Some years ago, Kids in Trouble, the District-based charitable organization founded by sportscaster Harold Bell, presented Lifetime Achievement trophies to boxing writer Bert Randolph Sugar and yours truly. I don’t remember what I said at the awards dinner and neither does anyone else, because Sugar stole the show. As usual.
Waving a cigar and wearing a fedora, both trademarks of his, Sugar regaled his audience with tales of the days when boxing was a real sport instead of a charade. When this native Washingtonian died last weekend of a heart attack and lung cancer at 75, he had outlived his sport by a generation or so — or since the heyday of another local Sugar baby, Ray Leonard.
In his lifetime, Bert tapped out dozens of books and articles on boxing, most of them interesting if you cared about the sport. With his outgoing personality and often outrageous pronouncements, he was as much a character as the people he wrote about.
I can relate to Sugar’s love for this seamy sport. When I was a young writer who thought he knew it all, I covered boxing for the late and lamented Washington Star. The first thing I learned was not to believe anything anybody tells you. The second thing was to deal with the fighters themselves rather than the promoters and managers who tried to rob them blind.
Most of the boxers came out of the inner city, were educated minimally if at all and responded to a writer who was genuinely interested in them. I never heard anybody say he liked fighting. Those guys did it because they had no better way to earn a living, meager though it might be.
Some of them even had a sense of humor. Once I wrote that a fancy local boxer named Herbie Lee Dolloson “hit with all the force of a spring shower.” The next time our paths crossed, he had his one-liners (if not his fists) at the ready.
“Hey, pal,” said Herbie Lee, affecting a menacing scowl. “Want me to show you what a spring shower feels like?”
Local light-heavyweight Bob Foster battered opponents hither, thither and yon for years without getting a title shot. The fault lay not with his skills but with his manager, a wheezy old-timer called Sam “The Mumbler” Sobel who should have been immortalized by Damon Runyon.
Sam would call me three and four times a day until I had my number changed. His most frequent understandable line was, “Heller, I gotta big story, but I can’t talk about it.”
When I began to comprehend more of what The Mumbler was saying, I figured it was time to stop covering boxing.
Foster’s contract later passed one way or another to Mushky Salow, a veteran manager who reportedly had mob connections. I don’t know if that was true, but Foster soon got his title fight and knocked champion Dick Tiger halfway back to his native Nigeria. Later, Foster served many years as sheriff of Albuquerque, N.M., and you can bet his boxing career taught him how to recognize nefarious types.
I covered one of Foster’s fights along with a veteran Star reporter who showed up at ringside in a silk shirt and white suit. “Bad idea,” I told him.
A few moments into combat, Foster got his opponent in a corner above us and clobbered him in the chops. Mouthpiece, teeth and blood rained down on us, and pretty soon my colleague’s white suit was a charming claret. I don’t think the guy covered another fight.