By Jake Donovan
Houston, TX – As Peter Manfredo Jr’s manager Mike Criscio has pointed out over the course of the press tour for Saturday’s middleweight title fight against Julio Cesar Chavez Jr, “All we know about this fight is that a junior is going to win.”
That both of tonight’s combatants are second generation fighters is a bit appropriate, as they continue to fight for the approval of the boxing public.
“I believe I added credibility to my career with my championship,” Chavez Jr (43-0-1, 30KO) states in the wake of his points win over Sebastian Zbik to win a vacant belt this past June. “I’m always going to be (Chavez Sr’s) son, but little by little I’m forging my own career.”
It took a while for Chavez Jr to be viewed as more than just a sideshow and cash cow for his Top Rank promoter, as much of his eight-year career was littered with unfulfilled potential and in recent times uninspiring performances.
Things began to change for the oldest member of the second generation Chavez boxers last year when he hooked up with renowned trainer Freddie Roach. The journey began with a microwaved camp for his June ’10 clash with John Duddy in San Antonio – his last visit to Texas prior to tonight’s fight. Chavez provided the suggestion that he was for real in outslugging Duddy en route to a decision win.
The bout marked the last time that Duddy stepped foot in the ring, but Chavez has continued on. Eyebrows were raised when a sudden bout with the flu forced him to withdraw from a December ’10 showdown with Pawel Wolak, but medical reports confirmed his running a temperature as high as 103 during fight week.
The Mexican middleweight has since assumed full control of his career, coming back to dominate Billy Lyell earlier this year in what remains the highest ever boxing broadcast to appear on Fox Deportes, as testament to his wild popularity and ability to draw in the Latino Market.
HBO caught wind of his ratings and physical improvement – perhaps in that order – in finally bringing him to its airwaves this past June. In his Boxing After Dark debut, Chavez Jr overcame a slow start to outwork Zbik down the stretch en route to a well-earned majority decision and a vacant middleweight belt for his efforts.
A September tune-up was supposed to be on the table for Chavez Jr, but was pulled from his scheduled optional defense against Ronald Hearns after suffering a hand injury during training camp.
News of the injury made its way to Hearns’ promoter Lou DiBella, who was none too happy with the fallout. The personable yet occasionally volatile New Yorker was thrown a bone when it was announced that HBO was interested in bringing Chavez back for an approved fall showdown against Manfredo, whom DiBella also promotes.
All parties were satisfied, though perhaps Chavez’ team most of all, as their fighter provided a rare sight at the start of this training camp – showing up in pristine condition and prepared to train rather than to just make weight.
“The hand injury he suffered in the Ronald Hearns fight camp was almost a blessing in disguise,” suggests Alex Ariza, the famed strength and conditioning coach for most fighters trained by Roach, though most famous for his work with Manny Pacquiao.
“It was almost like having a pre-camp. I’ve never seen Julio like this before. He came in to camp not just focused on making weight, but taking this fight very serious. I’m very proud of him.”
Perhaps the proudest man in the room is Manfredo Jr. (37-6, 20KO), who challenges for a major title for the second time in his career. His first try saw the tough-as-nails New Englander fall way short against Joe Calzaghe in their April ’07 HBO-televised super middleweight championship bout.
The former reality show finalist comes into this fight riding a six-fight win streak, but is well aware of his place in the industry and what comes of his career in the event of a loss.
“This is my last shot at winning a world title. If I don’t win here, I might as well call it quits,” Manfredo states, though with the clarification that his comments aren’t the beginning of a retirement speech. “Our styles make for great action, but I’m a father of three and fight for my family. A win here pays off my house and sets me for life.”
The financial jackpot to which he refers is the fact that Saturday’s winner is in position for a major payday against lineal middleweight champion Sergio Martinez, who is in town and will be live at ringside for Saturday’s fight.
The belt at stake once belonged to Martinez, who won it in his 12-round decision over Kelly Pavlik in April ’10. The win was followed up by a rousing second-round knockout of Paul Williams to lock up Fighter of the Year honors.
HBO knew it wanted to remain in the Martinez business, but didn’t exactly bend over backwards to retain his services. A slot was offered this past March, but on the condition that he vacate his title rather than defend against Zbik, who was the mandatory challenger at the time. Martinez obliged, which paved the way for Chavez to acquire his first major belt in beating the German middleweight three months later.
Puzzling to most was the fact that HBO found Chavez-Zbik a fight befitting of its services, yet rejected the same fighter as an opponent for Martinez. If anyone deserved the tune-up, it was Martinez, coming off of a hellish schedule over his previous two years.
The series of events didn’t sit right with many in the boxing public, several of whom still refuse to lend validity to Chavez Jr’s title reign or his career as a whole.
Meanwhile, Saturday merely marks the latest chapter in Manfredo’s long quest for respect. Like Chavez Jr, Manfredo comes from a fighting family, as his father – who currently serves as his head trainer – was also a pro fighter. Unlike his opponent, Manfredo’s name wasn’t anywhere nearly as recognizable on his own, forcing him to come up the hard way.
“My dad was a tough fighter back in his day, but of course he was no Julio Cesar Chavez Sr,” Manfredo Jr. admits. “I had to work my way up the ladder throughout my career. No name value, just hard work.”
His all-action style made him an instant fan favorite, landing frequent appearances on ESPN2’s Friday Night Fights. The Providence native has always made for good TV fights on the fringe level, but has yet to climb the proverbial hump.
Saturday is viewed as his best – and most likely last – chance to prove he belongs at a higher level.
“Two things I always have going for me are my heart and my balls. I want to win, he doesn’t want to lose his title, and that’s going to make for a great fight. He’s a damn good fighter – you don’t get to 43-0 without knowing how to fight – but he’s human and gets hit a lot. You can tell by my face and my busted up nose that my opponents don’t miss a lot.
“You’ll see a great fight come Saturday. Hopefully we give you another Ward-Gatti type affair, where we can both wind up making millions in an HBO trilogy.”
While Chavez Jr. is never one to shy away from a war, chances are that he’ll be content with a one-and-done type affair with Manfredo. His newfound love for the game suggests a vastly improved version of the kid we’ve literally watched grow in front of our eyes throughout his eight-year career.
With recent fights came a newfound maturity, something he carried in with him to his most recent training camp. A win puts him in position for mega paydays against the likes of Martinez and fellow unbeaten Mexican star Saul ‘Canelo’ Alvarez, who fights one week later on HBO versus Kermit Cintron.
Chavez Jr. remains mum on what the future holds as he prefers to focus solely on tonight’s fight. But that doesn’t stop him from thinking about what’s in store for 2012 and beyond and how all of that disappears if he sleeps on anyone currently standing in his way.
“I know that anyone who comes to fight me is trying 200% to be the first to beat me,” Chavez Jr. believes. “I respect Manfredo for taking this fight, and also what he brings to the table. I’m ready for anything that he has to offer. He’s coming to take my title, but with each fight I’m getting better. I have to be at my best for this fight because I want to be champion for a very long time.”
Unlike most in and around the division, Manfredo has nothing but admiration for what Chavez Jr has been able to achieve while continuing to deal with adversity amidst a horde of critics.
“His dad was a legend, and it’s tough on him to escape his shadow. I have a lot of respect for him.”
Both fighters can only hope that tonight’s fight leaves the rest of the industry feeling the same way.
Jake Donovan is the Managing Editor of Boxingscene.com. Follow Jake on Twitter at twitter.com/JakeNDaBox or submit questions/comments to JakeNDaBox@gmail.com