Bout could be Cris Arreola’s coming out party

Cris Arreola’s a big underdog now, just like Cassius Clay was to Sonny Liston all those years ago.

No one is yet forecasting the unbeaten Arreola (27-0, 24 knockouts) as the next Muhammad Ali, but in a heavyweight division and sport looking for greater public interest, the 28-year-old from Riverside is trying to become the first heavyweight champion of Mexican ancestry.

“The only guy the general population usually knows in boxing is the heavyweight champion, or a celebrity fighter like Oscar De La Hoya or Sugar Ray Leonard,” said HBO boxing analyst Larry Merchant. “I’ve said for years boxing needs a heavyweight version of Oscar. This is the first guy who’s come along to have a shot at being that fighter.”

Clearly, an Arreola victory against the taller, more experienced World Boxing Council heavyweight champion Vitali Klitschko tonight at Staples Center is a longshot -- he’s a 6-1 underdog at Las Vegas sports books -- that has struggled to generate interest among the Los Angeles fight-fan population. About 6,000 seats remain on sale, promoters say.


Merchant suggests the massive Latino boxing fan base is confused by this newest representative.

“They haven’t bought into him yet; they don’t know what to think about him because they’re used to bantamweights, featherweights and welterweights at the most,” Merchant said. “A heavyweight?

“But if he wins, I guarantee you, they’ll be waving the Mexican flags and chasing him through the malls.”

Arreola, 28, is additionally charged with proving himself to the level the most demanding in the audience require. In the most recent Staples fight, for instance, Oxnard’s Victor Ortiz was booed unmercifully after surrendering in a sixth-round technical knockout to an Argentine fighter. “You quit,” ringside fans jeered to Ortiz. “You’re not a Mexican!”

Arreola “may not have a great resume, but I trust my eyes,” Merchant said. “My eyes tell me this guy knows how to fight. He’s rough and tough. And who cares if he’s been a little heavy over the years? Fernando Valenzuela didn’t look like an athlete, either, but millions loved him.”

“Trust me,” Arreola’s promoter Dan Goossen said, “with a victory, the interest in Cris goes through the roof. He wins this, he’ll be the biggest story in boxing. Klitschko knew, that’s why he took this fight -- not only because we were the mandatory [challenger] but because the attention on Cris is a freight train coming.”

Arreola’s relentless, heavy-punching style makes for an interesting contrast to the methodical Klitschko. Ukraine’s “Dr. Iron Fist” (37-2, 36 KOs) is known for a studious attack that will aim to penetrate any sloppy defensive mistake Arreola might make, saying, “This fight’s not going the distance.”

On the stage where he weighed in at 251 pounds Thursday -- one pound less than Klitschko -- Arreola also entertained with street-hardened charisma as he poked fun at his own past dietary problems, his driving record and a gloves dispute with Klitschko.

When told Klitschko was insisting that Arreola’s gloves were to be weighed before the bout to eliminate any unfair tinkering, Arreola scoffed, “They can do whatever they want. We’ll both wear gloves in there. A glove’s a glove.”

He toyed with the champ by first hiding a large weight vest under his T-shirt and “weighing in” at 272 pounds before laughing and stepping off the scale, stripping off his T-shirt and revealing the weight vest.

“The thing about it is everyone keeps [complaining] about the weight, so I decided I’m gonna have some fun with it,” Arreola said off the weigh-in stage. “I wanted to make [Klitschko] believe I’m fat, and then show him, ‘You know what? I’m not! I’m in shape!’

“I’ve worked my butt off for this fight. I’ve gotten here through hard work, the way you’re supposed to do it.”

Boxing notes

Last week’s welterweight bout between Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Juan Manuel Marquez -- won by the larger Mayweather in a one-sided unanimous decision -- generated 1 million pay-per-view buys, HBO announced. That makes it the highest performing boxing pay-per-view event of the year, with $52 million in pay-per-view revenue, and will likely embolden Mayweather’s bid to get more than a 50-50 split when his anticipated 2010 showdown with Manny Pacquiao is negotiated. HBO pay-per-view’s Mark Taffet said, “Floyd Mayweather has clearly reinforced his standing as a top attraction, and fans are excited about his return to the sport.” Mayweather added, “I am truly humbled by the numbers, and I appreciate all of the sports fans who either came to the fight or bought it on pay-per-view. It felt great to be back in the ring and next time I will be even better.”




The undercard

First fight at 4:30 p.m.

Cisse Salif vs. Cedric Boswell, heavyweights

Rico Ramos vs. Kermin Guardia, featherweights

Salvador Sanchez vs. Trinidad Mendoza, featherweights

John Molina vs. Efren Hinojosa, lightweights

Johnathon Banks vs. Javier Mora, heavyweights