By Jake Donovan
It was a picture perfect afternoon in late October when the local media gathered for what appeared to be yet another run-of-the-mill boxing press conference in Houston. The topic of the day was undefeated middleweight Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. making the first defense of his alphabet title against fringe contender Peter Manfredo Jr. on November 19 at Reliant Arena.
The media session was staged in the VIP lounge on the third floor of Reliant Stadium, home to the NFL’s Houston Texans. On the field level, stadium workers could be seen laying down the turf for a game the Texans would host against the Jacksonville Jaguars that upcoming Sunday.
Looking down below to the field through a glass window was Bob Arum, the promo who somehow entered the room unnoticed. He’s quietly approached by a media member, who says nothing as he stands alongside the Hall of Fame promoter.
The reporter looks down and sees a bunch of people getting the stadium ready for football. Without provocation or even making eye contact, Arum says what’s on his mind. It was at that moment the reporter realized that while they were staring in the same direction, they see something completely different.
“Can you imagine 40,000 people in this place for Chavez-(Saul) Alvarez one day?” Arum asks, barely above a whisper and perhaps not even to anyone specific, not even the guy standing next to him.
The reporter glances, and suddenly realizes what this event means to Arum – a homecoming.
By the time Chavez Jr and Manfredo take the ring on Saturday evening in their HBO-televised main event, exactly 45 years and five days will have passed since Arum’s Top Rank Inc. made their stateside promotional debut. The Harvard lawyer was a mere 35 years young, when he brought to town a certain reigning heavyweight champion by the name of Muhammad Ali.
The event was a big deal at the time, and not entirely due to Ali ruling the heavyweight division at a time when such status was synonymous with being the most powerful man in boxing. It also marked the first time he had fought in the United States due to protests of his stance against the Vietnam War.
Ali had already fought four times that year – Canada, Germany and twice in the UK – before a Houston businessman and former judge opened the door for “The Greatest” to once again fight in an American location, and for Arum to promote in the United States for the first time.
“I got a call one day from a man named Roy Hofheinz, who ran the Astrodome,” Arum vividly recalls, as if he were suddenly transported back to 1966. “He told me, ‘You just bring (Ali) down here and we’ll protect him.” This was before the Superdome in New Orleans, before any enclosed stadium of that size.”
Hofheinz was credited for being the pioneer of the enclosed stadium model. The Astrodome was the first of its kind and created to house his newly acquired Major League Baseball franchise at the time, then known in 1962 as the Houston Colt .45’s.
The team would change its name to the Astros three years later, just one year before the stadium would officially open its doors to boxing.
A better fight couldn’t have been selected, as Ali tore through Cleveland Williams in what many refer to as the most complete performance of his career. The champion was so well-received that he came back to town in his very next fight, punishing Ernie Terrell over 15 rounds in a fight that spawned the shouted catchphrase, ‘What’s my name?’, a reference to Terrell – and several others in the industry – refusing to recognize Ali’s conversion to Islam as they insisted on calling him by his birth name, Cassius Clay.
Ali would fight just once more – at Madison square Garden – before being forced out of the sport for more than 3 ½ years due to his refusal to enter the military draft. Houston remained in the fight business, however, hosting the heavyweight tournament held to crown a champion in Ali’s absence, and also once again hooking up with Ali for back-to-back fights in 1971 against Jimmy Ellis and Buster Mathis.
The fights remain affixed in Arum’s mind, though to mixed emotions. He is fond of the shows he brought to town on the way up, including a 1981 doubleheader featuring Sugar Ray Leonard and Thomas Hearns prior to their superfight later that year.
However, it also saddens Arum once he realizes that the people involved in giving him his start in the United States are no longer with us. In a way, it makes this weekend his personal thank you to Space City for laying the foundation for his own Hall of Fame career.
“The truth is, there is no city like Houston,” Arum states. “I have such history here. People don’t remember great the great people that made it possible back then, the Hofheinz family. I have great memories of them and this city back then.
“Driving past the Astrodome on the way to this beautiful stadium, it all came back to me. We did so many fights at the Astrodome that it was like a second home to me. I also did events at Astro Hall, which is now Reliant Arena (where this weekend’s card takes place). There was a great Mexican champ named Pipino Cuevas. I did his fight with Harold Volbrecht there.”
At just 26 years young, Chavez Jr. (44-0-1, 30KO) wasn’t even born yet when Cuevas played the venue. To put in proper perspective, his legendary Hall of Fame father Julio Sr. had just begun his pro career at the time.
Needless to say, the aforementioned events by Arum aren’t quite memories for Chavez Jr, but retellings of historical events. That’s not to say, though, that the second generation boxer can’t empathize with his Hall-of-Fame promoter more than three times his age.
“I have great memories of this town,” Chavez Jr says ahead of this weekend’s showdown with Manfredo, which marks his second straight appearance on HBO. “It’s an honor to come back as a world champion. It was where I fought my third and fourth pro fights when I was 17- years old. I’m very happy to come back where it all began, and now defend my title here.”
Chavez Jr. was a frail teenager when he first appeared in this town. So small, that it was believed he’d eventually make his first title run at 140 lb.
Some nine years and 40 fights later, the undefeated titlist returns to town 20 lb heavier.
However, the Houston boxing public is catching him at a high point in his career. Not just because it’s his first fight since winning a vacant belt in his spirited performance over Sebastian Zbik this past June; but also because they will get a fully matured version who has discovered a newfound love for the sport.
“I think he has a great work ethic now,” Arum notes of the slender Chavez Jr. “He keeps improving. Earlier this year, when he fought Zbik at the Staples Center, we felt he was ready. Julio showed that he learned how to be a fighter, and he won a decisive victory to become the middleweight champion.”
They chose Houston as the site for his first defense with designs of a renewed relationship between Top Rank and the city. There are plans to bring Chavez Jr back to town, along with the flirtation of a huge showdown with in-country rival Saul “Canelo” Alvarez.
The young Mexican isn’t quite yet ready to bite, though. He realizes that the type of sloppy work ethic he’s employed in the past won’t get him very far, if even beyond Saturday, which is why no other fight yet reaches the tip of his tongue.
“I can’t think about those fights. I have to concentrate on what I’m doing right now. Manfredo is first. After that, I can worry about those other fights. Of course I want them, but I have this fight first.”
For this fight, Chavez Jr shows off a physique befitting of a champion, even if he’s only recognized by most in the industry as ‘just’ a titlist. In an era where several in the media (and the industry in general) insist that the belts don’t matter, there still exists a large number of participants who emphatically disagree.
“Once you become a world champion, you accept the responsibility of training hard and getting better,” says Chavez, paying homage to the old line that becoming a champion improves your ability and state of mind by an immediate 25%.
For this weekend’s fight, he pays respect to a town that hosted his first ever fights in the United States. A capacity crowd is expected, and Chavez Jr hopes for Saturday night to serve as the next step towards a lengthy title reign, his own thank you to the local crowd who’ve supported him throughout his career.
”I want to be a world champion for a long time. I’ve been training three months for this fight. I’ve never trained this hard for a fight. I want to give the people of Houston a great fight. They deserve it.”
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