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Articles of 2009

Sun Rising Again Above The Blue Horizon

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They come, frequently unannounced and unexpected, like pilgrims to a holy place. The most recent batch was from England, tourists who had come to Philadelphia ostensibly to soak in the rich history of the city and the area, which includes Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell, Valley Forge and all manner of landmarks associated with inventor/statesman Benjamin Franklin. But these Britons were also fight fans, so no visit to the city of Rocky Balboa, Joe Frazier and Bernard Hopkins would be complete without a side trip to a mansion constructed in 1865 that for nearly a hundred years had nothing to do with the sport with which it is now permanently linked.

The first professional boxing card at what is now known as the Blue Horizon was staged in 1961, which doesn’t seem so very long ago when measured against other, longer-vested shrines to the sweet science. But the Brits – not to mention Germans, Italians, Japanese and regular Americans from nearly every state – arrive to see for themselves if this hallowed hall, spiffied up a bit in recent years but still showing its age, is all that they have built it up to be in their minds.

Folks who like a good scrap do tend to become curious when no less an authority than The Ring magazine proclaim boxing’s most famous club venue as the absolute best place in the world to watch a prizefight.

“These English people came by and said they just had to take a look inside, at where the ring would be,” Vernoca Michael, principal owner of the Blue Horizon, said of the visitors who had crossed an ocean to soak in the atmosphere enriched by the memories of a thousand fights and fighters. “They said they had heard so much about this place, they just had to see it for themselves.”

Empty, during daylight hours and without the ring set up in its second-floor main room, the Blue Horizon might not seem so special. The neighborhood isn’t quite as high-crime as more perilous sections of Philadelphia, but it is hardly risk-free, especially after the sun goes down. On fight nights, when 1,200 patrons pack the place, parking is at a premium. Lines for the two bathrooms – one for men, one for women – are long, as are those for the single concession stand. There is heating during the winter, but no climate control during the summer months, when fans are obliged to endure steam-bath conditions.

Once, upon scoring a unanimous, 10-round decision over an equally gassed Miguel Santana in oppressive heat, welterweight “Rockin’” Rodney Moore was asked by a eager, young radio reporter for a local black station if he had any advice for the kids of North Philadelphia.

Moore, whose record 23 appearances there earned him the sobriquet of “King of the Blue Horizon,” gasped for air before responding.

“Yeah, I do,” Moore finally declared. “Never fight in an un-air-conditioned building in August.”

The next day’s hammer headline in the Philadelphia Daily News detailing Moore’s victory simply read, “Swelterweights.”

Outsiders might wonder how such an old mausoleum of a building, with outdated facilities and without even its own parking lot, can command such awe. But only those who have actually watched boxing at the Blue Horizon, be it from the overhanging balconies that are nearly on top of the action or from folding chairs around the ring, can speak to the incomparable sight lines. To watch a fight at the Blue is almost akin to being inside the ropes yourself. The mystique envelops you, takes you back to a time when the blood and sweat of so many fighters consecrated sites like this and gave them meaning. But Miami Beach’s 5th Street Gym, where a young Cassius Clay prepared to slay the dragon that was Sonny Liston, has fallen to the wrecking ball, and Los Angeles’ Olympic Auditorium has been converted into a Korean church.

Nor is Philly, a city that prides itself as the unofficial capitol of American boxing, been spared from history’s eraser. So much of Philadelphia’s sports heritage is being stripped away, layer by layer. The Spectrum – which was the site of so many great fights involving the likes of hometown heroes Frazier, Bennie Briscoe, Bobby “Boogaloo” Watts, Eugene “Cyclone” Hart, Willie “The Worm” Monroe and Stanley “Kitten” Hayward and such distinguished imports as Marvelous Marvin Hagler, Roberto Duran, Ernie Terrell and Mike Tyson, is being torn down later this year to make way for a hotel, retail stores and restaurants. Other club sites such as the Alhambra – affectionately known as the “Bucket of Blood” – and the Arena have been lost within the annals of time, sacrificed upon the supposed altar of progress.

Even the New Alhambra, the renamed Viking Hall in South Philadelphia that for the past five years has been the home of fight cards co-promoted by J Russell Peltz and the Hands, Joe Sr. and Joe Jr., is braced for a makeover that apparently won’t include boxing. The building’s owners, in effect, have evicted its tenants, who were not prepared to pay a demanded increase in rent from $1,000 to $6,000 a month. In the space which once housed pro cards, the Eastern Pennsylvania Golden Gloves tournament and the Joe Hand Boxing Gym soon will emerge a health club whose parent company is prepared to pay the much higher rent.

“To stay there and not own the building would have been foolish on my part,” said Joe Hand Sr., one of the original investors in Cloverlay, which bankrolled Joe Frazier during the early stages of his professional career.

The Hands are in the process of purchasing a building in the Northern Liberties section of Philly to house their gym, which should be good news to everyone who does not wish to see boxing at the local level perish in stages. But the turn of events that likely has doomed the sport at the New Alhambra is not entirely bleak for fight fans who will soon be treated to a more heaping dose of Blue Horizon fisticuffs than they’ve experienced in, well, years.

An arrangement is in place – contracts have not yet been signed, but are in the process of being drawn up – by which the Hands and Peltz will stage six fight cards at the Blue Horizon throughout the remainder of 2009, in addition to the Eastern Pennsylvania Golden Gloves. In conjunction with the bimonthly cards put on by Vernoca Michael’s company, The Legendary Blue Horizon Promotions, the bottom line is that there will be at least one show a month, and sometimes more, at the place that has proved to be such a tourist magnet even when fewer boxing events were presented there.

Don Elbaum, who serves as Michael’s matchmaker, said more in this instance is better … a lot better, in fact.

“Running 12 shows a year at the Blue Horizon is a plus not only for the Blue Horizon, but boxing and Philadelphia,” Elbaum said. “We are going to help Joe and Russell, and they are going to help us. No question.”

The new embarrassment of riches begins on Feb. 6, when Israeli soldiers Ran Nakash and Elad Shmouel headline the card promoted by Michael. Nakash (16-0, 12 KOs), who will be making his seventh appearance at the Blue Horizon, takes on Ryan Carroll (7-1, 4 KOs), of Delaware, Ohio, in the eight-round main event while Shmouel (18-2, 12 KOs), a junior welterweight, swaps punches with Khristian Garaci (4-5-1, 2 KOs), in a six-rounder.

Nakash serves as the chief instructor of hand-to-hand combat for the Israeli Defense Force; Shmouel is a first sergeant.

Exactly one month later, on March 6, the Hands and Peltz settle in when NABF welterweight champion Mike Jones (16-0, 14 KOs) defends his title against an opponent to be announced.

For Peltz, who has been running fight cards in Philadelphia since 1969, the return to the Blue Horizon is something of a homecoming. Since he had a falling out with Michael and moved on at the end of 2001, he has staged only one show there, a co-promotion with Don Chargin in January 2004. Until he partnered up with the Hands, he had been something of a gypsy in his own town, staging one-and-done shows at Poor Henry’s Brewery in 2000 and the Gershman YMCA (which for boxing purposes he renamed the Arts Palace) in 2002.

“It’ll be a little bit strange at first,” Peltz said of his return to once-familiar surroundings. “But as long as the fights are good, we’ll be fine.”

The friction between Peltz and Michael stemmed from Peltz’s complaints that improvements needed to be made to the facility. At the time, he cited unsafe catwalks and more minor concerns, such as peeling paint.

Those concerns were not without cause. In the summer of 2000, the Blue Horizon – so named by then-owner Jimmy Toppi in 1961, after a 1940s song, “Beyond the Blue Horizon” – was so decrepit that Philadelphia’s Department of Licenses and Inspections had cited it for fire and electrical code violations.

Michael and her business partner, Carol Ray, had quit their jobs and went into debt for $500,000 when they purchased the Blue Horizon in 1994. At the time, they anticipated receiving state funds allocated for improvements along the so-called Avenue of the Arts.

“The enticement for us buying the property was those state and city grants,” Michael said at the time. “But to date that money has not been forthcoming.

“We do have a `Save the Blue Horizon’ campaign going on, but it’s going slow, real slow. We need help. We have to stop putting band-aids on things that need major attention. Instead of patching that little piece of concrete, if you took the whole step out and fixed it properly, then it’s there for maybe the next 50 years.”

Although $2 million in state money eventually was made available (all of which was funneled into restoration projects), matching funds from the city never came through during the terms of Mayors Ed Rendell and John Street because of what Michael cited as confusion regarding tax-exempt issues.

So the Blue Horizon is only part of the way back to its turn-of-the-century (that would be the 20th century, not the 21st century) glory, although more work needs to be done. But the toilets flush, the place has gotten a fresh coat of paint and a nice outdoor electronic sign. Call it incremental advancement.

Most important, boxing – which constitutes only part of the ownership group’s operation, which includes a travel agency and education programs – is likely to remain the most obvious part of the building’s identity.

Peltz and Michael are prepared to let bygones be bygones. “I’m a businesswoman, and business is business,” Michael reasoned, a theme echoed by Peltz as each sought to ease a potentially uncomfortable situation.

Several of the fighters promoted by Peltz and the Hands, including Jones and super bantamweight Teon Kennedy, are unabashedly looking forward to making their Blue Horizon debuts after fighting most often as pros at the New Alhambra. They’re Philly fighters who know the city’s rich boxing history, and much of that history is rooted in the onetime Fraternal Order of Moose lodge hall on North Broad Street.

For one man’s opinion of what the Blue Horizon represents, consider these words from Eric “Butterbean” Esch, the heavyweight novelty act who scored a first-round knockout of Tim Pollard on Aug. 25, 1998, which ended the 17-year run of “Tuesday Night Fights” on the USA Network.

“The Blue Horizon, to me, is like Madison Square Garden,” Butterbean opined. “It’s a famous fight site. You know you’re making it as a fighter if you fight at the Blue.”

And if you don’t believe Butterbean, maybe you’ll agree with Arizona Senator John McCain, the recent Republic nominee for President of the United States who was at ringside for Butterbean-Pollard as a guest of then-Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge.

“It’s my first time here, but I’ve seen the place on television a hundred times,” said McCain, a former Naval Academy boxer. “I’d heard about the incredible atmosphere, and everything I’ve heard is true. This is one of the great, classic places for boxing.”

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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