By Diego Morilla
Before the bell rings in Macau this Saturday night, one of the first things Manny Pacquiao will notice during the customary pre-fight stare down is a bright yellow sun shining through the menacing grin in his opponent’s mouth, right next to a map of the Italian peninsula colored in red, white and green.
Neither Pacquiao nor the people who catch a glimpse of this colorful mouthpiece on live television may know it, but the combination of images illustrates Algieri's pride in a set of traditions that go well beyond the obvious Italian heritage embedded in his name, and goes back to his essence as a fighter.
“I have the Argentine sun and the Italian map,” explains Chris Algieri (20-0, 8 KO), the undefeated junior welterweight that Pacquiao will be facing on HBO PPV, in explaining his seemingly odd choice of graphics for his mouthpiece. “And my colors are always blue and white [the colors of the Argentine flag]."
Quite likely, the news about Algieri being a “closet Latino” will mean very little to Pacquiao, who made a name for himself (along with a few nicknames, including the infamous “Mexicutioner”) by defeating some of the best Latino talents out there. But as it turns out, Algieri’s Latino roots are responsible in a big way for his involvement in boxing, and he regularly bites down on much more than an anatomically fitted piece of rubber to feed the proud mixed legacy of his Italian and Argentine background.
Because, just as it happens with the sons of immigrants from many other cultures, Algieri carries the old country in his heart, but also in his taste buds.
“Parrillada is a big part of our summer,” says Algieri, in reference to the Argentine-style barbecue that is a staple of the Argentine diet. “It’s part of my culture. I grew up with my mother and her parents living in the same household, and I absorbed their culture.”
And there is no bigger part of the Argentine food culture than mate (pronounced mAh-té), the strong, bitter pre-Colonial beverage that the local natives offered to the Spaniards upon their arrival, and which has become the all-around, all-day beverage of choice for millions of people in a region that spans the entire lower portion of the South American continent. They rely on it as a source of nourishment and warmth, but also as an essential agglutinating factor in their social life, where every conversation features a hot mate exchanging hands.
For Algieri, who graduated from Stony Brook University with a degree in nutrition, the advantages of keeping with his family tradition go well beyond making mom proud by sharing her favorite drink with her.
“I drink mate every day. I bring it with me even when I am in camp. It’s warm, it is soothing for the belly, and it helps you digest better, so you get all the nutrients from your food. I drink it all the way till fight day”, says Algieri.
Algieri has even posted an instructional video on his YouTube channel on how to prepare mate in the traditional way, using a dried gourd with a metal straw that filters the chopped leaves deposited inside it, and taking small sips after refilling the receptacle several times until the flavor dies out. And by the time this happens, the benefits of drinking it have already worked their magic.
“It is packed full of vitamins and nutrients. It has a lot of B vitamins that you can only normally get from meat, and you find them there. The caffeine content affects me differently than coffee does, it is a more mild stimulant, and I can drink more of it. It’s one of my favorite drinks, especially in a cold morning, and it gives me just enough pep before my workout,” says Algieri.
His tall, muscular physique seems to have reaped the many rewards of a beverage in which a number of interesting properties have been identified, from antioxidant to natural diuretic and laxative.
“It also helps also with fat loss and staying lean, so it really is an overall incredible health drink, and on top of it is a part of my culture, it is something that my whole family does, and we’ve always done it.”
Keeping an eye on the vibrant Argentine boxing scene of the ‘70s and early '80s was another big part of his family tradition, thanks to the influence of his sports-crazy grandfather Carlos. One that Algieri has grown closer to since his initial stint as a kickboxer in which he went 20-0 before making the transition to the more traditional, footwear-based combat sport that his grandfather told him so much about.
“Carlos Monzon is one of the first fighters I ever learned about,” reminisces Algieri, in reference to Argentina’s biggest boxing icon and one of the best middleweights ever. “I even remember watching guys like Omar Weiss on ESPN.”
Later, he started paying attention to fighters like Lucas Mathysse, Sergio Martinez, and Marcos Maidana (with whom who he sparred in preparation for one of Maidana’s fights), just as their goals were became his own goals as well.
“It’s great to see a part of my culture doing so well in the sport that I love,” says Algieri, referring to the current “golden era” of Argentine welterweights with Maidana, Matthysse, Martinez (a former super welterweight) and also Luis Carlos Abregu and Diego Chaves providing inspiration for his still budding career. “More and more often you see Argentine fighters doing big things on a major stage, and so to be associated with those guys is really an honor and it’s great to see so many people from my culture doing big things in the sport.”
There is also a big part of that tradition that may, unbeknownst to him, be playing in his favor come November 22nd, and it is the usual good fortune that has accompanied Argentine fighters in Asia since the days in which Pascual Perez became the country’s first-ever world champion with a victory against Yoshio Shirai in Japan on November 26th, 1954, almost 60 years to the date in which Algieri will be facing his greatest challenge to date.
Perez was later joined by icons such as Horacio Acavallo, Nicolino Locche and others in career-defining wins on the farthest regions of the Eastern Hemisphere. Algieri hopes to follow in the footsteps of those men, albeit in his own personal way.
“It’s not going to be different in this fight,” he says in regards to his style, which he feels has been underappreciated by those who have only seen his fight against Provodnikov and who base their appreciation of his skills solely on that performance. “I feel that I fight an aggressive style, but it is a smart aggressive style. I would have been more aggressive in the [Provodnikov] fight if it hadn’t been for the damage done to my eye early on. I had to protect that eye more than I normally would."
Still, the door is open for the ‘closet Latino’ in Algieri to finally emerge when push comes to shove. And even though he is not likely to go from a ‘master boxing’ practitioner (as he defines himself) to full-on Monzon in only one fight, the chance of seeing him taking on the role of the aggressor remains a possibility.
“Don’t be confused by that one fight: I am an aggressive boxer, and I will be in there to mix it up, but it will be in a smart way,” says Algieri, who claims to be ready for anything Pacquiao may show him in the ring.
“I had to fight every single style out there to get here,” he asserts, and a statement like this should be taking seriously if it comes from a guy whose roots are in a country that has broken records on numbers of economic crisis per decade and number of presidents within one week. But as much as his ability to adapt to any situation may be out of the question, other doubts remain, and justifiably so.
After all, he was fighting at the club level only a year ago, and he is now tackling one of the most dangerous fighters out there in what has been dubbed a “real-life Rocky” story. But Algieri never doubted that this day would arrive sooner rather than later.
“I knew my time would come if I stayed hungry and disciplined,” says Algieri, and even though victory is far from certain, he suggests that another life-long dream may be soon realized for him, win or lose.
“That has been the goal since I started,” says Algieri in reference to his trip to Argentina, where he has never been before. “I’d like to go there for a couple of weeks with my family. I don’t want to go there for a couple of days, I want to go there for two weeks or a month, I want to get situated there.”
And when that happens, Algieri will have the chance to rediscover another one of his favorite treats, one that is equally embedded in every Argentine’s taste since childhood, and which Algieri had also grown fond of in his early life.
“That’s a treat that my mother loves. I am not big on deserts myself, but that’s something that I would have after the fight. It’s celebratory,” says Algieri in regards to dulce de leche, or milk caramel, a thick, peanut butter-like spread which is nothing more than condensed milk and a ton of sugar reduced to a brownish jelly.
Not exactly what a nutritionist would recommend to anyone trying to stay fit, but as it has been the case in Algieri’s life, he has learned to save the sweets for later while he endures the bitterness of training and sacrifice with the help of his beloved mate.
“After the fight,” he laughs, when asked about the proper time to enjoy a heaping spoon of milk caramel, in true Argentine guilt-less fashion.
“Mate before, dulce de leche afterwards,” he concludes, hoping that dulce de leche will carry the sweet taste of victory after his fight against Pacquiao.
Because between the bitterness of mate and the sweetness of dulce de leche, there is a journey that Algieri is just beginning, and which will find in the Pacquiao fight one of its most significant milestones.