By Jake Donovan
For years, the term ‘it’s not what you know but who you know’ applied to the career of Julio Cesar Chavez Jr.
The son of the Mexico’s most famous – and arguably greatest – fighter ever was viewed as living the pampered life as he was matched soft on the way up the ranks. Even to this day, he’s viewed as a soft fighter who trains on his own terms.
Who he knows helped him arrive to this point. Come September 15, the degree of his success will depend entirely upon what he knows – or doesn’t know – when he faces lineal middleweight king Sergio Martinez at the Thomas and Mack Center in Las Vegas.
That the venue has completely sold out on tickets is a testament to Chavez Jr’s drawing power, having as much to do with who he is as it does with whom he knows. What he knows – and continues to learn – brings a once-viewed mismatch into discussion as a potentially competitive fight.
It’s perhaps the highest compliment paid to Chavez Jr’s career, which is approaching nine years in the pro ranks.
“I think they saw the dedication and the preparation that I had in the past year,” notes Chavez Jr. (46-0-1, 32KO), who faces his fifth straight Top 10-ranked fighter in a span of 15 months. “I noticed improvement and I feel very confident in what I can accomplish. I know how hard it has been working day after day to get to this point and I’m not going to disappoint anyone.”
There was a time where Chavez Jr. was damned no matter what he accomplished in the ring. Soft matchmaking while appearing in high profile pay-per-view undercard slots certainly didn’t help matters any. His handlers – including top American promotional outfit, Top Rank – had a goal in mind from the moment they became involved in his career; cash in on the popularity while transitioning the fighter from a novice to a top-shelf talent.
Chavez Jr. remains a work in progress, but has reached the point where his career is no longer treated with kid gloves.
“I would like to say something about how you promote,” explains Hall of Fame promoter Bob Arum. “Everybody has been raising questions about why Julio didn’t fight Martínez before. One of the reasons was he was learning his trade and now he’s a lot better prepared.
“We could have taken a chance with him and Martínez about a year ago. The problem would have been it would not have been nearly as big a fight. The fact that he is fighting Martínez now has brought tremendous attention, which wouldn’t have been the case a year ago.”
Making matters worse for the second-generation Lion of Culiacan is the fact that he was granted opportunities not always applied to his peers. Martinez was on the receiving end of such favors extended to Chavez Jr, as he was forced (relatively speaking) into giving up his alphabet title after HBO rejected an opponent – Sebastian Zbik – later approved for his opponent this weekend.
The very belt Chavez Jr possesses was the same title Martinez vacated. That the fight has been a year in the making has turned matters into a personal grudge match. Martinez has had few if any kind words for the box office star over that time, as well as throughout this promotion.
Chavez Jr. doesn’t claim to not pay it any mind, instead using at fuel for what he believes will be a surefire win this weekend.
“I know he has a big mouth and on September 15th I am going to shut him up once and for all. He’s just a big clown,” Chavez Jr. promises.
What he has learned to tune out in recent time is criticism from the boxing public. There will always remain a group of fans who will forever compare Chavez Jr. to his legendary father, no matter the result of this weekend or any other fight past, present or future.
To his credit, Chavez Jr. recognizes this and only hopes to prove his critics wrong with his in-ring actions.
“I can’t help that people say that stuff about me. I am the son and that is who I am. He is my dad, but little by little I have proven myself… in the ring. You have seen what I have done in the ring the past few fights. You can’t take that away from me – my victories and my championship.”
Martinez has every intention of taking it all away come Saturday night. The oddsmakers have the Argentine star as a betting favorite, though the odds are much closer than anyone would have imagined even a few months ago. The development on the road to the championship challenge has a lot to do with the matchup no longer being viewed as a mismatch.
Even Chavez Jr’s own team has gained more confidence than would have been the case a few fights ago.
“Handling the southpaw stance of Andy Lee was, I think, a big thing,” admits Hall of Fame trainer Freddie Roach, who has worked with Chavez for the past two years. “He hadn’t had a lot of experience with southpaws and he fought that fight great.
“After that fight we knew it was time to step up. We knew Martínez was a southpaw. We know how to fight a southpaw now and his father and I have been coming up with a game plan. Julio has some ideas also so the three of us are putting the plan together.”
A venue-record breaking crowd of more than 19,000 fans will bear witness to whether or not that plan comes to fruition. Whatever the case, Chavez Jr. takes great pride in the stretch of fights that have brought him to the crossroads.
The past four fights have given the box office star several different looks and also several different outcomes. Zbik – while rated by most in the Top 10 – was viewed as a marginal contender when Chavez Jr. faced him last June. The fight went the full twelve, with the Mexican boxer requiring a late surge to pull out a narrow points win and his first major title.
His fight with Peter Manfredo Jr. featured a new look – one of an in-shape fighter rather than a lazy, spoiled son of a legend who doesn’t take the game seriously. Chavez Jr. was cut and chiseled well in advance of his HBO-televised fight last November, which showed in the ring as he was fluid in his attack prior to registering a one-sided stoppage.
Old habits resurfaced in his 2012 debut, a struggling points win over Marco Antonio Rubio. The outcome of the fight was never in doubt, but the pre-fight buildup carried far more drama. Chavez Jr. was arrested mere weeks prior to fight night and had to starve himself during Fight Week in order to shrink down to the 160 lb. limit.
A much better traning camp came of his fight with Andy Lee this past June, though still required a come-from-behind rally in order to stop the Irish southpaw in seven rounds of a competitive fight. The bout was his third straight fight in Texas, but perhaps the first time that more than a handful of fans and boxing personalities viewed him as a potential threat to end Martinez’ two-plus year run as the best middleweight in the world.
That said, the moments after his win over Lee was hardly the first time Chavez Jr. thought about stepping to Martinez.
“I always wanted to fight him. When I won the title I knew I was going to have to fight him and I wanted to fight him whenever he was ready.”
It took for his ability to adapt mid-fight against a former amateur standout and legitimate pro contender to convince the rest of the time that the time was now.
“My promoter told me after my fight in El Paso that the fight was done and I was very happy,” Chavez Jr. recalls. “I knew the fight was going to happen and everyone knew the fight was going to happen. The people want to see it and I want to fight it. I am about the people and to give the people the best fights in boxing. That’s why this fight is happening now.”
There’s also another reason why ‘now’ rather than ‘then’ is the time and place for the biggest middleweight to be made.
“Julio was really able to catch the attention of the public after the fights with Zbik and with Rubio, Manfredo, with Lee, and with this great exposure on HBO, he being the highest rating getter,” explains Arum in building up this fight into a big event. “When this fight happens on September 15th and if Julio is successful, which we believe he will be, Julio will become one of the biggest attractions in all of boxing.
“He becomes on the level of a Pacquiao, of a Mayweather, by virtue of the fact that the gate is selling out here, the closed circuit is doing extremely well and the pay-per-view numbers should be much higher than anyone anticipated.”
The fight officially sold out as of Tuesday afternoon, just prior to the grand arrivals of both fighters in Las Vegas.
“The fact that he is fighting Martínez now has brought tremendous attention, which wouldn’t have been the case a year ago,” Arum theorizes. “He’s better prepared and it’s a win-win for everybody. With the possible exception of Martínez, it is a win-win, but it’s a win for him too because he will get a bigger purse. That’s why this fight is happening now and why it has a tremendous buzz to it and that’s why everyone wants to watch this fight on September 15th.”
Wednesday marks the 20-year anniversary of Julio Cesar Chavez Sr’s battering of Hector Camacho, which took place in the very same venue. Chavez Jr. – who was all of six years old at the time - has managed to outdo his father in the ticket sales department, registering the building’s best ever total, while Julio Sr’s fight with Chavez ranks in the arena’s Top Five best selling events.
All that’s left for the unbeaten middleweight to do is prove that he can compete at the sport’s highest level. Doing so should forever provide his career with its own identity, where people talk more about what he can do rather than to whom he is related.
“I have done a lot of things on my own. I have my own story now,” Chavez Jr. believes. “They can say whatever they want but I have proven myself and it hasn’t been easy.”
Jake Donovan is the Managing Editor of Boxingscene.com. Follow Jake on Twitter: @JakeNDaBox