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Articles of 2009

TSS Where Are They Now: Chuck Wepner

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Professional boxing could use a few more men like Chuck Wepner.

At a time when the sport faces its biggest identity crisis in decades, and continues to lose market share to the rising popularity of no-holds-barred MMA leagues like UFC, the ghost of old school boxers like Wepner looms large.

Wepner was nicknamed the ‘Bayonne Bleeder’ after a bout with vicious Sonny Liston under the hot lamps of the Jersey City Armory. Liston went to work on Wepner’s face so bad, that by the tenth round, Wepner’s nose and cheek were broken. In the end Wepner had sprayed ringside reporters and fight fans with so much blood, he needed 72 stitches to stanch the flow.

In his professional career Chuck Wepner compiled a record of 35 wins (17 by knockout), 14 losses and 2 draws. And he squared off against some of the hardest men ever to lace up the gloves, men like George Foreman, Ernie Terrell and of course, his epic with the greatest, Muhammad Ali, a fight that Sylvester Stallone credits as the inspiration for the movie, ‘Rocky.’

Not long ago,  I sat down with him at his home in Bayonne, New Jersey with his wife, Linda. The following is an excerpt of that interview.

JJ: So you’re about to fight Ali.

CW: I’m lying at home one night. The phone rings. I’m watching Kojak. I always watch Kojak at 11. It’s 5 after 11. I pick up the phone. It’s my mother. I say mom, I told you never call me when I’m watching Kojak. She says go up and get the news, you gotta see the back page. I say what is it mom? Tell me.  She says the back page says Ali is gonna defend against Wepner.
What happened was Don King was in Cleveland doing a promotional thing with Ali. Don King is from Cleveland and he talked to Ali and Ali agreed to the fight and he [Don King] released it immediately to the press and it was in the papers that night. I got the three papers that were left and the rest was history. Two days later I left for camp and needless to say I was excited because they had got me a place up at the Cooley granite hotel up by New Paltz in Upstate New York up by where Floyd Patterson lived. Two days later we left for camp. I went up with my trainers and sparring partners and I had a nice facility. I had the run of the hotel. You go over the camp. You sleep till eight in the morning. You go to bed at ten. You get a good night’s sleep. You do road work with your sparring partners. My trainer used to drive the car behind me.

JJ: You didn’t chase chickens, did you? Rocky didn’t steal that from you?

CW: I tell you what. He come up with some good stuff. Chasing chickens. The only thing I didn’t like was pounding the meat in the meat locker. You break a sweat and you catch pneumonia. And you know it’s very unhealthy. Hitting meat, stuff splattering….but after I saw the movie made it added a lot of depth to the movie.

JJ: So the Ali fight. What are you thinking before you get in the ring. Were you scared?

CW: No, I was never scared. You know I was nervous about doing well. I knew this was a national TV thing. I heard that they had hooked up, there was going to be fifty to sixty million people watching on closed-circuit TV. And I was a little excited, not apprehensive at all. I was in the greatest shape of my life. I had trained for seven weeks, I mean I was running five miles. I was boxing six, seven, eight rounds a day against good sparring partners and I thought maybe Ali would look past me. You know, say this is an easy one, which he might have done, you know, cause right off the bat from the opening bell on I pressed him. I was aggressive.

JJ: Ali went the first five rounds and the judges gave him three of them.

CW: One judge gave him four of them.

JJ: And that’s why you said you gotta knock this guy out?

CW: Oh, of course. We knew that going in. We knew you weren’t going to get a decision over Muhammad Ali, never. So we pressed him the whole time and we were hoping that maybe in the later rounds he would get tired. And he did. You know I have a picture of him at the end of the fight completely exhausted over in the corner and his corner men around him and unfortunately for the first and only time in my career he hit me with a punch in the fifteenth round, it wasn’t even a solid punch, hit me on the side of the face. From the thirteenth round on I had the shakes from exhaustion and the punch knocked me down. I went against the ropes and I pulled myself up and the referee gave me to seven, eight, and asked me where I was and he stopped the fight.

JJ: Did he let you respond?

CW: No. I was on one knee and he was talking to me and I stood up and he looked at me and waved it off and said my eyes looked very glassy. There was only nineteen seconds left but Tony, Tony Perez [referee], said to me later on, Chuck, I knew there was like nineteen seconds left, I wasn’t going to stop the fight.

JJ: The knockout. You walked back [to your corner] from knocking Ali down. The 9th round, was it? You walked back to your corner and what’d you say?

CW: I said to my manager Al, start the car, we’re going to the bank. We’re millionaires.

JJ: Were you sure you had him at that point?

CW:  I thought he went down in between the ropes and all and Al said you better turn around he’s getting up and he looks pissed off. It wasn’t a great punch but I caught him off balance and he almost went into the rope, the bottom rope, and if he would have fell out of the ring we would have won the fight on a fluke. I would have won it. His [Ali’s] eyes were real wide. He was more or less surprised than anything else. He wasn’t hurt. You could hear the punch. I just caught him off balance.

JJ: How did your life change after that fight?

CW: Oh, it changed quite a bit. I fought Ali for the title. I went almost the complete fifteen rounds. I had him down. Then Stallone comes out with a movie. And the movie winds up winning movie of the year, best picture of the year. He was nominated for best actor. Thirty years later people still talk about it. People see the fight on Classic Sports, constantly. Last week two or three people come up to me. Chuck, I finally saw the fight on Classic Sports, great fight, man you got all kinds of heart. You know I never claimed to be a great fighter I just claimed to be a tough guy with a big heart and a great condition which is what Stallone portrayed Rocky as. You could see Rocky was a wild guy.

JJ: Your thoughts about boxing as a sport. At that time boxing was the third most important sport behind baseball and horse racing. Do you feel you gained a lot from the sport? Did it let you down in any way?

CW: No, I feel I gained a lot from the sport of boxing. You know, it made me world famous and I probably would still be working as a security guard now. I don’t see how I would have anywhere near the life that I have now. I owe a great, great deal to boxing. But I also feel that my career in boxing could have gone on five more years after the Ali fight.  But I know how to market myself, I’ve always been able to market myself. I go to appearances. I go to dinners. I sign autographs. I do interviews. I’ve done over three hundred maybe four hundred interviews in the last thirty years. I’m a speaker. I tell jokes. I tell stories about the fights.

JJ: You were there. You fought everyone.

CW: I fought four world champs and I fought seven guys in the top ten.

JJ: Who hit the hardest?

CW: Sonny Liston.

JJ: What was it like getting hit by Sonny Liston, on June 29, 1970?

CW: It wasn’t fun. Every time Liston hit you. You know, for six rounds I pressed Sonny. I pressed everybody. That was my style. Al [Wepner’s trainer] wanted me to box.

JJ: That [the fight between Wepner and Liston] was after he lost the second time to Ali?

CW: Right, and Ali came to the fight. It was in the Jersey City armory and I’m downstairs, getting ready to come out and I hear this huge roar and I say Jesus, it can’t be for me, I’m not even out of the dressing room yet. And someone says Muhammad Ali just walked into the arena. He came in, it was a surprise. Nobody expected him and everybody went nuts when they saw him. And anyway, for six rounds it was a close fight but then he [Liston] closed my eyes and after that he was banging me pretty good. Matter of fact the referee  comes in towards the end of the ninth round and said, ‘Chuck I’m gonna stop the fight because you can’t see’ and I said to Barney [referee], one more round, let me finish the round , let me finish the fight, I’m alright. And he said well how many fingers do I have up? And my manager had his hands on my back and he tapped me three times. All I could see was blurred. And he [referee] said ok, you can see so I’ll let you come out. But I’m gonna watch you. So I come out and about 30 seconds into the round all I can see was shadows and I threw a hook and a right hand and I wound up hitting the referee on the shoulder. He turned around to avoid it and Jersey Joe Walcott jumped up on the ring apron and stopped the fight.

JJ: Sonny Liston was dead how many months after that fight?

CW: Three months later.

JJ: In what year did your boxing career end?

CW: 1980. I fought a kid named Scott Frank. I held the New Jersey title for 16 years and I lost a 12 round decision to him and that was it. I quit. I was really gonna quit before because I won the fight before that, but they offered me five thousand dollars and I said, you know, in them days, thirty-one years ago, five thousand dollars was a pretty good pay day for me and the only really big one I had ever gotten was Ali and then the fight with Inoki in Japan and Andre the Giant, forty thousand each I got for that. You know you always think you have one more good performance. Fighters don’t want to quit. So I took the fight and the kid was a lot better than I thought. It was a unanimous twelve-round decision. He beat me pretty good. I could have quit. By the ninth round I was tired. I was forty-one years old and I was getting banged around. I lasted the last three rounds.  And he beat me and that was it. I had some offers to make a comeback. They offered me some money. Some kids coming up that wanted a name on their record. But I said, no, I’m not gonna fight.

JJ: You talked about cuts…

CW: Yeah.

JJ: Second most…

CW: I had 300 (stitches), Vito Antuofermo had 345, and I said to my manager let’s have one more fight because I want to be number one and he said nah, you aint gonna fight no more.

JJ: And this is where the name the “Bayonne Bleeder” comes from?

CW: No, I got that from a guy named Rosie Rosenberg from the Bayonne Times after the Sonny Liston fight. He was sitting there with this Doctor Farrar who had a white suit on, it was in the summer, it was hot that day and every time Liston hit me the spray of blood would go out ringside. A lot of people at ringside were getting blood on them and Rosie Rosenberg says to Doctor Farrar, man oh man, there’s blood all over the place, this guy’s the Bayonne Bleeder and the name stuck.

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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