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Monday, March 26, 2012

A true boxing giant is gone

I will never forget the first time I got to meet the late Bert Sugar in person.

Of course, I knew of the man. Anyone who knew anything about the sport of boxing knew exactly who he was. Sugar, who was a long-time boxing writer and historian, the driving force behind Ring Magazine for ages, was always on television to talk about a certain boxing match. He did so with such a style and flair, complete with the fedora on his head and the cigar in his mouth. He was a true character with a deep, booming voice that commanded attention.

So in September of 1983, this still very wet behind the ears sportswriter, working at his first true job in the business, the Morristown Daily Record, covered a pretty good boxing card at the old Ice World in Totowa.

It was a card that featured up-and-comer Vinny Pazienza, promising heavyweight Pinklon Thomas , New Jersey-based middleweight contender James "Hard Rock" Green and the guy I was sent to cover, Madison native and middleweight Pat Prisco.

As I looked for my seat ringside, I noticed the ever-present fedora and cigar. I knew it was Bert Sugar and his seat was directly next to mine. I had no idea if he was going to be a nice guy or not, so I tried to quietly sneak into my seat without saying a word.

Before I could even sit down, Sugar had my attention.

"Am I sitting in your seat, young man? Are you lost? Do you know where you're sitting? Do you know who you are?"

One line after another. I didn't know whether to laugh out loud or cry from embarrassment. I thought he was giving me a hard time.

"You have the size of Primo Carnera and the foot movement of Sammy Davis, Jr., young man," Sugar said to me. "If you're Jim Hague-Daily Record, take a seat."

Sugar then jumped all over the last name, quickly reciting his knowledge about Jersey City politics and the name I'm forever linked with and has become popular again thanks to HBO's "Boardwalk Empire," former Jersey City Mayor Frank "I Am The Law" Hague.

It didn't take long for Sugar to begin to give me a history lesson about Jersey City and boxing and everything in between.

It was the beginning of a friendship that lasted from that night in September, 1983 through Sunday, when I got the news via a text that my friend Bert _ and the friend to thousands of sports nuts, not just in the sport of boxing _ had passed away.

The obituary said that he died of a heart attack while battling lung cancer. I saw Bert in November and I had no idea he had lung cancer. I wasn't the only one.

Bert was the kind of guy who never once played up his celebrity or his association with all the giants in the sports world. Sure, he had some big-time friends in the business, but he was just as comfortable talking to Joe Everyman as he was talking to Joe DiMaggio.

He never got caught up in who he was. Not once. He was kind and courteous to everyone, signing autographs, shaking hands, telling stories. God, he had millions of stories and I never ever got bored listening to a single one.

Because Bert Sugar was probably the best storyteller to ever live. Of course, he wasn't alive when Jack Dempsey fought Georges Carpentier in the old Boyle's Thirty Acres in Jersey City in July, 1921. But if you listened to him talk about it, you could have sworn he had to be there, with all the attention to detail about everything.

I learned so much about that one fight in Jersey City from listening to Bert go on and on.

He taught me about all the great Jersey City boxing events, like Sugar Ray Robinson and Tony Zale and Chuck Wepner and Sonny Liston. He was a human encyclopedia. I've never met anyone who could roll off dates and events and boxers and weight classes and managers and promoters off the top of his head without looking up a single solitary thing. It was astounding.

And of course, Bert didn't roll off all that information without giving it that Bert Sugar flare with the drama in his voice, the eyes rolling, the cigar coming in and out of his mouth.

He was also the kind of guy who once you gained his trust and he liked you _ which there were thousands of those _ then you were a friend for life.

Like I was from that very first encounter in Ice World in Totowa. He never forgot me and always greeted me with the hearty handshake and "What's happening in Jersey City, Jimmy?"

I vividly recall one special night _ into the wee hours of the morning _ after the Lennox Lewis-Andrew Golota fight in Atlantic City in October of 1997.

I was covering the Nets' training camp in Atlantic City and went to one of Bert's favorite jaunts, the Irish Pub, after work was done. After the fight was over around 1 a.m. or so, a host of celebrities rolled into the place. But Bert saw me sitting at the bar and came right over to me. The hell with Evander Holyfield, Larry Holmes, Valerie Bertinelli and Eddie Van Halen.

After I told him that I wasn't there for the fight and was there because I was covering the Nets, Bert went into a tizzy.

"Jimmy, tell me about this basketball," he said. "I'm curious about this basketball."

One drink came after another and the next thing I knew, it was 5:30 AM and I had to be up to cover the Nets' practice at 8 AM. I was a hurting pup the next morning, but I was glad to share those hours with Bert.

When I wrote my book about James J. Braddock in 2005, Bert was ecstatic for me. He appeared on TV shows with me to talk about Braddock and the book. When I told Bert I was working on a book about Rocky Marciano, Bert offered to write the forward to it.

Unfortunately, the book about Marciano never materialized.

Bert would also call me when he heard of different job openings, especially those involving boxing.

"Jimmy, you're a great boxing writer and you should do more with boxing," he said. "You have a flair."

No, sorry, the one with the flair was my friend, Bert Sugar. He had more flair than I have pounds. He oozed flair and personality and wit and incredible intelligence.

When people say someone is "one of a kind," it's a compliment. The words were never more true when describing Bert. He was a genius, a lawyer who never really practiced the law, a writer who would much rather speak. He was flamboyant, yet warm and caring.

One of a kind? You betcha. There will never be another Bert Sugar.

I thank him for being so kind to me when I was a snot-nosed 22-year-old kid just starting in the business. I cherish the moments and the stories. I can never repay his loyalty and faith in me.

When one job opportunity he set up for me didn't pan out a few years ago, you would have thought someone died. He was so upset for me and apologized about 25 times. I was just grateful he thought of me first.

The sports world, especially the very closeknit boxing world, lost a true giant Sunday. My heart is broken by the loss. I know there are countless others who feel the same exact way.

Rest in peace, my friend. Let the final 10-count bell ring loudly in his honor.


Thursday, March 22, 2012

Who's the most dysfunctional in New York? Tough call

When I was a youngster, ABC had a regular television segment, aimed at helping kids to learn more about grammar, history and math through music. It was called "Schoolhouse Rock," and some of those tunes are still fresh in my brain after all these years.

One of my favorites was "Conjunction Junction, what's your function?" It was geared to teach kids about "hooking up words and phrases and clauses."
Well, these days, we can use that tune in another way when dealing with New York sports franchises. We can sing, "Dysfunction Junction, who's more dysfunctional?"

We're here to discuss: Just who is the most dysfunctional sports franchise in New York? The nominees are: The Mets, the Knicks and the Jets.

Envelope please? And the winner is:

Honestly, it's a tough call. There really isn’t a winner. All three have had their moments of stepping to the forefront in winning the dysfunctional crown. They all have had their moments. It’s almost as if it depends what time of day or what month it is, because they take turns at wearing the dubious crown.

If the presentation was being made a month or so ago, then the winner would have clearly been the Mets.

It was then that the Mets bumbling and lying owner Freddie Coupon made three lying declarations in the same day, telling reporters that he made a contract offer to their now-departed franchise shortstop (lie), that it was his general manager that actually suggested he should lower the team’s payroll (lie No.2) and then said that the Bernard Madoff situation had nothing to do with the way they handled personnel (lie No. 3).

But now, the Mets have seemed to have received a reprieve from the dysfunctional crown, thanks to the settlement Coupon reached. The Mets won’t have to pay a dime in the settlement for three years and still might not have to pay a dime at all.

However, there are the countless injuries, the struggling players, the never-ending lies. The Mets are still very dysfunctional for sure.

A week or so ago, the Knicks entered the race for the crown. The excitement over phenom Jeremy Lin had disappeared. They were in the middle of a six-game losing streak and their troubled _ and highly overrated _ superstar Carmelo Anthony went to the leader of the dysfunction, namely owner James Dolan, a man who still considers human cancer and pariah Isiah Thomas as a close friend, and told the owner that he could not work with coach Mike D’Antoni any longer.

D’Antoni started the day at a morning shoot-around, telling reporters that he was making some changes for that night’s game. Two hours later, a spin message was released, with the team saying that D’Antoni had “resigned by mutual agreement.” Yeah, right. He was kicked out and told to leave.

The Knicks then bring in assistant coach Mike Woodson and suddenly, everything is wonderful again in the world. They’ve won five straight games now, so they’ve relinquished their hold on the most dysfunctional. For now.

Wednesday, the latest contender for the dysfunctional title stepped to the forefront, when the Jets pulled the trade for the God-loving, ESPN-created superstar known as Tim Tebow.

When I heard news of the trade, I immediately shot off an e-mail to two of my closest friends who are Jets fans, with the subject line: “Tebow? What are they thinking?”

This is a trade that makes absolutely no sense. Why would the Jets trade two draft picks for a kid who simply cannot play quarterback?

Tim Tebow is a nice kid. I applaud his morals and his attitude. I marvel at his squeaky clean image. I simply don’t understand the intense and immense popularity he receives, because he cannot play. He can’t throw a timing pass, an out pass, a crossing pass, ANY pass. He can run. No question. But as a quarterback? No way.

I don’t care what he did during the remarkable run the Broncos had last year to make the playoffs, then beat Pittsburgh somehow in the playoffs. A lot of weird and wild circumstances helped that run. It all just led to the Tebow-mania, but the bottom line is that the kid cannot play.

Now, you’re the Jets. You just threw a gigantic contract extension on your young quarterback Mark Sanchez, one that was not necessary now, but it might have eased the tension because you flirted with Peyton Manning.

And now, a week later, you’re bringing in another quarterback?

This is a team that utilized Wayne Hunter, who I think is the worst offensive lineman in the history of the NFL, at right tackle all of last season. The team doesn’t have a pass rush. Neither of those position needs have been addressed.

Jets general manager Mike Tannenbaum said that they wanted Tebow to run the Wildcat package. So you trade a fourth-round draft pick simply for that? If that was the case, why didn’t the Jets just re-sign Brad Smith, who not only could run the Wildcat (which by the way, is a formation that is now being stopped by NFL defense) but was also an excellent kickoff return guy.

No question, this was done as a gigantic publicity stunt. The owner of the dysfunctional Jets, Woody Johnson, likes to make big splashes. That’s why he signed Brett the Cheese Whore. It’s why he plucked Plaxico Burress off that plane to San Francisco last summer and offered him a big deal. Anything to get on the back pages of the Post and Daily News. Anything to sell millions of green and white No. 15 jerseys. Maybe a few will buy PSLs now at MetLife Stadium, just to catch a peek at the rock star Tebow. Obviously, Brett the Cheese Whore didn’t do it.

They might deny the fact that it was a publicity stunt, but hey, denial is the first sign of being dysfunctional.

And what’s with holding a conference call at 11 p.m.? What’s the purpose of that, except depriving hard-working sportswriters and editors some sleep?

So now the Jets have Tebow. Get ready for Tebow-mania. Let’s face facts, the first time Sanchez throws an interception this season, the Jets fans will be chanting Tebow’s name, just adding to the dysfunction.

So who earns the title? See how tough of a call it is. It’s like they’re taking turns at wearing the dysfunctional crown. Today, it belongs to the Jets. But we all know it’s temporary. The Mets will do something within the next week or so to move to the top of the dysfunctional class. The Knicks and Dolan are always poised to do something totally ridiculous.
What do you think? I’d love to hear your opinions. It certainly does lead to interesting debates.
The NFL certainly threw the book at the New Orleans Saints, basically giving the Saints the equivalent of the old NCAA “death penalty” for their bounty system.

Let’s face facts. The Saints may never recover from losing their head coach for a year. Their general manager cannot conduct business for eight games. This is before any penalties have been levied at individual players.

But how is what the Saints did worse than what the Patriots did to cheat to win the Super Bowl?
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