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Articles of 2009

Hopkins As Analyst: Can He Talk The Talk?



Imperious sportscaster Howard Cosell was openly contemptuous of ex-athletes who were handed prominent roles as broadcasters based primarily, if not solely, on the name recognition they achieved in the ring or on the field. In his 1985 book authored by Peter Bonventre, “I Never Played the Game,” Cosell, who was 77 when he died in 1995, blasted the “jockocracy” that obliged broadcasting professionals such as himself to share the “Monday Night Football” booth with the itinerant likes of folksy Don Meredith and handsome, glib and occasionally tongue-tied Frank Gifford, both of whom were former NFL stars.

It’s a safe bet that Cosell would be aghast at the sports television industry as it exists today, with retired or even active athletes all over the tube in commentating roles for which some, alas, are ill-suited. But the same so-called “jockocracy” that temporarily foisted Johnny Unitas on viewers – the legendary Baltimore Colts quarterback was one of the best passers ever, but an absolute disaster as a color analyst – has created crossover successes such as Terry Bradshaw, John Madden, Len Elmore, Tim McCarver, Charles Barkley and, if early reports are to be believed, possibly longtime former middleweight champion Bernard Hopkins, who made his debut as a studio analyst alongside host Brian Kenny for last Friday’s 2009 debut of ESPN2’s “Friday Night Fights.” In attempting the transformation from “The Executioner” to “The Elocutioner,” Hopkins offered his take on separate bouts involving Cuban prospects Yuriokis Gamboa, Odlanier Solis and Erislandy Lara.

It was the first of a possible 18 contracted appearances on “FNF” for Hopkins, although the actual number is apt to be less as he rotates with three other analysts ( writer Dan Rafael, former Solo Boxeo broadcaster Bernardo Osuna and fighter BJ Flores) who’ll be seated alongside Kenny at ESPN’s desk in Bristol, Conn.

“They told me I was a natural,” said Hopkins, who first chatted up Kenny as a guest on “FNF” three years ago.

“He gets it,” Kenny said of Hopkins the emerging television personality. “There is a warm, funny, bright person inside `The Executioner.’ He has a great desire to learn, and I think in time he will develop into something special.”

The major obstacle that Hopkins has had to overcome in his new gig is his proclivity for answering every question with rambling, stream-of-consciousness replies that touch on any number of topics, even occasionally the one related to the original inquiry. It’s been a chore for him to master the art of the quick but relevant sound bite.

“I always wanted to do this,” Hopkins, who remains an executive with Golden Boy Promotions, said of his expansion into TV boxing commentary. “Whether I fight again or not, I’ve got, what, maybe one fight left? Or maybe none. If a meaningful fight isn’t there for me, it might be time to go.

“I’d like to get it on with Joe (Calzaghe) again, but it doesn’t seem like he wants it. Some people are talking about me fighting Jermain Taylor for a third time. But it has to be something that really interests me, you know? I’m not going to stick around to fight Joe the Plumber.”

Hopkins’ nature is such that he almost certainly will work as hard at mastering broadcasting as he did at mastering the intricacies of boxing. He wants to be the very best he can be at whatever venture he attempts. But hard work isn’t all there is to making it on TV, nor is a melodious voice or wealth of accumulated knowledge. Trainer Teddy Atlas has developed a large following as “FNF’s” ringside analyst, despite a Staten Island accent so thick you couldn’t cut it with a chainsaw. Bradshaw, who won four Super Bowls as quarterback of the “Steel Curtain”-era Pittsburgh Steelers, found his niche on CBS as an arm-waving goof, and Barkley, recently suspended by Turner Sports following a driving-under-the-influence arrest, has fans that can’t wait to hear the next outrageous statement to pop out of his well-fed mouth.

Even televised boxing, which for so long was the province of easily identifiable, singular voices such as Don Dunphy’s and Cosell’s, has become a tag-team proposition, with multiple broadcasters jumping in and out.

But if there is a downside to all that wretched excess, so, too, was there when one guy commanded the microphone as if it were his own personal bully pulpit. Larry Merchant, the former sports editor and columnist who for so long has graced HBO’s “World Championship Boxing” telecasts with measured civility in contrast to Cosell’s bombast, said even Cosell, who would have been loath to admit it, could have and did benefit from partnering up with accursed jocks who did not feel obliged to sign off on his talking points.

“With Cosell, there were a number of things he just missed because he really wasn’t an expert,” Merchant said of Cosell’s long run as the Lone Ranger of ABC’s “Wide World of Sports” boxing telecasts. “He had his own point of view as to what was going on, and something he was flat-out wrong.

“He created incorrect impressions of what was happening in certain fights, I thought. Once of the advantages of having a second and even a third guy at ringside is that it gives a different vision or visions, because so much is open to interpretation.”

Merchant and blow-by-blow announcer Jim Lampley have worked with any number of former fighters and trainers who have filled the role of third man-with-a-microphone. All have brought instant credibility to the role because they were well-known; only a few had staying power because, ultimately, discerning viewers can determine for themselves whether a superstar is working hard at his new craft or simply mailing it in.

Among those who have passed into and out of Merchant’s domain are Sugar Ray Leonard, George Foreman and Roy Jones Jr. Still on HBO’s payroll are Lennox Lewis and Hall of Fame trainer Emanuel Steward.

Even Hopkins, whose gift of gab is as obvious as are his technical skills in the ring, was among those who auditioned as a color analyst for HBO telecasts. He didn’t make it, in large part because he still was struggling with the time constraints placed upon commentators.

Sometimes even Merchant can’t explain why an ex-fighter connects with the viewing audience or doesn’t. Is it mostly a personality thing? Ability to convey information in a timely manner? Something about the voice? All of the above, or maybe even none?

“Some guys are very good about talking about themselves, but not necessarily about others,” he allowed. “What happens is that they’re good as long as they are familiar with contemporary athletes, coaches, theories, et cetera. But if they don’t keep doing their homework as new people and ideas come in, they fall by the wayside.

“Others don’t have the capacity or the motivation to make that type of commitment, and it’s obvious in the quality of their work. You can only live off of what you know for so long. Then there are the guys who find it difficult to be objective because they’re hesitant to offer legitimate criticism, or at least criticism that isn’t self-serving. They’re not mentally equipped to second-guess coaches they played for or against, athletes they played with and against. Those are the ones that quickly get weeded out.”

Barkley is a prime example of someone whose analysis might not be the most prescient, but can cover it with an outsized personality and ability, to paraphrase Cosell, to “tell it like it is,” or at least as he thinks it is.

“Barkley is all about personality, candor and general presence,” Merchant said. “He’s not intimidated out of being who he is by being in a studio, speaking into a microphone and looking into a camera when that red light is on.”

Hopkins is pretty much the same way, but whether he can convince viewers of that remains to be seen.

“You get what you get with Bernard Hopkins,” B-Hop said. “You get with you get with Charles Barkley. He always says what’s on his mind and I always say what’s on my mind. I won’t hold back.”

If only it were that easy.

“We’ve had other glib guys who were not as good (at commentating) as you might imagine,” Merchant noted. “Antonio Tarver is an extremely well-spoken and sometimes funny observer of the fight scene. He didn’t make the cut, just as Hopkins didn’t, when HBO held those trials.”

Then there was Roy Jones, who figured he could slide by on natural talent, much in the manner he has tried to do so in his career as a fighter.

“Roy was a very astute observer of that dynamic in a boxing context,” Merchant said. “But he had no desire to go to production meetings or to ask questions to see if he could glean some nugget of information that would be revealing about the character or personality or plans of a fighter. His way was to simply show up and wing it.

“It was extremely unprofessional, which is why he’s not doing it for us anymore. In a sense, he disrespected everyone he was working with.”

Sugar Ray Leonard was better at putting in the time, but there was a barrier through which he never seemed capable of breaking through.

“Ray, to my recollection, did all the things he should have done,” Merchant recalled. “He was a superstar who did offer some interesting observations. But – and maybe this is a little unfair – he was not as electrifying a broadcaster as he was a fighter. His personality was more low-key.”

Foreman, who sold millions of grilling machines because of his smile and jovial good nature, certainly was not lacking in the personality department. His shortcoming was a tendency to flip-flop in his analysis, jumping from one fighter to another with every shift in momentum.

And what of Lewis, who’ll again be at ringside as an analyst for HBO’s Saturday night “Boxing After Dark” telecast of WBC welterweight champion Andre Berto’s defense against Luis Collazo in Biloxi, Miss.?

“Lennox … it’s hard for me to say anything about Lennox,” said Merchant, who only sporadically pulls duty on B.A.D. telecasts. “He was the heavyweight champion of the world and a credit to boxing. He does come to the meetings and asks questions of the fighters. He’s curious. He’s professional in that respect.”

ESPN, though, is the world-wide leader in ex-jock talking heads employed at any given time. Such is the reality when you’ve got 24 hours a day of sports programming to fill.

“They have former athletes talking on every subject imaginable,” Merchant said. “Some of them are very good.”

The implication, of course, is that some are not so good. But the voracious TV monster needs to be fed daily, and there seems to be no end to the trend of ex-jocks, the more famous the better, getting the inside track to those lucrative analyst spots.

“Fame opens the door,” Merchant said. “Some guys walk through that door, some run through it and some, for whatever reason, can’t even cross the threshold.

“We’ll see how it goes with Bernard Hopkins. He’s being given the opportunity to do multiple telecasts. He can look at his work alongside real professionals and say, `This is good, this is not so good, this is what I need to work on.’ I think he’s a smart guy. Now that he has more time to devote to it, you’ve got to conclude that, based on his record as a fighter, he’ll give it his very best effort.”

Articles of 2009

UFC 108 Rashad Evans vs. Thiago Silva



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



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 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



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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