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Articles of 2009

Diamond Gamboa-Shiny, But Rough

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When Teddy Atlas watches Yuriorkis Gamboa fight he knows exactly what he’s looking at. He’s looking at a future world champion.  For how long? Who knows?

The 2004 Olympic gold medalist is only 12 fights into his professional career but each one has been the kind of affair that piques the interest of fight fans and even a veteran trainer and boxing analyst like Atlas because everything Gamboa does has a recklessness and a willfulness to it that demand attention be paid. Yet the same things that are making him one of the fastest rising names in the sport are also bringing him perilously close to being someone who could fall as fast as he’s risen.

That’s why ESPN2 figures to have a strong audience tonight when he fights the main event against a very likely non-competitive journeyman named Roger Gonzalez to open their new season and why when his already planned title challenge against once-defeated Elio Rojas for the WBC interim featherweight title  comes around there will be heightened interest among boxing loyalists.

But will the four-time Cuban national champion who defected to search for his fortune in a boxing ring become a fighter whose legend lives long after he’s gone or will he be another shooting star who flashes across the sky for a moment and then flames out of his own volition?

“That’s what you don’t know about him,’’ Atlas said of Gamboa. “I see him becoming a world champion but I don’t know how long he’ll stay a world champion.

“He’s reckless in his approach and in his regard for the game. He has tremendous speed and power but he doesn’t pay tribute to good habits inside the ring like keeping his hands up.

“He knows he has skill and he knows how hard he worked in Cuba to hone those skills and that has given him a fighter’s confidence but his talent and that confidence have also combined to lead him to a place where he thinks they can override other things that have to be paid attention to, like fundamentals and the technical side of boxing.

“Regardless of your talent you have to practice those things to have longevity. You can have success with what he has – talent and a great fighter’s temperament – but his strengths are also his weakness. Confidence becomes arrogance and arrogance becomes foolishness and that can become a disaster.’’

Gamboa has already been down several times, having been dropped by guys he was dominating because too often he has his hands slung low and leaps forward without maintaining proper distance. What that has led to is Gamboa being timed perfectly by opponents with the inclination to fight back and a resulting unscheduled and unexpected trip to the floor.

Those have thus far been only brief stops on his way to having his hand raised but they are also warning signs, alarming reminders that someone who doesn’t respect what can happen inside the ring may one day learn how harsh its realities can be.

“He has beyond good talent,’’ Atlas said. “He has almost extraordinary talent. Hand speed. Strength. Power. The mortar that holds all that together is supreme confidence, that belief that he will always win, and he has that too.

“That confidence is as noticeable in the ring as his hand speed and his explosiveness. It makes him an exciting guy, a guy who will make money in boxing, which is what he wants of course. People will want to see him because he has a ring presence. He makes you believe when he’s in there that you’re watching someone special, which you are.

“Because he has confidence that borders on arrogance he’ll take chances he doesn’t need to take to prove his point. He’s gotten away with it because he has good instincts but he does what a lot of young guys do who have too much youth for their talent. He’s reckless in a way that could get him hurt one night.

“It’s a little like giving a kid a powerful sports car before he knows enough about driving to respect it. He’s gonna run red lights. A gifted fighter like Gamboa is gonna jump in from too far away instead of working his way in and because of his talent he’ll get away with it most of the time. But one night you do that with the wrong guy, maybe a guy not as talented but somebody who is sounder in his fundamentals and just confident as you, and that’s the night you run the sports car into a telephone pole.’’

Gamboa has already experienced that but emerged only with a dented grill or a bruised ego. Although he’s been knocked down several times always he’s gotten up and made opponents pay dearly for their moment. To Atlas, that is a sign that his chin is not his problem. His problem is, well, fundamental.

“There’s a reason why people with less talent knock off people with more talent,’’ Atlas said. “It’s not going to happen Friday night and it may not happen for a while but there are ways to even the genetic playing field if you can grab other areas. That’s the downside for Gamboa.

“The negative is he’s been down already. The positive is he gets up and wins. You can’t really say a guy has a bad chin until he doesn’t get up. I’ve seen him get hit clean and hard and he got up so I’d say he has a good chin. It’s not like he’s been dropped by glancing blows.

“The reason he’s been in those situations can be corrected because it’s his fundamentals not his chin. When he’s gone down it was because coming in he left too much of a gap and usually his hands were too low. He was disrespectful of what can happen in the ring and the guy timed him because instead of getting defensive and backing out when Gamboa attacked, the guy stood his ground.

“Nobody’s been able to take advantage of that yet. They haven’t been able to land a second shot. But one day there will be a moment beyond where he’s been. Some place, some time, there will be a going beyond that moment when a guy hits him with two instead of one. If his people are cognizant of that – and not many are these days in boxing – that’s where they need to lead the way.

“If they do, he could be a great champion. If they don’t how long he keeps a title will be up for discussion.’’

The difficult thing for his trainer, Ismael Salas, is to impart those lessons without restraining Gamboa’s aggressiveness or stunting his natural confidence. There is a thin line in a boxing ring between wisdom and wariness, a line that once crossed alters forever the kind of fighter you are. It is that line where Gamboa now stands.

At the moment, he is all about bold aggression. He wins in the same overwhelming way Mike Tyson once did, making fans care less about the quality of his opponent because they are more focused on the spectacular way he gets rid of the problem in front of him.

The trainer’s delicate balancing act with such a talent must fall somewhere between the danger he knows lurks inside the ring and the bold confidence required to succeed in such a place. That is the side of Yuriorkis Gamboa’s development that Atlas finds most intriguing and believes is most imperative.

“From a trainer’s perspective his greatest strength is his attitude,’’ Atlas said. “I know a lot of guys with speed and power but they don’t try to shove it down your throat. This guy does. He wants to use what he has.

“You’ll never have a night where you leave the arena and say you didn’t see Gamboa’s speed tonight. You didn’t see his ability tonight. He comes to the arena to show off what he has.

“That’s why he practiced all those hours in those hot gyms in Cuba. He knows he invested that time and he wants the world to see what he got back. But he also learned pretty quickly over here that there’s a lot of competition out there for who is going to get paid.

“I think that forces him to be a little bit undisciplined. He wants to show off that pure talent because he has a stage here that didn’t exist in the amateurs and he sees that over here the more you show off the more you get paid. That kind of thing is airborne. It’s understood among these kinds of guys.

“The same hunger that made him sell his gold medal in Cuba so he could pay for his daughter’s birthday party has created a dangerous hunger in him to make money. It’s dangerous to you and it’s dangerous to him.’’

That side of Gamboa has left Atlas feeling two ways about him. On the one hand he is always anxious to see him fight but when he sees that dangerous side emerge, that disrespectful side for the most dangerous sport in the land, it irritates his professional sensibilities.

“I dedicated my whole life to boxing,’’ Atlas said. “You look for a special guy like this guy. I enjoy watching him but the trainer side of me gets irked when he takes chances he doesn’t need to take because I know where that’s going to lead one night. It irks me when he ignores the basics of boxing because I know what’s coming with that too.

“You see a diamond like Gamboa you want it to be polished perfectly. You don’t want any rough edges. He deserves to be every bit he can be, which is a lot. But he won’t be if those flaws aren’t polished out.’’

And so you watch and wait to see who wins this race – Yuriokis Gamboa’s great gifts or boxing’s cruel insistence that it be respected even by those whom it has blessed.

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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