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Bert Sugar: An Appreciation

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bertbookBert Sugar’s fame was an accumulative thing: when boxing was in its last heyday, during the 1980s, far fewer people would have been able to identify him than could do so at the time of his death. Part of that has to do, of course, with the rise of cable television and the Internet. Back in the eighties, there were few outlets to see or hear Sugar; you had to read him. By the last decade of his life, he was a fixture on ESPN’s Ringside series as well as innumerable sports documentaries.

Sugar, who died March 25 at 74, was widely known as one of boxing’s “foremost historians,” a title that less flamboyant and more scholarly types—like those who labor for the stalwart International Boxing Research Organization—might dispute. He was a brilliant aggregator of the game’s history, a gifted retailer of its lore, without being much interested in parsing legends from facts. But he certainly knew boxing and loved it—just as he loved language, stories, Americana, and the American characters that boxing possessed in greater variety than any sport. (He lamented the younger generation’s fascination with computers and healthy living—not because they should drink more, he said, but because they should listen more, especially if they wanted to be writers. And one place to listen was in bars.)

Combine all of this with his performative persona—he was called “Runyonesque” too many times to count—and you had an ambassador for boxing who fit his sport, and who stood out all the more in an age of corporate sportscasters.

Of course, Sugar was not primarily a television personality. He was, first and last, a writer: he published hundreds, perhaps thousands of articles, and authored 80 or 100 or some such number of books—at least some of which make use, I assume, of previous writings or are adaptations of same. No crime in that. It was an honest living, and writing any book is work. (They weren’t all about boxing, either.) He also edited a number of boxing magazines, most famously in 1979, when he rescued the Ring from disgrace by taking over as its editor. Sugar engineered a new design and overhauled the magazine’s ratings, which regained the respect they had once enjoyed. (Alas, the Ring may be headed into a new era of disrepute, but that’s another story.)

Reading Sugar, especially when I first encountered him as a 13-year-old, Ring-devouring boxing fanatic, was a delight: he injected wild figurative expressions into blow-by-blow accounts of fights, he punned tirelessly, and his writing seemed barely able to contain its glee. He was gifted at writing leads: my favorite remains the opener from his report on Mike Weaver’s miracle victory over John Tate in 1980, in which Sugar made reference to Phineas Fogg, the protagonist of Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days. It was an inspired metaphor for the journey Weaver had to take that night: chasing Tate for 15 rounds, mostly fruitlessly, and far behind on the judges’ cards, he landed a lethal left hook—though Sugar probably called it “bodacious”—to knock Tate out cold with less than a minute remaining in the fight.

Though he enjoyed playing the jester, Sugar was a learned man. He had a law degree, had worked on Madison Avenue, and had done, somewhere along the line, some writing on the Civil War. I only know about that because he mentioned it to me the one time we met and enjoyed a few beers in a Manhattan bar. Though I don’t recall precisely, it may have been an unfinished dissertation. He seemed to care about it.

My boxing shelf at home has a half dozen or so Sugar books.The Great Fightsis a personal favorite, while 100 Years of Boxingis a solid history—maybe not the equal of Saga of the Fist, but more fun to read. How his writing will be remembered is difficult to say. Last year the editors of At the Fights, a regal Library of America anthology of great boxing writing, omitted Sugar. That had to hurt. Sugar may not have written with the same literary weight of some of the anthology’s celebrated contributors, but he had plenty of flair, and he gave pleasure to boxing readers for over 40 years, which ought to count for something.

Maybe Sugar was excluded from the anthology because of his relentless playfulness—a sense that he wasn’t willing to halt the fun long enough to express something hard and bleak and true. I confess to having that frustration with his writing myself. I always wanted more from him—some acknowledgement of the pathos of boxing, not just its color and adventure. He may have come closest to doing this in a historical tour de force called “The Way Out,” which appears in Bert Sugar on Boxing:

To understand boxing one must understand its roots. From its beginnings, the sport has resonated with urban ethnicity, drawing its recruits from the tenements, the ghettos, the projects, the barrios, the ‘nabes,’ places that offered little presence and even less of a future. Many a troubled and troublesome youngster has embraced “The Sweet Science” as a way out, a social staircase out of the mean streets that formed his limited world, fighting his way, bloody hand-over-bloody hand, up the ladder of acceptance the only way he knows: with his fists.

For me, at least, the “Bert Sugar” persona, both onscreen and on the page, became somewhat confining, as personas generally do. But boxing was lucky to have him; it will surely miss him. And the best compliment I can pay him as a writer is this: if his Civil War work ever comes out, I’ll read it.

Paul Beston is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute's City Journal.

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Christian Mbilli has the Wow Factor: Dismisses Mark Heffron in 40 Seconds

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Christian Mbilli has the Wow Factor: Dismisses Mark Heffron in 40 Seconds

The Gervais Auto Center in Shawinigan, Quebec, Canada, roughly 100 miles south of Montreal, hosted tonight’s card on ESPN+, a co-promotion of Camille Estephan’s Eye of the Tiger Promotions and Bob Arum’s Top Rank. Arum wasn’t there; he was in Leeds, England, but the outcome would have mitigated his aggravation at seeing his fighter Josh Taylor fall short earlier in the day.

Super middleweight Christian Mbilli, of whom Arum owns a piece, needed only 40 seconds to conquer British import Mark Heffron who, on paper, was a very credible opponent. Mbilli backed Heffron into the ropes and collapsed him with a left hook that landed under his rib cage. Heffron, 30-3-1 heading in with 24 KOs, went down on all fours and was counted out. The contest was over almost before it began.

The Cameroon-born Mbilli, a 2016 Olympian for France who turned pro in Montreal, is ranked #2 by the WBC and WBA; #3 by the IBF and WBO. With the victory, he advanced his record to 27-0 (23 KOs). His next fight will reportedly come in August with rugged but battle-blistered Sergiy Derevyanchenko in the opposite corner. Mbilli has been chasing a fight with Canelo Alvarez, but has scant chance of landing it. At this juncture of his career, the red-headed Mexican undoubtedly wants less daunting assignments.

Co-Feature

Arslanbek Makhmudov, the Russian Lion, rebounded from his poor performance against Agit Kabayel with a second-round stoppage of sacrificial lamb Milan Rovcanin. Makhmudov (19-1, 18 KOs) knocked Rovcanin to the canvas with an overhand right in the opening round. The punch knocked Rovcanin sideways, his head resting on the ring apron. To Rovcanin’s credit, he beat the count and launched a futile offensive after he arose. A similar punch ended the brief bout at the 2:32 mark of the next frame.

Makhmudov is certainly heavy-handed, but he moves at a glacial pace and would be up-against-it against a world-class opponent with faster hands and better footwork. Rovcanin, who had  been feasting on fourth-raters in his native Serbia, declined to 27-4.

Other Bouts of Note

In a bout contested at the catch-weight of 178 pounds, Montreal-based Mehmet Unal, a 31-year-old former Olympian for Turkey, scored the best win of his career with a fourth-round stoppage of 34-year-old Laredo, Texas campaigner Rodolfo Gomez.

Gomez, routinely matched tough and better than his record (14-7-3 heading in), protested loudly when the referee waived it off, but his corner stood poised to throw in the towel. He hadn’t previously been stopped, let alone knocked off his feet. Unal improved to 10-0 (8 KOs).

Super middleweight Mereno Fendero, a 24-year old French Army veteran, improved to 6-0 (4) with a six-round decision over 38-year-old Argentine journeyman Rolando Mansilla (19-15-1). Fendero won every round on all three cards including a 10-8 round on one of the cards although there were no knockdowns. Although badly out-classed, the teak-tough Mansilla, a glutton for punishment, earned his pay.

Local prospect Alexandre Gaumont, a middleweight, improved to 11-0 (7) with an unpopular 8-round split decision over Argentina’s Santiago Fernandez (8-1-1). Two of the judges gave Gaumont six rounds, ridiculed as home town bias, with the other awarding five rounds to the Argentine who received a loud ovation as he left the ring.

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Sweet Revenge for the ‘Cat’: Catterall Outpoints Taylor in a Fan-Friendly Fight

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Former unified junior welterweight champion Josh Taylor and Jack Catterall renewed acquaintances tonight in a sold-out arena in Leeds, England. Their first bout 27 months ago in Glasgow ended in favor of Taylor, a controversial winner by split decision as most felt that Catterall was robbed. Tonight, the Cat, as he is nicknamed, turned the tables, winning a unanimous decision in a 12-round non-title fight that was more entertaining than their first encounter.

Catterall, who closed a short favorite, came out fast and was plainly ahead at the mid-point of the fight. But Taylor closed the gap and on unofficial scorecards it was an even fight after 10 frames. Then, in the 11th, shortly after the referee halted the action to warn the fighters about something, Catterall turned the tide back in his favor, stunning Taylor with a looping left hand coming out of the break. Seconds later, both fighters went down in a heap in front of a corner post.

Both fighters were marked-up at the finish, more so Taylor who ended the fight with his right eye swollen and nearly closed shut.

A draw would not have been unreasonable, but two of the judges gave Jack Catterall nine rounds (117-111) and the other had it 7-4-1 (116-113).

In his post-fight interview, Eddie Hearn, Catterall’s promoter, conceded that the scores were too wide but opined that the right guy won. Few would disagree, but co-promoter Bob Arum had a different take. “Those scores were a disgrace,” he said, taking the microphone. “I feel sorry for Josh. I thought he won the fight….”

In avenging his lone defeat, Catterall improved to 29-1 (13). It was second straight loss for Taylor (19-2) who had been inactive since losing his unified title to Teofimo Lopez.

A rubber match would be welcome.

Semi Wind-up

In the chief supporting bout, Cheavon Clarke improved to 9-0 (7 KOs) with an eighth-round stoppage of Ellis Zorro. Clarke, who represented both his native Jamaica and England in international amateur competitions, won the BBBoC British cruiserweight title.

This fight didn’t provide a lot of action. The humdrum ended in the waning seconds of round eight when Clarke nailed Zorro with a chopping right hand. He seized the moment, swarming after Zorro, and chopped him down with a series of punches. None appeared to land very cleanly, but Zorro was counted out with a mere second remaining in the round. It was his second straight defeat after opening his career with 17-0. In his previous bout, Zorro was blasted out in the opening round by Jai Opetaia.

Clarke, 33, is eyeing the winner of the forthcoming fight in London between WBO cruiserweight champion Chris Billam-Smith and Richard Riakporhe.

Also

Welterweight Paddy Donovan, a Traveler from Limerick, Ireland, advanced to 14-0 (11 KOs) with a ninth-round stoppage of former British lightweight champion Lewis Ritson (25-4).

Donovan, trained by former middleweight titlist Andy Lee, fought off his back foot for the first seven rounds as Ritson forced the pace. He changed tactics in round eight which was a strong round for him and then closed the show in the ninth. A series of punches had Ritson plainly hurt and the referee stepped in after 32 seconds and waved it off. It was Donovan’s fifth straight win inside the distance.

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Okolie Demolishes Rozanski to Jump-Start a Busy Boxing Weekend

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The weekend boxing activity got underway today in Rzesnow. Poland where, to the dismay of the locals, Lukasz Rozanski, was blown away in the opening round by UK invader Lawrence Okolie. Heading in, the Pole was 15-0 with 14 knockouts, was coming off back-to-back first-round stoppages, and had never fought beyond the fourth round. And he was a world champion of sorts, making the first defense of his WBC bridgerweight title.

Okolie (20-1, 15 KOs) knocked him down hard on the seat of his pants with a straight right hand, the first of three knockdowns. The final knockdown was the result of a combination that knocked Rozanski to his knees with his head landing outside the ropes. There were only seconds to go in the round, but when Rozanski arose on unsteady legs, the referee properly waived it off. At age 38, his first career loss may also mark the end of his career.

A 2016 Olympian co-managed by Anthony Joshua, Okolie (pictured) was making his first start with trainer Joe Gallagher after previously working under Shane McGuigan and SugarHill Steward and his first start since losing his WBO cruiserweight title to Chris Billam-Smith.  At six-foot-five and with an 82-inch reach, the 31-year-old Londoner is a very interesting specimen. His stated goal when he turned pro was to unify the cruiserweight division before moving up to heavyweight.

Had Rozanski won, there was talk of him fighting Badou Jack. The guess is this may be Okolie’s first and last fight at bridgerweight (under 225), a division recognized only by the WBC which invented it. (The WBA is poised to follow its lead. The WBA board of directors recently approved the addition of a super cruiserweight weight class.)

Saturday

The action tomorrow in regard to major fights begins at the Royal Arena in Copenhagen where the Fighting Dane, Dina Thorslund (21-0, 9 KOs), defends her WBC/WBO female world bantamweight title against Turkey’s Seren Cetin (11-0, 7 KOs). Thorslund, whose name appears on many pound-for-pound lists, is appearing in her 11th world title fight.

The marquee event takes place in the late afternoon (USA time) in Leeds, England, where Josh Taylor (19-1, 13 KOs) clashes with Jack Catterall (28-1, 13 KOs) in an eagerly-anticipated and twice-delayed rematch. Catterall will be seeking to avenge his lone defeat.

Their first encounter took place in February 2022 on Taylor’s turf in Glasgow, Scotland. Taylor won a split decision. To say that it was controversial would be putting it mildly. One pundit called it the biggest robbery in British boxing history. At stake was Taylor’s unified welterweight title which he would lose in his next outing when he was upset by Teofimo Lopez.

Catterall has fought twice since that night in Glasgow, most recently scoring a 12-round decision over globetrotter Jorge Linares who announced his retirement after the match. This is Taylor’s first ring outing since the Teofimo fight in New York. He and Catterall have engaged in a nasty war of words since their first encounter and the match – televised live exclusively in the U.S. on ESPN+ and around the world on DAZN — is an advance sellout. Check local listings for start times.

There’s been steady money on Catterall today and, if the odds hold up, Josh Taylor will assume the role of an underdog for the first time in his career.

Lastly

We’re back to ESPN+ again for a show in Shawinigan, Quebec, Canada, a co-promotion between Eye of the Tiger and Top Rank.

In the featured bout, Christian Mbilli (26-0, 22 KOs) meets England’s Mark Heffron (30-3-1, 24 KOs) in a 10-round super middleweight contest.

The Cameroon-born Mbilli, a 2016 Olympian for France who turned pro in Montreal, is ranked #2 by the WBC and WBA; #3 by the IBF and WBO.

In the co-feature, heavyweight Arslanbek Makhmudov, the Russian Lion, returns to the ring looking to rebuild a reputation that was badly tarnished last December when he was manhandled by underdog Agit Kabayel in Saudi Arabia. Makhmudov (18-1, 17 KOs) opposes no-hoper Milan Rovcanin (27-3, 18 KOs) who has been feasting on fourth-raters in his native Serbia. The TV portion of this Saturday Night card has a scheduled starting time of 7 pm ET/4 pm PT.

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