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Bert Sugar: The Dark Side of Boxing’s Famous Historian

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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.

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About GutterCandy

  • JC

    Man, there is so much truth in this article. You hit the nail on the head and pounded it through the wood.

  • Ken Biddle

    Wow! Bert and others don’t like the Klitschko brothers so we have a dark side?!? Get the eff outta here!

    I love Vitali but I HATE Wlad. Am I a fellow Klitschko nut-hugger… from the Dark Side?

    Nut-huggers don’t need to be writing personal opinion, hate-mongering articles.

  • Cybrarian

    This isn’t personal opinion or hate-mongering. It’s a simple statement of facts – pointing out all the areas where Sugar was irrational. No one said he had to like the Klitschkos – either of them – but complaining about their KO percentage when it was way higher than his idols is just plain nuts. If he’d just said he didn’t like them, no one would have had a quarrel with that. You don’t have to like the Klitschkos. But Sugar reminded me of my father in law, who asserted that because he didn’t like Wayne Gretzky, that Gretzky was a lousy hockey player. The 2 things are unrelated! Sugar did the same, asserting that the heavyweight division was dead and the Klitschkos were lousy boxers, for no other reason than that he didn’t like them.

  • Gutterdandy

    “Wow! Bert and others don’t like the Klitschko brothers so we have a dark side?!?”

    Sugar abused his position as one of the leading boxing “experts” in America to wage a propaganda war worthy of Rocky IV against the Klitschkos. He knowingly misrepresented the facts about them merely because they were and are a threat to the legacies of his heroes. Call it a dark side, or just call him a “nuthugger” of his American boxing heroes, whatever suits you.

  • Commerce Cowboy

    The heavyweight division has been dead for years as has much of boxing. Not the Klitschkos fault. Those running it ran it into the ground. Matches used to captivate the nation. Now they can’t give the fights away.

  • Gutterdandy

    “The heavyweight division has been dead for years as has much of boxing. Not the Klitschkos fault. Those running it ran it into the ground. Matches used to captivate the nation. Now they can’t give the fights away.”

    Wladimir’s last fight in Germany sold out a 50,000 seat arena. The Klitschkos regularly get crowds of 30-50,000 in Europe, plus millions more watching on television. They make on average 12 million Euros per fight, sometimes much more. So the heavyweight division is not “dead” — but as the article states, that is the propaganda Bert Sugar and his ilk put out there. The fact is that when Americans are not on top of something, they tend to lose interest in it. As there are no heavyweights from the USA currently who can beat the Klitschkos, many in America have adopted a “take my football (or boxing gloves) and go home” attitude toward the division. Had there been no Soviet Union and had fighters from Ukraine and other Eastern bloc countries been allowed to fight in the heavyweight division all along, it’s almost a certainty that the history of boxing would look very different.

  • Commerce Cowboy

    Who cares if he’s big in Germany? So was David Hasselhoff as a singer.

  • Gutterdandy

    Yeah, and Tim Tebow is big in America.

  • Trey ko

    The Klitschko’s are boring but they’re still good fighters. I don’t agree with this nonsense about Bert having it in for them because he was so in love with black fighters. I think it’s because the standard bearer for boxing is non-American.

    I actually knew Bert for years and had several arguments with him about boxers from all eras. FYI, his great boxer of choice was not Ali, it was Joe Louis. Black fighters don’t dominate now because a lot of them are not boxing anymore; they’ve found easier, longer lasting ways to make a buck, whether it be football or basketball.

    I know it’s always enticing to have a racial angle in any argument, but this one falls short of reality.

  • Gutterdandy

    “Black fighters don’t dominate now because a lot of them are not boxing anymore; they’ve found easier, longer lasting ways to make a buck, whether it be football or basketball.”

    That’s a facile rationalization. The NBA and the NFL existed and were very popular in 1970s, 1980s, 1990s. Suddenly there are no dominant black fighters because they’re all playing football and basketball? When only a miniscule percentage of people who want to play professionally actually make it. Laughable.

    The fall of the Soviet Union and the consequent liberation of Eastern Europeans to fight professionally has changed the equation in heavyweight boxing forever. If there had been no Soviet Union, the history of boxing would look very different today.

  • Jobriath

    The gushing tributes to this anti-Euro Yank from the old boys boxing network have been nauseating, especially when you know damn well that many of the journos making them didn’t even like the guy. But hey, it’s good PR to love him now that he’s dead!

  • http://www.lunch.com/DrJosephSMaresca Dr Joseph S Maresca

    Bert Sugar appeared in several big films playing himself. These films included Night and the City, The Great White Hype and Rocky Balboa. He was Editor of Boxing Illustrated and The Ring. Bert studied law and an MBA at the University of Michigan. He passed the bar.

    He would have to be considered one of the most accomplished professionals in the boxing world. Luckily, I spoke with him once in 2011 just months prior to his passing. I enjoyed reading a number of his articles. Boxing, itself is a tough profession and it’s hard to satisfy everybody.

  • Leonard Gravy

    He was a typically prejudice, blinkered yank who would prefer to have a World Championship in which only Americans competed. Oh hang on, isn’t that all of there sports ?