Scaling The Heights
By Nat Gottlieb Courtesy of HBO.com
If Chris Arreola plans to win a championship this year, he'll have to chop down one of two very tall trees named Wladimir and Vitali. But before he gets a crack at them, he must swing his ax at trial horse Jameel McCline, who at 6'6" is the perfect test of whether Arreola really belongs in the land of the giants.
Mark Twain once famously said, "It's not the size of the dog in the fight, it's the size of the fight in the dog." But in today's boxing world, the alpha dogs at the top of the heavyweight division not only are big, they can bite.
Wladimir Klitschko, who owns two of the four championship belts, is 6'6 ˝" and has 46 knockouts among his 52 wins. Brother Vitali, who wears one of the other belts, is 6'7 ˝" and counts 36 knockouts among 37 victories. Barking right at Arreola's heels is fellow unbeaten contender Alexander Dimitrenko, who is ranked in the top four of all the sanctioning bodies and is 6'7". Toss in Nikolai Valuev at seven feet and it's obvious that the 6'4" Arreola has a tall order in front of him.
So what's a little guy like the Arreola to do? A good first step would be for him to turn in an impressive performance against three-time title challenger McCline, who is a step up for Arreola, even at 38. Just a year and a half ago McCline demonstrated that he still has pop in his gloves when he knocked down the previously iron-chinned Samuel Peter three times before losing a unanimous decision.
"It will be a good experience for Chris," says Arreola's trainer, Henry Ramirez. "We didn't plan it; it just worked out that way. McCline is definitely a step up in class. He's the kind of guy who at least people can recognize."
Ironically, in order for Arreola (26-0, 23KOs) to beat the bigger men, he's going to have to get smaller. Critics of the Southern California-based Arreola dismiss him as a West Coast-hyped phenomenon whose problems with weight indicate a lack of commitment. One joke making the rounds is that Arreola may become the first boxer to have "over-under" wagering when he steps on the pre-fight scales.
Arreola is aware of the criticism, and admits he cannot beat fighters like the Klitschko brothers weighing 250 pounds—his weight in his last two fights. The need to lose weight hit home with a wallop when his last opponent, fellow contender Travis Walker, knocked him down for the first time in his career. Arreola bounced back from that second round knockdown to send Walker to the canvas three times en route to a third round TKO. But the lesson had been learned.
"Once I got hit and dropped, I said, 'What am I doing here?' They're raising my hands up, my boobs are jiggling and I'm thinking, 'I'm supposed to be an elite athlete.' I looked like a bum. Now it's time for me to step up and prove to those who thought I was a plodding heavyweight or a West Coast hype-job that I want to get to the Promised Land," says Arreola, who weighed 254 pounds against Walker and 258 ˝ in the fight before that. "I realize this is no joke; it's time to play the part of a professional athlete."
Ramirez has noticed signs of that professionalism in Arreola's recent training camp. "I haven't seen Chris this motivated since he fought Chazz Witherspoon [three fights ago]. He's very focused." And apparently, he is set on losing weight. Arreola vowed at a March press conference in Los Angeles that he would weigh in at 240 pounds for this fight. Skeptics are quick to point out that Arreola made a similar promise when he left his comfy hometown gym in Riverside to train for the Walker fight in the high altitude of Big Bear, a California-style boot camp where champions such as Shane Mosley, Oscar De La Hoya and Bernard Hopkins have prepared for fights. Removed from his beer-drinking buddies back in Riverside, many figured Arreola would finally get his act together. But despite spending four weeks in Big Bear, Arreola entered the ring with a gut, love handles and those "jiggling boobs."
"People say because he weighed 254, he didn't train hard," Ramirez said. "But Chris came to camp at 277 pounds. Had he been 240 for the fight, people would have focused a lot on how exciting he was that night and not concentrated on how much he weighed."
Arreola has returned to training in Riverside, where he's got his family and friends, and of course the potential for distractions. "I hated Big Bear," Arreola says. "It feels good to train in my backyard. Floyd Mayweather parties in Las Vegas and trains in Las Vegas. Why can't I do that?"
The quick answer would be that Arreola is not Floyd Mayweather, who is in shape 365 days of the year and has a tough veteran trainer like Uncle Roger. In contrast, Ramirez is just five years older than the 28-year-old Arreola, and some have questioned whether he is too much of a buddy and not enough of a disciplinarian to keep Arreola from imitating Ricky "Fatton" Hatton between bouts. Ramirez disputes that he's lackadaisical in monitoring Arreola's out-of-ring behavior. He says it's simply a case of it being nearly impossible to keep a constant collar on his fighter. "I can't control Chris between fights. There's no one who 100 per cent of the time can get Chris to do what they want him to do. Chris is one of the most stubborn people I've ever met in any walk of life."
Arreola certainly has demonstrated in the past that he can nix the fast food and just say no to knocking a few back. Prior to his last two fights, Arreola had never weighed in over 247 in nine previous bouts. He even hit the scales at a svelte 229 for his first big career fight against unbeaten prospect Damian Wills in 2006. Arreola took Wills out in the fourth round and doors suddenly started opening for him.
What undoubtedly makes critics hard on Arreola is that he has such enormous potential. As an exciting, two-fisted Mexican-American fighter who can throw combos and work the body like a middleweight, Arreola could become the kind of gate attraction that would breathe life into the division and gain the attention of boxing's large Hispanic fan base, which normally shies away from heavyweight fights.
"A fully in-shape and motivated Chris Arreola will give problems to anybody in the world," Ramirez says. "I know there are a lot of naysayers out there who say Chris is nothing but a glorified Tough Man fighter. Well I've never seen Tough Men throw combos like Chris."
Should Arreola get by McCline, Ramirez says his boxer would be ready for a title fight. "The way it looks now, it will be either Vitali or Wladimir for sure. I think Wladimir is overall the better fighter than Vitali. He's more active, more athletic. Vitali just has more balls and chin than Wladimir." Vitali could very well be Arreola's next opponent. After recently defeating mandatory challenger Juan Carlos Gomez, Vitali told Sports Illustrated that he would like to take on Arreola. "Let's do that fight in L.A.," Vitali told SI. "Arreola is a big heavyweight with a good fan base. A lot of people would be interested in that fight."
Wladimir, meanwhile, seems less likely as Arreola's next opponent. The Ukrainian champion has been conducting negotiations for two months with former unified cruiserweight champion David Haye of England, but there have been so many false starts that it's hard to say if or when that fight will take place. Arreola is ranked third behind Dimitrenko and Haye for one of Wladimir's belts, and second to unbeaten 2004 Olympic gold medalist Alexander Povetkin for the other.
Everything seems in place for Arreola to get a chance to fulfill his dream of becoming the first heavyweight champion of Mexican heritage. But to do so, he must first get by McCline - and do it in style. If he stumbles, or even struggles, he can expect a herd of critics wondering aloud whether he should just give up on a world title.