By Thomas Gerbasi
“He’s not his father.”
Having talked to a number of Julio Cesar Chavez Jr.’s opponents over the years, that’s always the disclaimer, the exclamation mark on what usually starts out as a sentence of praise. “He’s a good fighter.” “He’s got a sharp left hook.” “He’s a tough out.”
But he’s not his father.
True. But it begs the question, who is? Julio Cesar Chavez Sr. is a certified all-time great, a Hall of Famer and Mexican icon whose legacy is one that few can touch. His greatness was created out of desperation, poverty, and an unyielding will to rise from such humble beginnings to the top of his sport and into the hearts of his countrymen.
Junior didn’t have that issue. As son of one of Mexico’s greatest heroes, his life was much different than that of his father, and when he decided to pick up the family business, it was greeted with a mix of joy and skepticism – joy from those who hoped he would carry the Chavez line into the new era, and skepticism from everyone else.
And that skepticism was not only expected, but it was warranted. Chavez Jr. was the rawest of raw prospects when he began his pro career in 2003, and a steady stream of Pay-Per-View appearances didn’t exactly endear him to a public who were being asked to pay to see a fighter who was basically a version of Butterbean or Mia St. John in terms of being a novelty act, a curiosity. “Hey, look at the son of one of the greatest fighters of all-time for only $29.95.”
But the wins kept coming, the journeymen kept falling, and Junior’s record kept blowing up. By 2008, Chavez Jr. was 34-0-1, an almost obscene record for a fighter yet to face world-class opposition, and the daggers really started to come out from fans, the media, and his fighting peers. Again, the criticism was warranted, especially when it came from fighters who had spent years of toil on the club scene hoping for just an ounce of the attention and money Chavez Jr. was getting.
Here’s the rub though. If you were Chavez Jr. would you have requested a career fought in smoky rings in Tijuana and Culiacan? Would you have said, ‘no, I don’t want to be on television until I’ve proven myself?’ No, this is a business, and when it comes to the boxing business, few, if any, are better in moving and building a fighter than Bob Arum and Top Rank. If this was Julio Cesar Smith, you probably never would have heard of him, and when some of those close decisions would have gone the other way, you may have seen him say ‘okay, enough of this.’ But with the last name Chavez, Junior had a bargaining chip like none other, and Arum and his team took full advantage of what they had.
They also made sure that Junior would not get thrown to the wolves, and that he would be protected and matched carefully until it was time to make the big kill. By 2010, renowned trainer Freddie Roach was on board, Junior was competing at the seemingly manageable weight of 160 pounds, and then he made his move, winning a 12 round decision over Sebastian Zbik last June that earned him the green WBC belt that his father made famous. A fifth round stoppage of Peter Manfredo ended the year in November, and this Saturday he will make the second defense of his crown against the dangerous Marco Antonio Rubio.
This weekend’s clash against Rubio is the fight that the boxing world is watching closer than any other at the moment, and it has nothing to do with the fact that Rubio is the biggest puncher Chavez Jr. has faced to date, though that helps in terms of drawing in fans to the first broadcast of the Ken Hershman era at HBO. No, the reason everyone is looking at this fight with baited breath is because 2012 begins the “big kill” year for Junior and Top Rank. Should Chavez emerge unscathed from the Alamodome with his title belt in hand, we will finally see whether he’s a worthy successor to his father. At this point there is no more hand holding, no more soft touches. At 25, Junior will have to grow up this year.
The names thrown out already are all formidable - Sergio Martinez, Saul Alvarez, Antonio Margarito - and all, with perhaps the exception of the 154-pound “Canelo,” would likely be prohibitive favorites over Chavez Jr., who has vastly improved over the years, but has still not convinced the boxing cognoscenti that he’s the real deal.
And that’s unfortunate, because for all the soft touches he’s gotten over the years, he still gets into the ring on fight night and risks his health against those who would be able to make careers for themselves if they could just pin that first loss on his unbeaten record. That’s a lot of pressure without even counting the burden of carrying his father’s legacy on his shoulders every time out. Sure, being a Chavez has made him more money than he could have imagined if he was the son of someone else, but there is a price to pay for everything in this life, and having the weight of expectations to deal with is sometimes harder than dealing with a left hook or right cross aimed at your chin.
So for him to have made it this far is a testament to more than just good marketing and careful matchmaking. Chavez Jr. is a fighter, and while his sometimes cavalier attitude toward training and making weight has produced several red flags over the years, the beautiful part of this often sordid business is that you can’t fool everybody forever. No one gets out of here with a 100-0 record without being tested against the best the game has to offer. Eventually, the public will demand the best fights against the best opposition, and that’s where Junior sits today.
Rubio will be a test for him and his chin, but Junior’s speed and solid fundamentals should allow him to get out of trouble and retain his title. Martinez is the people’s choice for his next opponent, but that may be an option Top Rank pushes off for as long as possible, maybe to the end of the year, when Martinez is 37 and possibly on the wrong end of that dangerous number. Margarito, despite his one-sided loss to Miguel Cotto last year, is still a terminator in the ring and the type of dangerous, yet past his prime, opponent that can sell a fight but not be the one to beat the prized jewel of the promotional stable. Alvarez? It’s an All-Mexico superfight, but one that would be difficult to make given the frosty relations between Top Rank and Alvarez’ promoter, Golden Boy Promotions.
It’s a convoluted puzzle, to say the least, but one that must be solved soon if Chavez Jr. is to retain the public’s fascination with him and not just be a footnote in his sport’s lore. His surname got him here. Of that there is no doubt. But is he his own man? Will he demand the big fights that will never remove him from his father’s shadow but that will at least give him his own share of the spotlight in the history books? That’s a tough question to answer when your name alone gives you advantages that 99.9% of your peers will never enjoy. Then again, they’ve never had to deal with the downsides, the constant questions, and the eternal skepticism. So who knows, maybe dealing with the negatives has done more for Junior’s resolve than facing any of his previous opponents in the ring, and maybe we’ve been wrong about him all these years.
Luckily, boxing is the greatest lie detector there is. And 2012 will tell the tale of Julio Cesar Chavez Jr.