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Articles of 2009

RIP, Ingemar Johansson

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Death – actual death – finally brought a measure of peace to former heavyweight champion Ingemar Johansson, whose once-athletic body had continued to function for these past 10 years even as his mind slipped ever deeper into the dark cave of Alzheimer’s and dementia.

When even Ingo’s body gave up the fight, at 10 minutes to midnight on Friday night in a nursing home in Kungsbacka, on the west coat of his native Sweden, the national mood in the Scandinavian country understandably wavered between grief at his physical passing and relief that he was finally free of the bar-less prison of a mind that had long since ceased to function beyond occasional moments of semi-clarity.

Ingemar Johansson, who was too ill to attend his induction ceremony at the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, N.Y., in 2002, was 76 when death, that most invincible of opponents, claimed what remained of him. His daughter, Maria Gregner, told the Swedish news agency TT that he recently had returned to the nursing home after being hospitalized with pneumonia.

Olof Johansson (no relation), whom American matchmaker and friend Don Elbaum describes as “the Larry Merchant of Swedish television,” recalled a recent visit with Ingo in which it was painfully evident that the end was nearing.

“Olof said he was with Ingemar three or four months ago when he got up from his chair, took one step, and froze,” Elbaum said. “Ingemar’s doctor said it was like his brain did not remember how to tell his body to move the other foot. It was tragic.”

More than likely, Johansson didn’t realize where he was trying to walk to in any case. Years earlier he increasingly failed to recognize friends and family members, until that familiar twinkle in his eyes went blank and he likely even forgot who he was and what he had accomplished in and out of the ring.

Assessing the career of Ingemar Johansson, prizefighter, is no easy thing. How he is regarded is largely contingent on which side of the Atlantic Ocean one resides. Here in America, where he achieved his single greatest success, the third-round stoppage of heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson on June 26, 1959, Ingo is generally regarded as one of boxing’s lesser titlists, someone whose induction into the IBHOF is the result more of a charmed summer night in Yankee Stadium than of the sustained excellence required for history’s acceptance. But in Sweden, where he rehabilitated his reputation from its low point nine years earlier in Helsinki, Finland, Ingo was the most popular prizefighter ever, a national hero and symbol of Swedish pride.

In 2000, the Swedish Sports Academy named Ingo that country’s third-greatest athlete of the 20th century, behind only tennis legend Bjorn Borg and renowned skier Ingemar Stenmark. That high placement is particularly amazing, given that Sweden banned professional boxing from 1970 to 2006 on the grounds it was too dangerous an activity.

Johansson seemed an unlikely candidate for such adulation during the 1952 Helsinki Olympics. Boxing in the heavyweight gold medal bout against a huge American opponent, Ed Sanders, Johansson refused to engage until, in the second round of the scheduled three-rounder, he was disqualified by French referee Roger Vaisberg for not giving his best effort.

Initially awarded the silver medal, Johansson – who later claimed his strategy was to play keepaway and to tire out Sanders in preparation for a furious, third-round assault – had it stripped from him before he left Helsinki, a turn of events that made him an object of scorn back home. For purposes of comparison, consider the seemingly irreparable damage done to Roberto Duran’s reputation in his native Panama after he turned his back and quit in his “No Mas” second fight with Sugar Ray Leonard. But Duran won back most if not all of his fans with incandescent performances against Davey Moore and Iran Barkley, among others, and Ingo similarly found his own path to redemption.

For a while, though, a comeback from disgrace seemed a longshot, at best. In Stockholm, the chairman of the Swedish Boxing Association contemptuously chided Johansson for “bringing shame to the Swedish name.”

It was under that initial cloud of suspicion and resentment that Johansson, impossibly handsome and just as charming, began his pro career on Dec. 5, 1952, with a fourth-round knockout of France’s Robert Masson in Ingo’s hometown of Gothenburg.

Johansson’s manager, Eddie Ahlquist, figured his guy had the looks, personality and punch, particularly his big overhand right, to rehabilitate his image, at least with his countrymen. All of Ingo’s first 20 pro bouts were in Europe, 17 of which were in Sweden, as Ahlquist employed a strategy later adopted by such European fighters as Dariusz Michalczewski, Joe Calzaghe and Ricky Hatton: fight and win at home until it became financially expedient to take your act across the pond to the United States.

Although he annexed the European heavyweight title in 1956 on a 13th-round knockout of Franco Cavicchi in Bologna, Italy, Johansson emerged as a legitimate threat to world champion Floyd Patterson when he whacked out a formidable U.S. contender, Eddie Machen, in one round on Sept. 14, 1958, in Gothenburg. So popular was Ingo by that time that his bout with Machen drew a crowd of 53,614 in Ullevi Stadium, which is still a record turnout for the venue. In second place is a concert by the Rolling Stones.

The fast takeout of Machen, who had long been ducked by Patterson, so impressed Nat Fleischer, editor of The Ring, that he elevated the Swede to the magazine’s No. 1 heavyweight ranking.

It at last was time for Ingemar Johansson, alleged Olympic coward, to come to the United States and challenge Patterson, who had won the middleweight gold at those same 1952 Helsinki Games in which Ingo came up small.

Although a 4-1 underdog, in no small part because of the lingering taint of his Olympic failure, Johansson hardly acted the part of an I’m-just-glad-to-be-here outsider. He set up camp at Grossinger’s resort, in the Catskill Mountains, and quickly revealed himself to be the very essence of a bon vivant. Sure, the 26-year-old Ingo told reporters, he liked to partake of strong beverages now and then, even in training. And women? The holy gospel of pugilism back then stated in no uncertain terms that sex weakens legs, and almost all fighters obediently left their wives or significant others at home when they trekked off to camp to prepare themselves for an upcoming fight. Johansson, though, arrived at Grossinger’s with his stunning, brunette girlfriend, Birgit, in tow, and it wasn’t long before rumors were rampant that at night he was going to the body in a far different way than he did with his sparring partners earlier in the day.

Although one publication dubbed Johansson as “boxing’s Cary Grant,” he was more of a predecessor to such swingin’ 1960s athletes as Joe Namath and Walt Frazier. His behavior left traditionalists like Hall of Fame trainer Ray Arcel aghast, but delighted others who figured that even heavyweight champion wannabes deserved to have some fun on their way into battle.

But none of that would have counted for anything had not Johansson done what he did on fight night in Yankee Stadium. After two rounds in which he landed nothing of consequence, Johansson clipped Patterson with a left hook and a right hand so allegedly devastating it had two nicknames, the “Hammer of Thor” and “Ingo’s Bingo.” Patterson went down, rose on wobbly legs at the count of nine, and turned to return to his corner, fuzzily thinking it was he who had had floored Johansson and that the round was over.

In one of the more unusual sights ever seen in boxing, Johansson ran up alongside the dazed Patterson and delivered an uncontested shot to the side of the head that sent the champion to the canvas for the second of an amazing seven times. There still were 57 seconds remaining in the third round when referee Ruby Goldstein finally stepped in and wrapped his arms around the game but defenseless Patterson.

When the fight ended, at approximately 3:15 a.m. Swedish time, people poured into the streets throughout Ingo’s homeland to celebrate the coronation of boxing’s new king of the heavyweights, and the first European to wear the crown since Italy’s Primo Carnera a quarter-century earlier.

It was a different time for sure, 1959 was. Seven knockdowns in one round? Wouldn’t happen today, but Goldstein, who is perhaps best known for his failure to jump in earlier in the March 24, 1962, bout in which Emile Griffith bludgeoned Benny “Kid” Paret into a coma and eventual death, had a reputation for letting fighters continue if they demonstrated even the slightest capability of returning fire. Johansson was named “Male Athlete of the Year” by The Associated Press, and when was the last time that happened for a boxer?

Ingo, not surprisingly, soaked up the adulation and sudden fame as if he were a sponge. He appeared in a 1960 movie, “All the Young Men,” as a Marine, cast alongside stars Alan Ladd and Sidney Poitier. He chatted up Dinah Shore on her daytime variety show, and wherever he went, in the U.S. or in Sweden, he had a beautiful woman on his arm and paparazzi snapping pictures.

That sort of lifestyle probably did not serve Johansson well in his rematch with Patterson, on June 20, 1960, at the Polo Grounds in New York. His championship reign ended in the fifth round when Floyd landed two left hooks, the first of which left Ingo woozy, the second of which – a leaping shot delivered with all the power Patterson could muster – left the Swede stretched out on the canvas, blood trickling from his mouth and his right leg quivering. Concerned that he had seriously injured Johansson, Patterson knelt beside him, gently cradling his head until medical help arrived. Five minutes passed before Ingo sat up, and another 10 ticked off before he left the ring, still a bit discombobulated.

The rubber match in the trilogy, on March 13, 1961, in Miami Beach’s Convention Hall, was perhaps the most competitive in the series. Johansson – who had sparred with an 18-year-old Cassius Clay as part of his training regimen – dropped Patterson twice in the first round, but Patterson survived the storm and went on to knock out Ingo in the sixth round.

For all intents and purposes, that was the end of Johansson as a big-time fighter. He did return to Sweden, fighting and winning four more times, but in his final bout, against Brian London on April 21, 1963, he was in serious trouble and in danger of being stopped when the final bell rang. Even though Johansson got the decision, he understood that it was time to step away, even though he was only 31. His final record: 26-2, with 17 wins inside the distance.

Retirement, though, was good to Ingo. He had a keen business sense and he invested wisely. For years, he summered in Pompano Beach, Fla., where he operated a motel and a fleet of fishing boats. He and Patterson, once rivals, became good friends and even ran together in a couple of marathons.

But then Johansson’s memory began to fade, and with it his recollections of the good life he had crafted for himself. Anyone who has had a friend or relative endure the slow descent into hell that Alzheimer’s can be surely understands how difficult it was for Ingo’s many supporters to realize their hero was leaving them in bits and pieces.

But gone does not necessarily mean forgotten. A contemporary of Johansson’s, Swedish boxing promoter Benny Rosem, plans to put on a pro fight card on June 26 in Gothenburg, the 50th anniversary of Ingo’s rout of Patterson. There is talk of erecting a bronze statue of Sweden’s greatest fighter, a fitting tribute to a man who, in 1982, finally received the Olympic silver medal he probably hadn’t deserved to have taken from him in the first place.

Elbaum, who has traveled to Sweden several times with heavyweight Joey “Minnesota Ice” Abell, said the passage of time has not diminished the legend of Ingemar Johansson, but rather enhanced it.

“He is and always will be an icon,” Elbaum said.

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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