LAS VEGAS – Freddie Roach is feeling uneasy. It’s a common trait among trainers less than 48 hours before a major fight but this time it is not so much the fight he is worried about. It is his fighter.
Julio Cesar Chavez, Jr. has according to many reports been a reluctant student in his preparation for Saturday night’s middleweight showdown with linear champion Sergio Martinez. It is by far the biggest fight of Chavez’s career yet it has been one of the more difficult training camps Roach has had with him, a fact that can be unnerving as fight night approaches.
Roach was repeatedly seen on HBO’s 24/7 documentaries waiting for Chavez to show (or not) at the Top Rank Gym in Las Vegas, where he insisted on training rather than at Roach’s preferred Wild Card Gym in Hollywood. Roach has learned to be liberal about such matters once a man becomes a champion but regardless of the venue the work must be done.
Whether it has been is a question that will only truly be answered Saturday night when Chavez steps in with the 37-year-old Martinez, an aging champion who has shown signs of slippage yet who remains an obsessive preparer for all the possibilities inside the ring.
At 26, Chavez is unbeaten (46-0-1-1, 32 KO), wearer of the WBC strap that was, in Martinez’s opinion, handed to him because of the power of his father’s name, and outwardly at least brimming with confidence. Yesterday Roach insisted that while he was not happy with the manner in which Chavez prepared – which included late-night jogs in the Vegas neon and even later training sessions in the gym – the hay is in the barn. The work, he says, has been done.
“It’s been a little bit of an unusual training camp,’’ the five-time Trainer of the Year admitted. “Sometimes we were training at 1 a.m., 3 a.m, finishing at 6 a.m. Sometimes I had to wait for him but you wait for a world champion. In the end, we got the work in. You’ll see it Saturday night.’’
Perhaps so but it seemed an odd way to prepare for the greatest challenge of your career. Unless, mistakenly, you think it is not. Whether Chavez is wiser than the rest of the boxing public and believes Martinez is now walking on the shady side of the street or whether he is simply a fighter afraid to face the reality of what is coming for him and so he cuts corner in the same way students refuse to study for an exam so that if they fail they can later say, “Well, if I’d studied I would have aced it.’’ remains known only to Chavez himself.
“I’ve seen him knocked down (as recently as in his last fight with British contender Matthew Macklin before Martinez stopped him in the 11th round),’’ Chavez snapped angrily this week. “I’ve seen him knocked out (early in his career by Antonio Margarito, in a fight he was nowhere near ready for). He looked pretty good (then).
“He talks b------t and then at the time of the right he’s only running, running, running. Saturday he’ll have me all over him!’’
At that the visibly irked Chavez turned toward Martinez, who was sitting only a foot or two away from him and he wagged his finger threateningly.
“I’m not only going to beat you, I’m going to retire you from boxing!’’ Chavez hollered before turning his back on Martinez and walking away.
It was not an act. It was an expression of raw emotion but, one wonders, from what source? Did it come from a deep well of confidence that this is his time and that he is far more than his critics, who say he is a creation of his father’s greatness, insist? Or was his anger spawned from a deeper sense of trepidation, knowing the hour is almost upon him and can no longer be avoided and he is not sure now whether he is up to the task he is about to face?
Saturday night becomes the proving ground for young Chavez, whose resume is a thin one. That doesn’t mean he can’t fight, it only means no one can say for sure if he can. His improvement since Roach took over his training is clear and to be expected. Not only are his workouts now directed by a master craftsman but Chavez is also someone who came late to boxing, having had no real amateur experience before deciding six years ago at the age of 20 to suddenly enter his father’s trade after living his teenage years in the lap of luxury, a dilettante who visited the gym only to see his father sweat.
Now it is his time to sweat and, frankly, some whisper he has not visited the gym often enough this time. They see his decision to take unscheduled off days and to arrive on his own time schedule as fundamental signs of both his immaturity and his lack of understanding of the difficult trade he has entered.
His way, thus far, has been smooth, paved by his father’s legend and the promotional skills of Bob Arum and matchmaking expertise of Bruce Trampler. Unlike most fighters, Chavez had the luxury of being brought along slowly and it has led him to this moment. But now the speed of everything increases. Whether he is up to that, no one knows.
“When we talk boxing now, it’s as equals,’’ the younger Chavez says of his father, a thought that is absurd on one level and the innocence of blind youth on another. Certainly they now both share the same trade and the same right to be called champions but they are not equals and never will be. In a sense however that is unimportant because the only man he must be the equal of now is Martinez.
“I feel very confident in what I can accomplish,’’ Chavez says. “I know how hard it has been working day after day to get to this point. I’m not going to disappoint anyone. You are going to see a complete boxer. I don’t train to lose.’’
That is not the question. The question is have you trained at all? Or at least enough to match Martinez’s movement, ring intelligence and finishing ability?
Like his father before him, Chavez is a hellacious body puncher who can do real damage on the inside if he can get himself in position. He has chopped down many of his opponents with the same relentless body attack that made his father the greatest Mexican fighter in boxing history.
But it is one thing to hit Andy Lee or John Duddy, tough guys who tend to apologize to you if you don’t hit them, and someone like Martinez, whose footwork is sublime from his days as a dancer and soccer player and whose patience is his greatest asset.
Roach has said they have plotted a plan filled with traps set to lure Martinez into places where young Chavez can tear at his body and no one doubts that early in the fight the young champion will attack. Even the challenger said as much, although the reason for it in his mind does not bode well for Chavez.
“What else can he do?’’ Martinez said. “If he tries to box, he just loses faster.’’
Roach has told Chavez Martinez cannot fight backing up but few people can. Then again, backing him up may be a goal difficult to accomplish if his fighter has not laid all the ground work and done all the hard labor in the gym required because unlike his father, who cut corners many times in his preparation, Chavez, Jr. has not been blessed with all the gifts his father was given.
And so we wait to see, anxious to learn if Freddie Roach’s anxiety is simply the normal reaction to the ticking of a clock or the more alarming one to the ticking of a time bomb.