Fred Kassi was 36 and coming off a loss when he faced Chris Arreola in July. In other words, you probably couldn’t have found anyone in the fight game who had Kassi ticketed for a trip to the top of the heavyweight division.
Arreola was younger, taller had a longer reach and, more important, had been in the big fights. He had the wins over Seth Mitchell and Jameel McCline. The tough losses to Vitali Klitschko, Tomasz Adamek and Bermane Stiverne.
To that point, the biggest fight Kassi had been in was when a 42-year-old Amir Mansour knocked him out in seven.
But on that night in July, Kassi came to fight and battled Arreola to a draw.
Prior to a bout, you never want to say one fighter should absolutely win. It’s boxing. Max Schmeling’s shots find paydirt on Joe Louis. Buster Douglas drops an improbable uppercut then stuns the world with a left. But …
After the fight, Arreola had a hard time explaining what happened. He sort of shrugged and said he just couldn’t get his shots off against Kassi.
It's pretty clear right from the opening bell that it's going to be that kind of night for Arreola. Not even 20 seconds into the fight, Arreola fires a one-two where the right sails over a ducking Kassi and slaps him in the back. Kassi comes forward to clinch. Arreola pushes him off and taps a jab to the body that bounces harmlessly off a glove. Kassi counters with a jab of his own and leaves himself open.
Arreola feints a jab. If he follows through with it, it’s a clean run at Kassi’s nose. Even better, though, Kassi bites at the feint, and jerks his head low and away to his left in a panic. His left guard is low, and then he overcorrects by yanking his right shoulder up. He’s expecting the shot, a monster right from Arreola that was there for the taking. But it never comes.
“My timing was off, way off,” Chris Arreola admits nearly five months later. “When I saw shots, I never took them. When I saw an opportunity, I was too slow to just go."
When he takes on Travis Kauffman (30-1, 22 KOs) on December 12 at the AT&T Center in San Antonio (NBC, 8:30 p.m. ET/5:30 p.m. PT), Arreola wants to erase those mistakes that plagued him the last two fights. And he's confident that he's fixed things in the gym.
"One of the main things is making sure my timing is back," he said. "With sparring, a lot of mitt work for this camp, it's getting there. I'm getting great.”
When he took on Curtis Harper in March, Arreola came out pummeling his opponent and notched a dramatic knockdown in the first. Somehow, Harper got back up. Even more shocking, he dragged the fight to the final bell, with Arreola winning a unanimous decision in a contest that looked like it was going to be measured in seconds, not rounds.
When assessing his performances against Harper and Kassi, Arreola pulls zero punches.
“You're only as good as your last fight, and my last two fights I looked like shit,” Arreola said. “I've got to pull my head out of my ass and do what I have to do.”
It wasn’t like Arreola didn’t show the kind of talent against Kassi and Harper that earned him two world title fights. In the fourth round against Kassi, he hammered the Cameroon native with overhand rights that somehow, against all conventional sense and understanding of a human being’s pain threshold, failed to fell Big Fred.
After seven rounds of a street fight against Harper, Arreola put together an eighth of smart boxing, using his jab against a less experienced fighter to open things up for a furious volley at the end. If there had been another minute in the fight, it’s hard to imagine Harper staying up.
Now as he prepares to face Kauffman, who has won 12 consecutive fights since his only pro defeat, Arreola is focused on executing a simple game plan.
“The main thing that I have to do is bring it,” Arreola said. “That's what I really have to do. I felt like I was just going through the motions in my last two fights. There was no second gear. I was just going. I was just coasting through.
"This fight, I have to have different levels of activity. I need to be fast. I need to be able to move. I need to be able to chase him.”
Consider those lessons learned. Now it’s time to see if Arreola can put them to practical application for 10 rounds against Kauffman and reinsert himself into the conversation at the top of a suddenly wide-open division.
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