NEW YORK -- The baby fat on his face is gone, exposing more chiseled features and a protruding jawline. The oversized T-shirts have been tossed out, too, replaced with slimmer styles for a slimmer physique. Chris Arreola will never be a runway model or appear in an Abercrombie ad but the former heavyweight title challenger's dramatic weight loss is proof that Arreola is taking his body -- and his career -- more seriously.
"I'm watching food," Arreola said, "instead of eating it."
It wasn't long ago when Arreola, 30, was considered The Next Big Thing in a division desperate for a Next Big Thing. A few years back he was an undefeated contender with concussive power and an easygoing, Everyman personality that drew fans to him. He got his big break -- a world title shot against Vitali Klitschko -- in 2009, only to squander it in an ugly, 10-round TKO loss where Arreola played the role of a (slightly) more mobile punching bag.
Things bottomed out pretty quickly after that: He lost an HBO-televised matchup with Tomasz Adamek and looked sluggish in a 12-round decision win over journeyman Manuel Quezada.
Teetering on the edge of boxing irrelevance, Arreola vowed to make changes. He cut the junk food out of his diet and cut back on the beer. He moved, briefly, to Houston to work with veteran trainer Ronnie Shields, who gave Arreola the blueprint for how a serious boxer works. He ratcheted up his workouts, replaced those late-night snacks with a bottle of water and added more movement to his straight-ahead style.
"Fifteen pounds, to you and me, it's a lot of weight," said Arreola's promoter, Dan Goossen. "To Chris it's a gargantuan amount of weight. What losing it has done is given him the ability to go out there and throw the combinations he didn't throw against Vitali or against Adamek. He's ready to take any challenge out there."
Arreola's next challenge will come Saturday in Atlantic City, when he takes on journeyman Friday Ahunanya (24-7-3) on the untelevised undercard of Paul Williams's fight against Erislandy Lara. It will be Arreola's fourth fight in 2011, an amateur-like schedule rarely seen in top contenders.
"Every fight I'm trying to move my head more," Arreola said. "I'm trying to throw more punches, show more lateral movement. It's all coming together."
Boxing is a second- (and third-, and fourth-) chance business and Arreola's recent surge has not gone unnoticed. Unified heavyweight champion Wladimir Klitschko told SI.com this week that he was interested in fighting Arreola in the U.S., possibly as early as the end of this year.
"That's an honor for my name to come out of a champion's mouth," Arreola said. "But my job is to take care of my business on Saturday. I don't want people to think that when I fight Wladimir, I didn't earn it. I want to earn it."
Despite the one-sided loss to Vitali Klitschko -- where the elder Klitschko buried Arreola with an eye-popping 80 punches per round -- Goossen believes this version of Arreola is better prepared for a Klitschko-sized challenge.
"Chris had no movement against Vitali," Goossen said. "Chris probably thought his sheer will power, his heart would take him to victory. Not at this level. You have to be in tip-top shape. He's there now. When you think of the other guys who fought the Klitschkos, their styles weren't conducive to go inside. And if you stay on the outside with these guys, you're a sitting duck. Chris's fight plan with everyone is to push them back. That's just the way he fights. And when he's in shape, he can beat anyone out there."
Arreola says he doesn't need any more tune-up fights. And he says his experience as a former sparring partner of Wladimir Klitschko gives him an advantage in preparing for him.
"The difference [between the Klitschkos] is Vitali is the one with the bigger balls," Arreola said. "He's the one that hits harder. Thudding, hard punches. Wlad's punches are real crisp and he has more zip to his punches. I'm more prepared mentally [for a title shot]. Physically, it doesn't matter. You can have the body of a God like [David] Haye does and still put on that kind of performance. When it's my time, I know I'll be ready."