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Articles of 2009

RIP, Lady Ali

Bernard Fernandez

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For many boxing fans, female fighters are still an anomaly. Men are supposed to be the hunter-gatherers of the human species, and as such certain occupations have long been thought (at least by guys) as their exclusive preserve. While males go off to war as soldiers, protect our streets as cops and stain boxing rings with their blood, the ladies are supposed to stay home, bear our children, bake us cookies and, if they really need to get out of the house and earn a paycheck, serve society as nurses, secretaries, waitresses, beauticians and, oh, maybe as pole dancers.

It’s like Bette Midler complained in the lead-in to one of the songs in The Rose, 1979’s semi-fictionalized cinematic take on the short, turbulent life of Janis Joplin. “What are we, ladies?” the Divine Miss M rhetorically asked females in the audience. “We are waitresses at the banquet of life.”

Such stereotypical male attitudes, of course, have been the glass barrier women have been attacking and frequently shattering for as long as the more independent among their ranks have imagined themselves to be full and equal partners with their brothers. If you believe you can do something, having a Y chromosome shouldn’t preclude you from making it happen, which is why such contrarians as Susan B. Anthony, Annie Oakley, Babe Didrikson, Amelia Earhart, Gloria Steinem and Sally Ride have periodically stepped forward with a defiant “Yes, I can” attitude.

All of which should give us pause as we consider the life and times of Jackie Tonawanda, who was 75 when she died last Tuesday of colon cancer at Harlem’s Mount Sinai Hospital.

Tonawanda might not be the “pioneer” of women’s boxing – that designation more properly is reserved for such pugilistic predecessors as Polly Burns, Rosie Danvers, Helen Hildreth and Jeanne La Marr (and you’re excused if you never heard of any of them; neither had I until I researched the history of female fighters for this story) – but she was one of the loudest and most visible drum-beaters for the advancement of equal rights in boxing, that most unequal of professional sports.

The self-styled “Lady Ali” applied for a boxing license from the New York State Athletic Commission in October 1974 and was summarily rejected by then-NYSAC head Edwin Dooley on the grounds that to do so would “bring professional boxing into disrepute.” Which is like the pot calling the kettle black, when you get right down to it.

Undeterred by what she perceived as another chauvinistic roadblock thrown up by a man who probably considered June Cleaver – the mom in the 1950s TV series Leave It To Beaver who cheerfully vacuumed rugs and cooked dinner while wearing dresses and a pearl necklace – to be the essence of femininity, Tonawanda sought injunctive relief in the legal system, where a sympathetic judge ruled in her favor with the admonition that “this court will not hold that women should be precluded from a problem exploiting whatever skills they may have in the sport of boxing merely because they are women.”

Thus Tonawanda, along with Cathy “Cat” Davis and the aptly named “Lady Tyger” Trimiar, became the first women to be granted licenses to box by the NYSAC in 1978. But it was Tonawanda who had the distinction of becoming the first female to enter the ring in Madison Square Garden, a bit of history that forever will belong to her, just as Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova will forever have the distinction of being the first woman to blast off into space, in 1978. Ride became the first American woman to leave the earth in 1983.

Dooley no doubt was dismayed to have been judicially forced to let the ladies into his men-only club (and you have to wonder what he’d think of the New York commission now being headed by a woman, Melvina Lathan), but he was hardly alone. When the commission reluctantly granted Tonawanda, Davis and Trimiar their licenses, former heavyweight champion and NYSAC member Floyd Patterson stood in the background, shaking his head.

“I think it’s terrible,” Patterson said. “I always respected women and have been a supporter of women’s lib. But in the boxing ring, no. I can’t stand to see women cutting each other up and spilling blood in the ring.”

In legend and lore, Tonawanda was a smooth boxer, a sort of Willie Mae Pep, with a devastating punch that qualified her as an Ernestine Shavers. Some accounts, such as the tribute story authored by New York Daily News columnist/cartoonist Bill Gallo, cited Tonawanda as having had a 35-1 record, which included 34 victories inside the distance. Gallo also noted that Tonawanda had been a “bodyguard” for Muhammad Ali at his Deer Lake, Pa., training camp. Other accounts have Tonawanda sparring with The Greatest on Sept. 2, 1976, while he was in training at the Concord Hotel in Kiamesha Lake, N.Y., although he reportedly pulled his punches to the extent that none actually landed.

“His combinations were beautiful,” said the curly-haired Tonawanda, who was 5’11” and 175 pounds during her prime. “A jet plane would (finish) second to him.” This was hardly a revelation; no doubt Cleveland “Big Cat” Williams would have said the same thing.

Perhaps Tonawanda was as dominant as self-advertised, or maybe she was just the female approximation of another larger-than-life boxing figure: Don King. Like King, she talked the talk like no other, with enough chutzpah to sell ice to Eskimos, but some insist her actual ring experience consisted of far fewer bouts than she took credit for, and that her skill-set was not nearly as impressive as she would have had listeners believe.

Nonetheless, during an era when women boxers were are rare as whooping cranes spotted in the wild, Tonawanda packaged herself as a stone killer who would have become an icon had only she been born a man. Her argument for her right to acceptance was compelling, regardless of whether her accomplishments justified the hype. Somebody has to carry the banner for gender equal rights, be it Susan B. Anthony for suffragettes or the first bra-burner during the Helen Reddy “I Am Woman” revolution in the 1970s. Tonawanda took that role upon herself, and the walls of Jericho came tumbling down.

Well, maybe not. Those walls are still standing, although they’re missing a couple of bricks. King, the quintessential hypemeister, signed Christy Martin to be his Annie Oakley, the sharpshooter who wowed audiences in Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West shows in the late 1800s. Martin was a featured attraction on a number of King-promoted cards and, in 1996, became the first female fighter to grace the cover of  Sports Illustrated.  Largely because of her popularity, women’s boxing experienced a spurt of unprecedented growth, spawning such recognizable names as Lucia Rijker, Mia St. John and celebrity daughters Laila Ali and Jacqui Frazier-Lyde. Rijker had a prominent role as Billie the “Blue Bear” in 2004’s Million Dollar Baby, which not only was a movie about women’s boxing, but won the Academy Award as Best Picture.

But the boom period of late has been stunted, and what few female fighters still get major exposure do so because they’re comely enough to give major exposure. Not for nothing was St. John, who has physical attributes that have nothing to do with how well she can hook off the jab, featured in a Playboy magazine pictorial.

You can say that Tonawanda was born too soon for that heady period in the 1990s when women fighters gained greater acceptance, but face it: She was never going to get a photo spread in Playboy. It’s all right for a male fighter these days to more closely resemble Carmen Basilio than Oscar De La Hoya, but the path to recognition for their female counterparts remains an express lane only if the faces out front are prettied up with mascara and rouge. A firm bosom and well-turned leg are also marketable assets. Until more bricks are knocked from that figurative wall, sex appeal always will be a major component in male acceptance of women’s boxing.

The mere fact that this story is being posted a week after Tonawanda left this mortal coil suggests that female fighters are still in the middle rounds of a long, tough and interminable fight. But then boxing had bigger fish to fry this past week than to note the passing of an old woman whose exploits remain a matter of conjecture. We were distracted by the International Boxing Hall of Fame induction of Lennox Lewis, Orlando Canizales and Brian Mitchell, the welterweight title fight in Madison Square Garden between Miguel Cotto and Joshua Clottey, the 84th annual Boxing Writers Association of America Awards Dinner which was attended by 2008 Fighter of the Year Manny Pacquiao, the announcement of the postponement of Floyd Mayweather’s comeback bout against Juan Manuel Marquez. Once again, a woman in boxing had to take a back seat, or more precisely a reclining position in a coffin.

Christy Martin spent the weekend in Canastota, N.Y., where she attended the IBHOF induction festivities for the 14th consecutive year. She knows first-hand that fans were there to praise Lewis, Canizales, Mitchell and the returning Hall of Famers, not to bury Tonawanda.

Nor is Martin herself inclined to shower praise on the departed Jackie, perhaps because Tonawanda made a conscious effort to belittle Martin when she began to rise through the ranks. Protecting one’s era is hardly a phenomenon restricted to boxing; remember how Wilt Chamberlain chided Lew Alcindor/Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as a lesser talent when the young skyhooker made it to the NBA? Kareem, in turn, now finds fault in Dwight Howard. As always, the wheel goes ’round and ’round.

Perhaps Martin, who goes there every year anyway, will become the first female fighter to be invited to Canastota in an official capacity, joining promoter Aileen Eaton in the Hall’s highly exclusive ladies’ club. It all depends on how many more bricks can be knocked from that wall of resistance.

“I never knew her,” Martin said of Tonawanda during a phone call from the central New York hamlet that has become to boxing what Cooperstown, N.Y., a mere hour’s drive away, is to baseball. “I never saw her fight. Obviously, she must have loved the sport of boxing. I give her credit for that.”

Of the putdowns Tonawanda hurled at her, Martin wonders why another female fighter felt the need to go after another in such a manner.

“I never said I was the pioneer,” Martin said. “I never said that. I just wanted to fit in.”

Tonawanda always was something of a round piece trying to wedge herself into a square hole, which might have accounted for her obstinance. But no one can say she didn’t go down fighting.

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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