he loved life. For Bert, it was all great fun. One story he enjoyed telling was about when his son was asked when Bert was going to retire, to which his son retorted: “Retire from what? He drinks, he smokes, he bullshits and he gets paid for it. What’s he going to do? Drink, smoke, bullshit and not get paid for it?”
Conversations with Bert became my favorite part of fight week; I would learn and I would laugh, and he would laugh even if he likely learned less than I did. In due course, our double act became public – first as a podcast, and then in the form of the videos we shot for HBO.com, “The Sweet Science with Bert Sugar.” I was proud of the fact that I was a part of the production; my chest puffed just a little when Bert first introduced me as his “HBO broadcast partner.” The best part of that experience, though, was that it was fun—not necessarily for the production crew, who had to sweat through the filming in the hope Bert would keep his mischievous and playful nature sufficiently under control to provide enough usable minutes of semi-serious analysis, but certainly for Bert and myself. We would joke back and forth as the cameras rolled; and when, out of the corners of our eyes, we saw everyone else start to sweat just a little bit, we would bring the conversation back to where they wanted it, dissecting an upcoming fight and answering viewers’ questions before venturing anew into our own joke-fest.
When we filmed our last edition, however, prior to Floyd Mayweather’s fight with Victor Ortiz, Bert seemed ever-so-slightly less affable, less ready with lighthearted quips, than usual. There were still jokes, of course, but he quietly admitted that was feeling tired. He later confessed that he had fallen a couple of times that week, and did so again shortly after we had packed up and left; the falls were the first symptoms that something was amiss. Filming that episode would be the last time I saw him, although I called him several times as he fought his illness. During those phone calls, he displayed his characteristic optimism, insisting he had licked the cancer that threatened him even while revealing that the treatment had weakened and depleted him. Last week, during what would be our final conversation, he said he hoped that he would be ready soon for us to sit down and resume our on-camera double act.
Alas, it is not to be. Fortunately, I can look back on the episodes we did record and remember the unique and enjoyable experience of doing so. I have, also, the books he gave me and the inscriptions inside them, which were almost always the same: “To Kieran Mulvaney, who wishes he could buy back his introduction to … Bert Sugar.”
He was joking, of course, as was his wont. I’m glad I introduced myself to him almost ten years ago. I’m proud that I was able to call myself his colleague. Most of all, I’m immensely grateful that I was able to call myself his friend.