California Love

Sep 16, 2009

Vitali Klitschko returns to the site of his biggest fights, where he'll be facing a hometown favorite.

When Vitali Klitschko enters the ring at the Staples Center on September 26 for his fight against Cristobal Arreola, it will be a familiar site to him. A heavyweight title fight, a highly charged environment, a hostile crowd — it's what Klitschko has come to expect from his visits to Los Angeles.

For the past few weeks, Klitschko has been living and training in L.A., a city close to his heart. His three children were all born there — as was his reputation as of one the great heavyweights of his era.

Back in June 2003, Vitali first made a name for himself in the same arena where he'll fight Arreola, battling with Lennox Lewis until a severe cut opened up over his left eye. Klitschko was ahead on all three judges' scorecards when the fight was stopped. Ten months later, Klitschko was back in the same ring, this time overpowering the South African veteran Corrie Sanders to win the WBC title Lewis had vacated.

"He loves to fight at the Staples and he loves to fight in Los Angeles," said Bernd Boente, Klitschko's manager. "His last two fights were in Germany, so now he's looking forward to fighting in the States again."

If past performance is any indication, Klitschko has reason to be excited about his return. The last time he fought on American soil, December 11, 2004, Klitschko knocked down Englishman Danny Williams four times in the eight rounds their fight lasted at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas.

But Arreola is no pushover. At 28-years-old, the undefeated Arreola, 27-0 (24 KOs), has been widely touted as a heavyweight prospect. And in his first championship bout, he'll be fighting for something extra. If he defeats Klitschko, Arreola will become the first fighter of Mexican ancestry to hold a heavyweight title.

Boente says Klitschko is taking the challenger "absolutely seriously,” adding: "He's a tough guy, can punch very hard and we will definitely not underestimate him. [Vitali] saw a couple of his fights and he said he looked pretty strong, in his last fight, for example, against [Jameel] McCline."

Many ringside journalists said they thought the Vitali of the last two fights looked even stronger than the Vitali before the 3½ years' retirement.

But at 38 and having recently returned from an extended layoff, Klitschko is focusing on his own strengths. "He's mentally very strong and he's physically very strong," said Boente of his fighter. "Many ringside journalists said they thought the Vitali of the last two fights looked even stronger than the Vitali before the 3½ years' retirement."

While that may seem like hyperbole, Klitschko has been making a strong case. In his first fight back, in October last year, Klitschko reclaimed his old title by picking apart a slow, plodding Samuel Peter in Berlin, forcing the big-punching Nigerian to retire on his stool at the end of the eighth round. Three years earlier, Peter had dropped Klitschko's younger brother, Wladimir, three times en route to a 12-round points defeat.

In March, Klitschko cemented his comeback by overpowering Cuba's former cruiserweight champion Juan Carlos Gomez in nine rounds in Stuttgart to improve his record to 37-2 (36 KOs).

This time, Klitschko knows it won't be nearly as straightforward. "Vitali thinks that Arreola is stronger than Peter and Gomez," admitted Boente. "Gomez was a very good technical fighter but he's not a puncher at all. Samuel Peter never had the chance to even touch Vitali. [Arreola] is definitely stronger."

Boente says Klitschko's confidence is now back where it was before his retirement, during which he pursued business and political careers that remain important to him.

"The first fight after the lay-off was very important because there were many question marks," said Boente. "I'm pretty sure that Vitali had his doubts. You never know how good you are. He looked very good in sparring, but sparring is a different story than the actual fight. Now it's a different thing. He's already had two fights since the lay-off and now he feels very good and definitely is very confident."

The Klitschkos have emerged from a contentious past few months during which they were both scheduled to fight the Englishman David Haye in Germany. After pulling out of a June 20 bout with Wladimir claiming injury, Haye then walked away from a September 12 fight with Vitali and instead signed to meet the giant Russian Nicolay Valuev for the WBA title on November 7.

But Boente insists Haye is now off the agenda and out of their heads. "We never think about that," he said. "That's past and now we're looking to the future — and the future is not a future with David Haye. Personally, I even doubt that he shows up against Valuev."

If Haye does show up and he wins, Boente says he may still not be part of the Klitschkos' plans, even though he would hold a rival world title. "It doesn't matter for us," said Boente. "The goal was always to be the heavyweight champion at the same time. They are and the goal is fulfilled. They reached their dream and that's it.

"To have the WBA belt, or not, doesn't matter any more. That is an organization that had two heavyweight champions at the same time. Nobody could understand it. Wladimir holds three belts. The IBO belt, I have to say, is very important for all of us. Vitali's the WBC champion and they fulfilled their goal."

It's clearly not enough for the elder Klitschko, who is putting his title and his reputation on the line against a challenger 11 years his junior—on foreign turf. "Vitali likes to compete on a high level," said Boente. "That is the most important thing. The motivation is to be back in the U.S. again, to have a big audience, to fight at Staples against an American."

Although Arreola will start as the betting underdog, he will be the hometown favorite. But Boente insisted: "To Vitali, it doesn't matter. I asked him before and he said the ring is always four corners wherever you put it up."

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