A Writer Looks Back

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.

Bert Sugar, Kieran Mulvaney - Photo Credit: Will Hart

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.

Friends and Colleagues Remember Bert Sugar

Bert was a friend and colleague of boxing writers, commentators, analysts and fans at HBO and around the world. We asked some of them to share their thoughts, memories and recollections of the one-of-a-kind historian and writer.  Their responses are reproduced below:

Jim Lampley, HBO commentator: 
I have called fights on TV for 26 years, and though I have from the beginning been an avid fan and lover of boxing, my credentials as a historian are pretty badly frayed for any material prior to the mid-50s-the moment my mother sat me down to watch Sugar Ray Robinson vs. Bobo Olsen II and I began to learn something about a sport she particularly liked.  Over the years I often checked with Bert for his interpretive knowledge of boxing lore, getting clarifications on questions I might also ask from time to time of Larry Merchant and Harold Lederman. As any ring scribe knows, Bert was unfailingly generous, helpful, and enthusiastic about my enthusiasm.

Most of all Bert was fun.  He seemed to have the world pretty much the way he wanted it for a long time, the flourish never vanished from the fedora and the cigar and the brass buttons and madras pants, no socks. He was both an up-to-date thinker and a throwback to another colorful era, and there was only one of him.  Only one.  I suspect I will think of him at some point in every big fight weekend for quite a while now, and nothing could be more appropriate.  For all of us who knew him, he'll be there.

Harold Lederman, HBO's unofficial ringside judge:
I spent a lot of time with Bert. I guess I'm a good listener, because Bert liked to tell his jokes to someone like me who would understand their meaning and laugh at them. We'd sit around telling boxing stories at big fights he'd attend, and invariably Bert would come up with a one liner that would leave me hysterical.

See Lampley and Lederman’s full responses, as well as those of Emanuel Steward, Larry Merchant, Mark Taffet and more at HBO.com.

Revisiting the Work of Bert Sugar on HBO.com

The boxing world lost a legend when Bert Sugar passed away at the age of 75. Here at HBO.com, we lost a valued contributor and friend. Bert was the ultimate old-school writer. He'd hammer out copy on the typewriter in his cluttered den and then fax it to us on stationery with his unmistakable visage chomping a cigar in the letterhead. Once, when a writer at a fight showed him the Twitter hashtag #ThingsBertSugarSays, Bert enjoyed it so much that he asked someone to print it out for him, and then he sent it to us in the mail. His mind was our institutional boxing memory; he could take a current fight and compare its circumstances to a dozen others from a century of boxing. More importantly, Bert was someone who never carried himself above anyone, and he would take the time to talk to – or fax – any aspiring boxing writer or fan who reached out to him. He will be missed.

Bert's storied career extends very far beyond HBO.com, but here are some of the pieces we've had the privilege of working on with him over the past several years:

 

The Sweet Science with Bert Sugar: Mayweather vs. Ortiz

Last year, Bert wondered whether this lay-off would show us "an old Floyd, or an older Floyd."

Bert Sugar on Thrilla in Manila

Bert recalls one of the game's biggest fights:

"The sweltering heat in the arena and Frazier's relentless pressure and thunderous hooks to the body and head were showing an effect on the 33-year-old champion. At this point, Ali was neither floating nor stinging but merely surviving, as bereft of motion as a rail without wind."

"In the thirteenth, Ali demonstrated his ability to finish a hurt foe. A solid left seemed to freeze Frazier in his place, then a right hand staggered him. Frazer did a funny three-step in retreat to keep from failing. But with Frazier's sight and stamina now obviously limited the outcome no longer seemed in doubt."

 

The Sweet Science with Bert Sugar: Pacquiao vs. Cotto

Bert and Kieran take a moment from the poker tables to talk Manny Pacquiao. Bert says, "His one punch knockout of Ricky Hatton was the most devastating I've seen since Marciano knocked out Walcott in 1952."

 

Post-Fight Recap: Pacquiao vs. Clottey:

Bert was struck by the event's grandeur, even while he was disappointed in the actual fight action:

"With an enormous crowd of 51,000 acting like youngsters suffering from a severe case of green-apple colic, hollering and screaming every at every image shown on the giant overhead screen and even participating in the first  'Wave' ever seen at a boxing event, the fight lived up to its billing as 'The Event.'"

 

The Sweet Science with Bert Sugar: Mayweather vs. Mosley

Bert and writer Kieran Mulvaney sit poolside and sip Bloody Marys as they break down Floyd's unique skill set. Bert says: "I love this fight for all the imponderables."


Post-Fight Analysis: Barrera vs. Marquez

In regard to the hard-fought Super Featherweight title bout, Bert writes, "This wasn't a fight, it was a war, one of those old-fashion if-you-hit-me-again-and-I-find-out-about-it-you're-in-trouble fights that makes for great boxing."

Remembering Bert Sugar

By Kieran Mulvaney

Bert Sugar - Photo Credit: Will Hart

Bert Sugar, boxing historian and good friend of HBO Boxing, died on Sunday following a battle with cancer. He was 75.

Renowned as much for his bon mots, trademark cigar and fedora as for his boxing knowledge, Sugar was one of the sport's most iconic and recognizable figures. Born in Washington, DC, he briefly flirted with life as a lawyer ("I passed the bar," he would quip of his legal training, "and it was the only bar I ever passed") and as an advertising executive ("We were the original Mad Men") before finding his niche in boxing, a sport for which-with his gift for colorful, expressive writing and his larger-than-life personality-he was perfectly suited.

He sparred with Muhammad Ali, co-wrote the authorized biography of Ali's trainer Angelo Dundee, edited The Ring and Boxing Digest, and penned more than 80 books, many of them on boxing but also on, among other subjects, baseball. (Sugar wrote the official guide to the Baseball Hall of Fame, and even had his own Topps baseball card.) He hosted and pontificated on countless broadcasts, including Ringside on ESPN Classic and, most recently, The Sweet Science with Bert Sugar here on HBO.com.

Sugar was also widely appreciated within the boxing community for the readiness with which he encouraged and supported many up-and-coming writers, including the author of this piece. He liked few things more than to pull up a bar stool and regale friends and strangers alike with tall tales and recollections, frequently convulsing in laughter as he did so.

Often, during such sessions, he would pause, look at the drink in front of him and observe, "I have always said: I would rather be a good liver than have one." And that he certainly was. His was a life well-lived, and his was a presence that will be much missed.

 

See highlights of the work Bert Sugar contributed to HBO.com

The Sweet Science Episode 3: Can Victor Ortiz Beat the Odds?

In this week's final installment of The Sweet Science, our hosts Bert Sugar and Kieran Mulvaney take a tactical look at how the young and promising Victor Ortiz can shake off his underdog status and land a victory against an undefeated Floyd Mayweather this Saturday night. Chris Mannix also reports from the fighters' final press conference in Las Vegas, where Floyd was doing everything possible to get inside his opponent's head.

View all of our latest news about the Mayweather-Ortiz mega-fight

The Sweet Science: Episode 2: State of the Welterweights

Fight week is in full swing in Las Vegas, and as Floyd Mayweather and Victor Ortiz make their entrances into a fan-packed MGM Grand, boxing experts Bert Sugar and Kieran Mulvaney break down the story lines playing out in the historically stacked welterweight division. Also, SI.com boxing reporter Chris Mannix brings the latest on-the-ground chatter from fighters and fans alike. Post your comments below, and your analysis might be featured in an upcoming post on InsideHBOBoxing.

View all of our latest news about the Mayweather-Ortiz mega-fight

The Sweet Science Episode 1: Mayweather's Technical Skill

Throughout the week, legendary boxing writer Bert Sugar and his co-host Kieran Mulvaney will be breaking down the mechanics of Saturday's mega-fight between Floyd Mayweather and Victor Ortiz. Today, Bert and Kieran assess the razor-sharp fundamentals that have made Floyd an undefeated champion again and again. Post your comments and questions below, and your feedback might be featured in upcoming fight week coverage.

View all of our latest news about the Mayweather-Ortiz mega-fight

Khan-Judah: Bert Sugar's "Keys to the Fight"

As told to Peter Owen Nelson

Photo: Will Hart

KEYS FOR ZAB JUDAH:

1) Pace: Zab is often a fast starter, quick out of the gate. Zab had great success in the early going against Miguel Cotto (stunning him twice), Floyd Mayweather (scoring an unacknowledged knockdown when Floyd’s glove touched the canvas), and even Kosta Tzsyu (before being knocked out). Against Khan, he will need to keep up the work rate he has in the early rounds through the later rounds. Zab’s timing combined with his hand speed can contend with Khan’s overall speed, but only if he maintains his stamina.

2) Pressure: Zab is the harder puncher of the two, but to use it to his advantage he has to stay with Khan if Khan won’t follow him. If Zab cannot set traps that the younger fighter will fall for, then he cannot allow Khan to throw flurries and flutter away. Zab can counterpunch, but must do so every exchange and not let up.

3) Footwork: While Zab may have the faster hand speed, there is no doubt that the 9-year younger Khan has the faster foot speed. Zab will need to counteract this with timing. He’ll have to cut the ring off on Khan to disrupt his rhythm and find openings by taking Khan off guard.

KEYS FOR AMIR KHAN

1) Jab: Amir out-jabbed Malignaggi and the jab is a terrific one. It is one of the best jabs in boxing today. He will have to double up and triple up on the jab to prevent Zab from ever developing a rhythm of his own or finding openings to counterpunch.

2) Range: You cannot will what nature did not provide, and an indomitable chin is not an asset Khan has. He was knocked out in a single round by a journeyman and Marcos Maidana had him looking like a drunk in search of a lampost in the tenth round of their fight in 2010 (though Khan never went down). In the early rounds against Judah especially, Khan will need to show a good defense through a good offense, and a good offense means using his longer reach to stay out of Judah’s range.

3) Exploit the later rounds: as Zab slows down, Khan will have to take greater risks to achieve greater ends. To stop Zab, he will need to take chances on throwing three or four punch combinations. This may expose him to danger, but if he fights intelligently, Amir should be able to open up with his right hand and use his youth and conditioning to outwork the elder Judah and possibly stop him through volume-punching. Zab’s will has been questioned in the past. Amir’s job will be to convince Zab of a definitive answer: that if Zab knows what’s best for him, he’ll quit.