Nick Charles taking life one fight at a time
Story & photos by Chris Cozzone
It’s only fitting that we call the return of Nick Charles a comeback.
Last Friday night in Albuquerque, N.M., after an six-month battle with bladder cancer, Charles, for decades now one of boxing’s top commentators, made his return to the ring on Showtime’s ShoBox.
Like he’d never left – that was his quote later that night, and it was the general sentiment of fight fans tuned in to watch – Charles, colleague Steve Farhood and guest commentator, former champ Antonio Tarver, called the action at ringside as two undefeateds, Albuquerque’s Archie Ray Marquez and Californian Chris Avalos, battled their way through their opponents.
Ironically, six months before, it was just after another ShoBox card co-featuring Avalos that Charles was hit with one of those unseen punches that came close to knocking him out for the final count.
“I knew something was wrong,” says Charles, who was booked to host the July 31, 2009 ShoBox card at the Pechanga in Temecula, Calif. “I’d talked to my doctor and he wanted me to come in for tests, but I wanted to do one more fight.”
After watching Avalos sail through Andre Wilson in less than two, and Tyrone Harris take out Marvin Quintero in eight, Charles flew to Houston where he, in turn, was floored.
“It really knocked me for a loop,” says Charles, who was diagnosed with bladder cancer. “I was told how bad it was – if I didn’t get right into chemotherapy, I was dead in four to six months. And if I did chemo, they had to hit me with the biggest stick they had. There was no choice.
“’Give it to me,’ I told them.”
On leave from Showtime, Charles went from the fight game, right into the fight for his life.
From August to December, Charles endured barrage after barrage of chemotherapy.
“That stuff kills the good and the bad,” he says. “My hair fell out in eight days. I laugh about it now but it all really changes you – and not only physically.
“Cancer changes you in a million ways. You’re suddenly staring at your own mortality.”
In between chemo treatments, Charles went from digging up information on up-and-coming ShoBox fighters to researching cancer.
“I wanted to be 100 percent proactive, so I read everything I could get my hands on. The Internet can be a dangerous thing, I discovered – there’s a lot of junk out there.
“Bottom line is, I don’t care if it’s a four-round fight or a fight for your life – I was determined to reduce the odds against me.”
While chemotherapy took its toll on his body, however, Charles says he never lost hope.
“The only thing I could control was my attitude,” says Charles. “It could be positive or it could be negative. As your body starts to betray you, you start asking, ‘Why me?’ You look at the fat guys in the world who’ve had bad diets and smoked cigarettes all their lives, only to die in their ‘90s. And there you are, always watching what you eat, working out and taking care of yourself, suddenly diagnosed with cancer.
“But I have a very deep faith in God – I’m no holy roller, but, especially as I get older, the more I believe that you just have to trust that things are going to work out the way they are supposed to; that life is 20 percent what happens to you, and 80 percent how you react to it.”
Though out of the boxing limelight during this time, the hundreds of emails and daily phone calls showed Charles that he had not been forgotten.
“I was just so moved by the outpouring of affection I received by the boxing community,” says Charles. “It really gave me time to reflect; it was really life-affirming.
“Really, I’d never been one to bust anyone’s balls all my life, but neither had I been some sort of lackey who wasn’t hard on some ref if he deserved to be criticized in a fight. It was nice to see this respect come back.”
Charles says his brush with death was a blessing in disguise, for unlike those who are killed by, say, a head-on collision, a drawn-out struggle with cancer gave him the opportunity to see what sort of impression he’d made on others’ lives.
“I’ve really been blessed in that way – and those were things that fueled me.”
The fight itself, against cancer, was another factor that heightened Charles’ appreciation for life and mortality.
“It’s cliché – Cus D’Amato said it but everyone knows it – you got to fight through fear,” says Charles, who’d boxed as a youth growing up on the north side of Chicago.
“I was treating this fight like it was Tyson-Holyfield.”
It was in December that Charles pulled a Holyfield, sending cancer into an 80 percent remission.
Though he does not rule out the possibility of a rematch – he admits he has to wonder what the “other 20 percent” of cancer is doing while in remission – Charles began his recovery.
Before picking up where he left off with ShoBox, and admittingly somewhat premature, Charles decided to test the waters when promoter Bob Arum paid him a visit.
“He wanted me to do the international feed for the Manny Pacquiao-Miguel Cotto fight,” Charles sighs. “And I was struggling . . . I looked terrible. I felt worse. I was susceptible to infection, I was really struggling.
“But I said, I’m not gonna spit the bit out on this fight. I’m gonna make this fight.”
The man who’d grown up with his father watching legends Joe Louis and Rocky Marciano on Friday Night Fights, whose first live fight, in 1958 at the Chicago Stadium, was no less than Sugar Ray Robinson vs. Carmen Basilio, could not resist this modern classic.
“I’m so glad I did it. I don’t know what happened but I got a shot of adrenaline that morning and, somehow, I felt like a million bucks and sailed through that card.
“I’ve never been a guy whose life is defined by what I do – I have a lot of other wrinkles to me, I guess – but I realized what an important ingredient of my life had been missing.”
Though he has, for the past nine years, been the co-host of ShoBox, Charles has been covering boxing, and sports, in general, over four decades.
“I love a million things about the sport,” says Charles. “It’s the singularity of it. It’s seeing a kid shadow boxing in front of a huge fan in a 105-degree gym in San Antonio. It’s seeing these young fighters get in the ring with such hunger, some having fought their way off the street . . . .
“After working Pacquiao-Cotto, I knew I had to just dive in again.”
Charles called up Gordon Hall, Showtime vice president and executive producer of ShoBox. “I’m ready, I’m ready to come back,” he told him.
“He was as excited as a kid,” says Hall. “I told him we had two back-to-back shows, Jan. 29 in Albuquerque and Feb. 5 in Santa Ynez. He said he was ready.
“We picked up where we left off and nothing has changed. On the road, we’ve built up a strong relationship; we’re like a big family. His love of the sport, of the people, from the bucket carriers to the fighters and managers, had been sorely missed.”
Co-host Steve Farhood, who’d called Charles daily during his chemo battle, called his friend and colleague’s absence “unsettling.”
“It felt weird being without Nick. We’d been together for 140 shows and suddenly he wasn’t there. His coming back has meant so much to us here.”
Last Friday in New Mexico – where, incidentally he will take up residence once his house in Santa Fe is built - Charles, his hair a little shorter, returned to action, no less animated at ringside than he’d been before his bout with cancer.
“It really did feel like I’d never left,” says Charles.
“Once it started, I was right back in the flow. I was back home.”