Anyone who has followed boxing for any length of time knows that fighters just can’t quit. There is something in the ethos of the sport which brings them back.
Joe Louis. Muhammad Ali. Sugar Ray Leonard. Floyd Mayweather Jr. They quit, and then they came back. As if lured by a Siren’s song, they always come back.
The latest exhibit is Nick Charles, as tough a fighter as there is. Charles can’t find it within himself to quit, to give up, to stop chasing the dream.
“I love boxing; I love everything about it,” Charles said, firmly. “Of course, I love the fighters, but I love the officials and the timekeepers and everyone who is around it and a part of it. There is nothing like it, if you ask me. I’d rather go to a fight than anything else: Super Bowl, World Series, Masters, you name it. I love it.”
This, though, isn’t your average boxing comeback story. Nick Charles’ comeback is a story of life and, soon, death – of persistence and love and passion and friendship.
He’s a broadcaster, once among the country’s most prominent, who was wishing, hoping that somehow, some way, he’d get the opportunity to call one more boxing match. Top Rank hired him to do play-by-play for its Dec. 4 show in Anaheim, Calif., and the card ended with a bout between Humberto Soto and Urbano Antillon. It was a brilliant match, one chosen by many outlets – including Yahoo! Sports – as the 2010 Fight of the Year.
If that was the last fight he’d get to call, Charles said, he considered himself lucky. It was a magnificent bout that contained all of the elements he loves about boxing.
“It was packed with drama and action and smarts and pure aggression and passion,” Charles said. “How Soto got out of some of those situations he was in still amazes me. And when the fight was over, Soto won and he was asked about fighting Antillon in a rematch in March and he said, ‘There’s no way I’m going to be ready for a rematch in March with this guy.’ It was so brutally honest, and that’s what I love about fighters: They have such character.”
Charles is 64 now, and his lustrous, curly black hair is mostly gone, a casualty in the battle against Stage 4 bladder cancer.
There are, Charles says, more than a few times when he’s in such searing, nearly unbearable pain that he lies in bed and asks for it all to be over.
“I’m a Christian,” Charles said. “I talk to God a lot. And sometimes, when I’m in pain, if I’m really hurting, I’ll tell Him, ‘OK, I’m ready. If you want to take me, I’m ready.’ ”
Despite such serious pain and the fact that Charles knows he’s in a fight he cannot win – “Who knows how much longer I have to live?” he asks. “Two weeks? Six? Six months? No one knows.” – he’s ultimately not ready to give up.
Lesser people might feel unlucky or sorry for themselves, cursing the fate of a terminal illness while there’s so much to live for. His wife, Cory, is more in love with him now than she was when she married him nearly 14 years ago. His 5-year-old daughter, Giovanna, worships her father, who was a stay-at-home dad as her mother went back to work at CNN International after her maternity leave ended.
Charles is overseeing the construction of a home for his family in Santa Fe, N.M., and is remarkable in his ability to pay attention to the tiniest details. It’s mostly a happy experience, but he sometimes thinks of the future and knows that, barring a miracle, he won’t be there to see it.
“Nick has such an eye for detail,” Cory Charles said. “He’ll walk into Giovanna’s room and see her closet and it hits him and he realizes that he’s not going to see her prom dress hanging in there.”
Charles, though, doesn’t want you to feel sorry for him; he clearly doesn’t feel sorry for himself. His life, he said, has been “a wonderful, magical, wondrous ride,” and if it is about to come to an end, so be it.
“You know,” he said, “you don’t have to be terrified about this thing. You really don’t. I want to be an inspiration to people. I still have a lot of great books I want to read and champions I want to see crowned and music and literature that I want to experience. This is a great world with a lot of amazing things and tremendous, caring, giving people. I don’t want to give up on all of that just because I am sick. I want to continue to experience it and try to be an inspiration to people who maybe need someone to tell them to keep up the fight.”
One of those inspirational moments will come on Saturday night, in Atlantic City, N.J., of all places. Charles will get the opportunity one more time to live his dream and call another fight. HBO hired him to do the play-by-play of the opening bout, between featherweights Mikey Garcia and Matt Remillard, on the doubleheader it will broadcast from Boardwalk Hall.
Charles has had a casual, lengthy relationship with Rick Bernstein, the executive producer of HBO’s boxing broadcasts. Charles used to serve as the host for pay-per-view broadcasts on HBO in the early-to-mid 1990s, when it was known as TVKO. Though most of Charles’ boxing play-by-play experience came on rival Showtime, most of the top executives at HBO knew and liked Charles.
Bernstein was on the train going to work in New York one day earlier this month, reading the wonderful tribute to Charles in Sports Illustrated written by the great sportswriter Joe Posnanski.
One brief passage in the story touched him: When he talks about how much he’d like to cover one more fight for television, he smiles and admits it probably won’t happen. “It’s O.K.,” he says. “I’ve covered a lot of fights.”
Those words resonated with Bernstein, who knew that Charles’ wish was one he could fulfill. When he arrived at the office, he went to see HBO Sports president Ross Greenburg. He showed Greenburg the article and told him of his plan to offer Charles the opportunity to call the Garcia-Remillard match.
Greenburg wholeheartedly endorsed the idea, so Bernstein set out to make it a reality. But he didn’t want to upset Charles, worrying that if he offered Charles the job and Charles wasn’t physically up to it, it might be a major disappointment. So Bernstein reached out to a family friend, boxing publicist Fred Sternburg, and asked Sternburg to do a bit of reconnaissance to see if Charles would be able to physically handle the job.
Sternburg spoke with Nick and Cory and relayed Nick’s interest in the gig to Bernstein.
“We’re excited to be in a position to afford Nick this opportunity,” Bernstein said. “This is a guy we’ve had a long relationship with and, obviously, it means a lot to Nick. It was a no-brainer, honestly.”
Nick has thrown himself into research on Garcia and Remillard so that he’s as prepared as possible. It’s lit a fire under him; his wife said he’s been a different person the past few weeks as he’s gotten ready. Instead of lying in his bed as often, he’s sitting in front of his computer, reading and watching boxing.
“Who knows how long he has to live, but the opportunity to do this has rejuvenated him,” she said. “He’s at his computer and he’s banging out notes and making calls. The Nick I know is at his best when he’s working and involved. He’s watching tapes, getting up to speed, and he’s gotten his voice back. This is what he loves. Boxing is like his other child, and getting the opportunity to do this – on HBO, where these guys are at the top of the business – has really been a huge honor for him and has given him a great motivation.”
Veteran actress Elizabeth Taylor died Wednesday, and Charles regaled his wife with stories of his personal experiences with Taylor. He used to date Taylor’s publicist and knew the actress well. He once picked up the massive 33-carat diamond that Richard Burton gave her.
Charles is smiling a lot, upbeat, looking forward to the next day. Saturday, Cory Charles said, can’t come soon enough for him. And though the effects of the cancer and the chemotherapy he’s undergone are clear, Cory said Nick has never once worried about it and isn’t ashamed for people to see him now.
“He was such a handsome guy with this beautiful, thick head of hair and was voted the sexiest sportscaster in the country, but he understands those things are just temporal,” she said. “The thing that makes Nick Nick is what’s inside of him. He’s like no one else I’ve ever met and he has this amazing presence about him. He’s got such a great spirit and he’s so interested in the world and in other people, and he makes everyone feel at home.
“He loves people and loves learning about them and their lives. He’s an effusive, caring guy and you’re that kind of person whether or not you have a handsome smile and a gorgeous head of hair. He understands that it’s what is inside of a person that counts.”
The voice isn’t as booming and resonant as it once was and Charles now tires easily. The trip from Santa Fe to Atlantic City was burdensome because of all of the medications he had to pack and the precautions he had to take. Still, he never for a second considered rejecting Bernstein’s offer. He’s a broadcaster, after all, and this is boxing – the love of his life after his family.
“I suppose they’re going to pay me for this, but I don’t know, to be honest with you, because I never asked,” Charles said. “And to be honest with you, I don’t care. This is such a wonderful sign of fidelity, friendship and respect. I love boxing and I love calling boxing, and for these people at HBO to do what they’ve done and to give me another chance, I’ll be honest: I’m overwhelmed. I never, ever expected this and I am so thankful, I’ll never really be able to express it.”
Fighting cancer is tough, he acknowledges, both physically and mentally. But Cory Charles said that her husband’s outlook strengthens everyone around her. He is dying, but he has had time to prepare for his death. He’s making the most of whatever time he has left.
“You know, the poor people in Japan who were caught up in that earthquake and the tsunami, they didn’t have what Nick has,” she said. “They woke up and went about their day and then, all of a sudden, they were gone.
“These last 20 months have been emotionally draining, but Nick has been able to tell everyone who has been close to him how much he loves them. He’s lived so much life in these last 20 months and squeezed in everything he could. He’s taking advantage of every second he has.”
Hopefully, Bernstein said, the Garcia-Remillard fight is not a quick one. He hopes that Charles gets to call a long fight. Charles, though, will be happy no matter how good or how dull the fight is, whether it’s a lengthy classic or a quick knockout.
“First of all, I want to do justice to HBO and do a great broadcast because HBO has set such a high standard and people who tune in expect nothing less,” he said. “But I also want people to know that just because you may get cancer, it doesn’t mean you stop fighting or stop living. I am a fighter and I’m going to keep fighting until I can’t fight anymore. That’s just the way that I am.”