By Cliff Rold
The title is unfair.
If nothing else, Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. (42-0-1, 30 KO) has already proven far more the serious professional than one Eric “Butterbean” Esch ever was.
For those who have forgotten, and those who just wish they could, Esch was once a staple on cable fight shows and even some 1990s Oscar De La Hoya pay-per-view undercards. He was the great Larry Holmes’s farewell victim in 2002. Ol’ Butterbean even scored a knockout on a Wrestlemania show once.
Often derided after coming to fame as a cult favorite in Toughman contests, Esch took real shots, threw some real haymakers, and as the “King of the Four Rounders” satisfied a carnival aspect of the game. Occasionally combined for the more prurient interests with female boxer, and eventual Playboy cover girl, Mia St. John, it was a struggle to be taken seriously by serious fight fans.
Not that they were really supposed to be.
Having gone ten rounds for the first time in 2006, and now graduated to twelve round affairs, Chavez has slowly grown a career that asks for the respect of the fans. Even if he has yet to prove he’s particularly good, he’s at least shown he isn’t that bad. He’s even got Freddie Roach in his corner to lend the air of legitimacy. Also lending an air, Chavez Jr. takes a step this weekend Esch and St. John never came close to.
He’s the main event on an HBO telecast.
And yet, fair or unfair, it’s hard to shake the feeling that we still don’t know what to make of the kid.
Is Chavez Jr. showtime or sideshow?
The question might not be so present were his name different. The scrutiny of being the son of one of the greats of fistic lore is heavy. His connection to Top Rank can’t be overlooked either. Butterbean and St. John were once both promoted by Top Rank. Top Rank once saw fit to put them, both of them, on the undercard of De La Hoya-Felix Trinidad. Recently, Top Rank foisted the oafish Tye Fields on the boxing public, eating up valuable airtime that didn’t make one new fan.
History says they’re willing to do carnie.
A loss this weekend wouldn’t lend anything positive. Don’t let his opponent’s WBC belt blind. Sebastian Zbik (30-0, 10 KO) is a capable fighter but not a very highly regarded one. Sure, he’s a top ten Middleweight, but this is a shallow field at 160 lbs. for the moment. The day is growing closer where that won’t be true, the day where names like Golovkin or Pirog or Guerrero will be in full throttle, leading a resurgent classic class.
For now, it is led by a dynamic true champion in Sergio Martinez waiting for smaller men to rise and younger men to come of age. Zbik isn’t a big puncher and doesn’t provide too many dimensions. Zbik is about the safest contender available.
The belt on the line? It’s like old times. Someone named Julio Cesar Chavez was available to fight for a belt and the WBC just coincidentally had a strap go from interim to full and available for him to fight for. At least Jr. didn’t just lose to Willy Wise or anything.
Then again, he’s young yet.
Give it time.
For now, it’s enough to note that Jr. is a ticket seller. The nostalgia affect of his father’s name has served him well. So too has the fact that Jr. makes for crowd pleasing fights. In his best win to date, last June against John Duddy, Chavez was involved in a brawl some whispered could be considered for Fight of the Year honors.
That was overstating the quality.
It was still a solid outing.
Chavez has had more than one. Built slowly since turning pro in 2003, with no amateur background to speak of, Chavez has deliberately worked through a stream of journeyman to develop a real offensive arsenal. Opponents like Duddy, Matt Vanda, and Billy Lyell are clearly C-to-B level opposition, but everyone has to fight those on their way.
Zbik is a solid B and represents the latest step up. Now 25, Chavez is making this step up at an age similar to his contemporaries. Win this weekend and Chavez will be a step closer to the sort of real contention it was hard to imagine for him a few years ago.
Should he get there, a different comparison could become the norm. As the child of a legend, Laila Ali faced many of the same criticisms Chavez Jr. is open too, compounded by here gender in a mostly masculine enterprise. Women’s boxing, then and now, struggled for respect in the U.S. market.
Ali hasn’t fought since 2007. Her point was mostly proved by then (minus a showdown with Ann Wolfe that should have happened). Retiring at 24-0 with 21 stops, Ali proved she was no one’s sideshow. She was a fighter, and a damn good one.
This Satuday, the larger boxing world and the fighter himself will find out how close, and maybe how far, Chavez Jr. is from saying the same.
Cliff’s Notes… Carl Froch is talking way too much heading into a fight with Glen Johnson. Johnson remains one of the toughest men on this Earth and giving him extra incentive is no way to make one’s night easier…Then again, when you fight as man tough ones in a row as Froch, it probably starts to feel like old hat…Love the making of Amir Khan-Zab Judah. This fight is going to be fun…Best of luck to the aforementioned De La Hoya in his battle with addiction. Anyone who has seen someone in that fight knows how tough it can be…What’s the big deal about the film of Mosley wanting to quit in the Pacquiao fight? Most people with sense knew he should have quit before signing the contract. Sad, and now prolonged, end for a once thrilling champion but time gets them all.
Cliff Rold is a member of the Ring Magazine Ratings Advisory Panel, the Yahoo Pound for Pound voting panel, and the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be reached at [email protected]