THE HAUSER REPORT: Boxing is on the ropes in the United States. Self-inflicted wounds coupled with external forces have made it a niche sport. But there are places where the sweet science is healthy and has a fervent fan base.
In England, 90,000 fans gathered a little more than a week ago to watch Anthony Joshua defend his heavyweight title against Wladimir Klitschko.
Mexican boxing fans also exude a passion for the sport that transcends geographic boundaries. On May 6, Saul ”Canelo” Alvarez of Guadalajara faced off against Julio Cesar Chavez Jr from Culiacan at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. The son of an ice cream vendor fought “The Son of the Legend” in one of the most anticipated intramural match-ups in Mexican boxing history.
Alvarez was a child prodigy who fought professionally for the first time at age 15. He’s now 26 and a veteran of 51 fights with a 49-1-1 (34 KOs) record. The draw came in his fifth pro bout when he was 15 years old. The other blemish on his record was a 2013 loss by decision to Floyd Mayweather, who befuddled Canelo over the course of twelve long rounds.
The knock on Canelo, if there is one, is that he has beaten faded fighters (Shane Mosley and Miguel Cotto), smaller fighters (Liam Smith and Amir Khan), stylish boxers (Erislandy Lara and Austin Trout), and punchers (James Kirkland and Alfredo Angulo). But he has yet to beat a complete fighter in his prime. That said; he’s a world-class fighter.
Julio Cesar Chavez Sr was more than a world-class fighter. He’s widely regarded as Mexico’s greatest champion. His son, Julio Jr, entered the ring for the first time at age 17, armed with his father’s name and not much more.
Junior is now 31. Having begun boxing as a curiosity, he developed into a pretty good fighter but has regressed to being a curiosity again (albeit a less interesting curiosity than before). At one point, he won a faux 160-pound world title, courtesy of the World Boxing Council (which arranged for him to fight Sebastian Zbik for a belt in 2011 and then defend it against Peter Manfredo, Marco Rubio, and Andy Lee). That party came to an end on September 15, 2012, when legal maneuvering forced Chavez into the ring against Sergio Martinez.
Martinez treated Chavez like a heavy bag and dominated him for 11-1/2 rounds. The second half of round twelve was different. Writing soon after, I recounted the drama as follows:
“Chavez started slowly in round twelve, moving forward with his hands held high. His left eye was swollen shut. His right eye was ringed by abrasions and his lips were puffy. Martinez kept circling, jabbing. Twenty-eight seconds elapsed before Julio threw his first punch of the round, a tentative stay-away-from-me right hand. Ten seconds later, he offered a meaningless jab. Both punches missed. One minute into round twelve, Chavez had thrown three punches and landed none. Then with 1:28 left, Julio scored with a sharp left hook up top that hurt Sergio. Two more hooks landed flush. Suddenly, with 1:23 left in the fight, Martinez was on the canvas and in trouble. There was pandemonium in the arena. Martinez crawled to the ropes and lifted himself up at the count of six. Referee Tony Weeks beckoned Chavez in. Julio had seventy seconds to finish the job. Sergio, too dazed and weak to tie Chavez up and with his legs too unsteady to move out of danger, hurled punches back at his foe. With one minute left in the fight, Martinez tried to clinch and Julio dismissively threw him to the canvas. Sergio staggered to his feet. Weeks, appropriately, chose not to give him extra time to recover and ordered that the action resume immediately without wiping Sergio’s gloves. Fifty-two seconds remained. But now, Chavez too was exhausted. At the final bell, both fighters knew that Martinez had won.”
The last round of Martinez-Chavez saved Julio from being branded a fraud. But his reputation was soon in tatters.
Trainer Freddie Roach complained that Chavez had refused to train properly for the Martinez fight. WBC president Jose Sulaiman alleged that Julio had a serious gambling problem that had resulted in millions of dollars lost at the gaming tables. Then the Nevada State Athletic Commission announced that, in a post-fight drug test, Chavez had tested positive for marijuana.
Three years earlier, a Chavez victory over Troy Rowland had been changed to “no contest” because Julio tested positive for furosemide (a diuretic sometimes used as a masking agent). For that offense, the NSAC suspended Chavez for seven months and fined him $10,000. After the Martinez fight, the commission fined Julio $100,000.
Chavez’s career foundered thereafter as he continued to slack off in training and struggled to make weight. The World Boxing Council jumped through so many hoops for him that it was suggested the sanctioning body establish a new weight division known as “Chavezweight.” The Chavezweight championship would be awarded for whatever weight Julio could make at the weigh-in, and the WBC would present Julio with a special championship belt emblazoned with medallions honoring Burger King and McDonald’s.
In the 58 months prior to facing Canelo, Chavez had only four wins (two over Brian Vera, and one each against Marcos Reyes and Dominik Britsch). He’d quit on his stool in a loss to Andrzej Fonfara. Putting matters in further perspective, Julio had fought only one round at an elite level (round twelve against Martinez) since beating Andy Lee in mid-2012.
It’s hard being a professional fighter. Whatever his limitations – and there were many – Chavez did get in a boxing ring 53 times and had compiled a 50-2-1 (32 KOs) record. But he was dogged by the belief that he’s more sizzle than steak and, worse, by the accusation that he lacks heart.
One gets the impression that Canelo fights because he likes to fight and the money is good. One gets the impression that Chavez fights because the money is good.
After considerable negotiation, Canelo-Chavez was made for a contract weight of 164.5 pounds. That was 9.5 pounds more than Alvarez had previously weighed in for a fight and less than Chavez had weighed in five years. The penalty for missing weight would be $1,000,000 for each pound or fraction thereof that a fighter weighed in over 164.5.
Chavez chose to train with Nacho Beristain. Once again, Canelo worked with Eddy and “Chepo” Reynoso.
The promotion had a buzz from the start and showed that boxing’s sanctioning bodies are unnecessary at a certain level. Canelo-Chavez wasn’t for an alphabet-soup belt. It was for bragging rights in Mexico. Among intramural Mexican rivalries, only the three fights between Erik Morales and Marco Antonio Barrera and, possibly, the four encounters between Israel Vazquez and Rafael Marquez engendered passions of this magnitude.
“Titles are very important to me,” Canelo said. “But this goes above any title. It’s for honor, for pride.”
Tickets quickly sold out. Early pay-per-view numbers were encouraging. Canelo’s previous three bouts had made it clear that he needs a dance partner to engender massive pay-per-view buys. Taken chronologically, the opponents in those fights had been Miguel Cotto (900,000 buys), Amir Khan (500,000), and Liam Smith (300,000).
Now Canelo had a marketable dance partner, albeit one that he disrespected.
“He was never a dignified representative for Mexico,” Canelo said of Chavez. “I can’t respect him because, for me personally, he hasn’t done anything. He has shamed his country with what he has done with his career. My fans know that I started from nothing, from the bottom up, from zero, and have worked my way up with a lot of sweat and sacrifices. He has his fans, as well. But I think a lot of his fans are more his father’s fans than his.”
“I feel I’ve been over-criticized because I am Senior’s son,” Julio responded. “All the good I do, I feel it counts for half. And any of the bad is doubled.”
In the days leading up to the fight, Alvarez seemed more confident and stronger at his core than Chavez. One got the sense that Canelo embraced the idea of his honor being tested before all of Mexico, while Chavez was a bit intimidated by it.
The prevailing view was that Canelo would go to the body, break Chavez down, and take away his heart.
But a case could be made for a Chavez victory.
Canelo is faster than Chavez. He’s a better boxer. Everyone understood that Julio had been given this opportunity in large part because of his father’s name. But Chavez is bigger than Canelo. Much bigger. And because of the size differential between them, some knowledgeable observers thought Julio had a good chance to win.
Canelo scoffed at that notion, saying, “I’ve been fighting professionally since I was 15 years old, so I’ve been fighting bigger and stronger guys.”
But not lately. As Chavez noted, “He won the title, and then it was pick anybody. He picked smaller guys so he got used to being the bigger man. And now there’s me.”
There was also an emotional factor to consider.
The fight offered Chavez a chance for redemption. It was the equivalent of a life preserver being thrown to a drowning man. A victory over Canelo would wipe away every past failure on Julio’s ring ledger.
“This fight has created a lot of passion in me, a lot of enthusiasm,” Chavez told the media. “That’s the difference in this. You’re going to see a different Julio that’s excited. I can lose to a lot of people. I cannot lose to Canelo.”
Sean Gibbons has helped guide Chavez during his sojourn through boxing.
“People talk about Julio’s past,” Gibbons said. “But that’s the past. For a long time, Julio wasn’t interested in boxing the way a fighter has to be if he’s going to be great or even very good. Then, for four years after he lost to Martinez, Julio hated boxing. But Julio is more into boxing for this fight than I’ve ever seen him before.”
Two days before the fight, Canelo was a 6-to-1 betting favorite. There were questions as to whether Chavez would make the 164.5 pound weight limit before rehydrating. And if he did, would he be dead at the weight? Then Canelo and Chavez each weighed in at 164 pounds. A half pound under. By fight night, the odds had dropped to 4-to-1.
But an elite fighter isn’t built in four months. It takes years of discipline, training, and hard work. Chavez simply wasn’t up to the task.
It was hard to imagine Canelo-Chavez not being an entertaining fan-friendly fight. But it wasn’t.
Both men fought cautiously in round one with Alvarez applying the greater pressure. Chavez could have forced exchanges but chose not to. In round two, Julio opened up a bit but seemed wary of Canelo’s punching power. By round three, they were clearly hunter and prey, with Canelo stalking and landing hurting blows. Blood began dribbling from Chavez’s nose. Whatever plan Julio might have had before the fight, he was now trying to outbox a man who was quicker, faster, and a better boxer.
From that point on, Canelo beat Chavez down. He was relentless, methodical, patient, and professional en route to a 228-to-71 advantage in punches landed.
In round five, Chavez’s left eye began to close, and one began to wonder whether his spirit or body would break first.
In round six, Alvarez went to the ropes as he would do several times during the fight in the hope of drawing Chavez into a more vigorous exchange of punches. “But he wouldn’t do it,” Canelo said afterward. “I thought he was going to fight. He just wouldn’t throw punches.”
There were times when Chavez accepted Canelo’s invitation to trade, but they were few and far between. Almost always, when Canelo fired back, Julio disengaged. He preferred to stay at as safe a distance as possible and never used his size in an effort to rough Canelo up on the inside.
One wondered what might happen if Chavez were able to land a hard overhand right flush on the jaw. But Canelo was boxing too well to find out. And Julio was largely in survival mode.
At the start of the proceedings, the 20,510 fans in attendance had been evenly divided. Whether Canelo won the Chavez fans over or Julio lost them is open to question. But there were fewer Chavez fans in the arena when the final bell sounded.
All three judges scored the bout 120-108. It would have been hard to arrive at a different tally.
“Canelo beat me,” Chavez acknowledged afterward. “He is very good and he beat me. He’s fast and he’s consistent. The speed and the distance was the key.”
Or as writer Tom Gerbasai noted, “The shoes were always going to be too big to fill. Maybe Julio Cesar Chavez Jr knew it from the start.”
Meanwhile, Canelo’s next fight is scheduled for September 16 against Gennady Golovkin and is the most anticipated fight of the year.
If Canelo beats Golovkin, it will elevate him to “Chavez-like” status in Mexico.
Check out more boxing news on video at The Boxing Channel.
Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. His most recent book – A Hard World: An Inside Look at Another Year in Boxing – was published by the University of Arkansas Press. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honored Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism.