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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.



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