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Articles of 2009

Brute Pt 1: I Want To Train The Lefty

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The Niavaroni-Sax Gym in Roseville, California stands beside a Marines recruiting office. On the building façade in large, white letters are the words KICKBOXING INC. I had come to interview a young, light heavyweight named Brandon Gonzalez, and had been told by his trainer that I should come at 9:00AM if I wanted to watch him spar. When I arrived, at a quarter to nine, the gym was not open, and I sat in my truck. A silver Isuzu Rodeo pulled in and parked, perhaps, like me, waiting for the doors to open, but then drove away a few minutes later. I went across the street for a cup of coffee, and when I returned, at 9:30, the open sign had been illuminated, the silver Isuzu had returned, and visible through the plate glass window was a man standing at the front counter. I turned off my truck and went in.

Along the right wall, facing the training floor, were two men in basketball shorts. I sat down beside them and put my notepad on my lap. The man closest to me looked familiar, and I asked him why I thought I recognized him.

“Maybe from THE ULTIMATE FIGHTER,” he said.

I recalled then that he was Billy Miles, and that on the sixth season of Spike TV's THE ULTIMATE FIGHTER he had looked tentative in the Octagon, and had been submitted with a rear-naked choke in the first round of his first fight. “I believe we went to high school together,” I said instead. “Did you go to Del Oro?”

“Yeah,” he said, and we shook hands. Then he turned back to the man to his left and picked up their conversation where he'd left it.

More men started filtering in—thick, short fighters with wrestling pedigrees and aspirations, I supposed, for the cage rather than the ring. On the radio was the Adam Carolla Show. A woman walked in wearing tear-away pants. She took a bottle of water from the refrigerator behind the desk, and when she walked onto the floor she didn't speak to anyone. She appeared anxious amongst all these men, and went to the rear of the room near the ring and began to stretch.

A tall man who had been hitting the speed bag stopped and walked from the back of the gym the length of the bench, talking to the men who sat wrapping their hands. When he got to me he said, “I want to train the lefty.” I was writing notes with my left hand. He introduced himself as Eric Regan, and I told him that I had come to interview the boxers. There was a fight scheduled for the following week, on the 15th of May, at the Red Lion Inn in Sacramento. When I had read the press release, Brandon Gonzalez's name was at the top of the bill. He'd fought three times as a pro, and had knocked out each of his opponents in the first round. The other fighters appeared less distinguished, especially Mike Simms, whose record stood at 19-9, the five most recent consecutive losses.

As far as I could tell from the fight poster and various websites I had visited, Gonzalez's opponent was still 'To Be Announced,' so I asked Eric, “Do you know who Gonzalez is fighting yet?”

“You'll have to ask Nasser.” Nasser Niavaroni co-owned the gym. “He's promoting the fight. He should be in this afternoon around three if you can hang out.”

I had intended to hang out, but not necessarily for six hours.  “When is Gonzalez going to be in?” I asked. I looked out into the parking lot where the Isuzu still sat parked, wondering if it wasn't Gonzalez in the car, talking with his girlfriend.

“I don't think he will be,” said Eric. “He's probably still in Vegas. But Simms and Otis will be. That's Simms right there in the parking lot.” He watched the door as a young woman in white sweats and a green top came in, carrying a small duffle bag. Then he looked back at me. “You should write that these guys are always late for training.”

“I've noted that,” I said.

The woman in green sat down beside me and began winding her hands in pink wrap. Eric watched her. “Who's your favorite cage fighter?” he asked her. “Tweeto Ortiz?” She didn't laugh so he repeated himself to ensure that she'd heard the joke.

“No,” she said, but she didn't provide an alternate. Eric walked to the front desk, and she took out her phone and began writing a text message.

Outside Mike Simms got out of the Rodeo and walked through the front door. Eric said hello to him and pointed over at me. I stood up and went to the desk and introduced myself. If Gonzales wasn't in California, I would interview whomever was.

Simms is a big man with small hands. His face resembles Bernard Hopkins', although he appears to have taken fewer punches on the nose. I told him that I was there to interview the fighters featured on the May 15th card, and he said that he would be happy to talk with me. He walked back to the ring with his bag, and I followed him and sat on the mat, waiting for him to change. Near me a man was doing sit-ups on a declined bench. Across the gym Regan yelled for the congregation of recreational kickboxers to assume their formation, and en masse they began doing arm circles.

Simms came out of the dressing room and sat down on the mat. He took out his ring boots and a tangle of hand tape that he separated into its unique lengths. He rolled each strip into a coil and then began wrapping his right hand.

“Who are you fighting on Thursday?” I asked. I hadn't paid close attention when I'd read about his scheduled bout.

“Derrick Harmon,” he said.

“You're a heavyweight?”

“Cruiser,” he corrected me. “Two hundred pounds.” He had finished with his right hand and had started on the left. “One of the last fights I had was in New York,” he said, without provocation. “I fought Roman Greenberg, who was like 240. I knew I was gonna come in close to 200, and the promoter told me I had to come in well over that so it wouldn't be such a big gap in the weights. I was like, 'That's a part I can't help.' I'm naturally walking around at one ninety-five. So an hour before the weigh-in they took me across the street from Madison Square Garden and gave me French fries, a big ol' burger, juice, and everything. They had me try and pack on some weight. I think I came in at 206. Greenberg got on the scale and he weighed 241.”

Simms finished with his left hand and put his sweatshirt into his bag. As he laced up his boots he said, “I think the biggest gap I had was my first pro loss, to a guy named Akuzia. Akuzie? I think I was 192 and he was like 246.” He didn't seem to remember the fight well. (Later, when I was looking over his record, I found that his first pro loss was to Yanqui Diaz, in a six round decision in Reno. Diaz had weighed in officially at two twenty-seven, so perhaps this was our man, renamed and enlarged, but certainly a heavyweight).

“But I never worry about a guy being heavier than me,” Simms continued. “If you land just one, ugly punch, you can do some damage. It don't got to be accurate. Just an ugly punch.”

I mentioned that Rocky Marciano had never looked beautiful in the ring, that he had thrown brawler's punches, or what Al Weill, his manager, had called his “Suzie-Qs.”

The man doing sit-ups had stood up and was wiping the sweat off his forehead. “He could hit like hell, though,” he said, speaking of Marciano, and we all three agreed that Rocky Marciano could hit like hell.

“Or you take Joe Calzaghe right now,” said Simms. “He throws a lot of punches, but he don't throw nothing with bad intentions. Like amateur scoring punches.”

This, I assumed, was the other way Simms assumed he could fight a heavier man, by darting in and pecking at him. I mentioned that I thought Calzaghe's approach to fighting Hopkins recently in Las Vegas had been to slap him rather than slug him. The other man, whose name I later learned was Eric Regan's brother, Ezra, said, “That's what he does.” I reminded them that Calzaghe had KOs—thirty-two of them, in fact—and that perhaps it had been Hopkins refusal to meet Calzaghe in the center of the ring that had inspired Joe's style.

“He just pummels you down,” said Ezra, still speaking of Calzaghe. “The way he beats guys up is probably worse than getting caught with one. Ask Jeff Lacy. He ruined Jeff Lacy.”

Since we had discussed the two extremes of boxing style—the brutal slugging of Marciano and the light, aggressive, percussive boxing of Calzaghe—I asked Simms how he considered his own work in the ring. “Are you a puncher or a boxer?”

“I definitely can punch,” he said. “But it's like, people believe more in my punching ability than I do.” He laughed.

“Mike be a boxer,” Ezra said. “Switching left and right, doing every move in the book.” Simms brightened at this compliment.

“My old trainer, Ray Williams,” said Simms, “would tell me that when I got in the ring it was like my stage. I could go in there with the skills I had, and the toughness, and knock guys out in the first round or two. If I mentally wanted to. But that's not how I think.” I wondered then why any boxer who had consistent, first round knockout punches, wouldn't use them exclusively, or at least box his way into as many fortuitous situations as possible. Simms continued, “I go into the ring and people tend to think that I'm in there playing around. People get confused because I'm not all mean-mugging, I'm not huffing and puffing, foaming at the mouth, or trying to scare my opponent with any kind of mental tactics. They think I don't take it serious, when I am serious.” The tenor of his voice when he said serious made me wonder if he actually was.

Articles of 2009

UFC 108 Rashad Evans vs. Thiago Silva

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Former champion Rashad Evans meets Brazil’s venerable Thiago Silva in a non-title belt that can lead to a return match with the current champ, but first things first.

Evans (15-1-1) and Silva (14-1) meet in Ultimate Fighting Championship 108 in a light heavyweight bout on Saturday Jan. 2, at the MGM Grand Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. A win by either fighter could result in a world title bid. The fight card is being shown on pay-per-view television.

Events can change quickly in the Octagon and anybody can beat anybody in the 205-pound weight division. Just ask Silva or Evans.

Silva and Evans are both experienced and can vouch firsthand about the capriciousness of fighting in MMA and especially as a light heavyweight. On one day this man can beat that man and on another day, that man can beat this man. It can make you absolutely daffy.

Evans, 30, is the former UFC light heavyweight world champion who only defended his title on one occasion and lost by vicious knockout to current champion Lyoto Machida of Brazil. It’s the only defeat on his record.

Silva, 27, is a well-rounded MMA fighter from Sao Paolo, Brazil who is versed in jujitsu, Muy Thai and boxing. He can end a fight quickly in a choke hold just as easily as with a kick or a punch. His only loss came to who else: Machida.

Evans and Silva know a win can push open the door to a rematch with current UFC light heavyweight champion Machida.

“A win against Rashad would put me in the track against Lyoto,” said Silva, in a telephone conference call. “That's what – what I want to do.”

When Silva fought Machida the two Brazilians were both undefeated and feared in the MMA world. The fight took place in Las Vegas and with one second remaining in the first round a perfectly timed punch knocked Silva unconscious.

“I was humbled big time, man,” says Silva who fought Machida in January 2009. “I learned a lot from that fight.  I think I can correct the mistakes from that fight, not overlooking anything else right now, but just I want to get the chance to fight him again.”

For Evans it was a different circumstance. The upstate New Yorker held the UFC title and was defending it after stopping then champion Forrest Griffin by knockout. Still, many felt Machida was far too technically versed. Evans was stopped brutally in the second round.

“I've made it a point to not – to not get distracted on what I want to do, because you know Thiago (Silva) is a very hungry fighter,” said Evans who has not fought since losing the title to Machida last May. “My focus is just on Thiago so much.  You know I don't want to overlook him, you know, not even a little bit.”

Dana White, president of UFC, says the winner of this fight could conceivably fight Machida in the near future. Evans and especially Silva are motivated by the open window.

“I learned a lot from that fight. I think I can correct the mistakes from that fight,” says Silva. “Not overlooking anything else right now, but I just want to get the chance to fight him again.”

What a prize. The winner gets to face the man who beat him: Machida.

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Articles of 2009

Ten Boxing Wishes For 2010

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As 2009 comes to a close, one reflects on what went well and what went wrong during the year in boxing. There were many highlights. Pacquiao vs. Cotto and Showtime’s Super Six tournament were part of the best that boxing had to offer. But there were some low points too therefore the industry has some work to do in order to keep generating fans. Here are some suggestions for 2010:

10. Better pay per view cards

Paying 40 to 50 bucks to watch the main event gets old real quick. Why do we have to sit through a horrible under-card to get to the main course? It’s like being fed spam appetizers before the Thanksgiving turkey. It seems that the pay per view promoters just don’t get it. Are they watching what they put on or do they only watch the “big fight” as everyone else is slowly being conditioned to do so?

9. Time to make Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. fight

Okay, I understand he’s the son of one of the greatest fighters that ever lived. But he’s had 42 fights against low to mid level competition and has never managed to look spectacular. It’s time to throw the 23 year old out of the nest to see if he can fly. My suggestion is a fight against Sergio Mora or maybe even Yuri Foreman. Neither of these guys can punch. They may outbox Junior but they won’t totally humiliate him.

8. No more ridiculous Pay Per View mismatches

Floyd Mayweather Jr. vs. Juan Manuel Marquez should’ve never been made. It was a ridiculous fight when it was announced and it was more ridiculous when it took place. Unable to bring Manny Pacquiao to the bargaining table for a third match against Juan Manuel Marquez, someone figured that pairing up the 135 pound champion against a natural 147 pounder like Mayweather would be a great idea. The pay per view generated over a million buys but the fact that millions of people were treated to an incredibly boring mismatch is what’s truly worrisome. I can guarantee you one thing about this card. The sport of boxing lost fans once the show was over and done with. Talk about short term thinking.

7. Chris “The Nightmare” Arreola shows up for a fight in amazing shape

It was painful to see Chris Arreola take a beating from the Ukrainian giant, Vitali Klitscho. The champion certainly earned his “Dr. Ironfist” moniker as he plowed his powerful shots into the former #1 WBC heavyweight contender’s face. He reddened and bloodied the young Mexican American with an assortment of weapons and foot movement seldom seen on a six foot seven inch heavyweight. Arreola was brave and unrelenting in battle. He never stopped coming forward and took chances when he could. His work in the ring at the Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles wasn’t the problem. Where Arreola let himself down was outside the ring. His unwillingness to condition himself into a finely tuned athlete cost him certain immortality as the first ever heavyweight champion of Mexican descent. Arreola has the heart and skills but it was his mental fortitude that broke down. Anyone who’s followed the Riverside fighter knows that his best weight is somewhere in the 230 pound range. It certainly isn’t at the 252 pounds he registered on the scale at the Staples Center.  Those fifteen to twenty extra pounds might have made all the difference in the world. Maybe he would’ve been a little quicker, maybe he could’ve sustained a faster pace in order to tire out the champion. In his most recent fight against Brian Minto, Arreola weighed in at a career high 263. It looks like “The Nightmare” isn’t willing to change for anyone. At this pace, the only nightmares he’ll be providing will be to the management of Hometown Buffets all across Riverside.  Just kidding “Nightmare”!

6. More respect for the lighter weights

Real boxing fans know that the most exciting fighters in the sport are usually found toiling in weight divisions south of 154 pounds. Pacquiao, Cotto, Juan Manuel Marquez, Edwin Valero, Israel Vazquez, Juan Ma Lopez, Vic Darchinyan, Rafael Marquez and countless others have been the real driving force behind this sport. It’s those great fighters that have made boxing fanatics out of casual fans. The heavyweights may get all the money and glory but it’s the little guys who make the sport shine and it’s time they received greater compensation. It’s dismaying to think that a mediocre heavyweight can make three or four times as much as the great Rafael Marquez.

5. An American Heavyweight champion

Speaking of heavyweights, two Americans tried and failed at dethroning Vitali Klitschko this year. Both Kevin Johnson and Chris Arreola did their best to wrestle the belt away from “Dr. Klitschko” but came up short since they were easily outclassed. What happened to the great American Heavyweight? Where’s our new Joe Frazier or Ali? Even a new Gerry Cooney or a Ken Norton would do at this point. I’ve got a feeling that the only way we’re going to see an American champion is if Klitschko retires. My money is on Arreola. Although undisciplined and rough outside the ring, he’s got tons (no pun intended) of natural talent. He’s without a doubt the most talented American heavyweight on the scene.

4. More ShoBox

The Showtime Cable network gave us the best boxing on TV for the price of a cable television subscription. Their ShoBox series has been a proven hit for Senior VP of Sports Programming Ken Hershman. The concept is simple yet brilliant. Match up two up and comers with great records and let’s see what happens. Sometimes the results are surprising. Many have passed the ShoBox test and went on to bigger and better things. Others have been exposed as having padded records and eventually their careers stall and take a dive.

3. More safety in Mexico so I can attend a show without a gun battle breaking out

Having lived near the Tijuana border all my life I’m dismayed at the war zone that the city has evolved into. Every day there are reports of shootings fueled by the drug war trade. Believe it or not, there was a time when Tijuana was safe and most wouldn’t have thought twice about crossing the border for some seafood and nightlife. No more. Having covered several boxing cards on Revolucion Avenue many years ago, I got a taste of just how important the sport is to Mexican fans. It’s also important to me but not that important. For now I’ll stick to covering shows at the Pechanga Casino and in the less dangerous city of L.A. I never thought I’d say that.

2. Pac Man vs. Mayweather

This is the fight everyone wants to see. Seeing how Mayweather dominated Pac Man’s arch enemy, Juan Manuel Marquez, you have to wonder if the Filipino can handle Lil’ Floyd’s speed and size. One thing is for sure, betting against Pacquiao doesn’t usually work out for me. It never has. There’s no future in it. So if the fight gets done it’s Pacquiao by TKO in ten.

1. And finally

One final wish is reserved for all the readers of TheSweetScience.com I wish you all a healthy and happy 2010. Thank you for your continued loyalty to the site. It’s very much appreciated.

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Articles of 2009

A Very Special New Year's Day Column

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It has been just over four months since Nick Charles, the play-by-play announcer for Shobox: The New Generation, was diagnosed with stage IV bladder cancer and forced to take a medical hiatus from the monthly show that has aired since 2001.

Since then he has undergone grueling chemotherapy treatments that have resulted in him losing all of his hair as he forces himself to live as normal of a life as possible. Through sheer force of will, as well as the strength and support that he receives from his wonderfully loving family and his strong Christian faith, the 63-year-old Charles has managed to keep his weight up while not falling prey to the always lingering threats of depression, cynicism and negativity.

If one was unaware that he was battling such an insidious disease, you’d never know from talking on the phone to him that he has been to hell and back. He has lost none of the inspiring energy that has endeared him to members of the boxing community and legions of worldwide viewers.

“I’m doing great,” Charles said during a telephone conversation on December 30th. “I’ve been off the chemo for a month, and the doctors have told me that I’m 80 percent in remission. I’m going to see them again in three months. It may come back, but if it takes one year, or two years, or however long, I’m going to make the most of the good time.”

As physically and emotionally wrenching as the grim diagnosis and subsequent treatment has been, even for someone as perpetually positive as Charles, the longtime announcer said a lot of good things have come from it.

Having been married three times, Charles is the father of four children: Jason, 38, Melissa, 34, Charlotte, 22, and Giovanna, 3 ½.

While Charles is not big on regrets, he is the first to admit that he wasn’t always there for his older children. For many years he traveled the world as a CNN correspondent, often putting the demands of his career above all else, including those closest to him. Nowhere was the strain more evident than in his relationship with Melissa.

Having been divorced from Melissa’s mother since 1977, Charles said his relationship with that daughter has been especially “hot and cold, all of our lives.”

His illness has enabled them to forge a relationship that has been “based on a massive amount of forgiveness and understanding.”

“This has had a tremendous healing effect on both of us,” said Charles. “My illness has had a fortifying effect on a lot of things, the most important of which is my relationships with my family.”

That also includes his first wife, with whom he has had an often acrimonious relationship over the past three decades.

“It took a long time for the scab to become a scar, but we had lunch one day and it was so great to once again see the gentle, soft sides of each other,” he explained. “The whole divorce process creates a hardness that doesn’t always go away.”

Charles is also the grandfather to three children, some of whom are about the same age as his youngest daughter. He jokes that he has a “nuclear 21st century family” because of the similar ages of two generations of children. One of the hardest things for him has been the realization that he can’t always play with them in manner in which he would like.

“The hemoglobin is the fuel in your tank, so when it’s low you can’t will yourself to do things no matter how much you want to,” said Charles. “You can’t just sleep it off or work through it. I don’t want the kids to wonder why I can’t play in the backyard with them, or kick a soccer ball, or throw them in the air.”

Particularly difficult is when Giovanna reminds her father of how handsome he is, but then innocently asks him what happened to his hair, eyebrows and lashes.

“You try to keep things on a need to know basis, which is not easy when dealing with curious kids,” said Charles.

While Charles might look like the kind of guy that things have often come easy to, the reality is that his beginnings were far from auspicious. But, he says, his often challenging Chicago childhood blessed him with the steely resolve that has helped him so much during the arduous journey he is now on.

“I had it pretty rough growing up,” he explained. “I remember the lights and the heat being shut off and eating mustard sandwiches. I went to work at 13 and always had insecurities about the future. But I always expected and saw the best in people, so when I got sick, never once did I say 'Why me?”

Since taking a leave of absence from Shobox, the outpouring of support from the boxing community has warmed Charles’s heart. For a guy that is battling for his life, he actually considers himself fortunate to be surrounded by so much goodness in both his personal and professional lives.

“I always hear that boxing people are ruthless, but I couldn’t disagree more,” said Charles. “I’ve probably received about 1,000 e-mails, and people are always following in sending their best wishes. From the relatively unknown people in boxing to many of the more famous people, there has been an outpouring of true affection.”

Charles said that the Top Rank organization has been exceedingly kind and gracious. He was touched beyond description when he learned that officials in Oklahoma got special permission to have a seamstress sew “Keep Fighting Nick” onto their sleeves. He chokes up when talking about cut man Stitch Duran giving up an endorsement opportunity so he could put Charles’s name on his outfit. He never tires of hearing shout-outs from fighters on television.

Charles has always been a people person with an inordinate faith in the goodness of his fellow man. Battling this illness has only made his already strong faith in humanity even stronger.

“Adversity is a great teacher, and it really teaches you who your genuine friends are,” said Charles. “I have a lot of friends.”

He also has a remarkable wife, Cory, a CNN producer to whom he has been married for 11 years. She is the daughter of an electrician, a self-made woman who exudes all of the warmth of her native Brooklyn. She has reinforced her husband’s spiritual base by her love, optimism and strength of character.

“If I get down, she reminds me to not get too caught up,” said Charles. “I believe in eternity, and that has put me pretty much at peace.”

More than anything else, Charles wants to get himself back behind a microphone sooner rather than later, and hopefully on Shobox. He is the first to admit that viewers “don’t watch the series to see Nick Charles,” but he is proud of the fact that he was “part of the identity” of such a popular show.

“And people love comeback stories,” added Charles. “That’s the message I’m getting from the people out there.”

In boxing the word “champion” is often overused because it pertains only to winning belts and receiving worldwide recognition for being the best at your craft. The reality is that life’s real champions have other qualities, such as the innate ability to treat people well and always make them feel better about themselves, especially when the recipients of the goodwill are in no position to give them anything back.

By that standard of measure, Charles is as much, if not more of a champion than all of the boxers he has covered during the nine years that Shobox has been on the air.

I know I speak for scores of others when I say, “Happy New Year, Champ. We hope that you are the comeback story of the year in 2010.”

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