By Tyson Bruce
The history of boxing is spotted with the presence of fighters whose robust physiques defy the laws of physicality by excelling in the world’s most physically demanding sport. Most famously Tony “Two Ton” Galento, a New York bartender, overcame a grotesquely obese physique to challenge the legendary Joe Louis for the heavyweight crown. He did so by combining a wild brawling style with a total disregard for the Queensbury Rules. These kinds of tales make for colourful anecdotes that enrich the history of modern prizefighting. Most of the time, however, dedication to ones craft—often symbolized by an athletic body—is a necessity for success. This is why Cris Arreola and Bermane Stiverne, despite being thoroughly entertaining, have never been heavyweight champions.
The current heavyweight division serves as living proof that laziness and disrespect just doesn’t jive with the riggers of boxing. In the lower weights fitness is basically inevitable because fighters have to make weight. In the heavyweight division, where the only stipulation in weight is that the fighter weighs two hundred pounds, being in shape becomes a more abstract concept. Today the division is in shambles—filled with overweight, under-trained pretenders that make more runs to Apple Bee’s than around a track. A lack of dedication robs some of the genuinely talented from ever becoming champions but in the case of the vast majority it merely accentuates the gapping lack of talent.
Mike Tyson recently criticized today’s boxers for valuing money over pride, and that securing a safe and easy payday is more important today than being the most feared man on the planet. Wladmir Klitschko, despite being nearly unwatchable, is both well conditioned and talented. That’s bad news for most of today’s heavyweight contenders. In fact, most of them realize this truth well ahead of their thirty-six minutes (or less) in the sun. Alex Leapai, the most recent title challenger stood just six feet tall yet somehow outweighed the 6-7’ champion. How hard did Leapai really train? How much did he really believe he could win?
Klitchko’s eternal curse is that the two best fighters that he’s beaten in his entire career were Tony Thompson and Chris Byrd. Would those guys have even been top ten contenders in any other decade in the division’s history? My guess is likely not. If he fought like George Foreman or talked like Ali then this might not be a problem, but he does not. Despite being clean cut and white, usually winning attributes for American sports fans, people outside of Europe just don’t give a damn about him. The ratings for his last fight on ESPN peaked at just 400,000 viewers, which is less than half of what the average program does in that time slot. His anonymity has made the heavyweight title all but extinct—boxing’s tragic version of the lost buffalo.
Bermane Stiverne and Chris Arreola are victims of the first stipulation. Both are fluent combination punchers, athletically inclined and posses a well-seasoned amateur background. They have become top contenders strictly on the basis of their talent and experience. The negative is that their chronic binge eating, erratic training and lack of focus almost cancels out all of their best attributes. It’s caused Stiverne, 23-1-1-(20), to be chronically inactive and an inconsistent performer. One fight he’s beating the living daylights out of Chris Arreola and another he’s losing a majority decision to some guy named Charles Davis. Arreola’s near constant battle of the bulge is the stuff of legends in the boxing community. He’s shown up out of shape so many times, that despite being one of the hardest punching and exciting heavyweights, he’s been written off by most boxing experts.
It’s telling that in a highly anticipated match between two of the divisions most exciting fighters, weight is the most talked about issue. In all likelihood the guy who trained the most will win the fight. The first time around that was Bermane Stiverne. The stakes will be much higher this time, as an alphabet title belt will be in the line—making the winner become a prize pig in the world of boxing. For Arreola, 36-3-0-(31), it’s ‘do or die’ time, as one more failed opportunity could be the death nail in his career. A loss would likely single the long and painful journey from contender to gatekeeper. The best-case scenario is that both men realize the importance of the moment and bring the best of themselves to the table. If that happens we will have a good old fashioned heavyweight throw down—something that used to be commonplace but now seems like an old fashioned proposal.