Breakdown: Chavez-Rubio

Chavez Jr Rubio weighin 120203 001a Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. and   #1 ranked Marco Antonio Rubio weigh in (Chavez 159.5 lbs., Rubio 159 lbs.) at the Alamodome in San Antonio,Texas, Friday for their upcoming world title fight, Saturday, Feb. 4. (Chris Farina)

I do not envy Julio Cesar Chavez, Jr.

For a kid who was supposed to have it easy, things have gotten a bit complicated.  When he started his professional career back in 2003, the blueprint appeared to be simply to cash in on his legendary namesake’s reputation and make a few bucks before the public realized they were being scammed.  Even Junior seemed to be fine with the arrangement.  Judging by the marked lack of craft and notoriously lazy work ethic that defined his early career, it didn’t look like Chavez the Younger had any intent of being a serious fighter.

Then things took an unexpected turn.  That Junior defeated the scores of no-hopers put in front of him was no surprise, but the fact that many fans believed those wins were indicative of something meaningful was somewhat unforeseen.  He was gaining throngs of fans who loved the idea of a running legacy of greatness in the Chavez clan.  At the same time, he was also gaining a band of skeptics who resented the idea of a kid who was getting, what they perceived to be, unfair and unearned opportunities that more deserving fighters did not.

As I mentioned earlier, I wouldn’t want to trade places with Chavez.  On one hand, he’s got an overwhelming fan base with expectations that he probably can’t live up to, at least not at this point of his career.  On the other, he’s drawn a band of skeptics who have been waiting for the fraudulent fairy tale to come to an end, for the kid to be exposed as a con artist, and for boxing logic (or karma) to play itself out.  

To his credit, Chavez has made a much more concerted effort to be a serious prizefighter.  He’s brought in Freddy Roach as a hired gun.  His work ethic and training routines are much improved.  It seems to Chavez that if boxing is something worth doing, it’s worth doing right.

Going into Saturday night’s fight with former title-challenger Marco Antonio Rubio, the big question remains as to how seriously we should take Junior.  The rugged, but limited Rubio figures to be a decent test for the 25-year old Chavez, who, for the time being, is respectfully declining  to engage with the upper echelon of the middleweight division.

So how will the first major boxing subplot of 2012 play out?  Will the Chavez Jr. express train roll on to the next stop?  Or will Rubio cause it to derail, as so many have predicted it would?  Several important factors will all come together to determine the outcome of Saturday night’s main event.

The Manfredo Effect
Chavez’ last performance was probably his most impressive to date:  a fifth round stoppage of former Contender participant and world title challenger Peter Manfredo.  What was so impressive was that Chavez demonstrated an impressive arsenal that showed he has more chops than he’s been given credit for.  He jabbed with conviction, maintained solid balance, set up openings for combinations, and minimized risk more than he had in the past.  Afterward, more than a few doubters had to grudgingly admit that the kid looked pretty sharp, and his supporters would have us believe that Junior was starting to put the pieces together under the tutelage of Roach.

It was an impressive performance, yes, but let’s not get carried away.  Remember that Chavez was in with maybe the most compliant opponent possible in that type of situation.  This is the same Peter Manfredo who froze against Joe Calzaghe and Sakio Bika.  He was chosen because he was a safe bet to revert to those habits against Chavez, which is pretty much what he did.  This is no fault to Chavez, who did his job and did it exceptionally well.  Still, with all due respect to the good-guy Manfredo, he was there for a reason, and he fulfilled it.

So what’s the real verdict on Chavez’ progress, taking into consideration the Manfredo Effect?  Realistically, he is improving, but probably not as much as some might want you to believe.

Rubio: The (Sometimes) Willing Accomplice
When someone looks at the glossy record of Marco Antonio Rubio, boasting 53 wins and 46 knockouts, he looks like an experienced, world-class threat.  But when you look at that record long enough, like a Magic Eye picture, a whole different image appears.

Of his fifty three wins, Rubio’s career-defining win came against the untested prospect David Lemieux.  That is, unless you consider wins over Grady Brewer or the ancient likes of Frankie Randall and Jorge Vaca to be especially scintillating.  The fact of the matter is that Rubio owns not a single win over an elite-level opponent, which makes his intimidating KO ratio seem a bit less formidable upon closer examination.

Rubio, though, is a toughguy, a man’s man.  He’ll do his best with what he’s got, which consists mainly of fairly slow, awkward, thudding punches.  He can do damage when allowed to, but has problems when his opponents don’t have losing on their mind.

The idea that Rubio is a real, A-level fighter is challenged by the role he’s been asked to play more than once in his career:  the durable, but relatively safe opponent.

In February 2009, Rubio was given an opportunity to face Kelly Pavlik for the middleweight title.  Keep in mind, this was a post-Hopkins version of Kelly Pavlik who was in desperate need of a confidence builder in front of the Youngstown faithful.  Rubio was, conveniently enough, a mandatory challenger for Pavlik, but common sense would make us believe that the folks at Top Rank were not going to put Pavlik in too tough after the demoralizing loss to Hopkins.  They wanted a guy who would give the champ a good workout, rebuild his confidence, but not be too serious of a threat.  In Rubio, they got exactly what they wanted, as Pavlik methodically broke him down for a ninth round stoppage win.

For David Lemieux, the plan was similar.  Rubio was brought to Montreal for the same reason he went to Youngstown: to help make the hometown boy look good.  For the first five rounds, things went according to the script for Team Lemieux.  Their man was putting a beating on Rubio, who produced little other than meager offensive bursts.  As Lemieux teed off on Rubio, the ending seemed inevitable.

That is, until Lemieux folded like a sunchair.  All credit to Rubio’s heart for withstanding a ton of punishment, but his win was dramatically aided by Lemieux’s inexperience in deep waters.  Rubio got the win, but the unlikelihood of the circumstances makes it difficult to interpret its significance in any really meaningful way for Rubio.

On Saturday night, Rubio will be called into San Antonio for the same purpose as he was for Pavlik and Lemieux.  San Antonio might not be Chavez’ hometown, but you won’t know that based on the support  he’ll get from the droves of fans that will pack Alamodome.  Will he be a willing accomplice for Chavez, or does he have another storyline in mind?  

We’ll find out at the opening bell.

The Likely Plotline
It’s hard to see this fight playing out any other way than the predicable route.

Chavez is quicker than Rubio, not to mention more skilled and versatile.  It doesn’t take Copernicus to understand that Rubio’s only means of winning is by landing something big and land it often.  Freddie Roach will have Chavez executing a gameplan that will minimize, if not eliminate, Rubio’s chances to smash the homerun ball.  

Plan to see Chavez’ improved, intentional jab on display along with simple, effective footwork to keep the plodding Rubio off balance.  Sure, there will be exchanges, because this is a Chavez fight after all.  But Junior will make sure that he doesn’t gamble too recklessly against Rubio, and eventually the shots will add up.  Rubio’s main means of defense is simply to cover up.  He’s not a proponent of head movement, but he does have a fondness for moving straight back to avoid punches, all of which is good news for Chavez.

It will be fun, and Rubio will try to hang in there, but Junior’s punches could add up to a late round stoppage.  If not, expect a wide unanimous decision.

What It Will All Mean
Honestly, not much.  It will go down as a title defense for Chavez.  His fans will relish the victory, his detractors will still claim he’s overprotected, and the dual hyperbole will likely continue.

With such a broad spectrum of opinions about Junior’s place in boxing’s pecking order, where does the reality of the situation lie?

As is often the case, the truth is probably somewhere in the middle.  Chavez is probably not a legend in the making, and he’s definitely not a bum.  He’s a young man who’s learning on the job what it means to be a fighter, and he looks to be on his way to being a pretty good one.

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