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Articles of 2009

Brute, Part XV: Write Well For Us, Huh?

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he 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

In the lobby of the Red Lion, at 7:30 in the evening, I found that I was not as nervous as I had been for the last fight. In May I was as anxious as if I’d been expected in the ring at eight and had skipped my last two weeks in the gym. Now I felt a little less the stranger. This time I had a ticket, and I hadn’t had to pay for it. I went through the security line and into the ballroom, and did not even look for my seat. The bar, I knew from the last fight, was the best place to see the ring.

I put my pad down on the bar and asked the bartender for a Diet Coke. While I waited for the drink I took a few notes and noticed, as I wrote, that a man was standing at my right shoulder. He seemed as if he wanted to ask me something, but was concerned about interrupting me. “Give me just a moment,” I said.

“I didn’t want to bother you,” he said.

The bartender put down my soda and when I tried to pay her she refused, so I left her a tip and turned to my subject. I could not place him, but perhaps we’d spoken at the fight in May. “What’s up, man?” I said.

“You write for The Sweet Science, right?”

“I do indeed,” I said.

“I read your article after we talked last time.” That confirmed that we had met, though I could not place him in that chaotic evening. “What’s your name again?” he asked.

“Kaelan,” I said.

“Kaelan Smith, or something.”

“That’s right.”

“You’re always taking notes,” he said.

“There’s a lot to take notes on,” I said.

“I should probably do that. I sometimes write for 15rounds.com. Usually I just come here to get drunk.” He had what I assumed was a rum and Coke. The ice in it was hardly melted, though the plastic cup was almost empty, and I figured that he wouldn’t change his routine for this fight. I decided that I should get some fresh air on the pool patio before the punching began, and I shook the hand of my admirer, realizing as I was leaving the ballroom that I’d forgotten to ask his name.

On my way out I saw Nasser Niavaroni near the exit, scowling with his arms crossed and growling into his phone. But when he saw me he uncoiled his arms and waved. “How you doing?” he said.

“I’m well,” I said. I was growing comfortable with the knowledge that in May he hadn’t taken me seriously because, amongst other professional shortcomings, I’d walked into his gym wearing a Red Sox hat and effectively asked him for one hundred dollars. To be bitter about his discounting me was therefore shortsighted and petty. And since I’d found through Mark Wilkie another way to watch the fights for free, I was beginning to look on him differently. With the sort of noble but misdirected audacity Mondale had demonstrated when picking Ferraro to run on his ticket, Niavaroni was trying to revive the boxing culture in Sacramento. For Mondale it was the popularity of the incumbents that proved insurmountable, whereas for Niavaroni it was the celebrity of the challenger—the brutal charm of mixed martial arts—but regardless I was grateful for his enthusiasm. 

I didn’t recognize anyone on the patio, so I didn’t stay long. When I got back to the bar I noticed a man who’d been at the weigh-ins the night before. He was a friend of Gerrell’s, and I went up to say hello and to see if the White Tigers had arrived. As I approached him he unfurled a black “Stan the Man” t-shirt and slipped it over his head. Why he hadn’t worn it in I couldn’t imagine. Perhaps he’d been out to dinner before and was afraid he might encounter the white stallion Terrance Jett had ridden up from Las Vegas, but it seemed more likely that the Red Lion ballroom was a more dangerous venue for partisans, even if half the card was from the central valley.

He saw me, and at the same moment his phone rang. He answered it, spoke briefly into it, and then hung up. “Derek?” I asked.

He said that yes, man, we’d met the night before. “Gerrell just pulled in,” he added, looking at his phone to indicate the source of this information. “You write a lot, don’t you?”

“Must take notes,” I said. It was true, I’d found, that in order to write well about an event I had to take copious notes. But I was also beginning to realize that by constantly writing what people said on my page (I was writing as I talked with Derek) I was setting myself apart. It made people wary of me, and at the same time I was acutely aware that they were trying to impress me. As if to punctuate this thought, a young Asian man in a brown blazer who’d been standing in our vicinity came over and put his hand on my shoulder. 

“Write well for us, huh?” he said. I promised him that I would. I was, I knew, sometimes making fools of the people around me by cataloguing their words and gestures, but I was also making heroes of some. For instance, I wanted to convey to whatever audience I’d garnered that Stan Martyniouk was a fine, young boxer with great promise, because that was the impression he’d given me. If I mocked Nasser Niavaroni, it was only because he had been inconsistent and duplicitous. Now that he was revising the impression I had of him, I felt it necessary to revise my portrayal. 

The announcer stepped into the ring and took the microphone. “The first bout of the evening,” he began, “will start in just five minutes.” The crowd, which had quieted for the sentence, did not display any unified interest in the announcement. Most of them continued talking with the men they hoped to impress with their knowledge of boxing, or to the women whom they’d brought to impress those same men. It should be said that fight fans are still predominantly male despite the relatively recent burgeoning of women’s boxing. Laila Ali is a great boxer, but she is famous first for having issued from Muhammed Ali, second for having danced with the stars, and only third for having punched other ladies in the face. It is therefore a certain type of woman who comes to a fight, the sort that browns under a lecherous glare but does not burn, who wears a very short skirt and large earrings, or in the case of the round girls, often no skirt at all.

While the crowd was forgetting the imminent fight, I saw Mehrad and Gerrell making their way through the horde. They saw Derek first and said hello to him. Then I shook hands with both of them and apologized that I hadn’t worn my “Stan the Man” shirt. “But I did wear black in homage to the ‘Stan the Man’ shirt,” I said. Both Gerrell and Mehrad seemed pleased, although Mehrad appeared nervous. Looking at his face I realized—and I say realized because until that point it really hadn’t occurred to me—that Stan might not win his fight with Terrance Jett. If a boxer is going to lose early in his career, it’s best that he lose his first bout. History forgives and sentimentality prefers a disastrous opening night if the subsequent performances inspire a standing ovation. The nerves accompanying a debut can erase a decade of training, so as a fan it is easy to absolve a young boxer for forgetting to lead with his jab, or failing to disengage effectively after a dance. But what can you say of the man who loses his fourth fight? A manager can over-match a potentially great boxer in his first fight or his tenth. But if a boxer loses that fourth fight (or the third or the fifth) it becomes increasingly difficult to under-match him. It is course par étapes that a handler races his horse against the sort of horses that will encourage growth without stunting it. But if a fighter gets beaten while his career is flowering, he risks becoming the tester and not the tested. Perhaps the most tragic fate for a boxer—worse even than losing his first five and retiring—is to win three and lose one and get relegated to that undercard, fighting four- and six-rounders, and leaving the hall each night before the main event.

As this was now on my mind, I assumed Mehrad was suffering similar anxieties. But he was trying to smile through it all, and I was too, and the White Tigers, now a veritable pride (I’m confusing my cats), looked up at the ring. I’d received an email about the fight card from Mark Wilkie, but had discovered that at the Red Lion the pre-determined sequence of the bouts was more of suggestion than an order. Therefore I didn’t know whom the man was with the towel over his shoulders that had just ducked through the ropes. Neither, from their disimpassioned response, did the crowd.

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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