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Articles of 2009

KRONK Comeback! Starring Johnathan Banks

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Blue Lewis was an old-fashioned kind of guy and Emanuel Steward is surely glad of it.

Had Lewis been a bit more liberal minded, Steward might not be standing in Banks’ corner tonight when Banks tries to become the first Detroit product of the legendrey Kronk Gym to win a world title since 1985. That’s a 24-year drought for the Motor City and for Steward, whose gym once boasted homegrown heroes like Thomas Hearns, Hilmer Kenty, Milton McCrory and Jimmy Paul all wearing Kronk’s distinctive red, blue and gold colors.

Although Steward has trained some of boxing’s biggest names in the days since Kronk ceased to be synonymous with boxing supremacy, it has been a long time since someone from the neighborhood won a world title, as Banks will try to do tonight on SHOWTIME’s “ShoBox: The New Generation’’ (11 p.m. Eastern). If he upsets IBF cruiserweight champion Tomasz Adamek, there would be a grand footnote to it all because Steward would owe his presence and Kronk’s latest revival to Lewis’ old-fashioned ways.

Banks first began boxing not at the Kronk Gym but at the Brewster Center, another well known Detroit boxing haunt where Lewis was a trainer. Banks’ grandfather lived only six blocks away from 5555 McCraw, where Kronk called home for more than three decades, but when Banks decided to give boxing a try at 14 he had no idea where Kronk was.

All he knew was it was a famous place with a lot of fierce fighters more polished than he, so he decided to see what Blue Lewis had to offer. Once a heavyweight contender adept enough to fight Muhammad Ali for the title in Dublin, Lewis didn’t open his gym on Saturdays so the first day Banks showed up the door was locked. He should have known then something was up with the place but Banks was undaunted, walking back on Monday intent on trying a sport he believed might be his calling. Turns out he was right, although Lewis cared less about that than he did about what he viewed as decorum in the work place…or at least the working out place.

“I went to Brewster for individual attention,’’ Banks recalled. “I walked there. I had played basketball and football and ran track but I begged my mother to let me box every day. I couldn’t wait.

“I couldn’t believe all the guys who were in there. I said when I went in there that one day all those guys will respect me as a fighter. I said the same thing later, when I first went to Kronk.’’

That changeover came about a year after first meeting Blue Lewis. Banks, then 15, had fought 10 times in small amateur shows by then and was already showing promise. Each time he fought he hoped his mother would come. She steadfastly refused, never too sure this boxing idea was a wise one in the first place.

Finally, she worked up the nerve only to learn from her son that women weren’t welcome at the Brewster Center. Soon there after, Johnathon Banks made a decision.

“I ended up at Kronk because I got kicked out of the Brewster Center,’’ Banks recalled. “My mother had never seen me fight but one day she said she’d worked up enough nerve. When I told Blue he said women weren’t allowed in the gym. I told my Mom and she said, ‘I can’t come see my own son fight? Then you ain’t allowed to fight.’

“I’m 15. I told Blue if she can’t come I can’t fight. All Blue kept saying was, ‘I can’t believe this.’ I was hurt by that. He was the only trainer I ever knew. That was in 1998 or ’99. That’s when I walked through The Door.’’

“The Door’’ was the battered old red one that separated the civilian world from the jungle in the basement of 5555 McGraw. On it was a sign that read: “This Door Has Led Many to PAIN and FAME.’’ It was the door through which 50 amateur champions, 30 world champions, three Olympic gold medalists and one Hall of Fame trainer had walked through.

It was a door that offered hope and pride to Johnathon Banks but also well-deserved worries, too.

“I was nervous when I first went to Kronk,’’ Banks said,  a decade later. “That door, man. My first day I saw all these guys there like Michael Moorer (the former heavyweight and light heavyweight champion). Good guys. Bad guys. You smelled pain in that basement. You smelled victory and defeat in there.

“Ten people would jump into the ring for a spot to spar. It was like living in a hick town and then moving to New York. Kronk was the big city.’’

Kronk was also where Banks met Steward, a Hall of Fame trainer with a big reputation and an outsized personality. Together they began a process that would lead him to be ranked No. 8 in the world by the IBF with a 20-0 record and 14 knockouts.

It was in that gym that Johnathon Banks found Javan “Sugar’’ Hill, Steward’s nephew and Banks’ trainer these days. Together with Steward, who manages him and in whose home he lived for three years before recently moving into his own place, they developed Banks while he began to develop himself.

“I didn’t think I had no major talent,’’ he said. “I just knew I wanted to do it and I figured I’d fight guys with more talent but if I wanted it more I’d win.

“Emanuel told me I had natural feel for knowing where the punches were coming from. That seemed like a good thing to have. I didn’t know if it was true but I believed him. Emanuel had pictures of all his champions on the wall. I just wanted to be up on that wall.

“At first they weren’t going to let me box because I wasn’t from the East side. All the world champions from Detroit were from the East side. My first amateur loss had been to a Kronk fighter. I knew I beat the guy. Everyone knew I beat the guy but he was Kronk and he got the decision.

“The thing was I never had the Olympic dream until I was 19 and about to turn pro. Emanuel said he thought I was the best amateur light heavyweight in the country. I really didn’t know nothing about the Olympics. I made it to the 2004 Trials but I had so much trouble making weight. I weighed 178 when I weighed in and the next day I was back to 195. My body was growing so I wasn’t terribly disappointed when I didn’t make the team. I knew with my style I was better suited for the pros.

“The amateurs have that pitty-pat style. I wanted to knock people out. I wanted to hurt people. At Kronk that was the thing. It’s an instinct in you. Everybody has an instinct. Some is to run away. Some is to walk away. Some is to fight. Mine is to knock people out.’’

That he has done but Friday night his apprenticeship is over. He will be in with a former light heavyweight champion with only one loss on his record, when he was outpointed by Chad Dawson. That cost Adamek the 175-pound title, but he moved up to cruiserweight and 11 weeks ago won the IBF belt with a split-decision victory over Steve Cunningham in a fight in which he dropped Cunningham three times.

Whether Banks is ready for the kind of competition he will get from the hard core Adamek remains to be seen but he has certainly learned from Eliseo Castillo (20-1-1 at the time) that adversity is always never far away inside a boxing ring. Banks’ entire family was on hand to watch his first big professional fight outside of Michigan when he took on Castillo and it had barely begun when they looked up and he went down.

“I was shocked,’’ admitted Banks of the first knockdown of his career. “Mentally I gave him his props but I felt, ‘Now it’s my turn to see if you can take my thing.’ I was more shocked after the fact. I was blown out of my mind. This dude knocked me down in front of my Mom? My family had driven from Detroit to New York and I’m on the canvas?

“My sister was crying but I didn’t panic. I just knew I had to get the guy. In that situation whatever your true instinct is will show. If you’re a coward it will show. If you’re a fighter, you get up.’’

Banks had to do that twice in the first round and he did. Then he stayed up and did what his instincts always told him to do. He fought back.

“That fight increased my confidence,’’ Banks said of his fourth round KO victory over Castillo. “I judge myself by the things I go through. You can’t say you got heart until you’re tested.

“After that fight Tommy (Hearns, Kronk’s greatest fistic product) hugged me. He said, ‘You did something I could never do.’ That meant a lot to me, Tommy saying that.’’

Boxing is as much about surviving pain as it is inflicting it. If one can do the latter but not the former his career will be short and his successes minimal regardless of his physical talent because boxing is a mental war as well as a brutally physical one.

Can you control the fear and doubts that creep into your head after another man has sent you to the floor in front of your family or will you fold up, broken in spirit as well as in body? Banks and Steward both believe those questions have been answered.

“That night he showed the kind of fighter he is,’’ Steward said of Banks. “You don’t want to see your guy hurt or on the floor but you know it’s going to happen. It’s what happens next that decides who he is. We saw who Johnathon was.’’

In the opinion of many, he was a future champion, a Kronk champion. Tonight he has the opportunity to prove it.

“There’s a responsibility to being a Kronk fighter,’’ Banks said. “When we show up it means trouble. Somebody is going to get hurt. Somebody is going to get knocked out. That’s how that label rolls. There ain’t no walkovers against a Kronk fighter.

“Emanuel has had so many world champions and I want to be one of them. I think about it all the time. I want to be the best at my craft. When they talk about the best cruiserweights I want my name to be mentioned. That takes some time.

“(Evander) Holyfield is considered the best cruiserweight there ever was. If my name is mentioned one day in that category then I did a good job.’’

If he does a good enough job to defeat Adamek (36-1, 24 KO) it will bring Banks full circle. He will have completed his journey from Blue Lewis’ gym to what Kronk was always about. He will be their newest champion and the title would be more than simply something the IBF bestowed on him. Johnathon Banks would be the champion in the gym of champions and a champion to all of Detroit. He’d be the champion of Kronk.

“He would be the first homegrown Kronk kid to win a world title since 1985,’’ Steward told a SHOWTIME interviewer recently. “I’ve talked to Johnathon about that and he’s using it as a big motivating factor. We’re talking almost 25 years!

“That’s when we had kids coming out of Kronk like crazy and Johnathon fits in that group. He knows if he wins this fight he will be the guy and that when he goes to the mall there will be people who want to touch him and meet him.’’

There will be such a person waiting for him tonight as well. A guy with bad intentions who wants to touch him in ways designed to separate his mind from his body but at least he’ll let Banks’ mother watch. If Johnathon Banks’ hand is raised around midnight, Blue Lewis will have wished he felt the same way.

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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