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Articles of 2009

Presenting The Second Best Boxing Doc Of All Time

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Boxing movies are like movies in general: Some are very, very good –Raging Bull, Rocky, The Set-Up, the original Body and Soul and some are very, very bad – Honeyboy, Goldie and the Boxer and the no-semblance-to-the-1947-classic remake of Body and Soul, starring the clueless Leon Isaac Kennedy in place of the great John Garfield.

The same might be said of boxing documentaries, slices of real life that might not always match the reel-life entertainment value of feature films, but in a way are more compelling because the faces and voices belong to actual persons and not actors.

There have been some praiseworthy documentaries about fights and fighters in recent years. I thought 2007’s Triumph and Tragedy: The Ray Mancini Story  and 2005’s Ring of Fire: The Emile Griffith Story were well-done. But the gold standard for such projects remains 1996’s When We Were Kings, which won an Academy Award as Best Documentary.

When We Were Kings dealt with the mesmerizing “Rumble in the Jungle” between a supposedly past-his-prime Muhammad Ali and the seemingly invincible heavyweight champion, George Foreman, which took place in the early morning hours of Oct. 30, 1974, in Kinshasa, Zaire. Ali, of course, shocked the world – again – and his charisma, cunning and ability to overcome even the most daunting odds were captured on film for the world to cherish and, we should all hope, always remember.

Now comes the counter-point to When We Were Kings, and, to my way of thinking, the second-best boxing documentary ever made. Muhammad and Larry, which premieres on ESPN at 8 p.m. EST next Tuesday, is a cautionary tale that should remind us, if we didn’t already know, that nothing lasts forever, particularly within the harsh confines of the prize ring.

Directed by Albert Maysles and Bradley Kaplan, Muhammad and Larry is the same sad tale we have seen time and again with legendary fighters who believed that the natural laws of diminishing returns did not apply to them, that the force of their will somehow trumped the erosion of their skill. It is easy to imagine a similar documentary about Sugar Ray Leonard’s brutal dual loss to Father Time and Terry Norris, of Joe Louis coming out of retirement for a payday to erase part of his tax debt to the IRS and being knocked unconscious by the young, strong Rocky Marciano. Perhaps some documentarian with vision, like Maysles and Kaplan, will preserve for posterity the final descent down boxing’s slippery slope for the loser of the early-2010 rematch of fortysomething icons Bernard Hopkins and Roy Jones Jr.

But no other fighter before or since could routinely dial up miracles like Ali, who defied the odds so often that he came to believe in his own ability to make magic, like the card tricks he loved to perform before adoring audiences. The world came to believe, too, which is why millions convinced themselves that on Oct. 2, 1980, the old, fat man attempting to whip his body into fighting trim one more time somehow could turn back the calendar and rediscover lost glory.

Ali was so much more than a boxer then, as he is now. Twenty-nine years ago, though, he wasn’t so widely viewed as a tragic figure brought down by the ravaging effects of Parkinson’s Syndrome. He was an idea, an inspiration, a self-made creation who backed up his braggadocio with blinding combinations when he was young and sleek, with determination and heart as he aged and that marvelous physique softened. Regardless of which stage of his career he found himself in at any given moment, Ali never failed to hold the public in his thrall.

After Holmes – a one-time Ali sparring partner who understood the emotional tug his former boss had retained on fans who led with their hearts and not their eyes _ had so battered “The Greatest” that trainer Angelo Dundee would not let his man come out for the 11th round, Jerry Izenberg, the venerable sports columnist for The Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J., sought some answer to why so many had dared to believe their hero again could again make possible what should have been impossible. He got the most telling response from a sextegenarian black wash-room attendant at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, where the mismatch had taken place.

Izenberg asked the man why he had wagered his hard-earned money on Ali, even when common sense dictated that it was a losing proposition.

“He said, `Because (Ali) gave me my dignity,’” Izenberg recalled. “I never forgot that.”

Izenberg is one of several sports writers who were at ringside that fateful night 29 years ago, all of whom knew what was going to happen but were hoping it wouldn’t be quite as bad as it turned out to be. They reconvened, at the filmmakers’ request, for a sort of round-table discussion of what had gone down and recalled how Ali had taken off so much weight (30 pounds or so), how he was still pretty (he called himself “Dark Gable” because of the mustache he grew during training) and how he could still spout bad poetry as if he were Laurence Olivier reciting a scene from Hamlet.

“He ain’t nothing but a clown with my crown” and “His behind shall be mine in Round 9,” Ali chirped, recalling the days before his Feb. 25, 1964, first meeting with Sonny Liston when he predicted spectators would see “a total eclipse of the Sonny.”

But that Ali, still known as Cassius Clay then, was 21 and this Ali, with extraordinarily high mileage on his boxing odometer, was 37 and a ghost of what he had been. All anyone had to do was to look upon the man dispassionately and without favorable bias, which, of course, was difficult for his legion of true believers.

Ferdie Pacheco, who had recused himself from Ali’s inner circle after the Oct. 1, 1975, “Thrilla in Manila” rubber match with Joe Frazier because he did not want to see him take any more punishment, mused about Ali’s penchant for being roughly handled in sparring at his Deer Lake, Pa., training camp. Ali, who had not fought since his title-reclaiming Sept. 15, 1978, rematch with Leon Spinks, said it was because he needed to “toughen up,” to become reaccustomed to taking hard body shots.

“You don’t toughen up kidneys,” said Pacheco, who served as Ali’s personal physician for 15 years. “Kidneys don’t believe in toughening up because they’re delicate, delicate organs. That’s one of the reasons why (Ali) fell apart” on fight night.

The straight man in this tragi-comedy was Holmes, a good man and an excellent champion whose legacy is forever destined to be overshadowed because his rise coincided with Ali’s fall, and because his star power could never match that which Ali generated with such casual ease.

“For all his life, all he heard was he was a shadow of Ali,” Pacheco said, empathizing with the victor who nonetheless left the arena as something of a victim.

“Holmes deserved to be the next champion after Ali. But he’s not what you would call the successor to Muhammad Ali. He’s just the next guy around. He’s not the next great guy around; he’s just the next guy around.”

There are three reasons why retired fighters return to their brutal trade. They do so because they need another payday, or the adulation that only comes from being active, or because they don’t know how to do anything else.

A profligate spender and generous to a fault with those who pledged their fealty to him, Ali probably was in need of some fast cash. But although he probably still was the most famous individual on the planet, his ego required the sort of constant stroking that only another successful comeback could provide.

With millions of dollars to be made by both fighters, Ali and Holmes agreed to square off because it was financially prudent to do so. Not that Holmes didn’t have second thoughts, however. Like most everyone else, he held Ali in high regard and did not want to see him further damaged.

“I got nothing bad to say about him,” Holmes, an Ali sparring partner from 1971 to ’75, said during the lead-up to the big event. “After I knock him out, he’ll still be my friend.”

Whether Ali was as generous in his assessment of Holmes is a matter of conjecture. An opponent was to be beaten down, even in sparring. Friendship ended the moment someone stood in the other corner.

“He was always good to me,” Holmes said of Ali. “Those things you don’t forget. But I’m going to lay it out. Ali was a great guy. But when it comes down to Ali doing his thing, he wanted to be here (Holmes held his hand up high) and you down there. As long as you’re down there and he’s up here, you’re the greatest thing in the world to him.

“You get in that ring, you got your mother there, your brother there, your sister there, he gonna kick your ass. He ain’t gonna play with you.”

Holmes, no longer anyone’s apprentice, decided he could not play with Ali either. Sure, the “Easton Assassin” knew he was the better fighter then. But what if Ali somehow convinced himself he was impervious to the aging process? Better to go for the quick knockout, Holmes decided, rather than to allow Ali to sway the judges and the audience by hanging around and giving them a reason to believe another miracle was in the making.

Back in Deer Lake, Ali was busy psyching himself into the belief that it somehow was 10 or 15 years earlier and he again was the absolute master of his domain. Could he reach into his trick bag and pull out another rabbit? Become heavyweight champion of the world for an unprecedented fourth time? Well, why not? He was still Muhammad Ali, wasn’t he?

“He can’t move his head,” Ali told a group of sycophants as he watched a tape of the classic June 9, 1978, fight between Holmes and Ken Norton. “He don’t duck, he don’t weave, he don’t crouch. He’s a stand-up-straight fighter. I’ll have no trouble with him. I’ll eat him up.”

Perhaps Ali should have watched more updated tapes of himself instead. “Dark Gable” was shuffling, all right, but not as a part of any preconceived strategy. The master of the Ali Shuffle was about to enter the extreme danger zone.

“Is there any question as to why he fell apart?” asked Pacheco. “Not if you were around looking at him. Not if you saw him every day talking slower, walking slower, moving slower, punching less. You could see him falling apart.”

True to his word, Holmes attempted to take Ali out quickly, to spare him an ongoing bludgeoning. But the Ali who withstood all those trials by fire from Joe Frazier and Foreman refused to yield, so round after round Holmes looked imploringly to referee Richard Green, begging him with his eyes to stop the madness. Except that Green also remembered the Ali who could come back from the brink, and maybe believed there was enough time for him to do so again.

It was left to trainer Angelo Dundee, who remained with Ali well past his expiration point as a great fighter, to step in, as Frazier’s trainer, Eddie Futch, did before the 15th round of the “Thrilla in Manila.” He told Green it was his call as chief second to end it, and he was making that call.

Victory was bittersweet for Holmes, who believes to this day he could have beaten Ali prime-on-prime. But public perception is a fickle thing, and there is no way his thrashing of a legend enabled him to take for himself a measure of that legend’s incredible popularity.

“A lady came up to me in Las Vegas and said, `I hate you,’” Holmes said. “I said `Why?’ And she said, `Because you beat up Muhammad Ali.’”

The ghost of Ali faded further still until the night of Dec. 11, 1981, when he lost a unanimous, 10-round decision to Trevor Berbick in the Bahamas. Three years after that he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Syndrome.

Might Ali have avoided Parkinson’s had he retired after his conquest of Foreman? After the epic third battle with Frazier? Was there still time to save him from himself had he not been enticed to sign for the inevitable beatdown by Holmes?

So many questions, so few answers. All that remains is the memory of a man who boasted that he was “The Greatest” and, for a large chunk of his boxing life, was just that.

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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