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Big fighters have a place in boxing

Eric "Butterbean" Esch won 97 fights during his boxing career and held a super heavyweight title. Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty Images

"Gluttony is not a secret vice."

-- Orson Wells

Tony Thompson rushed around the ring, bent at the waist, head thrust forward and both arms thrown back in a flying gesture. He was celebrating his second-round knockout of heavily favored David Price, a result that seemed just as big a surprise to Thompson as it did to the fallen Englishman. Almost as shocking as the sight of Price crumbling to the canvas were the undulating rolls of fat sagging from the winner's midsection.

The contrast between the pair was striking: The 29-year-old Price, standing 6-foot-8 and weighing 247 well-proportioned pounds, appeared fighting fit and ready to extend his winning streak to 16 straight. On the other hand, Thompson weighed a career-high 262 pounds and looked like some poor slob the promoter had dragged out of a Liverpool fish-and-chips eatery, his mouth still stuffed with deep-fried haddock.

Afterward, the 41-year-old Thompson joked about his weight and said the only substances he would test positive for would be "doughnuts and fried chicken."

"There's nothing artificial there," he said. "How could you look at this belly and think I'm on something?"

The American's unexpected win was a personal triumph, and joking about his blubbery belly showed that Thompson has at least a modicum of the ingredient that fans find irresistible in fat fighters: self-deprecating humor.

There have been a number of these jovial, overweight heavyweights throughout boxing history, and some of them have also been formidable fighters. The latest case in point is Cristobal Arreola, who will face Bermane Stiverne on Saturday in Ontario, Calif. (HBO, 8:30 p.m. ET). Arreola is not exactly the Latino "Two Ton" Tony Galento, but he comes close.

Galento was a Runyonesque character who turned pro in 1928 and engaged in 112 bouts before retiring in 1944. At 5-foot-9 and generally weighing around 230 pounds, Galento was not a huge heavyweight by today's standards. But his flabby, rotund body, topped with a bowling ball-shaped head, was in stark contrast to the chiseled physique of modern-day titans such as Wladimir Klitschko. According to Collier magazine writer Jack Miley, Galento looked like "a taxi driving away with its top down."

It was not, however, Galento's appearance alone that made him so popular. His larger-than-life personality and the candid way he reveled in his own indiscretions made him a hero in North Jersey's working-class neighborhoods. Born and bred in Orange, N.J., he was one of them, warts and all, and they loved him for it.

A born entertainer, Galento bragged that he trained on beer and cigars and acted the fool at every opportunity. The press, always hungry for good copy, adored him and probably gave him more ink than his accomplishments warranted. But Galento was more than just the punch line to a joke. He was a fearless, no-holds-barred brawler, who fought out of a crouch and threw a quick and deadly left hook. And, as befits an inner-city saloonkeeper, he was disdainful of the rules.

"He was a crude guy, to put it mildly, who would resort to all sorts of foul tactics to win a fight," said Hall of Fame trainer Ray Arcel.

Galento's celebrated "I'll moider dat bum" prediction prior to his failed attempt to win the heavyweight championship from Joe Louis in 1939 is part of boxing folklore. It was, however, just the most famous of countless malapropos and mispronunciations to tumble out of Tony's big mouth. It didn't exactly make him boxing's Yogi Berra, but the comparison is apt.

Like Galento, Arreola struggles with his weight. He has entered the ring as heavy as 263 pounds, and an unflattering slab of tattooed suet spilling over the waistband of his trunks has become the norm. Unlike the unrepentant Galento, Arreola has repeatedly promised to change his lifestyle and curb his between-fights appetite for junk food, but has never really succeeded to a satisfactory degree. Members of Arreola's team have sworn he'll be lean and mean for the Stiverne fight, but we've heard that before and won't know for sure about the lean part until Arreola steps on the scales the day before the fight.

Although Arreola does not "moider" the English language the way Galento did, he can be almost as comical, especially in postfight interviews, when F-bombs frequently fly quicker than his punches. It's not, however, just his unabashed vulgarity and willingness to stand and trade punches with any heavyweight in the world that makes Arreola a fan favorite.

There was something endearingly vulnerable about this hulking man openly sobbing following his loss to Vitali Klitschko in 2009. Arreola may look like a thug, but the hunch here is that inside his massive chest beats the heart of a brave and good man. Everybody loves a tough guy with a heart of gold.

In the 1990s, Eric "Butterbean" Esch flaunted his fat with extraordinary success. Weight was never an issue, and he never weighed less than 300 pounds for a fight, ballooning as high as 417 in the later stages of his career. Butterbean made a small fortune playing boxing's jolly fat man, but he was more of a sideshow than a serious fighter. Moreover, his claim to be the "King of the Four-Rounders" really belongs to another portly pugilist -- "Fat Boy" Willie Meehan.

Notorious for never training or doing any roadwork whatsoever, Meehan began as a flyweight in 1909 and eventually ate his way to the heavyweight division. What elevates him above a carnival curiosity like Butterbean are five bouts with Jack Dempsey. Yes, that Jack Dempsey. There are only six losses on the iconic Manassa Mauler's record, and Meehan is responsible for two of them.

There is a photo of Dempsey and Meehan shaking hands before one of their fights, and from the neck down, Meehan looks an awful lot like Galento. But where Galento was an all-out slugger, Meehan was an unorthodox spoiler who fought some of the best men of his era -- including Harry Greb -- and befuddled many of them with his tricky, pivoting style.

"Meehan didn't look like a boxer," wrote Randy Roberts in his Dempsey biography. "Fleshy to the point of being fat, he had a baby face that made him look like a pugilistic Porky Pig."

Nonetheless, Meehan was no cartoon once the bell rang. He fought Dempsey five times between March 1917 and October 1918, winning two decisions, losing one, and fighting two draws. Some historians have suggested that some of these might have been exhibitions since they were fought over four rounds. But all five bouts took place in California at a time when four rounds was the legal limit in the state, a circumstance that that undoubtedly aided "Fat Boy" Meehan's cause.

If asked to name the most famous fat fighter of all time, most folks would say George Foreman. While it's true he was a slovenly 267 pounds when he launched his historic comeback against Steve Zouski in 1987, as time passed, he fought himself into excellent condition. Even so, Foreman continued to play to the fans, bragging about his appetite and staging stunts such as having a gigantic platter of cheeseburgers delivered to the press conference for his 1991 title fight with Evander Holyfield.

Foreman's avuncular image was a big part of his popularity, and it made good business sense to accent his sizable girth. But there was no way Big George could have withstood 12 punishing rounds with Holyfield without being in peak physical condition -- or regained the heavyweight title three years later with a remarkable kayo of Michael Moorer. Yes, Foreman had a big belly, but so did King Kong, and fighting Foreman during the prime of his comeback was no laughing matter.

Not all corpulent heavyweights have been fan favorites, of course, but it's easy to understand the appeal of those who have managed to transform their body fat into box-office gold. We relate to their shortcomings, and when a chubby fighter chops down an opponent with a shredded physique, it makes us feel a lot better about the beer we guzzled while watching them fight.

There will always be a place for fighters like that. They remind us that boxers are not supermen, merely humans like the rest of us. Sometimes that's easy to overlook. Then a guy like Arreola takes off his robe, and we are reminded of how much in common we share with those who trade punches for our amusement. Somehow, that understanding makes it even better.