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Articles of 2009

Jack Johnson Redux: A Catalyst For Consensus?



WASHINGTON, D. C. — Now that last fall’s elections are a thing of the past, John McCain, Ken Burns, and I can all be on the same side again.

And so, unless the Arizona Senator had badly misread his erstwhile foe in last year’s presidential sweepstakes, can President Barack Obama.

This wasn’t the first time McCain has introduced a resolution to pardon the great Jack Johnson, but, the Arizona Senator vowed Wednesday afternoon, “we’re not gonna do it again.”

Not that McCain is giving up on his quest for vindication for Li’l Arthur. It’s just that this time he believes he’s dealing with a President who will actually sign the measure, which was introduced in both houses of Congress on April 1 – one day after the 121st anniversary of Johnson’s birth.

Wednesday’s announcement was made at the Russell Senate Office Building, where McCain and his House co-sponsor, Rep. Peter King (R-NY) were joined by Burns, Johnson’s great-great niece Linda Haywood, and several other descendants.

“We need to erase this act of racism against a great American citizen,” said McCain. “Jack Johnson was prosecuted on trumped-up charges – and I have great confidence that this president will be more than eager to sign this resolution.”

Of course, when McCain introduced an earlier Johnson bill in 2005 he harbored similar optimism that Obama’s predecessor would endorse his position. When the Senator and I spoke at that time, he had optimistically informed me that, as Governor of Texas, George W. Bush had actually proclaimed March 31 – the Galveston native’s birthday – “Jack Johnson Day” in that state for five consecutive years.

As it turned out, Bush the Governor was somewhat more comfortable about honoring the legacy of the first black heavyweight champion than Bush the President was about expunging the criminal record of the unrepentant icon celebrated in Burns’ 2005 PBS film “Unforgivable Blackness.”  (The title was taken from W.E.B. DuBois’ analysis of Johnson’s rise and fall.)

Johnson, unable to compete against any of the succession of Caucasian champions in this country, finally got his chance on Boxing Day of 1908 when Tommy Burns agreed to face him at Rushcutter’s Bay outside Sydney, Australia.  Johnson was awarded the heavyweight title by referee Hugh McIntosh, the lone scoring official when the fight was interrupted by police during the 14th round.

As a potential challenger, Johnson couldn’t buy a match against a while fighter, but once he was champion, Great White Hopes were coming out of the woodwork to challenge him. He fought and defeated Philadelphia Jack O’Brien, the light-heavyweight champion. In 1909 he fought Stanley Ketchel, the middleweight champion, in what was supposed, by prior arrangement, to have been little more than a gentlemanly exhibition. In the twelfth round, Ketchel, alas, got carried away and knocked Johnson down, effectively abrogating the agreement. Johnson got up and knocked Ketchel out with a single punch that scattered his teeth across the ring. Ketchel’s manager later retrieved a couple of them and had them made into a pair of dice.

At the urging of Jack London, among others, the retired James J. Jeffries was lured out of retirement to take up the white man’s burden by disposing of Johnson. Instead, Johnson disposed of Jeffries, scoring a 15th round knockout in their 1910 “Fight of the Century” in Reno.

It wasn’t just the notion of the greatest prize in all of sport belonging to an African American that so galled London and his ilk. Johnson’s lifestyle disturbed them even more. He lived flamboyantly, consorted with prostitutes, many of them white, and, worse, he even married two white women. Unable to beat him in the ring, the authorities went after him with a vengeance, first shutting down his Chicago nightclub, the Café de Champion, and then charging him with a violation of the so-called Mann Act, a recently-enacted piece of legislation aimed at so-called “white slavery,” which made it a federal crime to “transport a woman across interstate lines for immoral purposes.”

Nothing in Johnson’s conduct suggested that he was remotely culpable of the crime the law was intended to punish, but the authorities were so determined to bring him down that they pushed ahead with their case against Johnson for having allegedly corrupted the morals of a young white woman named Lucille Cameron. The charge had gotten as far as a grand jury when Johnson confounded the prosecution by making Miss Cameron his wife. 

So the government went out and created another case under which to prosecute him. This time they found a prostitute named Belle Schreiver, whom the Bureau of Investigation (the forerunner to today’s FBI) held incommunicado and moved around the country until she finally agreed to testify that the heavyweight champion, a former lover, had wired her money for train fare to move from Pittsburgh to Chicago, where he allegedly assisted her in opening a high-class whorehouse.

On the basis of this somewhat coerced testimony, Jack Johnson was convicted, in 1913, on the “white slavery” charge. He avoided immediate imprisonment by slipping across the Canadian border and making his way to Europe.

In exile, Johnson defended his title twice in Paris, and fought another in Argentina, before agreeing to meet Jess Willard in Havana on April 5, 1915. In a bout that has always been regarded with some suspicion, Johnson succumbed in the 26th round.

There is no question but that the Mann Act conviction not only effectively wrecked  Johnson’s career but succeeded in its even more insidious aim of destroying his reputation.

He had several more fights in Europe (including one against the surrealist Arthur Cravan at a Bullring in Spain), and a few in Mexico, but increasingly homesick, he finally reached out to the US Government and agreed to surrender. In a plea-bargained arrangement, he served less than a year at Leavenworth, and even had a few fights while he was doing time. He fought well into his fifties, and had his last fight, in Boston, in 1938, six months after his 60th birthday. He was killed in an automobile accident in North Carolina in 1946.

His overall career log was 73-13-9. Over half of the losses occurred after his 48th birthday.

When Burns was making “Unforgivable Blackness” he was so moved by the litany of injustice that he undertook the formation a Committee to Pardon Jack Johnson. Five years ago he approached McCain about sponsoring the resolution, and the Arizona Senator, a onetime Naval Academy lightweight who had authored the two most significant pieces of successful boxing legislation in American history – the Professional Boxing Safety Act, signed into law by President Clinton in a 1996, and the Muhammad Ali Boxing Reform Act of 2000 – became an enthusiastic accomplice.

Burns had obtained the pro bono services of a New York law firm to draft the Johnson resolution, but each attempt met with frustration.

“It got bogged down because of inertia,” McCain told me Wednesday. After he and King had announced the introduction of the latest Johnson pardon bid to come before congress, I’d asked about the fate of the earlier attempts.

“It was inexcusable,” sighed McCain, “and then, of course, I got bogged down with a few other, uh, pursuits…”

Like last fall’s sparring sessions with Barack Obama.

His White House staff had so thoroughly insulated  Bush that Obama’s predecessor never had to actually come to grips with any of the Johnson resolutions, because not a single one of them ever reached his desk. When Burns asked what had happened to the carefully-crafted petition drafted by the New York law firm, he says he was told by presidential advisor Karl Rove, “It ain’t gonna fly.”

When Rep. King, the house’s foremost boxing proponent (he works out regularly at a Long Island gym) introduced last year’s resolution, which it was quickly approved through in the lower chamber only to die of attrition, bottled up in a Justice Department review.

The excuse at Justice was that posthumous pardons were all but unheard of. There had only been one in history – that came in 1998, when President Clinton retroactively pardoned Henry Flipper, the first African American West Point graduate, who had been court-martialed on an apparently racially motivated embezzlement charge while serving as a quartermaster at Fort Sill in 1882.

But two days before last Christmas, Bush himself granted a posthumous pardon — to the late Charles Winters, who had been convicted of violating the Neutrality Act for supplying two B-17s to Israel in 1948.

Not that one more precedent is likely to make a big difference. McCain said Wednesday that while he had not personally approached the President, “probably the last person I have to convince is President Obama,” whom he fully expects to support the measure, particularly since Johnson was a Chicago resident at the time of his persecution.

“It’s important that it be done,” said McCain. “A grave injustice was done to Jack Johnson, and while a pardon won’t correct this injustice, it would recognize it, and shed light on the achievements of an athlete who was forced into the shadows of bigotry and prejudice. Taking such action would allow future generation to grasp fully what Jack Johnson accomplished – against great odds – and to appreciate his contributions to society, unencumbered by the taint of a criminal conviction.”

Said King: “We’ve come a long way, and frankly, wouldn’t it be wonderful if the first African American president pardons the first African American heavyweight champion. It’s now been over a hundred years since Jack Johnson won the heavyweight title. It’s time we restored his reputation with a pardon that is long overdue.”

Burns expressed a word of caution lest the Johnson campaign be argued entirely on its racial merits: “This isn’t a question of color,” said the filmmaker. “It’s a question of justice.”

Despite the success of his earlier measure in the House of Representatives, King said, “I would never predict that anything is going to fly right through Congress, but I expect that it will. Put it this way: Senator McCain obviously knows President Obama a lot better than I do, and he seems to have every confidence that this President will be eager to sign the resolution.”

Articles of 2009

UFC 108 Rashad Evans vs. Thiago Silva



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



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 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



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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