BOXING'S ALREADY exclusive club of unforgettable characters became a bit more so on Sunday with the death of Bert Randolph Sugar, 75, the raconteur/historian known as much for his one-liners and ever-present fedora and cigar as for the 80 books he authored.
Coming a little more than 7 weeks after another true original, Angelo Dundee, passed away at 90, the loss of "The Hat" is enough to sadden anyone who has been around long enough to understand that outsized personalities such as theirs are as close to irreplaceable as it ever gets in the fight game.
Sugar and Dundee collaborated on Dundee's 2007 autobiography, "My View From the Corner: A Life in Boxing," a 307-page tome that might have been stretched a thousand pages more had they included every humor-tinged war story that they no doubt regaled each other with while working on the project.
As was the case with Dundee, who had the sunniest disposition of anyone I've known, Sugar - who died of cardiac arrest no doubt exacerbated by his ongoing bout with lung cancer - found even his own worsening health to be an opportunity to turn the joke on himself.
"Half the people are rooting for me to recover," he cracked, "and half not."
Over the past quarter-century, I spent more than a few Happy Hours with Bert, in close proximity to wherever that weekend's big fight card was being held. This was no easy trick because I don't drink, but I'd pay for a beer and pretend to sip at it as he tossed down another vodka, theatrically waved his stogie and embellished another yarn that might even have been mostly true.
Not that Bert needed to invent interesting stuff to talk about. At various times he worked as an advertising executive, lawyer, editor and author, but in recent years his most recognizable role was that of life-of-the-party. HBO would fly him to sites of major pay-per-view fight cards, where he would chat up not only the events that would soon unfold, but the most memorable bouts of every ring legend dating back to Jack Johnson.
In 2006, Bert and I, along with then-USA Today boxing writer Chuck Johnson, had minor roles in the film, "Rocky Balboa." We were part of a faux panel discussion at ESPN's Connecticut studios in which we speculated on who would win a virtual-reality computer matchup of Rocky and the current heavyweight champion, Mason "The Line" Dixon. Chuck and I went with Rocky; Bert, ever the contrarian, picked Dixon, punctuating his analysis with ad-libbed lines and a flourished wave of his unlit cigar.
But if I had any notion of Hollywood grandeur once the movie came out, reality set in when one of the first calls I received was from a fight fan who, seeing me seated next to the inimitable Bert on the wide screen, wanted to know what Bert Sugar was really like.
"He's one of a kind," I answered.
Lundy defends title
Philadelphia's Hank Lundy (21-1-1, 11 KOs) defends his NABF lightweight title against Dannie Williams (21-1, 17 KOs) on Friday night in the ESPN2-televised main event in Mashantucket, Conn.
Putting my toys away
After 28 years at the Daily News and 43 years in the business, I guess it's finally time for me to grow up.
People who work in the newspaper industry often refer to the sports section as the "toy department," with good cause. Sports writers get paid to attend ballgames and boxing matches, which on the face of it is not a bad way to earn a living. My entire adult life has been spent chronicling such fun and games, and it's been quite a ride. But the ride finally ends on April 1, when I navigate into the uncharted waters of retirement.
Oh, I'll keep my hand in writing. What else would I do? I'm fielding offers to freelance articles for magazines and boxing websites, and there is a possibility I will continue to write about boxing, as an independent contractor, for the Daily News. That is being discussed, and I would welcome the opportunity. Time will tell.
But I would be remiss if I didn't express my gratitude to my talented and dedicated colleagues here, and to the readers who, when you get down to it, are my real bosses. Rest assured that I took seriously the responsibilities with which you entrusted me, and that you never got anything less than my best effort.