Today is a good day. Nick Charles never knows when the good days will come, but he tries to embrace them. "Let's go for a walk," he says. We walk together unsteadily along the streets of downtown Santa Fe. People look over sometimes, but not because they recognize him. His face has hollowed. His hair was lost to chemotherapy. Every now and again, he bumps into me. The walking makes his breathing heavy.
This is an article from the March 7, 2011 issue
"You know," he says, not unhappily, "I once did roadwork with Muhammad Ali."
Charles has lived a sports life. He sat ringside when Buster Douglas floored Mike Tyson. He stood on the sidelines while Joe Montana led the 49ers on a last-minute Super Bowl drive. He anchored coverage of the first Goodwill Games in Moscow, and became so close to Yankees owner George Steinbrenner that the Boss insisted on identifying himself by a spy name when calling with tips. Steinbrenner chose "Tom Turner."
Charles is 64 years old. He was the original sports anchor at CNN, in 1980, so long ago that when he called Tigers manager Sparky Anderson and introduced himself, Sparky said, "CNN? F--- you, I don't need a car loan," and slammed down the phone. He worked alongside Fred Hickman for 17 years, and together they battled to keep up with ESPN and SportsCenter. "I never liked all that ratings business," he says. "But we held our own for a long time."
The sun seems to gleam especially bright over downtown Santa Fe's low-slung cityscape. It is early afternoon and the air is crisp, and Charles does not want the walk to end. He knows it must. "Sure, it's corny to say that the lesson is we should embrace every minute," he says. "But what else is there? This is a beautiful world."
Nick Charles will die soon. He does not hide from it. When we pass a pretty little Spanish cemetery, he says that he considered being buried there. 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."
The doctors found Stage 4 cancer in his bladder in August 2009. By then the cancer had already spread into his lungs. No operation could help him. At first, the highest concentration of chemo seemed to subdue the cancer cells. Seven months later the doctors said the cancer had "come back with a vengeance." Charles noticed that it sounded like something a boxing announcer might say.
By Christmas of 2010, he knew that the fight was over. The doctors said that one more terrifying round of chemo offered a small chance to extend his life by a couple of months. Charles said no. "Remember the look on Thomas Hearns's face when he realized that no matter what he did, he could never slow down Marvin Hagler?" he asks. He decided then that he would spend the last few months fighting a different fight.
"I want to feel everything," he says.
He was born Nicholas Charles Nickeas and grew up in Chicago's inner city, a cab driver's son. It was a childhood of mustard sandwiches and cold nights with the heat off. It was a childhood that taught him to love self-made people. This, he feels, is what drew him to boxing. From 2001 through '10 he covered boxing almost exclusively—first for Showtime, and then for Bob Arum's Top Rank. "You know why I love boxers?" he asks as he looks out his living room window at the peaks of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. "I love them because they face fear. And they face it alone. They came from nothing."
He says this without tears. He almost never cries. People marvel at this. Charles says he stays positive because he has no unfulfilled longings. "I've seen Paris," he says. He rereads his favorite books and watches sports with the sound down ("I want to make my own observations," he says), and discusses the news with his wife, Cory, who is a senior director for CNN International. He gets e-mails and phone calls from friends. Two weeks ago Mike Tyson called, as he often does. "On the other side," Iron Mike said, "I want to hang out with you."
There are fewer good days. "I hope," he says, "that I go to sleep and just don't wake up." This too he says with the same strong voice that once told America about Super Bowl quarterbacks and Kentucky Derby thoroughbreds.
He cries only when talking about Giovanna. She is his youngest daughter, and she turns five this month. Charles has three other children from two previous marriages, but the divorces were painful, and sports were all-consuming, and he did not spend much time with them. "I have regrets," he says. He has given his life to Giovanna. He spends every good moment playing with her and talking with her and watching Barbie movies with her.
"I'm sorry," Nick Charles says again and again because now he is crying, crying hard, and he says he has never been to Disneyland but will take Giovanna this month, if he lives long enough. He smiles as he considers how silly that sounds, like a sports cliché: "I'm going to Disneyland."
"She is strong," he says. "She will be O.K. when I'm gone. I know it." And he is quiet for a long time as he stares out the window at the mountains and then abruptly changes the subject. He talks about how much he likes watching sunsets. He says that sunsets in Santa Fe last almost forever.
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