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Articles of 2009

BRUTE XII: That's Why I Watch Him Close

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The forthcoming book “Brute” follows two Sacramento boxers: Mike Simms, a cruiserweight who trained with the Olympic team in 2000, who when I found him had lost five successive fights; and Stan Martyniouk, a young, Estonian-born featherweight, who when I found him had just fought and won his professional debut by decision, despite breaking his right hand in the first round.

Over the next few months I look forward to sharing the stories of these two fighters with the readers of the Sweet Science, and I look forward to hearing from any and all of you. –KS

The following evening I arrived a few minutes after five and found Stan wrapping his hands by the ring. I went up to him almost cautiously, and when he acknowledged me I introduced myself. He remembered me from the May 15th fight at the Red Lion, and we shook hands. I asked him if he was sparring and he said, laughing, as if the question were almost too inane to answer, “I did my last sparring on Saturday. Today I’m just doing some light shadowboxing. I’m just gonna break a little sweat.” Then I asked him, more sensibly, how he was feeling. “Pretty good,” he said. “I’m feeling really prepared for this one. The guy I’m fighting is a journeyman, and I’m moving up to lightweight.” In his last bout he’d fought at super featherweight, and moving up to lightweight, where Manny Pacquiao and Nate Campbell live, I realized, was both a dangerous and potentially profitable relocation.

Stan’s father was also standing ringside. I had seen him in May at the Red Lion, pacing around in the lobby. Now at the gym he was wearing black, square-rimmed glasses, leather sandals with black socks, shorts, and a white and gray Hawaiian shirt. He is a broad man, a little over six feet tall, with a barrel chest and a stout neck. As I stood there, he said something to Stan in Russian, and Stan climbed into the ring and began to bounce on his toes. I took the opportunity to ask his father a few questions. I had written about Stan in a previous article, and I asked him if he’d read the piece. “No,” he said. “Maybe I skim it. You know, I understand one word, and then after two words, I don’t understand anymore.”

The buzzer sounded announcing the start of a three-minute round, and Stan began to stalk. I asked his father, then, who the son was fighting on Thursday.

“His next opponent, I don’t know his name. Bigger, stronger guy. From Las Vegas.”

Up in the ring, Stan was engaged with his phantasm, circumnavigating the ring clockwise. His movements were crisp, and he snapped his jab like a whip. He would pivot beautifully on his left foot, reset, stick his jab, follow it with a right hook, and pivot again, all the time circling the ring. He has high, wide-set cheekbones and a solid, square jaw. His brow is sharp and prominent, his forehead is wide, and his hairline is low. For a fighter of his weight (between 130 and 135 pounds) he is tall (5’10”) and broad at the shoulders. But his torso tapers down to an absurdly narrow waist so that when he squares to an opponent—in this case a fictional one—he presents a solid, inverted, isosceles triangle from which hang two clubs that he can flail discriminately. It is clear that he is designed to box, rather than wrestle. Unlike most of the other men in the gym that day, all shaped like pit bulls with thick chests, short legs, and the molested ears of grapplers, Stan has the broadened, though not disfigured, nose of a puncher, and long, taut limbs.

As I stood watching him, Urijah Faber came through the front door. He owns the gym where I was standing, but I hadn’t expected to see him. I had watched him fight on television, so to me he was a sort of celebrity. He walked by smiling, and shook the hands of at least six men on his way to the rear of the building. When he passed the ring he looked up at Stan shadowboxing. He nodded, seeming to approve of what he saw. I am not a tall man, but I was surprised to see how short Urijah was. He passed a few feet from me and I noticed that we shared the same eye-level. He has curly, light-brown hair that that day hung past his jaw line, and a deeply dimpled chin that looks as if it had been struck with a sheet metal punch. He is, in juxtaposition to Stan, short and coarsely muscled.

Urijah went into the back room, and I returned my attention to Stan. The buzzer announced that his round was over and he settled down onto his heels gradually, as a ball comes to rest exhausting its kinetic energy.

“Stan, that’s enough,” his father said. “You are wet already.”

Stan came over to the ropes and laid his forearms on the highest strand, bent at the waist and breathing deeply. I glanced over to the room where Urijah had gone and saw him on his knees beside two men, one of whom was on his back, and the other who was between the supine man’s legs. Urijah was demonstrating how, from the bottom, one transitions into a guillotine choke and then sinks it in by moving the right leg up the back.

Stan said something to his father in Russian. The elder Martyniouk called to a man standing ringside holding a pair of punching pads, who promptly climbed up and joined Stan in the ring.

“Who is this?” I asked Stan’s father.

“Gilbert,” he said. “He is not the normal guy. They are not so used to each other. Stan will not be as crisp. I am usually the one in there, but I am too tired.”

In fact, Stan was not as accurate hitting the pads as I expected him to be. A fighter develops a relationship with a training partner and grows to anticipate his movements. To watch a boxer work, therefore, with a man he is not comfortable with gives some insight into how he will actually perform in the ring. Gilbert was calling out combinations and moving the targets, and Stan was abiding and chasing after the marks. But when his gloves hit the leather they did not always make the satisfying crack that accompanies a clean blow.

I turned to Stan’s father. “What part of Russia are you from?” I asked.

“Not Russia. Estonia. I am Russian, of course, but then Estonia was part of the Soviet Union.”

Estonia, in my limited knowledge of the place, is not a fighting country. When they protested Soviet rule, for instance, rather than shooting down helicopters with shoulder-mounted rockets as the Afghans had, the Estonians gathered in a large public square and tried to sing the Kremlin to death.

“My grandmother was Ukrainian,” I said.

“Yes?” He looked at me with approval.

“When did you come here?”

“When Stan was four or five.”

“Were you his first coach?” I asked.

“I came to Sacramento to be a boxer. I used to train him on the balcony of our apartment. That was when he was maybe seven.”

“When did he start training seriously?”

“Oh, not till he was thirteen. I asked him if he wanted to make this something he did always. He told me that he wanted it to be that way, and by then he was maybe fourteen. I lost a lot of jobs to go with him to those fights. I did not want him to see what I had to see.” He looked as if he’d upset himself, and then turned and yelled something up to Stan.

“You were a professional boxer?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said. He was not smiling. “I don’t want to talk about it. It was a bad thing for me. Grown people.”

I did not press him to explain, but that phrase, “grown people,” left a strange impression with me. What were you to make of that? Perhaps that grown men had acted towards him the way grown men ought not to act. I watched him as he watched his son, and I could see, just by the way he moved his shoulders as Stan moved his in the ring, how seriously Mr. Martyniouk took his son’s career, and how badly he did not want to push Stan further than he wished to be pushed. I got the feeling that if Stan were to announce that afternoon he no longer cared for boxing, his father would drive him home and never mention the sport again.

Then he turned to me. “That’s why I watch him close. If I see the people and they are all right, I say, ‘that’s okay.’ But I must see.”

Up in the ring Stan had started on his second round with the pads. He was still moving well, and he was punching harder now, with greater precision and greater noise. When the buzzer sounded finally, Gilbert said, “You’re looking good, man. Are you feeling good?”

“I feel pretty sharp,” said Stan.

The two men climbed out of the ring. Stan’s father hoisted up a gym bag and hung it on his shoulder. He spoke to Stan, who listened, then crossed the gym and began jumping rope. He turned to me and we shook hands. He seemed wary, and when I said, “It was good to meet you,” he only nodded and turned away. He shook hands more cordially with  Gilbert, and then left the gym.

I went and stood by the counter while Stan jumped rope. The front door opened and two blind people entered—a young woman leading her younger brother. I had to wonder if they’d come in the gym thinking, perhaps, that they were walking into a grocery store. But no one around me seemed to find it strange. So I watched them, almost in awe, wondering how they could box, even recreationally, if they couldn’t see whom they were hitting, or rather, if I’m to be consistently cynical, who was hitting them. But then it occurred to me as they made their way to the back room that they might have come for a Jiu-Jitsu class. In that discipline the fighters are never separated. You can feel your opponent, so you would not necessarily need your eyes.

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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