More than one J. Chavez fought in Los Angeles Saturday night, but there was little doubt which of three—Julio, Junior or Jesus—the nostalgic Mexican fans had come to see. A scattered few among the 17, 692 sellout crowd came to bury Cesar, not to praise him, but they were the very silent minority, which is why there were no fatalities at Staples Center. Julio Cesar Chavez is a bit long in the tooth now, a 42-year-old folk hero of near-Emiliano Zapata stature, and while life for the Lion of Culiacan has been good, it has been hard; even someone as extraordinarily gifted as the former world champion absorbs a lot of punishment over a career of 108 professional fights. And no one has ever suggested that outside of the ring he was a practicing monk. He fought hard; he played hard, although he claims recent reformation. The once-handsome face has been reassembled, the odd lumps, the jagged lines of old wounds, the nose flat where it should be round and curved where it should be straight; only the eyes, murderous iced marbles, hard and cruel, remain untouched by time.
He had fought only four times in this century and had not won a title fight since September of 1995, but none of that mattered to the adoring disciples that jammed the arena. He was Julio Cesar Chavez, the grandest of an extended queue of superb Mexican boxers, and they would have paid to see him one last time—the fight card was billed as part of an Adios tour—even if his camp had to wheel him into the ring. (Veteran cynic Burt Randolph Sugar, he of the fedora, the cigar, and the short arms and deep pockets, suggested that the fans had paid $25 to listen to Julio’s arteries harden.) It mattered not that his last significant fight was more than five years ago. It mattered not that his opponent, former contender 34-year-old Ivan Robinson, had won only three of his last 11 fights and was reduced to fighting six- and eight-round preliminary matches. With advanced age comes wisdom: Chavez still walks on water; he just does not walk on any now patrolled by sharks.
They fought for most of four rounds, until a trademark Chavez right hand crisply reminded the shopworn Robinson that he was, well, shopworn. When he regained his footing, albeit wobbly, the former child prodigy from Philadelphia noticed they were in a 20-foot ring and from that point until the final bell he made good use of all of it. Nostalgia is good. At the odd moment I could squint my eyes—twice I removed my eye glasses—and there on the TV screen was the Chavez of another time, the figure a bit fuzzy but no less the angry artist that stormed past 90 straight opponents (90-0-1) as he hung up championships in three separate divisions. (OK, so his 12th victory was smudged a smidgen. That is the one they said he originally lost by disqualification to one Miguel Ruiz, a boxer of no rank, the night of March 4, 1981, an alarming result that was quickly reversed the following day by the local Culiacan commission, which ruled that Chavez had actually won by a first-round knockout, tan ayúdenos Dios. Only a churl would suggest that the reversal was a hometown mugging seeing as how Chavez’s manager, Ramon Felix, was a sitting member of the commission.)
As fierce as he is as an opponent, Chavez has always been as equally gracious as a winner. When it was over, with a nod and a smile aimed at Robinson, he said, “They told me it was going to be an easy fight. It wasn’t. I give Robinson a lot of credit.” If Hector Camacho was listening, he must have smiled at those words. Chavez said pretty much the same about him after he had hammered the gutsy Puerto Rican ceaselessly in their WBC title fight 13 years ago. In that one, both fighters were at the peaks of their power. This is how that one went….
LAS VEGAS, September 1992 – During the 60-second ceasefire following the ninth round of last Saturday night’s 12-round title fight, someone in Hector Camacho's corner suggested he toss in the towel. “No mas — no more” was the dispirited proposal. Camacho's left eye was closed; on the far side of his bloody nose, over his right eye, there was a nasty cut. His right side was alive with pain from the hammering of Julio Cesar Chavez's savage body attack. Angrily, the proud but badly beaten fighter refused.
That was what this match had come down to: no longer a contest, but a study of one fighter's inexhaustible courage. As early as the seventh round, it had become evident that Chavez would keep his WBC super lightweight championship and run his magnificent record to 82-0. Camacho did not possess the firepower to stop the champion. Worse, he had lost the quickness in the legs that he had counted on to keep him out of harm's way.
The Mexican bull had gored the Puerto Rican matador. Now the bull wanted the bullfighter's ears. Urged on by the countrymen who had filled the Thomas & Mack Arena, in the final six minutes, Chavez went for the kill. “My fans do not want me just to beat him,” Chavez said last week. “They are begging me to give him a bad beating. They do not like Camacho.”
The two fighters, both 30 years old, first met in January 1985, when they fought on the same card in Mexico City. That night Chavez stopped Manuel Hernandez in three. Camacho had knocked out Leoncio Ortiz in six. They had become uneasy friends; two gunfighters trading small talk while wondering privately what would happen if they ever were to trade bullets.
As the years passed, the anticipation of a Chavez-Camacho fight took on a life of its own. Chavez went on to win the WBC super featherweight, WBA lightweight, WBC super lightweight and IBF junior welterweight championships. While winning 40 of 41 fights, Camacho had laid claim to the WBC and WBO lightweight titles. It sounded like a classic matchup, but it was not made until June, when promoter Don King opened his treasury and offered each fighter $3 million. Only then did they strap on their gun belts.
“He's a little crazy, and I think he's kind of effeminate, but I like him,” Chavez said of his opponent before the fight. “It is only when he runs off at the mouth that I don't like him so much. But we have talked to each other. In the ring he is very quick, very intelligent. He moves a lot, and it is difficult to hit him. But I am up for this fight more than for any I have ever had, except possibly Edwin Rosario and Meldrick Taylor.
“Rosario,” Chavez said again, spitting out the name. “That was the fight I was the most angry for, because of the things he said he was going to do to me. My opponents are very foolish to make me angry. I think this is why Hector is being so nice.” In 1987, after beating Rosario to a bloody mass, Chavez knocked him out in the 11th round.
“Julio is a great human being,” said Camacho, laughing. “He is not a hard person to relate to. He is not complicated. Outside of the ring, we get along. But as a fighter, I don't think he is as much as [the media] have painted him. I don't think he can handle my hand and foot speed. It has been a long time since I was properly motivated for a fight. When you train lazy, when you live lazy, you fight lazy. But not for this one. I feel definitely involved. I have everything to beat this guy and all I have to do is execute.”
A notoriously slow starter, Chavez permitted Camacho to execute, for three minutes. The Mexican champion's plan was simple: chase down his quicker opponent and kill his body. It had always worked for him before. Camacho knew what he faced. “He can't handle speed,” said the Puerto Rican challenger. “I will give him a lot of lateral movement and a lot of feints. And you have to give Julio something to think about. With me, that will be a power jab. The way I punch, I don't think it will go the distance.”
For Camacho, the first was a perfect round. His movements were brilliant; his jab tore holes in Chavez's pressing attack. As it turned out, the cold-eyed champion was only test-firing his heavy weapons; a much different Chavez came out for the second round. His attack was quicker. He began to catch the southpaw Camacho with right-hand leads. Quickly, left hooks joined the barrage, digging deeply into Camacho's right side, draining speed from the artful legs.
Without the firepower necessary to keep Chavez off him, Camacho began to grab, often in desperation. By round four, unwilling to flee, he tried to stand and fight. It was like watching a jackhammer rip up a sidewalk. By the seventh round, Camacho's left eye began to close. In the ninth, a hook slashed open a cut on the outside corner of his right eye. Savage hooks slammed into his body. Maddened by the savage assault, the partisan Mexican fans stood and screamed for Chavez to finish it.
No one has ever lost with more courage than did Camacho. Chavez pressed hard for the knockout, but Camacho took everything the champion threw at him, and at the end he was still firing back, snarling through the blood.
The decision was a formality: Judge Harry Gibbs scored it 120-107, giving the champion every round. Carol Castellano gave Camacho one round, called one round even and scored it 119-110. Dalby Shirley gave Camacho three rounds; his score 117-111.
“He was a better fighter than I expected,” Chavez said later. “He really took a lot of punches. I tried to knock him out, but my right hand would not respond.”
Chavez had injured the hand when he knocked out Frank Mitchell in the fourth round last month. He said he felt the pain return in the third or fourth round. No matter. Pain or not, he did not stop bouncing the throbbing right hand off Camacho's head until the final bell.
After the fight, Camacho was clearly awed by his conqueror. “I couldn't keep him off me,” he said. “The pressure was amazing. I never fought anyone with courage like he has. I fought a courageous fight, but there is no doubt that he won.”
Later, in the post fight interview room, King opened a valise and tossed $200,000 in $100 bills on the table. It was the pot from a side bet between the two fighters. Then the promoter announced that he would give Chavez a red Lamborghini as a bonus. When Chavez tried to say thanks, his microphone didn't work. He reached for King’s. “Get your own,” said the promoter, turning away. To King, giving away a $150,000 car is one thing. Handing over his microphone is a much more serious matter.