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Articles of 2009

TSS Closer Look: HBO's The Thrilla In Manila

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HBO Sports’ newest documentary really should be called “The Other Guy’’ because that is what it is all about.

On the surface it is a dramatic recounting of the “Thrilla in Manila,’’ the story not only of a historic boxing match but of the circumstances and political atmosphere that surrounded the third fight between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. It is the story of a night when two men nearly killed each other because their wills were bigger than their skills and their skills were vast. If that was all it was, it would be a remarkable tale well told.

But this is a documentary shot from the point of view of the other guy, which is what poor Joe Frazier always was when he was in the ring or walking in the same world as Ali. It was never fair that Frazier had to trudge forward in such a long, cold shadow but was it fair that God gave him such a left hook either? You didn’t think so after it hit you so, in a sense, things even out.

Frazier would agree with that, even when you look at his life and Ali’s these past 34 years. Both are old men now, and like most old men life has gotten the better of them in painful ways. Ali’s speech, which was always so much of his charm, is gone. So is his health. Frazier’s riches are gone, his youth is gone and the skills that once made him one of the most feared and famous boxers in the world are gone. Yet one thing remains for Frazier, the thing that made him Joe Frazier in the first place.

His pride, a lion’s pride, lives on at 63. It lives despite the fact he now shares space with it in two small rooms above a gym he built years ago in a rundown section of North Philadelphia known, fittingly if you ever knew Frazier, as The Badlands. For as bad a man as Joe Frazier used to be in the ring, isn’t that where he should reside?

Yet pride is a double edged sword. It can drive you to great heights or drive you to the point of near death in the pursuit of victory. Most of all it can trap you and that is where Joe Frazier lives today. Not trapped in North Philly but rather in 1975, the year he and Ali savaged each other for the third and final time until Frazier’s loyal liege and corner man, Eddie Futch, stopped the fight in the corner after 14 rounds because Frazier could no longer see the man he hated so supremely and so savagely.

That morning in Manila, as Frazier argued with Futch between rounds to give him those final three minutes with his equally spent but less visually impaired nemesis, Ali, Futch told him softly, “No one will ever forget what you did here today.’’ And no one ever has.

More than three decades later it remains one of the greatest fights ever contested, a fight so fraught with conflicting emotions that HBO saw fit to put its considerable money and heft behind what is the latest in a long line of remarkable documentary films they have commissioned and produced. What makes this one different though is that Ali is not the centerpiece. Old Joe Frazier, Smokin’ Joe no more, is.

We see a case built against Ali, as it pertains to his cruelty, vile racism and hurtful words. We see Frazier’s son, Marvis, speak of the taunting he took as a boy after Ali called his father an Uncle Tom so many times that America forgot which one of them grew up a coal-black sharecropper’s son in racist Beaufort, S.C. in the 1950s. Forgot which one of them lived his adult life in the gritty ghetto section of North Philadelphia and lives there still.

Forgot that, in actuality, Joe Frazier was a far better picture of the black man’s burden in those days than Ali, a beautiful, lower middle class kid who grew up in Louisville, Ky. Certainly there was racism there too but he never lived the hard life Frazier knew, first as a sharecropper and later working at a Philadelphia slaughterhouse to keep himself going in the early days of his boxing career.

Frazier and others tell the story of how he befriended Ali after the latter was exiled from boxing, giving him both financial and public support after he was banned from boxing for 3 1?2 years for refusing to be drafted at the height of the Viet Nam War. Eventually Ali won his case, returned to boxing and began to hunt down Frazier, then the reigning heavyweight champion.

By the first time they met in the ring in 1971, Ali had begun the process of turning Frazier into a political piñata with a dehumanizing and constant verbal assault on his manhood, his blackness, his looks and his family. By the third fight those taunts and insults had filled Frazier with a poisonous bile that would never recede.

“The two men hated each other,’’ narrator Liev Schreiber says. “A personal hatred born out of America’s racial politics of the 1970s…Years of animosity festered between these two heavyweight champions…In Manila, it took them to the brink.’’

To the brink of death, something Ali conceded after the fight and Frazier seemed almost to welcome. Asked if he was willing to have risked his life to fight that final round 34 years ago Frazier says only one, hard word in reply.

“Yeah!’’ No need for amplification.

The reason, the documentary makes clear, is that Ali “provoked a blood feud for which Frazier believes Ali is now paying the eternal price.’’

“Whatever you done when you a young man, it comes to bite you in the butt when you get old,’’ a tired-looking Frazier says of Ali’s long, and losing fight against Parkinson’s, a disease which has struck him silent and left him blank-faced and shaking uncontrollably at times. “Trust me.’’

Asked if he feels Ali is paying the price for what he’d done as a young man Frazier quickly adds “…and said! God knocks you down.’’

It was bad enough that Ali called him ugly, stupid, a “flat-nosed pug’’ and an Uncle Tom but he took it even deeper before the Manila fight when he began to call him a gorilla two days after he’d arrived in the Philippines. To a black man at that time of revolution in American society there could have been few worse things to suggest. Ali did it time and again, even producing a tiny rubber gorilla he used to beat up at press conferences. The crowd laughed. Frazier did not.

The more Ali did it the deeper and more infectious the bile grew inside Frazier, finally spilling forth in the ring that morning in Manila, when the two of them nearly beat the life out of each other for 14 rounds.

“Joe was ready to lay his life on the line…and he did,’’ recalled Dave Wolf, a Frazier confidante at the time and a long-time boxing manager.

It was 125 degrees and staggeringly humid the morning of the fight, only adding to the agony the two of them would experience. For the first few rounds, Ali dominated with his jab and his speed but soon Frazier began to work his way inside and tear at his body like an angry jackal coming across a freshly bleeding carcass. From the fifth round through the 11th Frazier extracted a price from Ali’s kidneys and liver that left him urinating blood for several weeks after the fight.

But Frazier was going blind to do it. Already nearly blind in his left eye from a 1964 training injury he never made public, now his right eye was rapidly closing as if a dark shade had fallen. As it came down, Ali began to savagely beat on Frazier’s face with right hands Frazier told Futch he could no longer see.

Ali, meanwhile, was exhausted and told his corner men this was what death must be like. Yet the two fought on and the documentary paints the picture in savage slow motion and with full speed assaults. “Years of bad blood assured that neither man was willing to yield,’’ Schreiber intones as their fists chop at each other.

“You want to know what makes the crowd scream and holler?’’ asks Ferdie Pacheco, Ali’s long-time physician and the verbal co-star of this documentary. “Look at round 14.

“Round 14 is the closest I’ve seen to somebody killing somebody. Ali was very close to killing him. Very close. That’s what gets people killed in boxing. When the fight becomes more important than life and death.’’

So it was to Frazier, who would never yield to a man who had, in his mind, betrayed his trust, forgotten the friendship he’d extended to him when he was in exile from boxing and insulted him as a man in a way so deep, nothing but inflicting and absorbing pain could sooth it.

As Frazier watches the tape he hears the ring announcer suggest Ali might stop him and he snorts, “Naahhh. He couldn’t take me out. He was dead. Both of us (was), I would say.’’

After 14 rounds Frazier returns to Futch with his eye closed to a slit and his face a hematoma. As Futch argues with him about stopping the fight, Ali has gone to his corner and ordered his trainer, Angelo Dundee, to cut his gloves off.  He wants no more of Joe Frazier, a fact a Frazier colleague from Philadelphia, Willie Monroe, hears from his seat and tries to make clear to Frazier’s corner.

Ali later confirmed this as does Pacheco in the film. Futch doesn’t know this however and stops the fight to protect Frazier. When Ali realizes it, he stands up, waves one arm and then collapses on the floor.

Frazier watches and then says, “He was the one says he wasn’t going to come back out I don’t think. Yeah.’’

Later Ali would summon Frazier’s son to his locker room. Marvis Frazier recalls how Ali apologized to him for the things he’d said and asked him to tell his father. Happy to finally hear Ali soften his words, he returns to his father’s locker room to tell him. What he recalls, even 35 years later, shows the depth of the pain Joe Frazier endured and still carries today.

“He said, ‘Hey, son, why didn’t he say it to me? You’re not me, son. He said it in front of all them people. He said all those words. All them nasty things. Let him come to me and tell me.’’’

Ali never did and so two old men sit now with their memories, one a silent icon trapped inside a broken body who helped change the world; the other an old fighter living in a north Philly ghetto still overflowing with the same bile that nearly killed him and, he believes, made Muhammad Ali the broken man he is today.

“I’m just proud to let them see the stuff that they said,’’ the old Joe Frazier says in the film. “The damage I done to this man, both mind and body, let them see.’’

Occasionally Frazier’s position on Ali softens in public but anyone who thinks that’s really how he sees things now is quickly disabused of that notion by Frazier’s brother, Tommy. He asks the film crew if they’ve ever dialed his brother’s cell phone. When they say they haven’t he does and then turns the phone to the camera.

Next thing you hear is Frazier’s gravelly voice saying, “My name is Smokin’ Joe Frazier. Sharp as a razor. Yeah. Floating like a butterfly, stings like a bee. I’m the man that done the job. He knows, look and see. Call me. Bye, bye.’’

Ali, of course, was the man who once claimed to float like a butterfly and sting like a bee. Joe Frazier is still the man who claims he plucked the wings off the butterfly and swatted the bee. Why that remains important to him after so many years is clear after watching “Thrilla in Manila,’’ a documentary that could just as easily been called “The Other Guy’’ because sadly that’s still what Joe Frazier remains.

An angry “other guy’’ who produced a trilogy of fights with a friend who became his arch enemy and filled him with a hate that not even old age and hard times can soften. Surely that’s why, right near the end of the film he calls Ali “Clay’’ one last time, the given name Ali came to regard as a symbol of racism.

Then, as if he was speaking to Ali, Frazier says, “Ask the Lord to forgive him. That’s all. Before you take that last gasp – you ask for forgiveness.’’

Until then, Joe Frazier will remain still Smokin’ Joe.

   Editor note: “Thrilla in Manila’’ debuts Saturday night 8-9:30 pm Eastern, 10-11:30 pm Pacific prior to the debut of Pacquiao-Hatton 24/7 and a middleweight fight between Winky Wright and Paul Williams. It will re-air numerous other times on HBO and HBO2. Check local listings.

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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