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Articles of 2009

The Liston Chronicles, Part 1: Rising Sonny

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“An’ the dawn comes up like thunder…”
~ Rudyard Kipling

Dick the Bruiser was built like the Hoover Dam. A former lineman for the Green Bay Packers, a professional wrestler, and an icon from the 1950s right through the 1980s, he stood 6’1 and weighed 265 lbs. When he offered his opinion, people listened. In 1962, he had some choice words about what he saw as the sorry state of the heavyweight division. Charles “Sonny” Liston was king at this point. Legend has it that Sonny got wind of what the Bruiser said and caught up with him out front of the Thunderbird Hotel in Vegas. In broad daylight, Sonny beat him into a corner and slapped him repeatedly until Dick the Bruiser cowered on the sidewalk. Heralded as “The Most Dangerous Man Alive”, Dick was overheard whimpering, “I just wanna go home now”.

Legends spring up like black daisies on the road on which history’s tough guys swagger. Be they Goliath, Richard Coeur de Lion, or Frederick Barbarossa, the truth is often embellished until it reaches the outer limits of credibility.

Despite expectations, most of the black daisies at Sonny Liston’s feet are credible. He lived up to a fearsome reputation that probably began when he was thirteen years old and in the first grade. (And that’s not a misprint.) He was illiterate, had a juvenile record that was about as long as his wingspan, became a union strike breaker for wiseguys, and served two stints in Missouri for armed robbery and for assaulting a police officer. That last conviction raised eyebrows: The cop in question pulled his gun on Liston but Liston snatched it away and then did worse. Witnesses heard a voice saying “don’t hurt me” from the alley where Liston had carried the cop. The cop needed seven stitches over his eye and suffered a broken knee. Liston walked out of the alley wearing the cop’s hat and carrying his gun.

This cost him seven months in an eight-by-nine; but no sooner was he released that he got pinched again. This time it was for resisting arrest. Liston had deposited an officer upside down in a trash can.

In “The Devil and Sonny Liston”, author Nick Tosches goes on to quote Captain John Doherty about Liston’s struggles with the St. Louis Police Department and the St. Louis Police Department’s struggles with Liston: “Five coppers tried to lock Sonny. This ain’t no b.s. story. They broke hickory nightsticks over his head. They couldn’t get his hands cuffed. He was a monster.”

He was banned from fighting in several states, including New York and California, and if a man is to be judged by the company he keeps, they weren’t wrong. There is no doubt that Liston was connected with if not outright “owned” by underworld figures operating out of St. Louis. However, the trajectory of his career does not suggest that he was given soft opposition, even given his crooked associations. Only two of his first forty opponents had losing records. In his sixth fight, a still green Liston faced Johnny Summerlin, 19-1, who would crack the top ten within the year. Liston beat him twice in a row.

In 1954, he fought an unorthodox light heavyweight named Marty Marshall. Marshall had a style that recalled the pivoting, herky-jerky, watch-me-ruin-your-timing style of Jersey Joe Walcott. He could switch from an orthodox to a southpaw stance on a dime. Liston, who fought like a night train ever-rolling into KO station, had trouble with a man who refused to stay on the tracks. Liston claimed that Marshall ran around the ring whooping like such a clown that he couldn’t help but laugh –and summarily got his jaw broken. He couldn’t close it. In the sixth round, another shot fractured it again. Liston fought on anyway and dropped a split decision. “I walked the streets all night,” he remembered, “it hurt so bad.” The loss was twice avenged.

The third time Liston and Marshall met was in March 1956. Marshall entered the ring as a replacement for Hall of Famer Harold Johnson, a supreme technician. Johnson had to back out of the bout after injuring his shoulder in training. At that juncture, Johnson’s 55-8 record sparkled with wins over Jimmy Bivins, Bert Lytell, Archie Moore, Clarence Henry, and Ezzard Charles. The surprise is the confidence that Liston’s management must have had to take such a risk.

In May, Liston broke the aforementioned cop’s knee in the alley, cooled his heels in the clink, and didn’t return to the ring until 1958. But by November of that year ringside observers said that he barely broke a sweat in eight victories. They would also agree that Sonny Liston was at his rampaging peak in 1959-1960.

The iron-jawed George Chuvalo was asked in an interview who hit him the hardest. Mike DeJohn, “a real good whacker” was at the top of the list, although DeJohn was spent by the time Chuvalo faced him. Liston fought DeJohn in 1959 when he was ranked #8 by Ring Magazine. According to the New York Times, Liston’s jab made a mess of his nose and DeJohn went down twice from body shots during the six round slugfest. Two months later Liston faced the widely avoided Cleveland “Big Cat” Williams –another banger. Liston stopped him in three rounds. He stopped him again a year later and a round sooner. (Williams, incidentally, wouldn’t be stopped again until he met Ali in 1966, and by then Williams was shot –figuratively and literally.) By the end of 1960, Liston demolished Nino Valdes, bounced number two contender Roy Harris off the canvas three times before stopping him in the first round, and looked very strong against the number one contender Zora Folley. Master boxer Eddie Machen, ranked third, went the distance but mistook the ring for a race track. He ran as if his trunks were on fire. Liston swung and missed and didn’t look so formidable, but took a decision, despite a three point deduction for low blows.

Five of these six men were in their prime. Only Valdes was fading, though still dangerous.

According to Ring Magazine, Liston was the number one contender since at least July 1960 when he beat Zora Folley. The highly respected editor, Nat Fleischer himself was demanding that Liston be given a shot at Floyd Patterson’s title as soon as possible. Cus D’Amato, Patterson’s manager, was in no rush to sign Valdes, Folley, or Machen… although the complicated shadow of Sonny Liston gave him real shivers. D’Amato avoided them all with loose and limber reasoning: He lamented about the cheap prospective gate in a Machen fight, yet became a moralist when it came to Liston.

Liston did two things of note during this time. The first is that he stayed active –even to the point of accepting the short money to fight Harris, Williams, and Zora Folley (he took $25,000 to Zora's $40,000, despite the fact that Liston was on an eight fight KO streak and hadn't lost in seven years. Zora had lost less than two years earlier and had just earned a snoozer decision against a fighter who lost twice as much as he won). Tosches tells the story of Sonny’s surprise visit to Cus D'Amato’s office where he asked a menacing question: “Is you or is you ain't going to give me a title shot?” Cus presumably came out from under the desk and told Sonny to give him a list of managers and Cus would choose one for Sonny himself. Sonny, who was smarter than the average bear, said, “Ain't that nice. What you mean is that you want to control me.”

By the time Sonny fought Albert Westphal in December of 1961, he was fed up.

At the weigh-in on the day of the fight, Westphal was feeling the glare of the brooding behemoth. “You can talk to me. I’m your friend. Why are you so angry?” Westphal asked him. “You’ll find out tonight,” snapped Sonny. The German looked like an erratic kernel of popcorn until the roof fell in on him. The fight was over in two minutes.

Meanwhile, the popular champion Floyd Patterson was wrestling with his conscience: “One night in bed, I made up my mind. I knew if I wanted to sleep comfortably, I’d have to take on Liston.” So, Floyd defied Cus D’Amato’s safety-first policy of title reigns, waved away the fears of the NAACP, and overruled the pleadings of no less than President John F. Kennedy himself. A quivering hand signed to fight Liston and Floyd bravely met his fate.

It surprised no one, though there was a collective gasp, when Sonny Liston became heavyweight champion on September 25, 1962 at Chicago’s Comiskey Park. He rolled over Patterson to take the title in 2:05 of the first round (it would take him only four more seconds to do the same in the rematch). “It was”, wrote Arthur Daley of the New York Times, “a bull elephant matched against a frail deer and then felling him with a disdainful swipe of his ponderous trunk.”

The “bad guy” won, just like Sonny had promised. The armed robber, labor goon, cop-fighting ex-con …the big, black menace… was king. Jim Murray wrote that the world of sports had to reconcile itself with the fact that it was stuck with Liston –indefinitely. It was analogous to “finding a live bat on a string under your Christmas tree.”

In the post-fight chaos that erupted, Cassius Marcellus Clay hastily dashed down some verse and became a voice crying out in the wilderness:

And as the people left the park

You could hear them say

Liston will stay king

Until he meets that Clay…

———————————————————————————————————————————————————————————-

George Chuvalo’s interview was conducted by Barry Lindenmen and published in Propane Canada, May/June 2004. Information for this article was derived from contemporary editions of the New York Times. Special thanks to Nick Gamble for his assistance with The Ring ratings. Gregory Toledo can be contacted at scalinatella@hotmail.com.

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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