By Cliff Rold
On St. Patrick’s Day 2010, boxing marked the twentieth anniversary of its most famous bar brawl . The 1990 Fight of the Year took place on March 17, a 1984 U.S. Olympic Gold Medalist named Meldrick Taylor entering at 24-0-1 to face a by then three-division champion Julio Cesar Chavez listed at 68-0.
It was a classic in every sense. It was a controversy which endures to now. Behind on points, Chavez roared back in the late rounds and nailed Taylor with a right hand in the closing seconds to send his man to the floor. Taylor beat the count. Referee Richard Steele determined it was not enough, waving his arms at 2:58 of the twelfth and final round to declare Taylor a beaten man.
In rememberance of Chavez’s greatest and most debated victory, the opportunity is seized to look back on the “Lion of Culiacan,” “El Gran Campeon Mexicano,” and ask: how good was Chavez, measured against all-time?
In answering the question, five categories will be examined:
2) Competition Faced
3) Competition Not Faced
4) Reaction to Adversity
5) What’s Left to Prove
It begins with…
The Tale of the Tape
Height: 5’7 ½
Hailed From: Culiacan, Sinaloa, Mexico
Turned Professional: February 5, 1980 (KO6 Andres Felix)
Record: 107-6-2, 86 KO, 4 KOBY
Record in Title Fights: 31-4-2, 21 KO, 3 KOBY
Lineal World Titles: World Lightweight (October 29, 1988-March 2, 1989); World Jr. Welterweight (March 17, 1990-January 29, 1994, 9 Defenses; May 7, 1994-June 7, 1996, 4 Defenses)
Other Major Titles: WBC Jr. Lightweight (1984-87, 9 Defenses); WBA Lightweight (1987-88, 1 Defense); WBA/WBC Lightweight (1988-89); WBC Jr. Welterweight (1989-91, 3 Defenses); WBC/IBF Jr. Welterweight (1991, 2 Defenses); WBC Jr. Welterweight (1991-94, 7 Defenses; 94-96, 4 Defenses)
Current/Former Lineal World Champions Defeated: 3 (Roger Mayweather - TKO2, RTD10; Rocky Lockridge – MD12; Frankie Randall – Tech. Dec. 8, UD10)
Current/Former Lineal World Champions Faced in Defeat or Draw: 4 (Pernell Whitaker – D12; Frankie Randall – L12; Oscar De La Hoya – TKO by 4, RTD8; Kostya Tszyu – TKO by 6)
Current/Former Alphabet Titlists Defeated or Drawn: 12 (Juan La Porte – UD12; Edwin Rosario – TKO11; Jose Luis Ramirez – Tech. Dec. 11; Sammy Fuentes – RTD10; Meldrick Taylor – TKO12, TKO8; Hector Camacho – UD12; Greg Haugen – TKO5; Tony Lopez – TKO10; Giovanni Parisi – UD12; Joey Gamache – TKO8; Miguel Angel Gonzalez – D12; Ivan Robinson – UD10)
Turned pro at only seventeen years of age, Chavez reeled off a lengthy series of wins to work towards his first title opportunity, though how long is still worthy of debate. While the Mexican Commission today officially recognizes the March 4, 1981 contest between Chavez and Miguel Ruiz as a first round knockout, as late as a 1986 contest against Rocky Lockridge, NBC was reporting that same commission as still referring to the fight as a disqualification loss for Chavez. It has since been officially confirmed as a win, one of 43 on the road to a September 1984 shot at the vacant WBC 130 lb. title, an eighth round stoppage of perennial bridesmaid Mario Martinez beginning Chavez’s championship days. Chavez would defend the belt nine times in a span of twelve contests total before moving five pounds up the scale.
Chavez had stretched his mark to 56-0 when he moved five pounds up the scale in November 1987 to challenge for the WBA Lightweight title held by Edwin Rosario, winning a thrilling war with a stoppage of the future Hall of Famer in the eleventh. Three non-title wins and a single title defense led to an October 1988 all-Mexican unification showdown with former training mate and WBC titlist Jose Luis Ramirez, Chavez winning via decision when the bout was stopped for an accidental cut to Ramirez following the eleventh round. With the win, Chavez stood out to most as the genuine Lightweight king. He wasn’t there to stay.
In May 1989, Chavez moved yet another five pounds up and forced WBC Jr. Welterweight titlist Roger Mayweather (famous today as the trainer and uncle of Floyd Mayweather) to quit on his stool, a retirement in ten. It was the second win over Mayweather after an earlier knockout win at Jr. Lightweight and the beginning of a long tenure atop 140 lbs. The Taylor win would bring him near universal recognition as the real champion, wide acclaim as boxing’s pound-for-pound king, and the IBF belt, abandoned later in 1990 during a feud between his promoter, Don King, and the IBF.
His Jr. Welterweight reign still ongoing, his record an astounding 87-0, Chavez moved up yet again in September 1993, challenging long time pound-for-pound rival Pernell Whitaker for Whitaker’s WBC and lineal Welterweight crown. The attempt fell short, Chavez outboxed only to receive a dubious and still despicable draw to protect his undefeated (if no longer unblemished) mark.
Three fights later, in January 1994, defeat could no longer be avoided nor could the floor, Chavez dropped for the first time in his career to lose the WBC crown at 140 to Frankie Randall. They met in a return in May, the bout shortened by an accidental cut to Chavez, the Mexican regaining the title with an eight round technical decision. He would reign a little more than two more years, losing his title on a cut stoppage in June 1996 to a rising Oscar De La Hoya.
It would be Chavez’s last title win, falling short in a crack at a then-vacant WBC Jr. Welterweight belt with a draw against Miguel Angel Gonzalez in May 1998, quitting in the corner in a Welterweight title rematch with De La Hoya in September 1998, and stopped in six for the WBC 140 lb. honors by Kostya Tszyu in July 2000.
Among outside the ring honors, Chavez was named in, or as, the:
• BWAA Fighter of the Year: 1987
• Ring Magazine Round of the Year: 1988;
• Ring Magazine Fighter and Fight of the Year: 1990;
• Ring Magazine Event of the Year: 1994;
• #13 All-Time Pound for Pound by Boxing Illustrated/Boxing Digest, 1997;
• #2 All-Time Jr. Lightweight by Boxing Illustrated/Boxing Digest, 1997;
• #1 All-Time Jr. Welterweight and #2 All-Time Jr. Lightweight by Ring Magazine, 1994;
• #6 of the Top 50 of the Last 50 Years by Ring Magazine, 1996;
• # 13 (TKO12 Taylor, 1991) and #85 (L12 Randall, 1994) of the Ring Top 100 Title Fights, 1996;
• #17 of the Top 20 Fighters of the 20 Century by Ring Magazine, 1999;
• #18 of the 80 Best Fighters of the Last 80 Years by Ring Magazine in 2002;
• #50 of the 100 Greatest Punchers of All-Time by Ring Magazine, 2003; and
• #9 of the Top 20 Lightweights All-Time by the International Boxing Research Organization, 2009.
• #10 All-Time Jr. Lightweight and #2 All-Time Jr. Welterweight by BoxingScene, 2009
Prior to his 1993 showdown with Chavez, Greg Haugen referred to a mass of “Tijuana cab drivers” on Chavez’s record. Most of the fighters who would have fit that description came in Chavez’s development period, the first 43 contests leading to a title shot at 130. They weren’t all bad of course, former title challenger Ernesto Herrera and an Adriano Arreola who would go on to stop former titlist Lupe Pintor both bested along the way. It got a lot better, and when Chavez faced his competition speaks highly of mostly strong matchmaking.
Martinez, for the first title, represented a quality step up as did his first title defense against a Ruben Castillo still considered among the best Featherweights in the world. The first Mayweather contest in 1985 and Rocky Lockridge in 1986 were wins over former lineal champions at worst among the top five in the class. Juan LaPorte was less than two years removed from losing the WBC featherweight title to Wilfredo Gomez, having lost only once in four bouts between Gomez and Chavez to future Feather king Barry McGuigan.
At Lightweight, Chavez leapt in with a Rosario only three bouts removed from a contentious decision loss to Hector Camacho and was riding an impressive three fight knockout streak. Former titlist Bazooka Limon, faced in a 1988 non-title affair, was well faded and had lost three of his previous four but Chavez followed two fights later with the unification contest against Ramirez. Ramirez entered with eleven straight wins, though the last of those was a criminal decision against future Chavez rival Pernell Whitaker.
Jr. Welterweight represented the deepest pocket of Chavez’s career and he started strong with the rematch title win over Mayweather. Future WBO titlist Sammy Fuentes was the first title defense after three non-title walks, a contender on the fringe of the class. Meldrick Taylor two fights later was no less than the next best man in class. After the Taylor win, things softened a bit, competent but unspectacular contenders like John Duplessis and Lonnie Smith filling time until the next big fight was ready in the form of Hector Camacho.
Camacho, a three-division former titlist, had engaged in a year’s long war of words with Chavez prior to their September 1992 meeting, had given up the WBO Jr. Welterweight title and, while two fights removed from a lackluster split with Greg Haugen, was still regarded amongst the better Jr. Welters.
Three fights later, in February 1993, in front of over 130,000 fans in Mexico City, it was two division former titlist Haugen himself in front of Chavez and then longtime and still leading contender Terrence Alli. Still leading many pound for pound charts, Chavez moved on in September of the same year to Whitaker at a catchweight of 145 lbs., two beneath the official Welterweight limit. Despite the outcome, it can be said there was no tougher fight he could have taken.
Three fights and four months after Whitaker, firmly back at Jr. Welterweight, was mandatory Frankie Randall, the first of two straight with “The Surgeon” before a resumption of hostilities with Meldrick Taylor and a clash with two-division former titlist Tony Lopez. Giovanni Parisi, who was a former WBO titlist at 135 and future WBO titlist at 140, and David Kamau notched Chavez two more solid contenders in 1995.
1996 was highlighted by the showdown with a then 21-0 De La Hoya, Chavez rebounding from the title loss with a stoppage of a fellow fading titlist in Joey Gamache. Chavez fought only twice, against middling opposition, in 1997 before making two more big stage showings in 1998 with the Gonzalez draw and rematch Welterweight loss to De La Hoya, his second and last failed opportunity to win a fourth title in a fourth division.
It was all but over in real terms but a 38-year old Chavez still had enough allure for the WBC to make him a mandatory to a prime Kostya Tszyu in 2000, despite a loss the previous year to journeyman Willy Wise.
Competition Not Faced
As regularly relayed in these “Measured Against All-Time” selections, this section is not concerned with why fights did not happen but simply that they did not. Even with the depth of quality fighters on Chavez’s dossier, there are still some notables he missed, among them fighters he actually did fight. Both Whitaker and Camacho, in terms of fight quality, were delivered past the dates when the best possible fights would have been had. That the Taylor rematch waited until 1994 is criminal and stripped the bout of any real meaning.
At 130, Chavez versus Wilfredo Gomez might have been nice in the slender window of time Gomez spent in the class; fellow Jr. Lightweight great Brian Mitchell emerged less than a year before Chavez moved up to Lightweight full time, but it makes for a nice what if.
Because he was in the division less than two years, there were less opportunities to make big fights at Lightweight beyond what he had. Whitaker was just coming into his prime by 1988 ut still a couple years away from unifying the crown at 135; Vinny Pazienza and Greg Haugen were trading the IBF title in 1987 and 88 before Haugen lost it to Pea.
At Jr. Welterweight, the biggest miss was probably long reigning WBA titlist Juan Coggi but Chavez also deserves a black mark on his record for failing to make a rubber match with Frankie Randall until 2004. That was ten years too late, made even more audacious by Randall’s defeating Coggi immediately after the Chavez rematch for Coggi’s title. Not even a unification opportunity could get that fight to fruition.
Considering that some of the big names noted as misses were also Chavez opponents, it is a display of how difficult it can be to critique Chavez’s competition. He didn’t fight everyone. No one does. However, the competition scale weighs heavily in his favor.
Reaction to Adversity
Chavez was two very different fighters, at distinctly different stages of his career, when it came to dealing with adversity. He was also one of the most resented fighters of his time, by a heavy pocket of fans, media, and other fighters, because of the perception that his struggles were mitigated through heavy politics.
The mitigation argument has validity and no discussion of Chavez can be complete without recalling a perceived officiating favoritism which colored his career. Older viewers can recall many a star getting bad calls in their tenure; Chavez was no exception and with some real head scratching stuff all along.
Chavez had far too many of what could be called two-judge contests. By two-judge, what is meant is that at least one score at night’s end would be so in conflict with reality as to allow a conspiracy enthusiast to wonder if the card may have been filled out before the fight began. In a close fight, his opponent then only had two real judges to work with.
Fights against Rocky Lockridge and Juan LaPorte were close at 130 lbs.; the former had a scorecard with Chavez losing only a single round, the latter saying he won nine. There was nothing wrong with Chavez having his hand raised in either fight but those scores were not remotely what happened. It remains logical fuel for those who would even today dramatically confuse the injustice of those individual scores with the reasonableness of the outcome.
The Whitaker majority draw was laughable and, despite what appeared a clear lead for Meldrick Taylor in their first fight, one judge had Chavez ahead at the time of the stoppage. The worst of all came in Chavez’s first loss. In a fight where Chavez was deducted two points for low blows and dropped for the first time, Mexico’s Abraham Chavarria had Chavez ahead by a point at the end.
This sort of preferential treatment became such the norm as to probably play a part in other failings late in Chavez’s career. Later in his career, he came off at times, particularly in interviews, as spoiled and entitled…because he had been. Age increasingly stripped him of his talents, and often his sportsmanship, as the preferential treatment waned in favor of younger and fresher stars. Chavez then began to show give.
The accidental cut suffered in the Randall rematch did not lead directly to a doctor’s stoppage; Chavez appeared to quit on the fight, maybe looking for a cheap win on the scorecards (Dr. Flip Homansky stated on the fight’s broadcast that he would have allowed it to go on if Chavez wanted to continue). He showed up with what many believe was, and was widely reported as, a cut from his training camp only to be busted open right away in the first Oscar De La Hoya fight. It smelled of a less than professional cash grab. Chavez quit outright in the De La Hoya rematch, though he made the toughest fight he could of it before he did.
He was not the first, or last, great fighter whose will eroded over time.
The incidents found in the Randall and De La Hoya fights came close to a decade, and more, after he won his first title. In his prime, in his youth, Chavez’s will to win was impeccable, his steadiness a marvel, his chin among the finest ever seen. In fights like LaPorte and Taylor I, Chavez found himself behind but by night’s end had turned his opponent’s faces to swollen masses. Against the brick handed Rosario, he endured bomb after bomb, almost seeming to like it, rarely a flinch. There was little desperation and a remarkable ring maturity.
With the anniversary of Taylor I at hand, remembering the performance of Chavez that night speaks to what made him what he was at his best, and for so long. Taylor’s speed and flashy combination punching was so eye catching as to allow a viewer to almost miss Chavez’s work, to miss the swellings on Taylor’s face emerging already halfway through the bout. It was easy to miss Chavez jarring Taylor with crushing rights, one at a time, as Taylor let loose with both fists. Some in the audience might have missed it; Taylor’s body didn’t. Chavez didn’t. He knew what no one else could see but him from early on. The youngster was giving him too much and he had the mental toughness to keep taking it one shot at a time.
And whether one thinks Taylor should have been given the benefit of the doubt or not, the tape doesn’t lie. He might have won a decision had referee Richard Steele overlooked Taylor’s failure to respond when asked if he could continue, but at the final bell Taylor was a beaten man.
Many a good fighter, confronted with that sort of athleticism, on that night, would have grown frustrated and accepted defeat before round twelve. Chavez, when he was truly Chavez, didn’t believe in defeat and never settled merely for good.
What’s Left to Prove
Chavez has not entered a boxing ring, outside of friendly appearances and congratulations of sons who are now active fighters, since a September 2005 loss on his stool to the otherwise forgettable Grover Wiley. He was years past having anything to prove even then. Chavez is expected to be on the ballot for the International Boxing Hall of Fame for the first time later this year and is an easy lock for first time election.
Measured Against History
And so much more.
Of all the fighters reviewed to date in this series, Chavez might be the greatest of them all. Whereas others were measured in terms of whether they earned the moniker “all-time great,” with Chavez the question is long ago decided. With Chavez, it’s a question of placement with the sports immortals.
He was the total package even if it rarely looked that way. Chavez wasn’t the fastest. He didn’t hit the hardest. But he was an intelligent and ballsy battler at his peak, able to employ sly head movement and keen footwork to bang home his left hook to the body and even more lethal precision right hand. Chavez was a jack of all trades and, defying cliché, a master of more than one.
Was he Mexico’s greatest fighter? The opinion here would be yes but it’s a tough question when one considers other exemplars like Ruben Olivares and Salvador Sanchez. His longevity and accomplishments exceed a Sanchez whose life ended just as his legend was forming. Olivares might have been better on his best day, but wasn’t as good for as long. It’s heady company regardless. That Chavez was as big a global star as there can be below the Heavyweights doesn’t hurt, nor does his standing as one of the premiere greats at both Jr. Lightweight and Jr. Welterweight. He remains the standard for fistic excellence in his home country.
In a broader comparison, he’s not a top ten all-time pound for pound type; inside the top twenty is probably a bit much as well. Retrospect and the decline of his star show that he wasn’t quite the best of his own time. He was perceived that way in the late 80s and early 90s, but Whitaker ultimately proved that perception false not only in besting Chavez but also in handling their common opponents with an ease in his style equal to the ease displayed in Chavez’s. Being behind the great Whitaker historically, and in their time, is no sin and doesn’t bump Chavez that far outside top twenty level consideration depending on who is being asked (and as noted earlier, there are plenty who have no problem with him that high).
While there is not an abundance of Hall of Fame wins on his record, there is a tremendous pool of battle proven talent in a heavily talented era. Only a few of those talents truly competed between 1984 and 1993. That LaPorte, Lockridge and Taylor (who was great for at least the night he spent with Chavez) gave him such stiff challenges was a credit to those men more than any knock on Chavez. Those were all exceptionally talented fighters who would be now what they were then: among the world’s best from 126 to 140 lbs.
Others weren’t so lucky. Chavez handled Martinez easier than anyone else ever did, was only the second man to stop Ruben Castillo after the great Alexis Arguello years earlier. He was also only the second to stop Tony Lopez. He simply ran Rosario over and made a farce of Camacho, pummeling him senseless for most of the bout. From 1984-98, there was only one year (1991) where Chavez did not face at least one fighter considered among the top three of his resident weight class or a class above it.
And this can never be taken away: it took Whitaker, a fellow legend, over thirteen years, three conquered weight classes, and nearly 90 fights into Chavez’s career, to see him clearly bested. It took a few more fights to get an official loss on his record.
Chavez’s competed in more title fights (37) than any fighter before or after him, posted a record 31 title fight victories, and won his first twenty five title fights (across three weight classes) consecutively, a mark second only to Heavyweight Joe Louis’s 26 consecutive title fight victories. Louis’s victories were all for or in defense of an undisputed crown while Chavez’s were not, but Chavez’s marks are impressive nonetheless.
Chavez is the sort of fighter one can look forward to casting their Hall of Fame ballot for, no less than one of the top 20-50 greats in the sports long history.
Verdict on Julio Cesar Chavez: An Exceptional All-Time Great
Author’s Note: This is an occasional series which will examine the most accomplished of modern fighters in seeking to establish how their careers stack up with history’s finest.
Joe Calzaghe – http://www.boxingscene.com/?m=show&id=16920
Oscar De La Hoya – http://www.boxingscene.com/?m=show&id=17277
James Toney – http://www.boxingscene.com/?m=show&id=17450
Evander Holyfield – http://www.boxingscene.com/?m=show&id=17642
Shane Mosley – http://www.boxingscene.com/?m=show&id=18011
Dariusz Michalczewski: http://www.boxingscene.com/?m=show&id=20296
Vernon Forrest: http://www.boxingscene.com/?m=show&id=21278
Roy Jones Jr.: http://www.boxingscene.com/?m=show&id=21561
Mike Tyson: http://www.boxingscene.com/?m=show&id=25422
Cliff Rold is a member of the Ring Magazine Ratings Advisory Panel and the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org