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Articles of 2009

Gulf Coast Up From Standing Eight

Bernard Fernandez

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When you stop and think about it, certain geographical regions of this country are a lot like the toughest, most resilient fighters. You can knock them down, beat them silly, and yet they keep coming forward. They are, in a word, indomitable.

In terms of the panoramic picture of the Mississippi Gulf Coast’s ongoing recovery from 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, the worst natural disaster ever to hit these United States, Saturday night’s HBO’s “Boxing After Dark” telecast of the defense by WBC welterweight champion Andre Berto (23-0, 19 KOs) against Luis Collazo (29-3, 14 KOs) is no big deal. It’s strictly a made-for-TV production, a single bout to be staged in a side room at the restored (at a cost of $550 million) Beau Rivage Resort Casino in Biloxi.

But the mere fact that a world title fight is coming to an area that has known more than its fair share of death and destruction is a microcosm of what Biloxi, and the other 10 communities along the Mississippi Gulf Coast, are all about. If you were to compare those gleaming casino resorts that rose from the ashes – or, more accurately, from the receded floodwaters of Katrina — to an actual boxer, the names that might come to mind are never-say-die scrappers Matthew Saad Muhammad and Arturo Gatti.

HBO, which loves to provide its viewers with the perspective of back stories, is almost certain to frame Berto-Collazo within the context of a Biloxi that just 3½ years ago looked like a war zone. Think Berlin, 1945.

You want stories of miraculous recoveries? How about the fact that the opulent Beau Rivage, built on floating barges at the juncture where the Gulf of Mexico meets land, opened exactly one year after Katrina laid waste to it and pretty much the rest of Biloxi’s prime shoreline real-estate. It was almost as if the town’s citizens answered the knockdown blow they had received with a furious assault of their own. Go ahead, Mother Nature. Hit us with your best shot. We can take it, although we’d rather not have to. Haven’t you learned by now? Like that old wristwatch commercial, we can take a licking and keep on ticking.

Lou DiBella, who promotes Berto, recalls coming to the area as a senior vice president of HBO Sports for the April 25, 1998, matchup of Roy Jones Jr. and Virgil Hill at the Mississippi Gulf Coast Coliseum in nearby Gulfport. Even then, nearly 29 years after a more compact but even more powerful hurricane, Camille, nearly obliterated the region from the face of the earth, there was evidence that not all of the scars upon the land had been fully healed.

Katrina, in effect, was like the delayed payoff of a 1-2 combination from a power puncher, the devastating overhand right that followed Camille’s jolting jab.

“The fact that the Beau Rivage is beautiful and up and renovated and is hosting a title fight on HBO, that’s a very good symbol,” DiBella said. “It shows that life is going on down there post-Katrina.”

Vincent Creel is the public information officer for the City of Biloxi and he said such signs are popping up all over, like daffodils in the spring. He said he isn’t the most astute fight fan, but he does know his history. Don King staged a show at the Beau Rivage on Sept. 13 of last year, in which Timothy Bradley defended his WBC super lightweight title on a rousing unanimous decision over Edner Cherry, and the Gulf Coast’s rich tapestry of boxing dates back to 1881, when John L. Sullivan slugged it out with Paddy Ryan in Mississippi City.

Since casino gaming invigorated the region in 1992, much as it did for Atlantic City beginning in 1978, Biloxi and other Gulf Coast communities are far less likely to be dealt a mortal blow from a soft economy or killer hurricanes.

“What the return of these casino-resorts meant to us was people going back to work,” Creel said. “Prior to Katrina, the casinos employed 15,000 people. These are full-time, salaried employees; the total doesn’t even count the supply houses and the restaurants in the area that benefit from visitors coming in. During the rebuilding, that number shot up to 17,000. It’s down to 12,000 now, in part because of the economy, but it’s rising.

“After a year, all of the casinos were back up and running. The first one opened in December 2005. Two others came on-line by the beginning of 2006. And you know what? We did more gaming revenue in 2007 than we had ever done. Casinos grossed more than $1 billion that year, and that was just in Biloxi.”

In essence, the casinos – some of which have sought to make big-time boxing a staple of the entertainment experience they provide patrons – accomplished more in a relative short period of time than was achieved in the decades that preceded it.

“Some people will tell you – with a degree of accuracy, I might add – that Biloxi and the Gulf Coast did not fully recover from Hurricane Camile in 1969 until casino gaming was legalized in 1992,” Creel said.

No wonder Gulf Coast residents, at least those who don’t equate slot machines and blackjack with the evils posed by demon rum and painted hussies, offer daily thanks for gambling palaces and, one supposes, the fights that were and are subsequently lured to the area.

“Even Nostradamus could not have predicted what the gaming industry has done for us,” Creel said.

Berto, in his own way, is reflective of the power of determination and redemption. He has his own Mississippi story to tell, and his appearance at the Beau Rivage is something of a homecoming.

The son of Haitian-American parents, Berto was born in Miami and he resides in Winter Haven, Fla. He ventured to the casino town of Tunica, Miss., about 30 miles south of Memphis, in 2004 to try to earn a spot on the United States Olympic boxing team that would compete in Athens, Greece, later in the year.

Heavily favored in his weight class, Berto – a two-time National Golden Gloves champion, two-time National Police Athletic League champion and three times a U.S. Amateur championship medalist – was winning his bout with Andre McPherson, at least what little of it that actually transpired, when he threw McPherson to the canvas late in the first round.

Berto was disqualified for having committed the flagrant foul and, just like that, one of America’s best hopes for an Olympic boxing medal saw his dream dashed before it had much of a chance to even take shape.

Fortunately for Berto, his heritage allowed him to make it to Athens on the Haitian team. Because of his pro-influenced style he didn’t medal, but his disappointment proved short-lived.

“Interestingly, I don’t think (not making the U.S. team or getting a medal) cost him very much because he’s got a world title and has been paid better than the gold medalist for the American team, Andre Ward,” DiBella noted. “If you gauged worldwide interest, I think Berto’s recognition is greater than Ward’s.

“And Berto’s style – whether he fought for Haiti, America, Great Britain, Ireland or whomever – is so pro, with an emphasis on hard shots and a lot of body work, is not the style to score a lot of points in international amateur boxing.”

DiBella believes that Berto, just 25, has a chance to evolve into the sort of star attraction to keep interest in boxing alive after the familiar but aging names finally fade from view.

“I think he’s one of them,” DiBella said of Berto’s potential to fill the charismatic void that is sure to come when the old standbys exit. “And by the way, we’d better stop looking to the old guys or we’re going to have no fans left. We are not developing the next generation of boxing fans. This idea that a sport that’s fading domestically should concentrate heavily on foreign fighters and guys that are totally at the tail end of their careers is preposterous.

“It’s one of the reasons I’m not a big proponent of the Paul Williams-Winky Wright fight. You have Paul Williams again extending himself to fight a bigger guy, but an old guy who should frankly be gone and nobody really cares about anyway. And as great as Bernard Hopkins is, he’s 44 bleeping years old. His beating Kelly Pavlik didn’t do anything positive for the sport. What we need to do is build young stars.”

DiBella said HBO, whose stable of fighters is graying like the populace of a Florida retirement community, has the clout to again develop a farm system of up-and-coming attractions.

“Arturo Gatti was never one of the big pound-for-pound guys, but he was tremendously exciting,” DiBella noted. “He was, in essence, a made-for-HBO star. HBO built him. How many `Boxing After Dark’ appearances did Gatti make? Enough so that he broke through to become bigger than he otherwise would have been.

“Marco Antonio Barrera, Erik Morales, Junior Jones, Naseem Hamed, Kevin Kelly – that whole slew of little fighters got giant paydays, and now Manny Pacquiao has jumped ahead of where any of those guys were. So don’t tell me it can’t be done, and don’t tell me that Berto can’t become one of those have-to-see fighters.”

If there is a difference between Berto and Biloxi, it’s that Berto, disappointed though he might have been by his Tunica misadventure, is undefeated. Biloxi knows defeat, and how. But it also knows about fighting back, about spitting into the eye of adversity.

Camille, the second of three catastrophic Category 5 hurricanes to make landfall in the U.S. in the 20th century, blew into the Gulf Coast near Bay St. Louis, Miss., on Aug. 17, 1969, packing sustained winds of 190 mph and a storm surge of 24 feet. By the time it moved out of the area, it left in its wake 259 dead and $1.42 billion in property damage which, adjusted for inflation, would be $21.2 billion today. It was the second-strongest hurricane in recorded history, behind only the Florida Keys Labor Day Hurricane of 1935.

Katrina was less powerful than Camille – it was “just” a Category 3 when it made landfall near Buras, La., on Aug. 29, 2005 – but it was considerably wider, doing damage from Texas to Florida. Most notably, it submerged large tracts of New Orleans as the fragile levee system constructed to protect the below-sea-level city was breached in 53 places.

Most Americans, when they think of Katrina, recall the misery of the people trapped inside the Louisiana Superdome or the Ernest Morial Convention Center. The prevailing images are those of the ruined Lower Ninth Ward, hammered home by a Spike Lee documentary that was televised by HBO.

Only 80 miles to the East, the Mississippi Gulf Coast took a less-obvious and not-quite-direct hit, which is not to say it escaped major destruction.

“A number of people were killed here by Katrina because they refused to believe any hurricane could be as bad as Camille,” Creel said. “That was a fatalistic attitude; 53 died here in Biloxi alone. Had the storm hit during the night, we would have lost 10 times that many, and maybe more.

“We took a backseat to New Orleans because the story in New Orleans had every bell and whistle you could imagine. It was an absolute train wreck. There were so many failures of governmental agencies. Over here, we didn’t have a lot of those issues. We also are not below sea level.”

What Biloxi did have was debris, so much of it that, if placed in an area the width of six football fields, it would have risen the height of a 200-story building.

“And that’s just in the City of Biloxi,” Creel said. “But it’s like our governor (Haley Barbour) likes to say. We got knocked down, got back up, hitched up our britches and went to work rebuilding.”

Again with the boxing references, but they do seem to apply, don’t they?

Perhaps a more fitting quotation to describe the latest rebirth of the Gulf Coast comes from the late Nobel Prize winner for literature, William Faulkner, a Mississippi native who understood the depths to which mankind can sink, and the heights to which it can ascend.

“Man will not only endure, but he will prevail,” Faulkner wrote.

Amen to that.

Articles of 2009

UFC 108 Rashad Evans vs. Thiago Silva

David A. Avila

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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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