Ask Brian Viloria how his boxing career has gone and he's likely to mumble something about Death Valley and Mt. Everest.
He has been a world champion twice, the first time for a year, starting in September 2005, and now, starting last April. In between was the pits, known in boxing as the Alameda Swap Meet in South L.A.
* Viloria is 29, the International Boxing Federation champion at 108 pounds, and will defend his title in Manila on Saturday night against Carlos Tamara. He was an amateur world champion in 2000, when he fought in the Sydney Olympics for the U.S. at 106 pounds.
* He lived in the Philippines, moved to Hawaii at age 6, went to college at Northern Michigan University. He didn't feel his toes for three years.
* Northern Michigan's program for Olympic boxing hopefuls got Viloria to Sydney as a medal favorite, where he lost to eventual gold medalist Brahim Asloum of France, 6-4. Viloria landed dozens of body punches, and none were recorded by judges.
* For a while, Viloria was trained by Freddie Roach, before Roach got busy with a guy named Pacquiao.
* Viloria can walk the streets of L.A. without eliciting a second look. In the Philippines, he needs the Minnesota Vikings' offensive line.
At first, Viloria's career moved in one direction. Pushed gently by his manager, L.A. lawyer Gary Gittleson, he was at 16-0 when he fought at Staples Center on May 28, 2005. Midway through the fight, he caught Ruben Contreras with a vicious uppercut.
"I remember the blood from his nose," Viloria says. "It was thick, and it wouldn't stop."
The eight-rounder was ended after the sixth and Contreras collapsed in his corner. He was rushed to the hospital with swelling on his brain and there was a chance he wouldn't live. Viloria was devastated.
"I almost quit," he says.
Contreras recovered and was at Staples a little more than three months later for Viloria's first title shot -- a 108-pound WBC event against Eric Ortiz. On the way into the ring, Viloria spotted Contreras, stopped and hugged him. Then he knocked out Ortiz in the last second of the first round.
Viloria was WBC champion. Staples Center was half-empty. The main event, featuring Manny Pacquiao, would be later. Sad fact: A 108-pound boxer is as celebrated as a football long snapper.
Because Pacquiao, the toast of the Philippines, was fighting, Philippine TV network Solar Entertainment telecast the entire card back home. When Viloria was identified as a former resident, born of Filipino parents, and then won a world title, Filipinos were ecstatic.
Viloria and Gittleson had no idea.
"I got a call from the TV network the next day," Gittleson says. "They invited Brian and me back to the Philippines."
Within a week, they were flying first class, greeted like visiting royalty at the airport, and whisked off to lunch with the mayor of Manila. Thousands lined the streets for a parade as Viloria stood through the roof of a limousine and held his championship belt high.
He dined with President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, in the royal dining room of the Philippine palace, the equivalent of our White House.
"It was nuts," Gittleson says.
It had only just begun.
A phone call came from the governor of Ilocos Sur, the province of Viloria's childhood, where his grandfather still lived. The powerful governor was Luis Singson, know as Chavit. He would become memorable a year or so later when, sitting at the head table as part of the Pacquiao contingent at a Las Vegas pre-fight news conference, promoter Bob Arum, having no clue, introduced him as "Governor What's-His-Name."
Chavit, who wanted Viloria to come home, flew to Manila and picked up Gittleson and Viloria. Onboard one of Chavit's private planes, Gittleson asked about Chavit's background. Chavit handed him a biography.
Gittleson got to the part about assassination attempts on Chavit, and to the one where they tried to shoot down Chavit's plane.
"We are 20,000 feet up. I think I stopped breathing," Gittleson says. "I asked him about it. He laughed and said they had only knocked out one engine."
Chavit lifted his shirt to reveal massive scars from gunshot wounds. He told Gittleson that his enemies had opened fire while he was dancing at a street festival.
"But I survived," Gittleson says Chavit told him, "because I was dancing with a fat lady" who took the brunt of the bullets.
They stayed and were housed in Chavit's compound, which included a wild animal preserve.
"There were tigers in a covered pit right next to the room," Gittleson says. "I called my wife about 3 in the morning and told her I couldn't sleep because I could hear them chewing bones."
Gittleson returned to Manila the next day. Viloria went to visit his grandfather, who died the day after he left. Viloria flew back to Manila on another Chavit plane, which carried a Bengal tiger in a cage in the back.