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Articles of 2009

The Liston Chronicles, Part III: The Conquering Sonny



“Artillery is the god of war.”

~ Stalin

The grave of Sonny Liston is located just south of the children’s section at Paradise Memorial Gardens in Las Vegas. His bones lie unsettled beneath the roar of airplanes and avenue traffic. Few visit.

His image can be found tacked up on bedroom walls of teenagers, sprawled out at the feet of an icon. To the uninitiated, the man on the canvas is just a nameless conquest of Muhammad Ali. To casual boxing fans, he is the Big, Ugly Bear taking a dive. To many purists the image is an insult because they know that the Liston of 1959-1960 was among the most fearsome wrecking machines the heavyweight division has ever known.

It is time that we visit his grave, reanimate those unsettled bones, and give Sonny Liston his due.

Boxing aficionados spend hours online, in bars and gyms, and on street corners debating hypothetical head-to-heads between fighters from different eras. The big boys of the heavyweight division can be counted on to detonate the biggest debates. Could Mike Tyson have overcome George Foreman? How about Rocky Marciano vs. Joe Frazier? Would Lennox Lewis have been too much for Jack Dempsey?

It is widely assumed that the greatest heavyweight who ever lived is either Ali or Joe Louis. The high level of Ali’s competition and his penchant for winning critical bouts even after the powers of youth had dissipated are two of the strongest arguments in his favor. Louis’s twelve year reign as champion is likewise a tough achievement to beat. Who is greater is largely a question of resume. Who would have won between them is largely a question of styles.

Max Schmeling beat Louis who beat Max Baer who beat Schmeling. Frazier beat Ali who beat Foreman who beat Frazier. Kenny Norton beat Ali who beat Foreman who beat Norton. Ring logic does not confirm that if “A beats B”, and “B beats C”, then “A will beat C”. That logic is disrupted by the old principle that styles make fights and there are a hundred examples.

This brings us to an interesting elaboration on an interesting question. Consider the twenty-eight linear heavyweight champions from Jack Dempsey to Lennox Lewis. If each of these champions faced all of their peers in the respective primes of their careers, who would emerge with the best record?

Who would be the king of the hill?

At first glance, Liston is an unlikely contender in such a competition. His championship reign lasted through one defense. Sure, he had the misfortune of crossing paths with the greatest sports phenomenon of the twentieth century but he also was foolish enough to take him lightly. Then he squandered (or was forced to squander) his chance for redemption in the rematch. This isn’t the stuff of a great championship reign, and I submit that any boxing writer who lists Sonny’s reign anywhere near the top should be sent packing to Wimbledon –where he can watch those other guys in shorts.

Many boxing critics, however, suffer from Ali-induced myopia. They see Liston sagging on his stool in Miami or they see him splayed on the canvas in Neil Leifer’s iconic photograph and go no farther. They forget that Liston began his disappointing title reign late, that his career was stunted by incarceration through 1957 and Cus D’Amato’s unwillingness to see Floyd Patterson face a real contender. This much is certain: the fighter who stepped into the ring against Cassius Clay was not the fighter who stepped into the ring against Cleveland Williams five years earlier. That Liston, the 1959 version, commands a closer look. He’s the sleeper in our “king of the hill” competition:


Size isn’t everything. Dempsey treated Jess Willard like a Kansas tornado would a cull tree. Louis easily chopped down giants like Primo Carnera, Abe Simon, and Buddy Baer. Size isn’t everything -but that’s not to say it doesn’t matter. A new breed of coordinated giants has taken over the heavyweight division. Dempsey and Louis, at 187½ and 201 respectively, may not have had enough physical strength to fend off the less lumbering giants of today, though they would have had the skill… Liston had both.

With a wingspan as long as Lennox Lewis’s at 84 inches, a fist that was by some reports fifteen inches around, and therefore bigger than Willard’s, Carnera’s, both Klitschko brothers’, and Nicolay Valuev’s, Liston’s threw punches like medieval catapults threw boulders.

Walking around at about 230 lbs and trained down to 212½ in his prime, he was by all reports exceptionally strong. George Foreman, who used to spar with Liston in the late 1960s, admitted that the only man who was ever able to move him backwards against his will was Sonny Liston. Liston fought several large men. He did not have to concede space.

Fifty years ago, big men trained down from their ‘walking around’ weight. Today, fewer heavyweights are so disciplined. They seemed to have signed tacit agreements to waltz and posture rather than wage wars and punch. They don’t have to fight fifteen rounds anymore and they barely bother breaking a sweat in twelve. Liston did –and as a group, the men he fought came into the ring in good condition -unlike “Fast-Chomping” Eddie Chambers and Sam “Pizza” last March. Liston’s size and proportions make him a juggernaut. Standing just under 6’1, he had the proportions of a larger man. His musculature was streamlined and functional and the veins popping out of his neck looked like cables. His presence in the ring exuded a bullish power, and his center of gravity, lower than longer men like Lennox Lewis, translated into more concentrated physical strength. It is unlikely that any modern heavyweight would physically dominate Liston. Especially the fat ones.

“When he hits,” an acquaintance told Jack McKinney in 1962, “he hits every cop who ever beat him. He hits every white man who ever looked at him. I think he’s on the edge of violence.” Like Lennox and the Klitschkos, Liston could punch like hell with either hand. Unlike Lennox or the Klitschkos, Liston’s chin was rock solid.

His exceptional physical strength and punching power would serve him well against smaller champions like Dempsey, Marciano, and Frazier. Tyson admitted in the late eighties that he saw trouble with the Liston jab, but he’d have had more trouble coping with Liston’s strength inside. Evander Holyfield’s strategy against Tyson was grounded in the theory that Tyson’s offense required forward motion. So Holyfield muscled him and mounted his offense while Tyson was out of position. If Holyfield’s relatively spindly legs could walk Tyson backwards, Liston would have no problem doing the same.

Sonny would be hard to withstand for any of his heavyweight peers who couldn’t match his strength. Those who could are very few. And even if a Foreman or a Klitschko could deal with his Hulk-strength, they’d still have to find a way to overcome his Doc Bruce Banner boxing brain.

Technical Skill/Experience

Ali himself conceded that Liston’s brutality was scientific. He was unusual in this regard. Joe Louis was arguably the supreme technician among the heavyweight champions, but Liston was at least as well-rounded as Larry Holmes, Tyson, Holyfield, or Riddick Bowe. He was a murderous body puncher, knew his way around inside, was devastating mid-range, and could control most fighters from the outside. His jab was a telephone pole used not to dazzle, but to shock a man or knock him off balance so that Sonny could drive in with power shots.

Liston could punch in combination to the body and head. He could get a bit narcoleptic behind his jab and he tended to follow movers like Clay and Eddie Machen instead of cutting the ring off, but when he bent those knees and cornered his man, his explosiveness could make a grown man cry. And the attack was intelligent. What he lacked in speed he compensated for with leverage, good balance, and shots that were short, diverse, and well-placed. This didn’t change even as he aged. The punches he landed downstairs on Leotis Martin sounded like bowling balls dropping on wet salami.

Even at the end, Sonny threw combinations that are noticeably absent among the “punch-and-wait” style of modern giants. Left hooks were followed with right crosses, right crosses and uppercuts were followed by left hooks. Straight rights to the body were followed by left hooks to the head. He could adjust for distance and find angles. He did not disdain defense. His head moved after punching, he blocked, parried, weaved under shots and got into position to return fire. At times Sonny’s skillful slips and counters could make James Toney raise an eyebrow.

There are several heavyweight champions who have faced better competition than Liston. Ali, Lewis, Holyfield, and Tyson are among them. Liston did gain valuable experience facing several different styles in his seventeen-year career –boxer-punchers, counter-punchers, swarmers, sluggers, southpaws, and super heavyweights.


“When I broke his jaw,” Marty Marshall recalled, “he didn’t even blink.” That was 1954, ten years before Liston met Clay. Cleveland Williams broke his nose in the first round of their first war in 1959. Blood poured like lava but the expression on Liston’s face looked like he was playing poker. In round three he turned the tables. In the rematch, Williams stunned him in round two only to see Liston shut him down seconds later. Liston virtually cleaned out the top ten contenders on his way to Floyd Patterson and avoided no one, even taking the short-end money just to fight them.

How many fighters today would be willing to accept high risk/low reward bouts? Prime Liston built his ring reputation on exactly that.


In the end, it can be argued that Liston was almost a complete heavyweight. Most of the big boys have excelled with fewer assets than Liston had. Like any fighter, he also had a stylistic foil. He had trouble with tall unorthodox boxers with speed. Marshall demonstrated this in his victory over Liston, Machen disrupted Liston’s malevolent intentions by staying away and made him look one-dimensional and ponderous. Angelo Dundee took notes and was convinced early that Cassius Clay had a surplus of essentials necessary to thwart Liston. Clay was taller, had demon speed, mobility, and more power and physical strength than either Marshall or Machen. Clay also forced Liston to turn and constantly reset; and was smart enough to circle left, away from that big jab and left hook. In a peak-for-peak battle between 1959 Liston and 1967 Ali, Ali must be favored. He had the answers.

But there are no supermen. Ali himself was not immune to good strategy and stylistic kryptonite. Master strategist Eddie Futch shined a light on them. Frazier’s high pressure, bobbing and weaving style with that left hook emphasis would always have been problematic for Ali. Ali needed room, had real limitations inside and habitually dropped his right hand. Tyson, who was essentially a gamma-powered Frazier, would also have been problematic for Ali. Marciano knew how to find his way inside and do heavy damage, though there is a good chance that Ali’s corkscrew shots would make marinara out of his face. Bowe was trained by Eddie Futch and that alone could pose problems. If the contest discussed here included rematches, then Ali could be counted on to defeat anyone the second time if not the first. As it is, I’d argue that his record against his peers would place second. 

Larry Holmes’s style of fighting most resembles Ali’s, but he had neither the speed of hand and foot nor the virtuosity that Ali had. Unfortunately, he was prone to punch wide and engage, and these would be mistakes against Liston. Holyfield had skills to match Liston, but he was prone to make the same mistake as Holmes –engaging a superior offensive force. The heavyweights, as a rule, seek victory less by finesse than by strength and power compared to other divisions. It is unlikely that any of the champions will beat 1959 Liston by the usual means. Those are his terms. Still more ominous is the high-tech engine beneath the artillery. Simply put, Liston may be too powerful for the skilled champions and too skilled for the powerful champions. To beat him, it takes a rare breed of heavyweight –the rarest, the Greatest.

Let us revisit the question: If all of the linear heavyweight champions of the modern era faced each other in their respective primes, who would be the king of the hill?

The shadow of Sonny Liston is emerging.

If you missed part one, click here:

And here's the second installment:

Articles of 2009

UFC 108 Rashad Evans vs. Thiago Silva



Former champion Rashad Evans meets Brazil’s venerable Thiago Silva in a non-title belt that can lead to a return match with the current champ, but first things first.

Evans (15-1-1) and Silva (14-1) meet in Ultimate Fighting Championship 108 in a light heavyweight bout on Saturday Jan. 2, at the MGM Grand Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. A win by either fighter could result in a world title bid. The fight card is being shown on pay-per-view television.

Events can change quickly in the Octagon and anybody can beat anybody in the 205-pound weight division. Just ask Silva or Evans.

Silva and Evans are both experienced and can vouch firsthand about the capriciousness of fighting in MMA and especially as a light heavyweight. On one day this man can beat that man and on another day, that man can beat this man. It can make you absolutely daffy.

Evans, 30, is the former UFC light heavyweight world champion who only defended his title on one occasion and lost by vicious knockout to current champion Lyoto Machida of Brazil. It’s the only defeat on his record.

Silva, 27, is a well-rounded MMA fighter from Sao Paolo, Brazil who is versed in jujitsu, Muy Thai and boxing. He can end a fight quickly in a choke hold just as easily as with a kick or a punch. His only loss came to who else: Machida.

Evans and Silva know a win can push open the door to a rematch with current UFC light heavyweight champion Machida.

“A win against Rashad would put me in the track against Lyoto,” said Silva, in a telephone conference call. “That's what – what I want to do.”

When Silva fought Machida the two Brazilians were both undefeated and feared in the MMA world. The fight took place in Las Vegas and with one second remaining in the first round a perfectly timed punch knocked Silva unconscious.

“I was humbled big time, man,” says Silva who fought Machida in January 2009. “I learned a lot from that fight.  I think I can correct the mistakes from that fight, not overlooking anything else right now, but just I want to get the chance to fight him again.”

For Evans it was a different circumstance. The upstate New Yorker held the UFC title and was defending it after stopping then champion Forrest Griffin by knockout. Still, many felt Machida was far too technically versed. Evans was stopped brutally in the second round.

“I've made it a point to not – to not get distracted on what I want to do, because you know Thiago (Silva) is a very hungry fighter,” said Evans who has not fought since losing the title to Machida last May. “My focus is just on Thiago so much.  You know I don't want to overlook him, you know, not even a little bit.”

Dana White, president of UFC, says the winner of this fight could conceivably fight Machida in the near future. Evans and especially Silva are motivated by the open window.

“I learned a lot from that fight. I think I can correct the mistakes from that fight,” says Silva. “Not overlooking anything else right now, but I just want to get the chance to fight him again.”

What a prize. The winner gets to face the man who beat him: Machida.

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Articles of 2009

Ten Boxing Wishes For 2010



As 2009 comes to a close, one reflects on what went well and what went wrong during the year in boxing. There were many highlights. Pacquiao vs. Cotto and Showtime’s Super Six tournament were part of the best that boxing had to offer. But there were some low points too therefore the industry has some work to do in order to keep generating fans. Here are some suggestions for 2010:

10. Better pay per view cards

Paying 40 to 50 bucks to watch the main event gets old real quick. Why do we have to sit through a horrible under-card to get to the main course? It’s like being fed spam appetizers before the Thanksgiving turkey. It seems that the pay per view promoters just don’t get it. Are they watching what they put on or do they only watch the “big fight” as everyone else is slowly being conditioned to do so?

9. Time to make Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. fight

Okay, I understand he’s the son of one of the greatest fighters that ever lived. But he’s had 42 fights against low to mid level competition and has never managed to look spectacular. It’s time to throw the 23 year old out of the nest to see if he can fly. My suggestion is a fight against Sergio Mora or maybe even Yuri Foreman. Neither of these guys can punch. They may outbox Junior but they won’t totally humiliate him.

8. No more ridiculous Pay Per View mismatches

Floyd Mayweather Jr. vs. Juan Manuel Marquez should’ve never been made. It was a ridiculous fight when it was announced and it was more ridiculous when it took place. Unable to bring Manny Pacquiao to the bargaining table for a third match against Juan Manuel Marquez, someone figured that pairing up the 135 pound champion against a natural 147 pounder like Mayweather would be a great idea. The pay per view generated over a million buys but the fact that millions of people were treated to an incredibly boring mismatch is what’s truly worrisome. I can guarantee you one thing about this card. The sport of boxing lost fans once the show was over and done with. Talk about short term thinking.

7. Chris “The Nightmare” Arreola shows up for a fight in amazing shape

It was painful to see Chris Arreola take a beating from the Ukrainian giant, Vitali Klitscho. The champion certainly earned his “Dr. Ironfist” moniker as he plowed his powerful shots into the former #1 WBC heavyweight contender’s face. He reddened and bloodied the young Mexican American with an assortment of weapons and foot movement seldom seen on a six foot seven inch heavyweight. Arreola was brave and unrelenting in battle. He never stopped coming forward and took chances when he could. His work in the ring at the Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles wasn’t the problem. Where Arreola let himself down was outside the ring. His unwillingness to condition himself into a finely tuned athlete cost him certain immortality as the first ever heavyweight champion of Mexican descent. Arreola has the heart and skills but it was his mental fortitude that broke down. Anyone who’s followed the Riverside fighter knows that his best weight is somewhere in the 230 pound range. It certainly isn’t at the 252 pounds he registered on the scale at the Staples Center.  Those fifteen to twenty extra pounds might have made all the difference in the world. Maybe he would’ve been a little quicker, maybe he could’ve sustained a faster pace in order to tire out the champion. In his most recent fight against Brian Minto, Arreola weighed in at a career high 263. It looks like “The Nightmare” isn’t willing to change for anyone. At this pace, the only nightmares he’ll be providing will be to the management of Hometown Buffets all across Riverside.  Just kidding “Nightmare”!

6. More respect for the lighter weights

Real boxing fans know that the most exciting fighters in the sport are usually found toiling in weight divisions south of 154 pounds. Pacquiao, Cotto, Juan Manuel Marquez, Edwin Valero, Israel Vazquez, Juan Ma Lopez, Vic Darchinyan, Rafael Marquez and countless others have been the real driving force behind this sport. It’s those great fighters that have made boxing fanatics out of casual fans. The heavyweights may get all the money and glory but it’s the little guys who make the sport shine and it’s time they received greater compensation. It’s dismaying to think that a mediocre heavyweight can make three or four times as much as the great Rafael Marquez.

5. An American Heavyweight champion

Speaking of heavyweights, two Americans tried and failed at dethroning Vitali Klitschko this year. Both Kevin Johnson and Chris Arreola did their best to wrestle the belt away from “Dr. Klitschko” but came up short since they were easily outclassed. What happened to the great American Heavyweight? Where’s our new Joe Frazier or Ali? Even a new Gerry Cooney or a Ken Norton would do at this point. I’ve got a feeling that the only way we’re going to see an American champion is if Klitschko retires. My money is on Arreola. Although undisciplined and rough outside the ring, he’s got tons (no pun intended) of natural talent. He’s without a doubt the most talented American heavyweight on the scene.

4. More ShoBox

The Showtime Cable network gave us the best boxing on TV for the price of a cable television subscription. Their ShoBox series has been a proven hit for Senior VP of Sports Programming Ken Hershman. The concept is simple yet brilliant. Match up two up and comers with great records and let’s see what happens. Sometimes the results are surprising. Many have passed the ShoBox test and went on to bigger and better things. Others have been exposed as having padded records and eventually their careers stall and take a dive.

3. More safety in Mexico so I can attend a show without a gun battle breaking out

Having lived near the Tijuana border all my life I’m dismayed at the war zone that the city has evolved into. Every day there are reports of shootings fueled by the drug war trade. Believe it or not, there was a time when Tijuana was safe and most wouldn’t have thought twice about crossing the border for some seafood and nightlife. No more. Having covered several boxing cards on Revolucion Avenue many years ago, I got a taste of just how important the sport is to Mexican fans. It’s also important to me but not that important. For now I’ll stick to covering shows at the Pechanga Casino and in the less dangerous city of L.A. I never thought I’d say that.

2. Pac Man vs. Mayweather

This is the fight everyone wants to see. Seeing how Mayweather dominated Pac Man’s arch enemy, Juan Manuel Marquez, you have to wonder if the Filipino can handle Lil’ Floyd’s speed and size. One thing is for sure, betting against Pacquiao doesn’t usually work out for me. It never has. There’s no future in it. So if the fight gets done it’s Pacquiao by TKO in ten.

1. And finally

One final wish is reserved for all the readers of I wish you all a healthy and happy 2010. Thank you for your continued loyalty to the site. It’s very much appreciated.

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Articles of 2009

A Very Special New Year's Day Column



It has been just over four months since Nick Charles, the play-by-play announcer for Shobox: The New Generation, was diagnosed with stage IV bladder cancer and forced to take a medical hiatus from the monthly show that has aired since 2001.

Since then he has undergone grueling chemotherapy treatments that have resulted in him losing all of his hair as he forces himself to live as normal of a life as possible. Through sheer force of will, as well as the strength and support that he receives from his wonderfully loving family and his strong Christian faith, the 63-year-old Charles has managed to keep his weight up while not falling prey to the always lingering threats of depression, cynicism and negativity.

If one was unaware that he was battling such an insidious disease, you’d never know from talking on the phone to him that he has been to hell and back. He has lost none of the inspiring energy that has endeared him to members of the boxing community and legions of worldwide viewers.

“I’m doing great,” Charles said during a telephone conversation on December 30th. “I’ve been off the chemo for a month, and the doctors have told me that I’m 80 percent in remission. I’m going to see them again in three months. It may come back, but if it takes one year, or two years, or however long, I’m going to make the most of the good time.”

As physically and emotionally wrenching as the grim diagnosis and subsequent treatment has been, even for someone as perpetually positive as Charles, the longtime announcer said a lot of good things have come from it.

Having been married three times, Charles is the father of four children: Jason, 38, Melissa, 34, Charlotte, 22, and Giovanna, 3 ½.

While Charles is not big on regrets, he is the first to admit that he wasn’t always there for his older children. For many years he traveled the world as a CNN correspondent, often putting the demands of his career above all else, including those closest to him. Nowhere was the strain more evident than in his relationship with Melissa.

Having been divorced from Melissa’s mother since 1977, Charles said his relationship with that daughter has been especially “hot and cold, all of our lives.”

His illness has enabled them to forge a relationship that has been “based on a massive amount of forgiveness and understanding.”

“This has had a tremendous healing effect on both of us,” said Charles. “My illness has had a fortifying effect on a lot of things, the most important of which is my relationships with my family.”

That also includes his first wife, with whom he has had an often acrimonious relationship over the past three decades.

“It took a long time for the scab to become a scar, but we had lunch one day and it was so great to once again see the gentle, soft sides of each other,” he explained. “The whole divorce process creates a hardness that doesn’t always go away.”

Charles is also the grandfather to three children, some of whom are about the same age as his youngest daughter. He jokes that he has a “nuclear 21st century family” because of the similar ages of two generations of children. One of the hardest things for him has been the realization that he can’t always play with them in manner in which he would like.

“The hemoglobin is the fuel in your tank, so when it’s low you can’t will yourself to do things no matter how much you want to,” said Charles. “You can’t just sleep it off or work through it. I don’t want the kids to wonder why I can’t play in the backyard with them, or kick a soccer ball, or throw them in the air.”

Particularly difficult is when Giovanna reminds her father of how handsome he is, but then innocently asks him what happened to his hair, eyebrows and lashes.

“You try to keep things on a need to know basis, which is not easy when dealing with curious kids,” said Charles.

While Charles might look like the kind of guy that things have often come easy to, the reality is that his beginnings were far from auspicious. But, he says, his often challenging Chicago childhood blessed him with the steely resolve that has helped him so much during the arduous journey he is now on.

“I had it pretty rough growing up,” he explained. “I remember the lights and the heat being shut off and eating mustard sandwiches. I went to work at 13 and always had insecurities about the future. But I always expected and saw the best in people, so when I got sick, never once did I say 'Why me?”

Since taking a leave of absence from Shobox, the outpouring of support from the boxing community has warmed Charles’s heart. For a guy that is battling for his life, he actually considers himself fortunate to be surrounded by so much goodness in both his personal and professional lives.

“I always hear that boxing people are ruthless, but I couldn’t disagree more,” said Charles. “I’ve probably received about 1,000 e-mails, and people are always following in sending their best wishes. From the relatively unknown people in boxing to many of the more famous people, there has been an outpouring of true affection.”

Charles said that the Top Rank organization has been exceedingly kind and gracious. He was touched beyond description when he learned that officials in Oklahoma got special permission to have a seamstress sew “Keep Fighting Nick” onto their sleeves. He chokes up when talking about cut man Stitch Duran giving up an endorsement opportunity so he could put Charles’s name on his outfit. He never tires of hearing shout-outs from fighters on television.

Charles has always been a people person with an inordinate faith in the goodness of his fellow man. Battling this illness has only made his already strong faith in humanity even stronger.

“Adversity is a great teacher, and it really teaches you who your genuine friends are,” said Charles. “I have a lot of friends.”

He also has a remarkable wife, Cory, a CNN producer to whom he has been married for 11 years. She is the daughter of an electrician, a self-made woman who exudes all of the warmth of her native Brooklyn. She has reinforced her husband’s spiritual base by her love, optimism and strength of character.

“If I get down, she reminds me to not get too caught up,” said Charles. “I believe in eternity, and that has put me pretty much at peace.”

More than anything else, Charles wants to get himself back behind a microphone sooner rather than later, and hopefully on Shobox. He is the first to admit that viewers “don’t watch the series to see Nick Charles,” but he is proud of the fact that he was “part of the identity” of such a popular show.

“And people love comeback stories,” added Charles. “That’s the message I’m getting from the people out there.”

In boxing the word “champion” is often overused because it pertains only to winning belts and receiving worldwide recognition for being the best at your craft. The reality is that life’s real champions have other qualities, such as the innate ability to treat people well and always make them feel better about themselves, especially when the recipients of the goodwill are in no position to give them anything back.

By that standard of measure, Charles is as much, if not more of a champion than all of the boxers he has covered during the nine years that Shobox has been on the air.

I know I speak for scores of others when I say, “Happy New Year, Champ. We hope that you are the comeback story of the year in 2010.”

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