(Originally Published March, 2012 in RockCellar Magazine)
Absolutely the hardest thing to do in boxing is to get noticed. Boxing people are cynics; their default position is to either ignore you or say no to you.
Bert Randolph Sugar, who died on March 25, 2012, didn’t know much about boxing and he didn’t know much about writing. But, for over forty years, he managed to convince people that he did. And he always got noticed.
I knew the Bert Sugar because everybody in boxing knows everybody else. He was someone that real boxing people (I was one) steered clear of. But in boxing, weird things happen; strange alliances occasionally take place.
Bert Sugar had taken over The Ring Magazine, and I had fighters to promote. So I called him.
And I found that, much to my surprise (and maybe to my disappointment), Bert Sugar wasn’t an asshole.
The ridiculousness with the cigar and the hat turned out to be no more than attention-getting devices foisted on people too dumb not to see through them. Sugar himself saw them for what they were: props used to construct a marketable persona.
He understood that the suits at the TV networks, in film production, and the legit print media were happy to find a one-stop, go-to guy capable of reifying the public’s image of what a “boxing writer” should be. Having found Sugar, they didn’t need to bother looking elsewhere. That was okay with him.
If there was to be a roundtable discussion, you’d find him mugging for the camera. If a boxing movie (the remake of “Night and the City” with Robert De Niro comes to mind) needed fistic verisimilitude, check out the bar scene: you’d see the hat and cigar.
Since his death, the word that keeps popping up for him is “Runyonesque.” I guess that’s fair enough, except that Damon Runyon’s gangsters, molls, and touts were understood to be parodies of the real thing.
Bert was seen as someone whose outsized personality conferred legitimacy on him. He was the real thing – must be the real thing, because boxing is made up of colorful characters, demimonde roués, and fast talking sharpies mixing with dese and dos pugs.
Well no, it isn’t. It’s made up of real people, most of whom are not very cinematic.
So here are some questions: Was Bert Randolph Sugar good for boxing? Was he bad for boxing? Or was he just an asterisk in its history? The answer to all three questions is probably yes.
In brief, he was bad because he was a fake whose word was taken as gospel by people who didn’t know better. Really, that’s not such a terrible thing since actual boxing people weren’t the ones listening to him anyhow. And everything about the exchanges with those hustled by him will soon be forgotten.
Here’s how he was good: The first rule of boxing–perhaps its most important—is to protect yourself at all times. This rule is generally seen as applying solely to what takes place within the confines of the ring. But talk to anyone who’s ever made a dollar in the boxing business and they’ll tell you that it holds true through the entire range of the boxing business.
Everyone in the business learns this the hard way, if they learn it at all. Bert Randolph Sugar knew better than most how to protect himself at all times. And, more importantly, he understood that most outsiders venturing into the world of boxing were clueless as to how to protect themselves once inside its environs. So, in any exchange with them, he profited from their naiveté. There’s a real lesson here for anyone willing to take it.
In the long run, Bert Randolph Sugar gave a bunch of people stories they could take home to their friends – tall tales about a colorful character. He gave lots of writers fast copy when they needed something on the fly. Hell, he may have even given some fledgling boxing enthusiasts enough genuine information through his books to get them started.
He collected his paycheck anytime anyone who didn’t know about boxing wanted information, got his bar and restaurant tabs paid by someone other than himself, and spent decades watching himself on both the big and small screens. He managed these things without seriously fucking anyone over, which makes him a better guy than most of the people in boxing.
I guess you can’t put that last thing on his tombstone, but it’s not a bad epitaph.
Charles Farrell has spent most of his professional life moving between music and boxing (with a few detours along the way). He has managed five world-champion boxers and has 30 CDs listed under his name. As a writer, his work has been published in Deadspin and in several other sites and publications. His boxing anthology, “The Bittersweet Science,” edited by Michael Ezra and Carlo Rotella, will be published by The University of Chicago Press. He’s also in the film “Dirty Games,” directed by Benjamin Best.