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Remembering Julio Cesar Chavez: The Lion Of Culican

Julio Cesar ChavezBy Steven Pink: Acknowledging that Julio Cesar Chavez is a legend in Mexico would be to indulge in a classic bout of understatement. In the eyes of many of his compatriots the Lion of Culican stands alone, resplendent and unrivaled as the greatest fighter his country has ever produced. His 37-world title fights and 27 successful defences remain a record to this day, while his victims read like a roll call of 80’s and 90’s boxing luminaries.

While supporters of Carlos Zarate, Ruben Olivares, Vincente Saldivar and Salvador Sanchez could certainly make respectable claims to the place of honour for their respective favourite, few would argue that Chavez’s longevity, multi-weight achievements and bewilderingly vast list of victories mark him down as a fighter for the ages. However, as with almost all sporting greats, dissenting voices linger like persistent ghosts, picking at what they perceive to be the frayed hem of Chavez’s fighting legacy. Some among the boxing cognoscenti still cast doubt on a number of Chavez’s achievements, claiming he was the beneficiary of a number of refereeing, promotional and political gifts throughout his long career.

With Chavez soon eligible to be inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame (his last fight was in September 2004, though he did not announce his official retirement until January 2006) now is as good a time as any to run the rule over his career and in doing so assess his position among the greats of modern boxing. Do his achievements, which are manifold and laudable, deserve to see him permanently enshrined in Canastota alongside Ali, Robinson and Louis? Or have his triumphs been somewhat tarnished by the nepotistic paternalism of Don King, Jose Sulaiman and the boxing authorities?

Julio Cesar Chavez Gonzalez first saw the light of day on July 12th 1962 in Ciudad Obregon. The son of Rodolfo Chavez, a railroad worker, Julio spent some portion of his childhood living in an abandoned railroad car alongside his four brothers and five sisters. Many fighters find their inner rage fuelled by the necessity of alleviating adverse economic circumstances and Julio had powerful pecuniary reasons for beginning his fistic education at a precociously early age. After reeling off a 14-1 amateur record Julio turned professional, at the age of seventeen, with a sixth round stoppage of Andres Felix in Culican on February 5th 1980. That a great many of his early fights were contested in Mexico’s boxing hinterlands certainly served to keep him off the radar of many of the most respected scribes in the capital.

His early career certainly contains one moment of controversy, though the event itself remains to this day a somewhat puzzling enigma. In his 12th professional fight Chavez was apparently disqualified against Miguel Ruiz, a local club fighter with a 4-11-1 record. Respected publications, including both Pugilato and The Ring Record Book both attest that Chavez was initially disqualified for punching after the bell, only for the local boxing commission in Culican to reverse the decision the next day, awarding the young prospect a first round knockout victory. That Ramon Felix, Chavez’s manager at the time, was a member of the aforementioned committee certainly raised eyebrows. Whether the result represented a triumph for misplaced paternalism or something akin to justice the near disaster did nothing to slow Chavez’s inexorable rise over the next few years. Indeed, by the time a twenty-one year old Julio faced Adriano Arreola in September 1983 at the Olympic Auditorium he had compiled a record of 39-0 (33). The Arreola bout was the nearest Chavez was to come to defeat for almost seven years until he faced Meldrick Taylor. Chavez edged out a very close decision win in a fight that seemed to suggest the prospect would do well to rise beyond his current status as a fringe contender.

That this was the prevailing opinion of the Mexican press was clear when Mario Martinez, 34-1-2, was installed as the betting favourite in their shootout for the vacant WBC Super-Featherweight title. Returning to the scene of his brush with defeat at the hands of Arreola, Chavez delivered a resounding beating to the untested young Martinez, pounding his way to a relentless eighth round stoppage victory. A star was born that night and Chavez would ride the wave of his triumph to a breathtaking nine consecutive defences; claiming the scalps of noted opponents such as Juan Laporte, Roger Mayweather (a particularly brutal second round stoppage) and Rocky Lockridge. Interestingly the home bird who fought 32 of his first 43 fights in either Culican or Tijuana became something of a globetrotter, defending his belt in locations as geographically diverse as Las Vegas, Nimes and Monte Carlo.

However, it was the fabled Hilton Hotel, the gaudy bacchanalian oasis on the Las Vegas strip that was to become his second home and the scene of his two greatest triumphs. Having finally succumbed to his bodies grumbling dissatisfaction at the monastic discipline required in boiling down to 130 pounds Chavez moved up to challenge reigning WBA Lightweight titleholder Edwin Rosario. Rosario was a feared and respected adversary. Touted as the hardest punching lightweight in the world he was fresh from crushing knockout wins over the hitherto iron chinned Livingstone Bramble and, in his previous defence, Juan Nazario. His record of 26-2 (22), though not statistically as impressive as the Mexican’s, featured character shaping battles against top-notch foes like Hector Camacho, Jose Luis Ramirez, Howard Davis, Bramble and Frankie Randall. Rosario was a formidable composite of boxing virtues: well schooled, quick, possessed of one punch power and the owner of a solid chin.

Chavez was by no means the favourite going into the match up. Respected trade papers such as England’s Boxing News tipped Rosario to win, the prevailing feeling being that by rising in weight to meet the most ferocious puncher in the division Chavez had indulged in a hubristic step too far. The bad blood between the fighters was ever more evident as fight time approached. The fierce embers of the perennially bitter Mexico-Puerto Rico rivalry were stirred to a white-hot intensity by Rosario’s baiting of the challenger. Goading Chavez and claiming that he would send the 130 pound champion back to Mexico “in a box” Rosario smiled away the minutes before the first bell in the company of his stablemate and World Heavyweight title holder Mike Tyson.
What followed was a systematic slaughter every bit as brutal and unequivocal as Salvador Sanchez’s humbling of fierce Puerto Rican rival Wilfredo Gomez six years previously. His career and reputation on the line (he himself had hinted that his nine consecutive defences and unbeaten record would be rendered meaningless should he lose to Rosario) Chavez, his red trunks bearing nine stars to commemorate his run as 130 pound champion, channeled his anger and resentment into a fierce will to win. Taking the initiative from the first bell and freed from the specter of having to make the debilitating limit of 130 pounds for the first time in years Chavez turned in arguably his finest performance. Pinning the mobile and technically adroit champion on the ropes or in corners for long spells of the fight Chavez’s signature left hook to the body finally acquired a worldwide audience. Attacking relentlessly from a bewilderingly diverse array of angles Chavez seemed intent on disproving Euclidean geometry in the ring. On this night, the inauguration of Julio’s reign as J C Superstar, Rosario was swamped and eventually drowned by an unceasing tide of punches, both shocking in their accuracy and destructive force. By the time Richard Steele mercifully stopped the contest Rosario’s face was a grotesque mask of swelling, one eye pounded almost completely shut. What had been seen as a give and take struggle had been transformed into a mugging. Ring magazine summed the bout up claiming, “A description of the fight reads like a police account of a street beating.”

The following year (despite being in the seemingly paradoxical position of being a rival title claimant and thus unable to be ranked) Julio was installed as the number one contender for compatriot Jose Luis Ramirez’s WBC title. Ramirez, whose ring record of 101-6 seemed to belong to the misty recesses of boxing’s more Corinthian past, was a decent champion, strong and purposeful, if somewhat limited. Chavez dominated their fight, picking up a technical decision when the fight was halted in the 11th round after Ramirez sustained a bad cut following an accidental clash of heads. That Chavez was foisted upon Ramirez as a mandatory defence was seen by many as evidence of the growing influence asserted on his career by the long time President of the WBC Jose Sulaiman. The decision to rate Chavez as mandatory challenger, while certainly curious is not by any means the most Machiavellian maneuver perpetrated by the alphabet authorities over the years. What remains inarguable is that Chavez won the fight at a relative canter against a tough and respected opponent. With the Lightweight division for all intents and purposes cleaned out (Greg Haugen the IBF champion was seen as neither sufficiently marketable nor enough of a challenge to consider pursuing with any forcefulness) Chavez looked onwards and upwards.

Former victim Roger Mayweather was dispatched again in 10 rounds, a victory which delighted Chavez’s faithful followers. Mayweather had become something of a pantomime villain for the Mexican fans, due to a number of recent victories over boxers from south of the border. In winning Chavez added Mayweather’s WBC Light-Welterweight crown to his burgeoning trophy cabinet and set up the fight that will forever be associated with his legacy.

At 23 Meldrick Taylor, the holder of the IBF 140 pound crown was a streaking talent. Possessed of the fastest hands in boxing, the 1984 Olympic Champion was perpetual motion in the ring. Taylor, backed by Lou Duva and George Benton was perhaps the most naturally gifted of the nine gold medalists to come out of the USA’s 1984 boxing team. His style promised to blend perfectly with Chavez’s and their unification match was christened Thunder vs. Lightning. The two combatants shared a combined record of 92-0-1 and the winner was sure to be heralded as the leading practitioner in the sport. That the bout was a classic is undeniable. The Ring listed it as their fight of the decade for the 1990’s.

Taylor used his speed, movement and a blizzard of combination punching to race to an early lead. Chavez rallied as the fight entered the later rounds, punishing the tiring Taylor to the body and head (and in doing so fracturing the orbital bone around Taylor’s eye and forcing the Philadelphian to swallow a fair quantity of his own blood due to a nasty gash inside the mouth). The tiring Taylor, attempting to protect a slender point’s lead going into the final round, was finally cornered by Chavez and floored with a huge right hand. Badly hurt, Taylor made it to his feet but failed to respond sufficiently to the questioning of referee Richard Steele and the bout was stopped with two seconds remaining. Predictably Taylor’s manager, claimed a monstrous injustice had been perpetrated. Steele maintains to this day that it would have been professionally inept of him to allow the battered and bloodied Taylor to continue and that the time remaining was irrelevant considering the younger fighters condition. A covert relationship between Don King (Chavez’s promoter) and Steele was alleged, though the referee vehemently denies ever having associated with King outside of his professional duties and no charges were ever made to stick.

The controversy rages still, with supporters of both men putting forward argument and counter argument. Taylor fought the fight of his life, but defeat leeched away his vital effervescence as a fighter. Despite capturing Aaron Davis’ 147 pound title a year later, his career had assumed a downward trajectory. He was never the same fighter after the beating he sustained at Chavez’s hands and by 1992, following back to back stoppage losses to Terry Norris and Crisanto Espana he was finished as a championship level fighter. Chavez, on the other hand, was to put together arguably his greatest body of work as the combined WBC/IBF champion and pound-for-pound number one. Nine title defences were racked up between December 1990 and his fateful first encounter with Frankie Randall. His beaten opponents included Lonnie Smith, Frankie Mitchell, Terrance Ali and Angel Hernandez. Though perhaps his two most memorable performances during this period were his almost sadistically prolonged beating of Hector Camacho and his fifth round stoppage of Greg Haugen in front of 136, 247 spectators at the Azteca Stadium. All in all the combined records of the nine challengers to Chavez’s partially unified throne stood at 305-17-5. These are astonishing figures by the standards of any era.

Chavez had cemented his place alongside Cervantes and Prior as one of the greatest names in the history of the division, yet by now, at 31, he was a fading force. Full evidence of this was provided by the nimble WBC 147 pound champion Pernell Whitaker. The slick moving former Olympian appear to have soundly outboxed his strangely subdued opponent only for the three officials (controversially appointed by the WBC rather than the local commission) to score the fight a majority draw. The verdict allowed Chavez to retain his unbeaten record, though his historic winning streak had been finally snapped at 89.

This fight, looked at in retrospect, proved to be the beginning of the end of Chavez as a truly championship level fighter. Three fights after the frustrating stalemate in San Antonio Chavez lost for the first time, being dropped for the first time in his career, deducted a point for a low blow and defeated on a split decision by Frankie Randall in January 1994. Chavez managed to defeat Randall (by a somewhat contentious technical decision following an accidental clash of heads) in their hastily arranged rematch four months later. Chavez managed four more defences before being relieved of his title by rising star Oscar De La Hoya in 1996. By now Chavez was 34 years old and clearly well past his best. He should have retired, though like so many legends before him continued to fight on for far too long. A creditable draw in February 1998 against Miguel Angel Gonzalez, 42-1, for his old WBC title, proved to be his last hurrah. Stoppage defeats at the hands of Oscar De La Hoya, in their September 1998 rematch and Kostya Tszyu illustrated to the boxing world that Chavez was now an old man in fighting terms. Still it would be five more years (though only encompassing five further bouts) before the shopworn legend finally hung up his gloves for good.

At his best there was a studied and artistic brutality to Chavez’s work. His approach was pitiless, endlessly stalking, his attack measured and methodical, punches were rarely squandered. The versatility of his all round attack would have made him competitive in any era. His complete mastery of punching angles, and brutal body attack allied to an ability to cut down the ring unparalleled at the time were formidable parts of a boxing whole that elevated him to the upper reaches of the pound for pound ratings for well nigh a decade. Success, sadly in sport always seems to come hand in hand with resentment and recrimination and it would be churlish to deny that certain sections of the boxing press considered Chavez to be a favoured son of the boxing authorities in general and the WBC in particular. Indeed the fact he was awarded two barely defensible title shots late in his career when well past his best seems to lend weight to the cries of favoritism. Though in his defence the history of the sport is replete with marketable and popular legends returning unwisely to reclaim former glories. What the public demand they very often get and Chavez was still a marquee name even at this late stage in his career.

However, he rarely (the notable exception being the draw he was awarded against Whitaker) needed the helping hand of the judges to salvage questionable decisions. His 32 world title fight victories featured no less than 21 stoppages and of his many beaten opponents only Frankie Randall (in their second fight) and Rocky Lockridge (in a bout for the WBC 130 pound crown) could articulate a valid argument for being harshly treated by the verdict of the judges.

Looked at dispassionately Chavez could be considered fortunate against Taylor, but fortune certainly does favor the brave and by gambling in the final round he could certainly be said to have made his own luck. Balance this against the point deduction that cost him a draw and his unbeaten record against Randall. He was the beneficiary of a gift against Whitaker, though in a bout way beyond his optimum fighting weight, against a man who had a habit of making exceptional offensive fighters look ordinary. Certainly Oscar De La Hoya and Azumah Nelson were both given the run around by the fleet footed former Olympic winner and could attest to the difficulty of pinning down the elusive Sweet Pea.

However, we should not remember our sporting heroes slumped in defeat on their ring stools, their declining abilities and frailties writ large under the coruscating glare of the ring lights. Chavez, a fading force at the end went 7-4 in his last 11 fights, yet he, like so many other ring legends had soldiered on far past his prime. It is better that we should allow our mind’s eye to hold onto the memory of a man who Ring Magazine believed to be the 18th best fighter of the last eighty years. The fighting machine who repelled the challenges of a slew of the world’s finest fighters for over a decade. An offensive technician so multi-faceted that he was able to overcome no fewer than 15 fellow titlists during a run unlikely to be eclipsed for some time to come. A final honorable mention must also be made to the granite warrior who possessed a chin strong enough to repel the blows of 37 title opponents, suffering only one knockdown in the process. In Julio Cesar Chavez, 107-6-2 (86), boxing possessed a fighter who will be deservedly remembered alongside the all time greats. It may be some time before we see his like again.

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