On the Mark: A Fighter’s Diet Shouldn’t Define Him

by Mark Lorenzana

Several days ago, British former world champion boxer and Olympic silver medalist Amir Khan announced his retirement. Khan is an exciting fighter who has dynamite in his fists but, unfortunately, a glass jaw — while he regularly lit up his opponents, knocking out 21 of them, five of his own six losses came by brutal stoppage.

I still give Khan props, though, for fighting Saúl “Canelo” Álvarez in 2016, even if Canelo was several weight classes heavier than him and that fight — predictably — ended up with Khan glassy eyed and supine on the canvas courtesy of a Canelo sledgehammer of a right that connected to the Briton’s brittle jaw in the sixth round. You can question Khan’s ability to take a punch, sure, but you can’t question his heart.

You can question some of his recent statements as well, though, like I’m doing here in this column. Khan, who has strong family roots in Pakistan, recently said that a poor diet tends to hold back Asian fighters.

“Look, us Asians are not really meant to be fighters,” he said. “We’re not supposed to be good sportsmen and women. Our diet is appalling. It’s curries. It’s not the right diet to be a champion. If you put us against a lot of English fighters, their diet is a lot better. They’re stronger than us.”

I find this statement a bit odd because an English fighter who immediately came to my mind when Khan mentioned “a better diet” was former IBO and The Ring light-welterweight champion Ricky Hatton, who was known to put on massive amounts of weight in between fights. His natural fighting weight was 140 pounds, but he’d balloon up to 185 pounds or more when not training, thanks in large part to his penchant for fatty foods and regular trips to the pub to imbibe vast quantities of his favorite Guinness beer. And his favorite pre-fight meal? A full English breakfast, colloquially known in England as a fry-up: fried bacon, eggs and sausages with fried tomato, mushrooms, fried onion, toast, marmalade and fried black pudding — a type of blood sausage. How’s that for “a better diet”?

“Poor diet” notwithstanding, the Englishman still ended his career with an impressive record of 45 wins with 32 knockouts, against only three losses, with a couple of those losses coming against two of the greatest fighters to have ever laced up boxing gloves, Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao.

We can argue that perhaps Hatton’s knockout losses to Mayweather and Pacquiao can be attributed to his poor diet (there’s really no evidence for this, though). But any fighter who faced Mayweather and Pacquiao at their peaks, which was what Ricky Hatton did, God bless him — no matter how good he is or how good of a diet he has — will eventually succumb to those two generational talents, which was Hatton’s misfortune.

And speaking of Mayweather and Pacquiao, they aren’t really saints when it comes to their eating habits either. Mayweather, according to his personal chef Quiana Jeffries, in an interview with New York Magazine a few years ago, disclosed that her client’s favorite foods include fried hot dogs in barbecue sauce, Top Ramen and Twizzlers. Pacquiao, for his part, loves to eat chicken soup and beef stew when he trains, and these are relatively healthy dishes, but you have to see the amount of white rice he eats per meal — mounds and mounds of it. I mean, that can’t be healthy, right? I know whereof I speak because like Pacquiao, I’m Filipino, and I know how important white rice is to us in our daily meals. We have a joke in the Philippines: What is the best way to torture a Filipino and watch him suffer? Lock him up in a room with a spread of the most delectable dishes you can imagine, but without rice. It might be funny to others, but if I do find myself in this predicament, for me it’s no laughing matter. White rice, to us Filipinos, is what tortillas are to Mexicans.

Speaking of Mexicans: Of course this column wouldn’t be complete without talking about the eating habits of Mexican boxers or, at the very least, fighters of Mexican descent.

In 2008, Cristóbal “Chris” Arreola — after stopping American heavyweight contender and 2003 National Golden Gloves champion Travis Walker in round three and retaining his WBC Continental Americas heavyweight title, in addition to picking up the North American Boxing Federation (NABF) heavyweight title — thanked his countrymen: “Muchas gracias a toda la gente que está aquí, a toda mi gente mexicana, aquí hay un campeonato. Vamos a traer más.” (“Thank you very much to all the people who are here, to all my Mexican people, here is a championship. We are going to bring more.”)

That came at the tail end of his post-fight interview. The most interesting part of that interview, however, was what came in the middle of it — when boxing commentator Max Kellerman asked if Arreola, who held regional boxing titles, would be ready to fight either of the Klitschko brothers. (The Klitschko brothers — Ukrainians Vitali and Wladimir Klitschko, who at that time both held a slew of world heavyweight championship belts. The older Vitali, by the way, also serves as mayor of Kiev, the capital city of Ukraine; he’s a former professional boxer turned rousing wartime leader: “My priority as mayor of my hometown: save the lives of citizens of our city,” he said in an interview with the Washington Post, talking about his decision to stay and fight amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine. To stay put in the capital was not so much a decision, Klitschko said, but fulfillment of a “mission.” He added, “I am present right now, everywhere.”)

Kellerman, alluding to Arreola’s plump and flabby physique (ignoring that, although Arreola took a knee in the first round that was scored a legitimate knockdown owing to his opponent’s power, the Mexican-American proceeded to showcase power of his own by beating up and eventually knocking out the more muscular Walker with vicious body blows and a final devastating left hook to the face), said, “Maybe next time you will be concerned about the weight and go to war. Are you going to have to be concerned about the weight against the Klitschko brothers?”

Arreola answered, “I’m already concerned. As soon as the fight is over, I was already thinking about the Klitschkos already.” He added, “I’m gonna come ready. But tomorrow, I’ll go party, eat some menudo or something, and then come Monday back in the gym and hit the roadwork, man.”

For Arreola it’s menudo; for Andy Ruiz, the first male boxer of Mexican heritage to become a world heavyweight champion after defeating Anthony Joshua to win the WBA, IBF, WBO and IBO titles in 2019, it’s tacos.

To be clear, I’m not dismissing the importance of a good nutrition plan that boxers need to follow when preparing for a fight. I just think that blaming a supposedly “poor diet” for a fighter’s inability to succeed, especially if that diet is part of a boxer’s culture and traditions — curry to Pakistanis, tacos and menudo to Mexicans, white rice to Filipinos, soul food to African-Americans, an English fry-up to the British, etc. — is incredibly simplistic.

Perhaps Amir Khan, when he criticized the diets of Asian boxers or boxers of Asian descent like him, wanted to make a point, a point that still — as much as I try to wrap my head around it — continues to elude me to this day. What I do know — or believe — is that a fighter’s diet, regardless of his nationality, shouldn’t really define his legacy inside the ring.