Of course, whenever someone dies, he’s always a “great guy.” People are never more two-faced than when giving praise to someone who’s no longer around to bother them, but in the midst of all the maudlin praise for recently deceased boxing historian and critic Bert Sugar, let me inject a note of reality. The plain fact is that if you are a were a fan of the current heavyweight champion Klitschko brothers, Wladimir and Vitali, or of European heavyweights in general, Bert Sugar repeatedly made it clear that he was the enemy.
At the end of his career, Sugar increasingly seemed a cigar-chomping man out of time, a guy who couldn’t handle the fact that the African-American heavyweights he idolized while coming of age as a boxing scribe in the 1960s were no longer a dominant force in boxing’s marquee division.
For a guy often described as being nice and accommodating in person, Sugar became downright nasty near the end of his life when the topic of the Klitschkos came up.
He was still the man that the mainstream media went to when it wanted opinions on boxing, and Sugar did his best to trash the Klitschkos every chance he got. More than one interview left me both angry and embarrassed for Sugar, who was blowing his credibility near the end of his life over some prejudices he just couldn’t get past. The fact is that Sugar never voiced a criticism of the Klitschkos that couldn’t be leveled at many other heavyweight champions with whom he had no problems.
He never failed to level the only partially accurate charge of the brothers being “boring” jab artists, yet he seemed to forgive Larry Holmes and Lennox Lewis for the same grave sins. He never failed to slam the Klitschkos’ competition, yet he didn’t appear overly concerned at the lack of big names on the resumes of Rocky Marciano or Mike Tyson.
Sugar couldn’t even be bothered to differentiate between nationalities when it came to the Ukrainian Klitschkos. In this clip, he disrespectfully called them “talentless Russians,” which made them better Rocky-style enemies than talentless Ukrainians, apparently.
Sugar even had the gall to complain that the Klitschkos didn’t knock out enough of their opponents. Never mind that Vitali Klitschko’s career knockout ratio of 86.96 percent is the second highest of all time in the heavyweight division behind Rocky Marciano, and that Wladimir isn’t far behind Vitali at 83.33 percent. In contrast, the man Sugar idolized most, Muhammad Ali, had a career KO percentage of 60.66.
No, Sugar just didn’t like the Klitschkos. And no matter how he tried to camouflage his hatred of them in concern for heavyweight boxing, his animosity had little to do with their skills or their opponents.
It turned out that Bert Sugar was kind of like those old guys who collect jazz records and fetishize the people who made them, one of those guys who live in a bubble and resent anything new or different that disrupts their little world. Even a legendary jazz icon like Miles Davis felt the wrath of such types when he tried to meld jazz with rock and world music in the 1970s. They couldn’t forgive Davis for disrupting the way they saw things. Why couldn’t he just keep making Kind of Blue forever? Who was this impostor?
That was Bert Sugar’s mentality. He was an American used to seeing (African) Americans as heavyweight champions of the world. He obviously idolized Muhammad Ali, and he also thrived in the era of the “Great White Hope,” when white heavyweights like Jerry Quarry and George Chuvalo were “gutsy” but were also bleeders and punching bags and never, ever world champions like Ali and Larry Holmes. As long as that paradigm was in place, Bert Sugar was comfortable.
However, for the last decade, two Eastern European brothers have taken over the division that Sugar and many other boxing scribes used to love. As it became clear that the Klitschkos were not just a flash in the pan, Sugar and his ilk became embittered and ultimately bailed on the division in favor of other weight classes where the paradigm he favored was still more or less in place.
The heavyweight division, because it now didn’t conform to Sugar’s view of things, was “dead.” The Klitschkos were thus inauthentic champions, imposters. This was an unfair criticism, just as the old jazz fans’ hatred of Miles Davis’ ground-breaking 1970s work was unfair.
Ultimately, Davis’s 1970s musical output has slowly come to be recognized for its ground-breaking greatness, despite its critics. And ultimately, more and more boxing scribes have come to—sometimes grudgingly—accept the greatness of Wladimir and Vitali Klitschko. It’s been a difficult pill for many of them to swallow.
The passing of Bert Sugar thus symbolizes the end of an era. The world, including the world of boxing, is far bigger than just the United States of America. Klitschkos or no Klitschkos, the heavyweight division will most likely never again be ruled over solely by American heavyweights. The fall of the Soviet Union has changed the equation in heavyweight boxing forever.
Bert Sugar couldn’t handle that fact. He let his prejudices turn him into a raving pro-American bully, a cigar-chomping, hat-wearing cartoon.
He didn’t have to go out that way, but he chose to.
And that is how some of us boxing fans will remember Bert Sugar.