My father knew a guy who knew Bert Sugar.
That's how I wound up working for Bert, as a high school intern and then in my first job as a professional reporter. He was my first editor, my first mentor, my first journalism role model. He passed away yesterday at age 75.
Back when I interned, the people at the post office knew I worked for Bert, because to work for Bert Sugar was to be bathed in cigar smoke. It was to hear the clacking of a typewriter and hear the wheeze of a drinker's laugh as a newsman recounted a great, old story.
To work for Bert at Boxing Illustrated was to learn how it used to be done—and done well.
Bert was a sports-reporting legend, one of the tenured ink-stained wretches on the boxing beat and an eventual member of the Boxing Hall of Fame. He covered the fights. He talked about the fights. At some point he was on your TV, shot from the waist up so you couldn't see his ridiculously loud pants. But you'd see his conservative jacket and tie, the cigar between his fingers and the fedora on his head as he spun some new turn of phrase to explain who was going to knock out whom. Yeah, I got my start with that guy.
He was my first boss in journalism and had nothing to do with the Internet or computers. He was old-school, my stretched tether to the reporters of old: all hard-drinking, fedora-wearing, cigar-chomping characters. All of them were like Bert, I imagined. They'd all met the heavyweight champ, as would I if I was doing it right.
I worked for Bert before I wrote about video games, before I went to journalism school and was filled with righteousness about reporting. The journalism lessons I learned from Bert were about energy and excitement, about always having the enthusiasm to stick to the beat, to always notice the amazing, to laugh in wonder, to want to hear regular people, to want to tell them stories, and to always care about every word of every sentence.
From the day I met Bert, he looked old. But from that same day onward, he seemed so young. He was always hustling to write five different stories, another book and maybe launch a TV series with his buddy Cornell. He wanted to always be busy and to do more and better work. He bounced through the cramped offices of Boxing Illustrated in midtown Manhattan, where my suits acquired the Sugar cigar scent. He told silly jokes (This one sticks out for some reason: "What goes flop-flop-bang? An Amish drive-by shooting."). He was a goof, an entertainer but also a man of knowledge. He was a boxing nut and a baseball one, too. While I worked for him he was proud that his age and the number of books he had written—most of them about those two topics—were nearly equal quantities. (Here are a few, all of them guaranteed to have some cleverly-written and wonderfully-arguable assertions.) For some reason, I told him that I had to get a lot of rest each night. Don't worry, he told me, you need less sleep when you're older. I was inspired, because I wanted to have the kind of energy he had.
I always called him "Mr. Sugar" because, in 1994, I was a teenager and he was Damon Runyon in the wrong decade. We put Boxing Illustrated together, me, him and a few other folks, with a waxer, sticking each element of a page to cardboard and then sending them out to get some blue-inked proofs. The one time I recall him being angry with me was after I let a messenger take a large envelope stuffed with the boards for the next issue from the office before we'd made a duplicate. If the bike messenger I sent them off with was hit by a bus, our new issue would be lost in the road somewhere, he pointed out. Thank goodness that didn't happen.
Bert made me feel like a reporter, because, not long after he had me fetching coffee and making photocopies, he let me be one. He got me into press row at big fights. He published my first articles that ever appeared in a glossy magazine. He let me know what it was like to have a byline and to know what it's like to have the people who you write about react to your work (the guy who Mike Tyson knocked out in his first fight after prison was none-too-happy with my unflattering pre—fight profile).
I went to college when Boxing Illustrated became Boxing Digest and the Bert Sugar operation became a subsidiary of, believe it or not, a fashion and beauty magazine company. I still worked on Fridays, still got a little bit of time around Mr. Sugar. Bert quickly had a falling out with the magazine's new owner, but before he was gone from Boxing Digest altogether, he temporarily worked in banishment, out of an office where he was most comfortable: the bar at O'Lunney's. He'd send his editing orders back on napkins. That was the Bert Sugar story.
People always wanted to know about the hat. No, I'd never seen him with it off, but his secretary told me the story about some guys who were angry about something Bert wrote and came by the office one day to convey their displeasure. They cut a wire that would have let her call for help and flipped his desk. Amid the commotion she noticed a bald-pated man picking himself up off the ground. That was Bert, she realized. He had taken one in the jaw and had not yet re-affixed his hat.
I figured Bert was the kind of newsman who was pleased that he wrote about someone who wanted to punch him out. A job well done.
Bert liked to tell me that his previous interns had done great things. One of them was a top executive at ABC. The other was Keith Olbermann. He expected me to be great. Ever since, I've been trying hard.
A co-worker was talking about me with Bert once. Bert declared, only after a pause, that I was a "neat kid." That bugged me just a tiny bit. I used to consider it an insufficient assessment. I used to think there was so much more that I wanted to be in Bert's eyes.
I'll take being a "neat kid," because, you know what? So were you, Bert. To the end.
(Top photo by Michael Loccisano | Getty Images for HBO)