Bert Sugar on boxing

The ring's resident raconteur talks about the state of the sport, his all-time heavyweights and this week's big fight.

Published May 9, 2001 7:00PM (EDT)

When the last man on Earth claims the profession of "boxing writer," the name on the form will probably be Bert Sugar.

Sugar has done a few other things in his life -- he is credited by old editions of Books in Print with having written or co-written 83 books, mostly on sports, which once earned him the tag (courtesy Nik Cohn) "The Isaac Asimov of Athletics" -- and he currently writes a column for SportsBusiness Journal. But it's as editor of the Ring magazine, Boxing Illustrated and Bert Sugar's Fight Game that he has made a niche. When the HBO people do a boxing documentary, they call Bert Sugar and fill in the rest of the names later; when a boxing movie ("The Great White Hype" or "Play It to the Bone" or the De Niro version of "Night and the City") is being cast and they need a Bert Sugar type to appear in a fedora, chewing an unlit cigar, they call Jack Klugman -- and if he's not available they call Bert Sugar.

I wanted to do a piece on all the issues surrounding boxing today, and since it involved extensive conversation with Bert Sugar, and since there was virtually no one else who could or would discuss such things, I decided, what the hell, to simply interview ... Bert Sugar. I was asked in return only to mention his next book, "Total Boxing" (the boxing companion to the "Total Baseball" and "Total Football" giant volumes published by Sports Publishing). Begun with the late Phil Berger, "Total Boxing" will be available "after I finish it."

Give me your top five heavyweights of all time.

You mean the five best, or who would win if they fought?

What's your difference?

These guys have gotten huge. I don't think Lennox Lewis is nearly as good as Rocky Marciano, but there's no doubt in my mind that given a 50-pound weight advantage he could simply smother Rocky if they fought. He wouldn't hurt him, but he'd smother him.

OK, five best heavyweights, pound for pound.

Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis ...

I don't believe you ...

Shut up, let me finish. Sam Langford, Muhammad Ali, Jack Johnson. Now, you were going to tell me how Ali could have beaten Dempsey and Louis?

C'mon, Dempsey was completely outboxed by Gene Tunney, and Louis was befuddled by Billy Conn, a light-heavy, and Ali was 20 to 30 pounds heavier than those guys ...

But you said "pound for pound." I'm making Dempsey about 215 pounds, or shrinking Ali to about 190. Your rules, not mine.

You are still so wrong. Give me the top five all time, pound for pound.

Sugar Ray Robinson, Henry Armstrong -- did you know that except for a bad decision, he nearly held half the titles in boxing at one time? -- Harry Grebb, Jack Dempsey and Benny Leonard.

Budd Schulberg once told me that the origin of the "You coulda been another Billy Conn" speech in "On the Waterfront" was when he heard his dad say to someone, "He coulda been another Benny Leonard." You are so wrong about Dempsey.


He fought one great fighter who was in his prime in his whole career, Gene Tunney, and Tunney whipped him soundly ...

Tunney probably won 18 or 19 of the 20 rounds between them, but Dempsey nearly equalized with a couple of punches in the second fight, "The Long Count."

You're so wrong.

You're doing color for the William Joppy-Felix Trinidad fight Saturday night. This looks like a great fight ...

It should be one of the best fights in the last couple of years. It's the kind of fight everyone would have been excited about years ago.

Do you think Joppy has a good chance against Trinidad?

I think he has an excellent chance. He's a terrific middleweight, very accomplished and very experienced, and Trinidad, who is one of the best fighters in the world, is moving up in weight class. He's the one with the big punch, but in this fight he's the one that's vulnerable.

It seems a shame to me that really good fighters like Joppy can get as far along as they do and not be better recognized. Some of the boxers I see today are as good as any I've seen in 25 years, but to most sports fans I know they are only names. Why is that?

You can't build a following just on cable. Or rather, you might be able to but you can't just build it by appearing in blockbuster fights. You need regular exposure.

But Oscar de la Hoya might be the biggest draw in boxing, and I think the only time he's been on network TV ...

Was the Olympics. Well, there you have it. You can get away with it if you're Oscar and you can make salsa records and get on magazine covers, but few other fighters are going to get those kind of chances. They really don't know how to promote fighters today; today you could be great for three or four years before the public discovers you in a big fight.

Yeah, but then again there aren't enough big fights.

You have too many competing interests, powerful promoters who don't want to lose fighters because they'll lose TV deals, TV networks that sign a champion of one boxing group up and that restricts him from fighting another fighter ...

All these competing interests. There are all these fights people want to see, rematches they want to see, and they never happen, or they happen --

When one or both of the fighters is too old.

Right. I mean, the press was simply wrong about people not wanting to see a rematch of the de la Hoya-Trinidad fight. I think most people I know would have paid to see a rematch the next week. And I remember how bad everyone wanted a rematch between Sugar Ray Leonard and Tommy Hearns ...

Or between Marvelous Marvin Hagler and Hearns. But the latter never happened, and by the time Leonard and Hearns got back in the ring they were well past their prime.

That's what I mean. The interest is there. Its like the Lennox Lewis-Mike Tyson fight ...

What Lewis-Tyson fight?

My point. Its not like everyone expected Ali-Frazier IV, but it looked like the best match out there, and by the time it looks like they might be ready to resolve all the differences between the promoters and the fighters and the networks, bam, one punch ...

And Lewis is gone. Riddick Bowe is wandering around Washington, Evander Holyfield obviously hasn't taken a good look at Ali and thinks it can't happen to him. The heavyweights are really pathetic right now.

This mess with the alphabet boxing groups, is it ever going to resolve itself?

No, not so long as the TV networks want to promote championship fights. If you can't strike a deal with one boxing "ruling" body, you go to another. There are too many people making money off of this system for it to all go away voluntarily. What do you expect the TV people to do, investigate themselves? Do you think you're going to see one of those TV magazine shows doing an exposé on how their own network is responsible for the corruption by making a deal with one of the ruling bodies so they could sell advertising for a big fight? It's not going to happen.

At least with the carnage in NASCAR, the heat has been taken off boxing for violence.

The real truth is that if you have checked the AMA reports over the years you'll know that boxing is far less dangerous than many other sports. Really, it's so ridiculous the amount of space spent on crucifying boxing for this. Look at the cover of Sports Illustrated last week: Johnny Unitas can scarcely use his right hand. You have thousands of football players out there with damaged hips, spines, heads. In terms of serious injuries per hundred participants, boxing isn't in the same universe as auto racing. Jeez, at least in boxing the fans are safe. You won't see anyone brained because a boxing glove flies off.

So boxing isn't dead yet?

You said it yourself: There are a lot of people that want to see great fights. Boxing has been called dead more times than Dracula. If you think it's dead, watch Saturday night.

OK, let's talk again after the fight about boxing's future. Who do you like?

Joppy to win. Remember, though, I took Japan and 7 and a half points in World War II.

Trinidad by K.O. in nine. Bye.

By Allen Barra

Allen Barra is the author of "Inventing Wyatt Earp: His Life and Many Legends."

MORE FROM Allen Barra

Related Topics ------------------------------------------