Jason Litzau looks like he could be a finalist for one of those Making a Boy Band reality shows.
Not that I have an eye for the next Justin Timberlake. But still, I get the sense that if they put fighters on those Tiger Beat magazine posters, 13-year-old girls would collect Litzau. With his bronzed body and pearly smile, this innocent-looking 23-year-old surely would be placed right there in the Pantheon of preteen pinups with David Cassidy, Scott Baio and Nick Lachey.
Maybe that's the reason some fight fans root against him. Or maybe it's simple jealousy. Dr. Phil could probably prove the player-haters' wish they were the undefeated Litzau (18-0, 16 KOs). No, not the pretty-boy part, the gutsy-warrior part.
"When people hate on me, it's a motivator, and when they love me, it's a motivator, too," Litzau said.
For the record, he is loved and motivated by plenty. It's a fact that the highest-rated ESPN2 Friday Night Fight of 2005 was Litzau's 10-round thriller against John Nolasco.
That was the night Litzau got up off the canvas, and his popularity took an even bigger bounce upward. Litzau was shaken up so badly by a left hook he didn't know which corner was his. Yet moments later, there he was, pummeling Nolasco. Litzau would go on to win one of the most exciting fights of our boxing season.
"Man, I dug deep like I always will. I had to earn my money that night," he said.
This week on Friday Night Fights, Litzau is back earning his TV money (ESPN2, 9 ET). He takes on veteran Mexican warrior Nicky Bentz (36-5-2, 29 KOs) in a 10-round main event in Rincon, Calif. Litzau is still perfect on the bout sheet, and still willing to be imperfect in the ring.
"I bring risk," he said. "I'm willing to not be perfect. I'm coming to give it all. I'm willing to risk getting caught just to try and land a left hook. I look at it like this: There are troops overseas dying. What's the worst that can happen to me? I'm not scared of getting hurt."
That youthful sense of invincibility is palpable with Litzau. Now, so are smarts. The Minnesota native recently took advantage of his promoter Main Events' resources. With manager-trainer Bob Van Syckle at his side, Litzau spent time in Florida with Buddy McGirt and promotional stablemate Arturo Gatti.
"I think you're going to see a totally different and better Litzau. He's got more experience now," Van Syckle boasted. "He's still throwing 80 punches a round, which is a lot with all his power. He's doing all the offensive part, but now his defense is more in his conscious mind."
A lot of things are different about Litzau now. He seems more mature, more thoughtful and more reflective.
He's now a father of two young daughters. Hailey and Morgan should know someday that their dad brings them up in conversations every chance he gets. He realizes the hardships of his own childhood, of broken homes and nearly broken dreams. And he realizes he has a chance to lay down the foundation of a better life for his entire family.
"I'm sharp and entertaining, I bring flash," he said. "There is a reason people watch the WWE. I bring that kind of show and energy to boxing."
Go ahead and hate, but he's right. So is NFL star Chad Johnson and so is NBA legend Shaquille O'Neal. They help frame a new era of likable, confident, fun-loving pro athletes. It's not unattractive arrogance. It's passion with playful purpose.
Litzau grew up in St. Paul, Minn. The hometown of another big boxing fan, another lover of life, famed artist LeRoy Neiman.
Neiman has captured on canvas a life full of drinks with Sinatra and magical moments with Ali. There is a reason Neiman has chosen his favorite subject matters: casinos, racetracks, big fights, unforgettable characters, New York City bars. Neiman's artistic eyes see and reflect only what he's attracted to. Litzau would fit right in and be the target of Neiman's eye.
Litzau fights like one of Neiman's multicolored originals. Litzau talks, walks and exudes the brush strokes of the mustachioed master.
"Love me or hate me, just watch me," Litzau said.
Don't worry, Jason. You'd have to be a fool not to.
Joe Tessitore is the blow-by-blow announcer on ESPN2's "Friday Night Fights."