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Articles of 2009

Good Just Might Be Good Enough

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It has been said that in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.

That was almost literally true in boxing in the 1960s, when a Philadelphia welterweight named “Gypsy” Joe Harris won his first 24 professional bouts despite the fact that, as a child, he had been blinded in his right eye after being hit in that eye by a brick hurled during a Halloween-night fight over a bag of candy he had snatched.

Harris to this day remains the only non-world champion other than Chuck Wepner ever to have graced the cover of Sports Illustrated, and his list of victims included the reigning welterweight titlist, Curtis Cokes, in a non-title scrap. Only 22, he was in line for a shot at Cokes’ 147-pound belt when, in October 1968, a medical examination revealed his partial blindness and his license was revoked by the Pennsylvania State Athletic Commission. Hugely popular in his hometown of Philadelphia, this free-form ring artist was forced to retire with a 24-1 record that included eight victories inside the distance. His only defeat, in his final bout, came on points as a middleweight against the great Emile Griffith.

Nigel Collins, editor of The Ring magazine, said Harris, despite his handicap, was to boxing what, say, Miles Davis was to jazz and Jackson Pollock was to painting.

“He was an improvisational genius,” Collins said of Harris a few years ago. “He did things that I have never seen a fighter do in the ring, before or since, and I have seen untold thousands of fighters.”

Eye care for boxers has improved to a point where a detached retina no longer is a career-ender. Any regular citizen who has to squint to read the writing on a billboard can opt for Lasix surgery and walk away with 20-20 clarity. Who knows, if Harris were to come along today, he might now be celebrated as one of the all-time welterweight greats. Then again, perhaps his condition, if truly beyond repair, might have been detected immediately and he never would have fought at all. What we do know is that, stripped of the only thing that made him special, a despondent Harris slid into alcoholism and heroin addiction. He died in 1990 at 44 after suffering his fourth heart attack in two years.

No heavyweight these days has been identified as being as sight-impaired as was Harris, but frustrated fans awaiting the division’s next savior might well settle for the arrival of a big man with heaping doses of skill and power, even if the mystery guest was wearing an eye patch like the Van Heusen man in those ubiquitous shirt ads. Anyone with mega-talent, even if restricted by a partial field of vision or maybe a club foot, would be preferable to the able-bodied dreck now being passed off as contenders.

Veteran promoter and matchmaker Don Elbaum seemingly has been around since Cain slew Abel, and his take is telling on the sorry state of affairs in the weight class that once upon a time yielded Jack Johnson, Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, George Foreman and Larry Holmes.

“The way the heavyweight division is now, Primo Carnera, if he was boxing today, would be the undisputed champion of the world,” Elbaum said of the huge (6-5½, 280 pounds), ungainly and ponderously slow Italian who briefly held the title in the 1930s. Widely considered one of the lesser heavyweight champs, Carnera was floored (ital) 11 times (end ital) in being dethroned by Max Baer in 1934.

“The heavyweight division right now is absolutely the worst in the history of boxing,” Elbaum sighed.

Which brings us to a former defensive lineman at South Dakota State University, Joey “Minnesota Ice” Abell, who wasn’t slew by Cain, but was by Arron Lyons, Andrew Greeley, Al “Ice” Cole and Jason Nicholson en route to fashioning a 23-4 record with 22 victories inside the distance. Abell – who takes on journeyman Billy Willis in a scheduled eight-rounder Friday night at Philadelphia’s Blue Horizon — isn’t ranked by any of the world sanctioning bodies, and probably wouldn’t be even if he or one of his handlers slipped a cash-filled envelope under the table to an alphabet bandits, but he is representative of the lowered expectations we have come to expect of heavyweights who have a little something going for them, if not everything.

Even Elbaum, who has done everything he could to prop up Abell except to try larger cushions, believes that the southpaw from Coon Rapids, Minn., could eventually emerge as the frontrunner in a field of stragglers.

“Does it put him back? Absolutely,” said of the three-fight losing streak Abell, 27, endured before he regrouped for the three-bout winning streak, albeit against guys you probably never heard of, heading into his off-TV and off-the-radar date with the 35-year-old Willis (12-13-1, 9 KOs). “But this kid, I think, is still the hardest puncher among the heavyweights. And if he’s not the hardest puncher, he’s no worse than second or third.”

Elbaum might draw an argument from the Klitschko brothers, Samuel Peter, Chris Arreola and maybe a dozen or so other heavyweights who imagine themselves to be big bangers. But still, his premise is valid given the barren landscape Abell hopes to traverse; greatness is no longer a mandatory requirement for becoming heavyweight champion of the entire planet. Being pretty good just might suffice, provided all the dominoes fall just right.

Abell, who is fighting for the 10th time at the Blue Horizon (where he’s 8-1, with 8 knockouts) after campaigning of late mostly in the Upper Midwest and in Scandinavia, hasn’t given up on his dream of wearing a bejeweled title belt. Hey, he sees what Elbaum sees. The heavyweight division as presently constituted must seem like what California represented to all those fleeing the Dust Bowl in the Carnera-era ’30s: the land of opportunity.

“By August I’d like to start fighting guys in the top 50 and work up from there,” Abell said of his blueprint for success. “And I’d like to be fighting guys in the top 10 within the next year and a half.”

To get there, to rise a level, or two or three, to where the better-known fighters reside, Abell – whose repertoire to date has largely consisted of a pedestrian right jab and better-than-decent overhand left – understands that nailing a string of ham-and-eggers on the chin won’t be good enough.

“Knocking somebody out is not something I rely on,” he said. “You can’t plan on knockouts. They either happen or they don’t.

“I’ve been working on improving specific areas, like my jab,” he said. Toward that end he has brought back trainer Ron Lyke, who worked Abell’s corner throughout his amateur days and for most of his early professional bouts. Lyke doesn’t carry a rep like Emanuel Steward or Freddie Roach, but there is a comfort level between the two men that ought to count for something.

“I started with Ron,” Abell said. “We’ve been together for, like, 15 of my 25 fights. I’ve been back with him for the last three. No, the last four. It just feels right to be back with him.”

Lyke, to be sure, is not coming back into a situation where his onetime pupil has advanced from elementary to graduate school. Even if Elbaum is right, power in and of itself is not enough to make a fighter special. Slugger Dave Kingman might have hit the baseball as hard and as far as Babe Ruth, but Kong never was or could be the Bambino.

“We’re working on basic stuff,” Abell said of the gym work he’s putting in with Lyke. “I don’t have natural boxing ability. Some guys, they step in the ring and can display all the moves right off. That was something I had to learn. Hey, I’m still learning.”

That much has been evident in Abell’s losses, which might provide a better hint of where he is and needs to go than all those quickie wipeouts of bums of the month. In his first pro setback, a first-round technical knockout at the hands of Arron Lyons on Dec. 1, 2006, at the Blue Horizon, Abell was stunned by a quick three-punch combination and was stopped after an elapsed time of just 77 seconds when referee Hurley McCall determined he was in no position to defend himself.

Lyons had an interesting story to tell as the native of Gulfport, Miss., perhaps foolishly elected to ride out Hurricane Katrina on Aug. 29, 2005, despite the fact his house was only a block and a half from the beach.

“One block down, everything got destroyed,” Lyons said of the big winds and high waters that blew through his hometown like the wrath of God. “My house was left standing. I was lucky.”

Lyons was expected to last about as long as a flimsy shack vs. Katrina when he took on Abell, but he turned the tide, so to speak, with a ferocious opening salvo that sent the overwhelming favorite reeling back to the ropes, confused and hurt. It was a tough lesson to learn, but then in boxing all lessons learned are tough to some degree.

Another lesson was learned came on Sept. 5, 2008, in Karlstad, Sweden, where Abell lost a disputed six-round split decision to Cole, the former IBF cruiserweight champion who is his biggest-name opponent to date. Cole was 43 at the time and came with a three-fight losing streak, but he is a crafty veteran who knows tricks of the trade Abell is just now beginning to fathom. Another lesson learned.

“It wasn’t all bad,” he said of the stumbles he’s had, including the one to Cole. “You can learn from losing. Sometimes you have to learn a lot more than if you just keep knocking guys out.

“Al Cole is a veteran, a former world champion. And he was tough. That’s the kind of fighter I can learn from. As to whether I should have gotten the decision or not, the record always is going to show it as a loss. All you can do is accept it and move on.”

Abell is tentatively set for a rematch with Cole on Sept. 5. If he can stretch his present winning streak into 2010, maybe Elbaum will be proved right. Good just might be good enough to earn Abell his shot at that tarnished brass ring.

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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