By Jake Donovan
Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. was a shy, inexperienced 17-year old fighter the last time he played to a live crowd in the city of Houston. His third and fourth wins came in this boxing-rich city, but at a time when he was still learning on the job and widely viewed as a ticket-selling sideshow.
Nearly eight years later, he’s a far cry from that kid, on every level.
There’s still a sense of humility to the second generation boxer, yet at the same time also carrying a sense of swagger about him. Perhaps it came from winning a major belt in his hard-fought points victory over Sebastian Zbik earlier this year. The old adage goes that with a world championship comes a 25% improvement among that fighter.
The biggest difference these days, though, is that the 25-year young veteran is finally comfortable in his own skin.
The comparisons to his legendary father – arguably the greatest Mexican fighter ever – are unavoidable, as it’s all he’s heard from the moment he turned pro eight years ago. It’s an unfair comparison for any fighter to be expected to live up to such lofty standards, never mind one who bears his name.
Chavez Jr has finally come to grips with that reality, realizing with the proper amount of work and dedication, he can carve out his own legacy.
“Once you become a world champion, you accept the responsibility of training hard and getting better,” Chavez acknowledges, ahead of his November 19 showdown with Peter Manfredo Jr. in the first defense of his middleweight belt.
The bout will air live on HBO from Reliant Park in Houston, and Tuesday’s press conference in the West Club VIP Lounge at nearby Reliant Arena – home of the NFL’s Houston Texans – showcased a new and improved Chavez Jr.
Long gone is the shy kid hidden from the media and with no in-ring expectations other than to bowl offer spoon-fed opposition. Dressed in matching jean jacket and pants attire, Chavez Jr. confidently held court while proudly displaying his already impressive physique, more than three weeks away from fight night.
Granted, fighters should be expected to stay ready rather than wasting time having to get ready. But for a fighter with a history of struggling at the scales and pulling a no-show at the gym, no longer can the claims be made that he lacks motivation.
Becoming a champion can do that to a fighter. So too can the desire to remain a champ.
“I want to be a world champion for a long time,” Chavez Jr boasts, stating the obvious but also with a startling revelation. “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.”
Chavez Jr views it as his tribute to the first American city to host a professional fight of his, but additionally – and perhaps more importantly – to show proper respect to those who’ve invested a considerable amount of time and effort in bringing his career to a level of respectability.
The run with multi-winning Trainer of the Year Freddie Roach has been the proverbial roller coaster ride. A normal course of action was for Chavez to stroll into Roach’s Wild Card Gym in Hollywood out of shape and training for the sake of making weight.
That’s on the occasions where he has bothered to show up, as there have been far too many instances where no camp at all took place, leading to a fight cancellation and the collective sigh of disappointment from those refusing to believe his career ever amounts to anything.
That was the old – well, really the young Chavez Jr. It was the same kid who showed up to fight disinterested and a mystery as to what he would weigh, including his ballooning up to middleweight at a time his handlers sincerely thought he’d settling into the junior middleweight division.
It took for his bottoming out against Troy Rowland - winning their Nov. ’09 fight but testing positive for a banned substance and subsequently serving a six-month suspension – to convince him that the time was long overdue to either crap or get off the pot.
Enter he more mature version has found himself in the ring, as well as a weight class that feels like home and a trainer who brings out the very best in him.
“I feel comfortable at 160. I’ve already been there a couple of weeks,” Chavez insists, his jacket open enough to reveal a trim waistline. “I spent 10 weeks in Mexico getting ready. I know how tough Freddie and Alex (Ariza, Chavez Jr’s conditioning coach) are, so I knew to come into camp in shape and am in the best shape of my career.”
By his own admission, even Hall of Fame promoter Bob Arum was unsure where exactly the ever growing fighter would finally land.
“When he came to us, we thought he’d be a great junior welterweight,” Arum recalls of the stretch where Chavez Jr was easily making 140 lb while serving as pay-per-view undercard filler. “But every time we saw him, he’d grow bigger and bigger.”
The good news is that he can stop speculating. Even at just 25 years young, it appears that the growth spurt is finally over and the maturity stage has kicked. Arum was convinced of this the night he became a titlist.
“Now he’s a full middleweight, and has to put in a lot of work and effort to fight at this weight and level. We took our time, increasing the level of competition as he went along. 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.”
The win alone isn’t enough to make people forget about his legendary father, but that was never the goal. It was enough to convince people that he can fight at least a little bit, and be competitive – and successful – as he moves through the ranks.
Still, anything that can be done to detract from comparisons to Julio Sr. can only work in his favor.
“It was hard enough to convince everyone that he was for real, without him fighting in the same style as his father,” Arum notes. “He was crouching over and going to the body. We told him, ‘You’re a big kid. Fight like (Alexis) Arguello, not like your father.”
Chavez Jr is still a far cry from resembling the late great Flako Explosivo, but again – the goal is to not put himself alongside legendary Hall of Fame fighters, but simply to prove he has the talent and heart to make some noise on his own accord.
The title win over Zbik provided that much, applying pressure late in the fight to eke out a well-deserved decision in his first fight back in Los Angeles since touring with his father six years prior. Now he returns to another familiar city, though anxious to prove that he’s well above and beyond the image the fans in Houston have when he first appeared in town all those years ago.
“I have great memories of this town. It’s an honor to come back as a world champion and defend my title here. It was where I fought my second and third pro fight when I was 17- years old. I’m very happy to come back where it all began.”
Even more so that it’s on his own accord and no longer as an awkward sideshow act.
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 .