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Articles of 2009

Out Of Africa, Mtagwa The Real-Life Rocky



Longtime Philadelphia boxing promoter J Russell Peltz was doing his best to hype Saturday night’s pay-per-view matchup at the WaMu Theater between WBO super bantamweight champion Juan Manuel Lopez and Peltz’s off-the-charts underdog of a challenger, Rogers Mtagwa.

“This might be the greatest fight New York has ever seen between a Puerto Rican and a Tanzanian,” said Peltz, chuckling, fully aware that such matchups at any venue probably are as rare as full eclipses of the sun.

For the most part, the boxing media have resisted the urge to depict Lopez-Mtagwa as a downsized version of Ali-Frazier or Zale-Graziano. Lopez (26-0, 24 KOs) is too good, too polished, too devastating a puncher to be pestered much by the 30-year-old Mtagwa (26-12-2, 18 KOs), a former USBA bantamweight titlist who is ranked sixth by the IBF and 15th by the WBO. This is a discretionary defense for Lopez, a supposed breather against some African no-hoper, the equivalent of the Marines storming the beaches at Club Med and taking prisoner some bikini-ed vacationers.

But those who saw Mtagwa pull himself off the deck to win against Tomas Villa, or in other bouts in which the diminutive Tanzanian appeared to be walking a tightrope of disaster, only to survive and sometimes win, understand that upsets, even seemingly unimaginable ones, do occur. Somebody has to hit the Power Ball Lottery, right?

“I know Rogers has to be at least a 20-1 longshot, but he’s going to be in there winging. That’s all you can ask of a fighter,” Peltz said of someone for whom he and manager Joe Parella clearly have more than just a working relationship.

“Rogers is one of those fighters you just have to root for,” Peltz continued. “You hear people say this guy or that guy gives 110 percent. Rogers gives, like, 400 percent. He doesn’t know any other way.

“Against Villa, in a fight he was already losing, Rogers goes down in the ninth round. I looked over at his corner and Joe is telling the referee (Rocky Burke), `If he gets hurt again, stop it.’ Joe is almost like a father to Rogers. If Joe had stopped the fight then, nobody would have said a thing.

“The next round, Rogers floors Villa. I’m thinking, `OK, we get a 10-8, maybe make it a little closer.’ Then Villa goes down again. Hmmm. Now we’re looking at a 10-7. Could we really put this out? Then Villa goes down a third time. It’s over.”

Peltz said Mtagwa’s come-from-behind victory was one of the most exciting rallies he has seen in 40 years of boxing promotion, a humdinger of a scrap that deserved consideration as 2008’s best. But apparently not enough members of the Boxing Writers Association of America saw it, which might explain why it wasn’t one of the five finalists for BWAA Fight of the Year. For any fight or fighter to be considered legitimate, he or it has to be viewed by the requisite number of eyeballs.

The South Philadelphia-based Mtagwa occasionally has popped up on television screens across America, but generally in shows that drew Nielsen ratings similar to those for the Sushi Channel. He has a loyal if somewhat cult following in and around his adopted city, which is saying something when you consider that Philly fight fans are highly knowledgeable and apt to make their displeasure known when someone they have plucked down their good money to see gives something less than his best effort. Also, Mtagwa has no natural constituency on these shores; displaced Tanzanians comprise a tiny fraction of the Philadelphia population.

But everyone can relate to Rocky,  right? Well, Rogers Mtagwa is as close as it gets to Sylvester Stallone’s most famous fictional creation. The only differences are that Rocky is Italian, not Tanzanian, and is a heavyweight, not a 5’5” Smurf of a man. You can overlook ethnicity and size, though, if a fighter has a large enough heart and a refuse-to-lose attitude.

How Rogers Mtagwa, who came into this world in that fighting hotbed, Dodoma, Tanzania, came to ply his trade in Philly makes for an interesting story. He was one three Tanzanians – welterweight Mambea Bakari and heavyweight Mashacka Mululu were the others – who in 2000 came to a place they believed to be America’s de facto capital of boxing for the opportunity to advance their careers.

“They wound up training at the Marian Anderson Recreation Center in South Philly,” Peltz recalled. “Mululu got knocked out by John Flynn at the Spectrum. He had eye problems and went back to Africa a year or so later. Bakari had about 15 fights. He’s still around, but hasn’t fought in six or seven years.”

It was Mtagwa who stuck, like lint on Velcro, slowly working his way into a tough fight town’s collective consciousness. Sporting a 10-2 record in bouts in Africa, he made his U.S. debut on May 2, 2000, on a fight card Peltz promoted at a local brewhouse.

“I went to see Mtagwa in the gym the week he got here,” Peltz said. “He looked like he could fight. He fought a southpaw Debind Thapa, who had an awkward style. Ten seconds into the first round, bam, Mtagwa is flat on his back. But he got up, fought a good fight and lost a decision.”

Mtagwa, Peltz said, found himself “in a lot of hard fights, then Joe Parella took his career over sometime in 2002, after buying his contract from Melvin Thompson. What followed were more hard fights. Tough guys don’t dance, and neither do brawlers with a willingness – indeed, eagerness — to climb into the ring against high-caliber opponents

Peltz, a Temple University graduate and a season ticketholder for the school’s home basketball games, frames Mtagwa’s career in terms any Temple hoops fan can understand.

“Yeah, he’s 26-12-2, but he’s playing a John Chaney schedule,” Peltz said of the retired Temple coach, a member of the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame who was willing to take on any opponent, no matter how highly ranked. “I don’t think there would be many fighters around today who’d have a much better record fighting the guys Mtagwa has fought.

“He had Jose Reyes down twice, lost a split decision at the Spectrum. He fought the ex-(WBO super bantamweight) champ, Agapito Sanchez, lost a majority decision. He lost his USBA title to Martin Honorio, a split decision. Just a lot of hard fights, and the only guy who ever blew him out, Valdemir Pereira, did so two weeks after Mtagwa’s trainer, Monte Carter, passed away.

“The other fight he got stopped in, by Orlando Salido for the No. 1 spot in the world, he fractured a rib the week of the fighting, walking into the gym. He fell on the stairs. Joe and I never found out about it until afterward. He went through with the fight anyway because he didn’t think he’d get another shot.”

Peltz admits that keeping Mtagwa relatively safe and decently paid has been somewhat of a trying proposition.

“When I look at Mtagwa’s decision over Ricardo Medina, a guy who was, like, 31-33 at the time (actually, 31-33-5)  in May at the Blue Horizon, I remember thinking there’s no such thing as a tuneup for him. The way he fights, anybody can give him a tough time for short money. On the other hand, he can give anybody good a tough time. Joe and I decided it might be best to wait until something really worthwhile came along.

“I would have been very disappointed if I hadn’t been able to get Mtagwa either a world title fight or a big payday because I would have felt I wasn’t doing my job. It’s tough to name a fighter who gives more of himself. Somebody like that deserves at least a chance.”

As if in answer to a prayer, not long after Mtagwa’s close call against the journeyman Medina, Peltz got a call from a longtime friend, Top Rank matchmaker Bruce Trampler.

“Bruce asked if Mtagwa might be available to fight Lopez,” Peltz said. “I said, `What kind of question is that? Of course we want the fight.’”

For his part, Mtagwa had no hesitancy in going along. The money was good – more than three times his highest previous purse – and, hey, a fight’s a fight.

“I don’t think Rogers knows the difference between Juan Manuel Lopez and Trini Lopez,” Peltz said, an arcane reference to the 1960s Latino singer who had a bit part in the 1966 war film, The Dirty Dozen. “When we came to New York in August for the press conference at Madison Square Garden, I said, `Rogers, do you even know who you’re fighting?’ He said no. Even though he was going to be fighting for the world title, he had no idea. Mtagwa doesn’t ask who, just when and where. For him, it’s all about lacing up the gloves and going to work.”

For the past several years Mtagwa has been trained by former middleweight contender Bobby “Boogaloo” Watts, who is best known as the first fighter ever to defeat Marvelous Marvin Hagler. Ask either man – and Mtagwa’s heavily accented English is difficult for any without a trained ear to understand – about what strategy the Tanzanian is likely to employ against Lopez and you’re likely to get the same answer. For Mtagwa, the only way to fight is to attack. No retreat. No surrender.

“I do know one thing,” Peltz said. “Mtagwa has a better chance than all the so-called experts on the outside say he has. He’ll be in there, fighting hard and giving it his all. Don’t tell me he’s undeserving of this opportunity. He earned his way here.”

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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