Commentary

Witherspoon's graduate degree in punishment

Sure, he may have a degree in pharmaceutical marketing, but there will be nothing scientific about Chazz Witherspoon's pain-or-be-pained style against Chris Arreola on Saturday.

Originally Published: June 17, 2008
By Don Steinberg | Special to ESPN.com

Chazz WitherspoonJeff Foley/Fightwireimages.comIf Chazz Witherspoon, left, can get by Chris Arreola, he'll emerge as a top heavyweight contender.
In 1813 or so, English gentleman Pierce Egan called boxing "the sweet science of bruising."

On June 10, Philadelphia heavyweight contender Chazz "the Gentleman" Witherspoon, who has studied a bit of science and personally done some bruising, put a more clinical spin on it.

"I call boxing pain management, because that's what it is," Witherspoon said as he stretched his 6-foot-4, 225-pound frame to begin a workout, 11 days before the biggest fight of his life. "When you're in there, you might get hit with something that hurts. But you've got to wear your poker face and push through and act like it didn't affect you. You have to look at yourself and ask: Are you ready to endure this pain?"

If Witherspoon brings an analytical approach to a brutal sport, blame his background. In 2005, he graduated from St. Joseph's University with a degree in pharmaceutical marketing, a profession in which pain management doesn't involve getting hit in the face by 240-pound guys. Unfortunately that may be part of the curriculum on Saturday in Memphis, Tenn., when Witherspoon (23-0, 15 knockouts) goes in as an underdog against unbeaten Californian Chris Arreola (23-0, 21 KOs) to see who emerges as America's top young heavyweight contender.

"The winner is clearly going to be the guy [who emerges as a top heavyweight contender]," says Lou DiBella, who since becoming Witherspoon's promoter last year has stepped on the fighter's career gas pedal. "One of them is going to propel himself toward a championship, and the other one is going to have to go back to the drawing board a little bit."

[+] EnlargeChazz Witherspoon
Jeff Foley/Fightwireimages.comWitherspoon excelled at several sports as a child, but he found his calling in the ring.
The path so far has been more like a chalkboard for Witherspoon, 26, a quick study who has been boxing only since he was 20. Before 2002, he'd never been in the ring or even attended a boxing match, even though his cousin is former heavyweight champ Tim Witherspoon. As a kid, Chazz played baseball, football, soccer and basketball. In high school track, he went to the state championships in the 400 meters and high jump.

"There's never been a week since he was 5 years old when he hasn't trained somewhere," says his father, Eric Witherspoon, a second cousin of Tim Witherspoon. Chazz was offered three Division I basketball scholarships and two for track, but chose to attend St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia on an academic scholarship. He didn't think about boxing until he was a sophomore (one story says he decided not to play basketball as a freshman and when he reconsidered the next season, the spurned coaches snubbed him, so he looked off campus).

Tim Witherspoon, at that point wrapping up his own career, offered advice.

The first thing Tim said to me was 'Chazz, this is not for everyone.' He got me ready to appreciate the mental side of boxing. I didn't understand it then. I understand it now.

-- Chazz Withersoon, on the advice provided by his cousin, former heavyweight champion Tim Witherspoon

"The first thing Tim said to me was 'Chazz, this is not for everyone,'" Chazz recalls. "He got me ready to appreciate the mental side of boxing. I didn't understand it then. I understand it now."

Then Tim connected the young student with seasoned trainers Wade and Randy Hinnant at the Joe Hand Gym in Philadelphia. ("Smokin" Wade Hinnant was 14-2 as a Philly junior welterweight in the late 1970s.) Within two years, Chazz made the 2004 Olympic team as an alternate and won a national Golden Gloves title. In fact, he became the first Gloves fighter in nationals history to score stoppages in all of his bouts. After 32 amateur fights, he turned pro in 2004, and the education continued.

"Chazz approaches things in an academic way," says Ron Boddy, an adviser. "Each opponent was picked because he was going to give Chazz a particular problem. We had tall runners who knew how to use reach, and little thickset guys who knew how to punch to the body and stay close and hold. Then he was set to specific tasks in specific bouts -- which is how he likes to do things. He might need to nullify a guy's right hand, or work with a guy inside."

Witherspoon has hand speed and the mechanics to load up on big shots. He's never been in real trouble in a fight, though he has felt the pain and doesn't especially like it. Boddy says there were times when Witherspoon could have blown opponents out early but would have missed the chance to learn.

[+] EnlargeChris Arreola
Ed Mulholland/Fightwireimages.comThe stiffest test of Witherspoon's career will come in the form of Arreola, left.
"I think Chazz has had a good learning curve," DiBella says. "The Arreola fight is the best step at the moment. It's a big step, but it's the best step."

Arreola, 27, moves very well for his size (6-foot-4, 244 pounds for his last fight). He throws hard combinations. He presses opponents against the ropes, where he clears the way for a lights-out right with ramming left jabs.

"This guy comes at you, and he's a big puncher," says Tim Witherspoon, who is in camp for this fight, teaching Chazz some heavyweight ring logistics.

Young Witherspoon is considered the underdog against Arreola.

"I like that," said Wade Hinnant, before wrapping Chazz's hands for a sparring session. "We haven't really experienced that since the amateurs."

Questions will be answered on Saturday. One was already answered last week, before Witherspoon got into the ring to spar. What exactly is pharmaceutical marketing? Is it like, "Ask your doctor if Viagra is right for you"?

"No, we're the people who come in and explain the new medicines to the doctors, let them know the indications to look for," Witherspoon said. "We have to know about the half-life and how it interacts with the body, all the pharmacology. And we have to know about promotion, price, placement and position, the four P's of marketing."

Then he put on headgear and gloves and got into the ring for some pain management, where he and Israel Garcia -- a 235-pound Brooklyn heavyweight with a 19-1 record -- traded monster shots in a Philly-style gym war, competing to tear each other's heads off.

Don Steinberg, a winner of the Boxing Writers Association of America's award for best column in 2005, covers boxing for The Philadelphia Inquirer.