The journey toward getting a title shot -- and losing -- is a grueling experience. Just ask Fres Oquendo, who has experienced such a journey twice.
But the 33-year-old Oquendo (26-3, 16 KOs) is nothing if not resilient, hoping for a final opportunity and knowing the next time he hits the canvas could be his last. To that end, on Friday at Alamodome in San Antonio (Fox Sports Net PPV, 8 p.m. ET), Oquendo squares off against Evander Holyfield (39-8-2, 26 KOs), the only man to win the heavyweight title four times and who is also looking for yet another run at glory.
Holyfield wants to prove, having turned 44 on Oct. 19, that he still has something left in the tank. For Oquendo, it's all about trying to put his five children on Easy Street and farther away from the tough Chicago streets he grew up on.
Moreover for Oquendo, it's about exorcising the lingering demons of his losses to then-champions Chris Byrd (by unanimous decision) and John Ruiz (by 11th-round TKO). About finally shaking off the rust that came with a two-year layoff from a dispute with former manager Don King, appearing sometimes convincing, sometimes sluggish in his two comeback fights.
As Oquendo's showdown with Holyfield nears, I've been checking in with Oquendo and his crew for a diary of the feelings and habits of a boxer counting down to facing the former heavyweight champion.
Friday, Nov. 3
When I chat with Oquendo, he seems upbeat but cautious. He assures me this is not a fighter looking to boast, just hoping he's at his best. "I've been sparring in the offseason so I felt good going into training camp weeks ago," he said. "We're in the fifth week of camp and we're tapering down the exercises. Tuesday, I ran a 4-mile run in the valley of Los Angeles with four 600-yard sprints. Wednesday, I sparred with Javier Mora, somebody I fought in my last fight (Oquendo won by unanimous decision on May 25). He's trying to prepare me for everything I'll see from Holyfield and he's been terrific to me. I also ran the valley again and worked on punch combinations. Hit the mitts for three rounds. I'm just feeling good."
"I'm not going to guarantee anything, but I want Holyfield to remember Nov. 10 and he'll remember my name."
-- Fres Oquendo, on Evander Holyfield announcing the fight in September on ESPN2's "Cold Pizza" and forgetting his opponent's name
Anyone who's ever seen Oquendo on fight night knows he's usually bulked with muscle. But the reality is it's a slimmed-down version, the result of taking his weight training down to nil as a bout looms. No different this time. "Weights in the offseason but going into camp, I'm using my energy for boxing and running. I'll just do some pushups or light exercises before I start a workout. You want to get your body weight down to where you can move well." Nutrition is not as adjusted for Oquendo as his fight date approaches. He believes in keeping it consistent throughout the year. "I've been eating healthy a long time and avoid [soda] pop, candy, anything fried. Chicken and salads are regular meals for me."
Still, you can take care of all the physical stuff -- clear the shelves of your local GNC -- but it has little effect if you don't slay the biggest hurdle of all: the mind. "I've been trying not to listen to people who think I don't have a chance," he said. "I'm not going to guarantee anything, but I want Holyfield to remember Nov. 10 and he'll remember my name." Oquendo is referring to Holyfield announcing the fight in September on ESPN2's "Cold Pizza" and forgetting who he was fighting when questioned. "Holyfield's a legend but the honest truth is, it's another day in the office," Oquendo said. "He's in the way of me trying to achieve my goal of becoming champion and it's an opportunity to go up against one of the greatest fighters ever." Oquendo is dead silent for a moment then quietly admits, "He has a warrior mentality and takes all comers. You've got to respect that."
Saturday, Nov. 4
Oquendo has unexpectedly been given the day off by trainer Freddie Roach, fearing overwork and mental overkill. I talk with the man who has trained both Michael Moorer (in 1997) and James Toney (in 2003) against Holyfield with mixed results, the latter resulting in victory for Roach's corner.
"Toney was able to get Holyfield because he combined speed combinations and body shots," Roach said. "I'm telling Fres to do the same thing. Holyfield can't fight his age and Fres has above-average speed for a big man. He's been looking really good in the last few days, but he needs to be patient during the fight because knocking out Holyfield isn't likely to happen."
Roach has also been working hard to help Oquendo avoid his biggest weakness of all. "He just sometimes gets into a mode of trying to land heavy shots and pushes his punches," Roach said. "When he's on his toes bouncing, he's much better, but that sloppiness that sloppiness can just set in from nowhere." Roach laughs as I then bring up Holyfield forgetting Oquendo's name. "Good," he said. "Maybe he'll forget how to fight, too."
Monday, Nov. 6
Oquendo has left camp in Los Angeles for San Antonio, the site of Friday's fight. Besides continued running and mitt work, he's keeping all training to a minimum as media are ratcheted up to a maximum. "Basically, I do the TV interviews early in the day and then do a light workout," Oquendo said. "I'll hit those mitts for five rounds for three minutes each with 30-second rest in between. I'll shadowbox and stretch also. I'm thinking defense and offense, just throwing punches, uppercut jabs, quick combinations." Oquendo also believes the temperature is playing to his advantage. "I'm training at night and I like those 80-degree temperatures in Texas instead of cold nights in California. I'm having fun here."
"One advantage is I've seen Holyfield many more times than he's seen me. I've imagined myself fighting him for years."
-- Fres Oquendo
But it's not as much fun for his agent back in Oquendo's hometown of Chicago, awaiting the fight's outcome and getting ready for a major public-relations campaign or the winding down of a fighting career of almosts. "There's nothing more nerve-wracking than an elimination bout to have any chance at a title," agent David Wride said. "Let's face it: That's what this is. We're trying to capitalize on being near election time, so we've got an 'El Fresidente' campaign set to go. But that still comes down to him, you know "
Yes, winning would tie up loose ends nicely in the Oquendo camp. And you have to wonder if Oquendo is thinking about whether that bell will ring in his opponent's favor come Friday night. Is he seeing Holyfield's determined gaze? That famed granite chin? How focused is Oquendo on the task before him?
"I can't worry about losing," Oquendo said. "I've been fighting since I was a kid and I have to believe in my ability. One advantage is I've seen Holyfield many more times than he's seen me. I've imagined myself fighting him for years."
For Oquendo and his crew, nothing will be left to the imagination come Friday.
Eric Butterman, a contributor to ESPN.com and Men's Fitness, is a freelance writer based in New York.