The best part was talking boxing. It's hard to explain how good it made me feel to be around Nick Charles for the Point After this week, hard to explain because this is one of the saddest stories I've ever written. Nick Charles is dying. How is it possible to feel anything but deep sadness in moments like that?
But believe me when I tell you: I did not feel sad being around Nick Charles. Certainly, of course, there was sadness in the air. Wistfulness. Nick talked about everything. He cried some and apologized for that. I felt a lump or two in my throat now and again and tried to keep Nick from seeing. But the tone was joy, and the themes were life, and the connection was family. We talked about growing up, and about our favorite books, and about watching Barbie movies with our daughters. We both think The Three Musketeers might be the best one. Neither of us was crazy about Mermadia.
When I told people that I had gone to see Nick, they inevitably said: "Oh I never could have done that. It must have been so depressing." And maybe I would have thought the same thing. And there was no way to explain to them that it wasn't depressing -- it was the opposite of depressing. I left regretfully, I wished I could have stayed longer, I left filled with powerful feelings about life and how precious it is and how powerful the human spirit can come through if you allow it to come through.
The best part was talking boxing. I do not follow boxing anymore, not out of any sense of morality -- I can't see how boxing is any more dangerous or brutal than pro football at this point -- but because the sport has no rhythm, no narrative, it is a messy and unseemly mishmash of $50 pay-per-view cards featuring boxers I don't know fighting for championships that sound unfamiliar. I can tell you, and probably for the first time in my life, I truly do not know who is the heavyweight champion of the world. I can go on Wikipedia and find out -- I guess Vitaly Klitschko is one, and David Haye is another -- but I don't know. Corruption has always worked the corners in boxing, but now the whole sport is a blur. And even if you could get by that, the boxing game itself is like a mildly interesting television series, but I missed the first 10 shows. I don't have the patience or the time to try and catch up. There is too much else going on.
But there was a time when I knew about as much about boxing as I did any other sport. That comes from my father, who was (and is) an enormous boxing fan. My father loves many sports, but if there was a 24-hour boxing channel that showed new fights every hour, he would never watch anything else. He did not try to make me a boxing fan, but boxing was always on our television, and I grew attached. I cried when my father told me one morning that Muhammad Ali lost to Leon Spinks. I wanted to stay in my room all day and sulk when Sugar Ray Leonard was taken apart by Robert Duran in their first fight (and I danced like a fool when Leonard won the No Mas fight the second time). I thought about boxing all the time, I thought boxers all the time, just their names would get me going -- Little Red Lopez and Carlos Zarate and Lupe Pintor and the wily Wilfredo Gomez and the classy Alexis Arguello (of course) and the bleeder Vito Antuofermo and Dwight Braxton (who became Dwight Muhammad Qawi) and Boom Boom Mancini (of course) and ...
In many ways, my love of boxing ended on the day that Buster Douglas knocked out Mike Tyson in Japan. It did not end BECAUSE Buster Douglas knocked out Mike Tyson. I did not know Douglas, and I did not like Tyson, and watching that fight was mesmerizing and thrilling. If someone had asked me after the fight, "Do you think you'll stop being a boxing fan now?" I'm sure I would have thought the question was insane. I was excited after that fight. But somehow boxing kind of stopped being interesting for me after it. I liked Evander Holyfield and sort of kept up with him. I wrote about Ray Mercer a few times, and got to know a young boxer from Augusta named Vernon Forrest who went on to great things. I was amazed by the talents of Roy Jones and Oscar De La Hoya and Manny Pacquiao and some others. I still love writing about boxers. But, as a fan, I can never remember being truly excited about a fight or a fighter after Tyson-Douglas.
Nick Charles lights up when he's talking about boxing. He still feels the same way about it as he always did. He does not apologize for loving the sport. He concedes the brutality and corruption. "But," he says, "I know a lot of people whose lives were saved by boxing too." In any case, we were not talking about the rights and wrongs of boxing but about the fights and fighters. We were talking about the fury of the Hagler-Hearns fight, and the sadness of Muhammad Ali in the end, and the impossible energy of Arguello-Aaron Pryor and so on.
And then Nick Charles told me something about the Mike Tyson-Buster Douglas fight that I did not know, something that summed it up for me in a way that nothing else ever had. The thing that is hard to explain, even 20 years later -- and will be even harder in another 20 or 40 years, assuming people remember boxing at all -- was just how unlikely it was for Buster Douglas to even stay on his feet against Tyson, much less beat him. The odds were astronomical, of course, but odds can be bloodless numbers. Anyway, even odds don't give a sense of just how invincible Tyson seemed at that moment in time, how utterly inconceivable it was for ANYONE to go into a boxing ring and withstand his fury much less some relative journeyman like Buster Douglas. I don't think you can go back in time to FEEL the jolt of a instant, to FEEL just how unlikely it was for the United States hockey team to beat the Soviets in 1980, or the New York Jets to beat the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III or, perhaps more than any of them, for Buster Douglas to defeat Mike Tyson.
But Nick Charles put it in perspective this way: He was there, in Japan, and before the fight the reporters had a pool. Reporters always have a pool of some kind going. Of course it would have been foolish to have a pool about who would win the fight, so the pool simply asked: "What round will Mike Tyson knock out Buster Douglas?"
That's amazing enough. But wait until you hear this: So many writers picked Tyson to knock out Douglas in the first round that they had to start splitting up the round. At first they split it in half, then by minutes, then by half minutes. In the end, so many writers picked Tyson in the first round, that they had to split up the round by 10-second increments. When Douglas survived the first round, almost everybody in the pool was out. Needless to say, nobody picked Buster Douglas by knockout.
"I can tell you," Nick Charles said, "I have never felt anything that compares to the shock of that Tyson fight."
He smiled. We both knew that he had felt bigger shocks, much bigger shocks, but not in the playground world of sports. And that's the world where we lived for an afternoon. It wasn't only boxing. We talked about Joe Montana and Willie Mays and the people who show up at Churchill Downs at 6 a.m. We talked about how Mike Tyson calls him sometimes. We talked about CNN's head-to-head battles with ESPN, how people would always want to set him up against Chris Berman or Dan Patrick or Keith Olbermann but he genuinely LIKED those guys. He always liked people. No, it wasn't sad. Nick wouldn't let it be said. "Today is a good day," he said once, twice, three times, a bunch of times before I finally had to go. Those were the five words I used to start my story.