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Nick Charles: Lessons From the Fight

Aired June 18, 2011 - 07:30   ET



NICK CHARLES, CANCER PATIENT: Because she's cute, because she's smart, because she's sweet, because she's strong, because she's so much fun.

DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): What you're listening to is a father's birthday message for his little girl.

NICK CHARLES: Happy birthday to you. Nice to sing that song to you, G-I-O-V-A-N-N-A.

GUPTA: A message for Giovanna, that he doesn't think he will be able to deliver in person.

NICK CHARLES: You always have to believe in yourself.

GIOVANNA, NICK CHARLES' DAUGHTER: Can someone please give her a friend.

NICK CHARLES: Baseball officials expressing a desire to talk.

GUPTA: I first met Nick Charles in "CNN NEWSROOM" ten years ago. He was just like everyone described him, the nicest guy.

NICK CHARLES: And once, the biggest race in America.

GUPTA: That voice, that hair.

NICK CHARLES: And thanks for joining us again, everybody. And hello, I am Nick Charles.

GUPTA: Along with Fred Hickman, Nick had been the face of CNN Sports. Baseball, football, he covered them all.

NICK CHARLES: The city of Nagano will never be the same.

GUPTA: But his real love was boxing.

NICK CHARLES: The one given in the heavy weight ranks is the only path of the title runs through Mike Tyson.

I guess the stuff in the '70s with Ali -- I got to do road work with him in the '70s, and that was a memorable time. And then we started with the big one, Sanjay. You know, it was a wonderful golden age in the '80s with Sugar Ray Leonard and Marvin Hagler and Tommy Hearns. And, of course, the Tyson years came along.

GUPTA: These days it is about love taps from 5-year-old Giovanna. It's not his first time around. He's had two previous marriages, three grown kids. Melissa, Jason, Katrina, and he's had plenty of regrets.

For a long time, Nick Charles had been searching.

NICK CHARLES: I really wanted happiness and I just hadn't found it. And at 45 years old, meeting Cory, I did immediately, and having a baby come into the world, a girl which I prayed to God for every day, make it be a girl, make it be a girl.

GUPTA: It was. And Nick revels in every moment with his girls. Giovanna and his wife, Cory. The one thing Nick doesn't have is time, and even Giovanna knows it.

GIOVANNA: At least you don't get to go to heaven yet.

NICK CHARLES: Nope, I'm not going to heaven yet. I'm still hanging around playing Candy Land and win.

GIOVANNA: No, I'm going to win.

GUPTA: In early 2009, Nick was the happiest he's ever been. But a shadow was creeping in. The robust Nick Charles had never been sick in his life. But something was changing in his body.

NICK CHARLES: I would ask people my age do you get up at night to urinate? Yes, I get up, but I wouldn't ask how many times. I was getting up, geez, six and eight times so I said something is wrong.

GUPTA: It took six months to find the culprit.

NICK CHARLES: A test in Atlanta, (INAUDIBLE) Anderson in Houston, she said here's the deal. You have metastatic stage four bladder cancer. It's very serious. The five year survival rate is two percent. The average life span is 20 months.

GUPTA: But after a lifetime of covering fights, the fight was coming to him.

(on-camera): You were going in to win.

NICK CHARLES: Oh, to win, absolutely.

GUPTA: To knock out cancer.

NICK CHARLES: Absolutely. So let's go at it.

And this is morphine, which is slow release. Oxycodone.

GUPTA (voice-over): Let's go at it. With Nick's cancer, here is what that means.

NICK CHARLES: The morphine drops -- GUPTA: Four combinations of seven different drugs -- hair falling out, throwing up, searing pain through every muscle in your body. Hives so bad, it makes you want to tear off your skin.

NICK CHARLES: First time the nurses came in, they put these blue jackets on that looked like they were going to get into a capsule and circumvent the moon. And I said what's going on here. And then they said well, you know, one of these, we call it the red devil, but you put it in for 15 minutes, and if you get any on you, it could burn you pretty badly, pretty severely.

And I said, gee, if that's going to happen to an exterior surface of a healthy person, what the heck is this chemotherapy that's extensively going to do me good? What are the bad effects going to be?

GUPTA: Hard on the body, harder on the soul.

NICK CHARLES: And of course, at the forefront was that my family life would be destroyed, you know, on this earth. You know, I had a little girl that I wanted to see grow up, and a wife that I was madly in love with.

GUPTA: Slowly and surely, the cancer and the chemo ground him down. By January of 2011, Nick said no more. No more chemo.

NICK CHARLES: I said medically I am through. You know, I would rather have the time remaining left to feel better.

GUPTA: A story like this makes you wonder what would I do? How would I look at my life? Where would I find my strength? What would I tell my daughters?

NICK CHARLES: I keep telling her I'm going to be in your heart and your soul. What's a soul, daddy. A soul is something Jesus gave us. It is the only way I could explain it. It's Christ in our heart all the time.

My heart is something that I'm going to be in a better -- in a place waiting for you, and I'm going to see everything you do.

GUPTA: Nick doesn't want regrets. Not this time.

GIOVANNA: This is the sweet one.


Can I have another one?

GUPTA: What would you do?

NICK CHARLES: I just want to construct the conditions for my family.

GUPTA: Nick has a plan.

NICK CHARLES: I want to buy a piano for my daughter. My goal is to see that first lesson when we move into the new house.

GUPTA: Next, Nick goes back to the ring.





GUPTA: Nick Charles, the former CNN sports anchor has never stopped fighting stage four bladder cancer. Even after deciding to stop chemotherapy. For he and his wife of almost 14 years, Cory, it means setting goals. One at a time.

CORY CHARLES, NICK CHARLES' WIFE: OK, Nick, you must make it to your 65th birthday which is in June. You must make it to Giovanna's kindergarten first day and beyond, and it might happen. It may not.

NICK CHARLES: It is almost day to day, moment to moment, and it is really quite sustaining for me and actually invigorating.

GUPTA: Boxing used to be his bread and butter.

NICK CHARLES: Does any of this ever get old to you?

GUPTA: His cancer kept him away from the ring for months at a time. But in late March, HBO called. And Nick was ready. All about heart.

(on-camera): Ask to call another fight. What was that like to you? Why was it so important?

NICK CHARLES: I think the feeling I have for fighters, that whole subculture I love.

And it is with great pleasure that we welcome to HBO's boxing event --

The feedback I got was enormous. Boy, you nailed it. You got it. You were right. Boy it was the Nick Charles, I learned so much. You were at the top of your game. And I don't think they were being patronizing because I felt in my heart I was.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We admire your courage and we look forward to hearing from you again.

NICK CHARLES: Likewise, Bob.

GUPTA: Was it a metaphor for you? I mean, fighting.

NICK CHARLES: Yes, it is. Well, definitely, yes, because, you know, in fighting you have to take pain to give it, and you have to fight back. And no matter what round it is, in boxing, unlike baseball, in the seventh inning if its 8-1, the stadium empty, but in boxing you could hit a nine run homerun, you know. And I hoping that's going to happen to me, Sanjay.

GUPTA: You're still hoping.

NICK CHARLES: Oh, yes, you know.

GUPTA: The eternal hope, they say, always burn.


GUPTA: And Nick does something more. Something I learned from him. He writes his hopes and dreams in a journal. He's done it since Giovanna was born.

NICK CHARLES: I know it's going to take all of God's grace which is never in short supply to make me live longer. I want to for you and mommy so we can be a family here in Santa Fe. If God takes me home, it will be forever. Meanwhile, I'm not going anywhere today.

GUPTA: It's so tough for Nick to write, and it's tough to hear. But Nick knows he at least had the chance to leave something behind.

(on-camera): How do you feel when you read this?

NICK CHARLES: Oh, they are just so reinforcing to me that I know she's going to read them. I've talked to people, they would just long to hear their parent's voice or read something from them.

Oh, I wish I could have gone to a school like this.

Want some help?


NICK CHARLES: Oh, you're so big now. I forgot. You're 42 pounds.

I see her run into school every day, so I know we're in the right place. You know, I look around at this environment, keep in touch. I look at the teachers that she's going to see in a year or two. And I probably won't be there to walk her in. I just feel she's in good hands.

GUPTA (voice-over): Ten months after being diagnosed with cancer.

NICK CHARLES: We're going to go see my daughter's room over here.

GUPTA: He and Cory started doing something I found surprising. Construction on their dream house. Nick's goal, to live long enough to move his family and create some lasting memories.

NICK CHARLES: My daughter's room here is very vital to me. I thought about every little element, exactly where her bed is going to go, and the lights, and her little desk and such and whatever here. Created a window seat which will be covered so she can watch the world, read books, and think about life. And you know, here is that soft spot again going in here in the closet. There's nothing in here, but, you know, there's that prom dress.

GUPTA: Hanging right there.

NICK CHARLES: Yep. And it will be a great night, you know, and all. I think I'll be there in spirit.

GUPTA: I couldn't help but think there is no play book on how to prepare your loved ones for life without you.

Nick Charles has been seeing a therapist. They invited us to see what it is like for each of them.

CORY CHARLES: I feel like I'm grieving, even though there's nothing physically to grieve about right now.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: That's what I'm hearing, too, is that you're really anticipating, but it's not only anticipating a future, but you already have a sense of a more glorious past that you just loved and a time when Nick could be more the fullness of who he really is.

NICK CHARLES: I just refuse to grieve. Looking in these daily increments again, not beyond that.


NICK CHARLES: And saying we're going to find some real goodness here and laughter. And we're going to make our lives a little better for each other. You know, that extra hug is coming because I really love you and an extra kiss. And Giovanna is going to sleep in the bed with us because she wants to. And I wake up and be able to see her a little more, and just touch her skin, know her daddy is there.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You are so treasuring every moment that you can, aren't you?

NICK CHARLES: Absolutely.

I love you, Mike.


GUPTA: Coming up, a visit from an old friend -- Mike Tyson.



GUPTA (voice-over): Nick Charles, former CNN sports anchor. He's in the fight of his life against cancer, stage four bladder cancer.

NICK CHARLES: Oh, I might catch you.


GUPTA: He is hoping for the best, bracing his family for the worst.

It makes you think, it made me wonder what do you tell your friends?

(on-camera): (INAUDIBLE).

NICK CHARLES: Oh, yes, it's Mike Tyson. That was in the late '80s when the first time -- I think he was 20 years old at the time. Tyson connected with me right away. And, yes, we still have a wonderful relationship. He's coming to visit. And he just -- he remembers every story I ever told him.

Oh, love you, Mike. Look at that man. You know, it seems you're set for a better brother. I really don't.

He is trying to get up here. He will be OK, but he's -- we have to grab up.

MIKE TYSON, BOXER: He's giant.

NICK CHARLES: He's big, but smartest dog I ever had, Mike.

Say hello, Mike.

TYSON: I just realize that in a certain time, in a certain stage of life, life is just a big contradiction. Things I did at 20, I would never do at 25. Things I believe at 20, I would never say I do at 25. I just want to do the right thing.

NICK CHARLES: You're growing. I know you're trying to change. And I know this disease has really changed me. It really has. It made me gentler. It made me who my genuine friends are like Mike Tyson.

TYSON: Let's look at things from a different perspective. And this is where it gets, this is where it gets creepy or tricky with me, because I know, but I'm trying to reach in and I want to know the feeling, when it's just, wow, when nothing really matters, where you don't have to be fake, you don't have to be nothing and be doing this right here. But this is just done from a friendship perspective to show the world friendship and our relationship. Something that they never would know, that kind of thing, with your close friends. Do you know what I mean?

NICK CHARLES: You're a lifelong friend. You know, thank you, my friend.

TYSON: I always wanted to be a friend to somebody. That's why I was always -- always --

NICK CHARLES: Always been that way, buddy. Always have, always will. TYSON: But just to think that if I'm lucky, to live that long, that I'm going to have to endure that as well, man, at one stage of my life.

NICK CHARLES: You never know.

TYSON: What prompts to come here -- I mean, to go through this with him, because I know what it's like to be alone, to feel that no one cares for you, and that's what happened sometimes. And sometimes you need to be here with your nucleus -- your wife and your children at times.

But we need some other kind of influence, too. You know, we need the world to live. Things that made us the people that we are. And sometimes we need a little bit of all of that to make us whole, you know?

I need this to make me whole. I would feel like a piece of dog trash if I didn't have come here and see him eye to eye before he departed from us. How could I look, walk around with my head up, you know? How could I tell my kids this guy is a friend of mine, this guy is a friend of mine, but he died. Then why didn't you go visit your friend, you know?

NICK CHARLES: The whole connection, I mean, I know how you feel. I just, you know, I was crying with you, so I know.

TYSON: I don't know, brother. I'm just happy to go through this journey with you. Thanks for allowing me to.

NICK CHARLES: Thank you, kitten. My pleasure. My pleasure. Brother. Brother forever.

TYSON: Look at us, man. Look where we came from.

NICK CHARLES: I know, man. And look where we're going.

TYSON: This is where we came from.

NICK CHARLES: We're hanging out in heaven, right?

TYSON: Yes, big time. Where we came from, man. This is awesome.

NICK CHARLES: I love you, Mike. I mean, I don't care whether we were in Tokyo or Atlantic City or Vegas or anything else.

Thanks, man. Thanks, brother.

Love you, brother. Now and forever, man. I know your heart. I know your heart. Thanks. Nothing to feel sad about, man.

TYSON: I will call you as soon as I land, OK?

NICK CHARLES: Oh, you better. You better. Give Tiki our love, huh? Thank you, Mike. Thank you. God bless you. In every way. In every way. Every day. Hug those kids.

TYSON: I will.


GUPTA: Lessons from the fight.

Coming up, a surprise gift for his daughter and a happy ending.



GUPTA: Today it's moving day in the Charles household. This might surprise you. But a year ago, Nick and Cory finally decided to build their dream home.

NICK CHARLES: There's the views. There's the peaks.

GUPTA: It's another lesson Nick taught me. Live in the present, but keep dreaming, imagining, the future.

NICK CHARLES: I thank the Lord for this day and all my friends who, you know, all the love that they're showing and that I'm achieving this milestone of getting in this new house.

Thrilling. That's all I can tell you.

GUPTA: During a hectic day of packing boxes, Nick sneaks away to the new house for the delivery of a special surprise gift for his daughter.

NICK CHARLES: Well, welcome home. How about that? Wow. Right here, between the window and here.

I get up in the middle of the night and research these things, you know. It just keeps you going. I mean, I always need a project, and I love to research things, and I was able, you know, that took probably 15 hours researching this piano, you know, and wanted to buy the very best one, at the very best price I could for my daughter. And, gosh, I nailed it.

You know, I just feel fabulous about it. I wanted to get this soft close for Giovanna for sure, because, man, yes, that's great. This is awesome.

What do you think? Straighten it out. Straighten it out. Go ahead. Just play.

GUPTA: When I went to see Nick, I was looking for a lesson or lessons. It turns out, it was more complicated. Maybe not always the same lesson for everyone. No matter how much love and support you have, you step into that ring alone.

NICK CHARLES: You know, they help --

GUPTA: From what I can tell, Nick is relaxed, even happy. He's at peace with whatever happens now. To some, that's hard to understand. And maybe even harder on his family, his friends.

CORY CHARLES: I'm exhausted.

NICK CHARLES: Oh no, I'm just exhilarated. I'm exhilarated just looking out here. When I woke up this morning, I just saw a different scene and everything I was hoping for and more, and just absolutely elevated things.

CORY CHARLES: 16 hours of packing and moving, and just a tremendous, you know, effort. When we've moved three times in two years and this was for me the hardest. And it's probably subconscious reasons but --

NICK CHARLES: Like what?

CORY CHARLES: I'm just hoping that you'll live a long time, Nick. I mean, this is the reality.

NICK CHARLES: We'll be in the house together, right?

CORY CHARLES: Yes, exactly. I don't want you to unpack with me and you're not here.

NICK CHARLES: Yes. Well, I'm feeling that way, that, you know, that picture's going to go over there for a reason. I'm going to be looking at it for years.


NICK CHARLES: Next Christmas and the trees going up and the "nutcracker" is going to be there and I'm going to be there.


NICK CHARLES: That's the way I'm living my life, you know, with you.


NICK CHARLES: So, I wouldn't worry about it, you know? I love you so much.

CORY CHARLES: Giovanna said to me if you were in here, you would have broke down and cry. She said this is the best day of my life last night.

NICK CHARLES: Oh boy. Living life in this wonderful place. This is where I want to spend the rest of my time on earth and I'll be waiting for you up there, because I love you so.

(END VIDEOTAPE) GUPTA: Ask Nick, and he'll say that win or lose, he wants to give all he has every moment. A boxer would say, that's heart. That does it for Nick Charles, "Lessons from the Fight."

I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta. Thanks for watching.