Friday December 11th, 2009

He calls himself "The Nightmare," and never has a nickname been more appropriate.

Chris Arreola is, indeed, a nightmare. A nightmare for self-respect. A nightmare for dignity. A nightmare for discipline. A nightmare for portion control. A nightmare for American heavyweight hopes.

From a strictly talent standpoint, we are talking about a man who should be eating up boxing's most glorious and storied weight class. Arreola, a 28-year-old Riverside, Calif., native, possesses one of his sport's most destructive left hooks, as well as a TNT-loaded jab. He is light on his feet, quick with his hands and blessed with a natural talent that leaves trainers and promoters drooling with envy.

And yet, Chris Arreola -- the 6-foot-4 Buff Love of boxing -- is a joke. An enormous, not-especially-funny joke.

In the aftermath of his latest fight, a fourth-round TKO of little-known Brian Minto last Saturday in Atlantic City, Arreola was asked by HBO's Max Kellerman whether we, the media, should leave him alone about his ever-increasing weight. His response was telling -- and sad. "I came in here at 263, but I came here ready to fight," he said, forearm blubber dancing along to his words. "You can't measure that. You can't measure the sparring you do or the sweating you do or the ring work. My biggest problem is when it comes to 9 o'clock at night I get hungry, man, and Alberto's is open 24 hours per day. So I'm going over there all the time."

By Alberto's, Arreola is not referring to the home of one Luis Alberto Urrea, the Naperville, Ill.-based writer and author of The Devil's Highway. No, at all hours of the night, Arreola can be found taking his own devil's highway (i.e.: the boxer's walk of shame) to Alberto's Mexican Restaurant, located in Escondido, Calif., a stone's throw from the pugilist's home. This, presumably, is the place where The Nightmare does his scariest work; where the $5.95 Carnitas Plate bobs and weaves onto his tongue and two cheese enchiladas ($4.95) float like a butterfly down his throat. (For an extra $1.70, Alberto's will toss in the irresistible half-pint side of guacamole. And, though this is merely a guess, I'm doubting Arreola can resist).

Hence, the man who stands before us as, in the words of Emmanuel Steward, "the most talented U.S. heavyweight since Mike Tyson" is a jiggling, wiggling fat zinger brought to life. Two months ago, in the most important bout of his career, Arreola faced Vitali Klitschko for the WBC heavyweight championship. He entered the ring with a 27-0 record and a 270-inch waistline -- and was predictably dominated in a 10-round TKO loss.

That was nothing, however, compared to his fight with Minto, a gritty, flat-topped 34-year-old journeyman out of Butler, Pa. Four weeks ago, Minto was resting at home when he received a phone call from his agent, Pat Nelson. "Hey Brian," he said, "how would you feel about fighting Chris Arreola ... in about a month?"

Minto knew of Arreola's skill and hype and pizzazz -- and yawned. He also was certainly aware of why Arreola's people thought he would be an ideal opponent: Coming off of the Klitschko humiliation, The Nightmare wanted an easy bounce-back fight. At 5-10 and 218 pounds, with a 34-2 record against a largely unimpressive gaggle of opponents (Where have you gone, Jermell Barnes?), Minto fit the bill.

There was just one thing: Minto doesn't like Alberto's. Or Burger King. Or McDonald's. When he trains, he trains hard. When he punches, he does so with all his might. A former linebacker at Slippery Rock University, Minto dropped out of college in 1995, then took a job in Butler working as a cable TV lineman. He began boxing as a means to staying in shape, competed in the local Golden Gloves competition ("I made regionals," he says. "That was cool."), then turned professional in November 2002 -- at the George Burns-esque age of 28.

He fights to feed his wife and two young children, but also because he remembers what it was like to grow up poor and hungry. Minto was raised by his single mother, Audrey, who worked as an American Legion bartender and struggled to keep food on the table and heat in the house. "Hell, I wasn't even meant to be here," he says. "My mom had her tubes tied, and then she became pregnant with me. She didn't know she was expecting until six months. I was a miracle baby."

Minto was hoping for yet another God-impacted moment last Saturday, when he glanced toward Arreola and saw a moon-blocking mountain of protoplasm. "I knew it would be a challenge," he says. "But I had a chance."

How so?

"Well," he says. "The guy can fight, but he doesn't respect the sport. Look at him -- he needs to work hard, but it doesn't look like he really does. No respect. So maybe he wouldn't respect me either."

As an undercard event for the big Paul Williams-Sergio Martinez headliner, Minto-Arreola won't be talked about as an all-time classic. For nearly four full rounds, however, Minto unleashed everything he had. He threw punch after punch after punch -- landing many, missing with even more. As spectacles go, it was akin to watching Andre the Giant take on Spud Webb. Minto never had a real shot, but he charged straight ahead, blood oozing down his face, sweat coating his body. When the referee finally stopped the fight, Arreola took a deep, cleansing breath -- a nod to a surprisingly difficult evening.

"Brian Minto," he said, "is one tough mofo. He really is."

And Chris Arreola is one gifted mofo. He really is.

Now if only he could stay away from the chips and salsa.

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