By Jake Donovan
Julio Cesar Chavez Jr is a long way from the sideshow act he was viewed at for the first several years of his career. In fact, he’s already a long way from the version that showed up for his last ring appearance just four months ago.
Sometimes you need for everything to go wrong in order to get everything to go the way you want. Chavez Jr. had perhaps his worst training camp in years, struggled with weight and was even popped on a DUI charge all while he was supposed to be preparing for a middleweight title defense against Marco Antonio Rubio.
The camp was a far cry from his being fit and ready in dismantling Peter Manfredo Jr just three months prior. It’s a far cry from the camp he has endured for his latest challenge as he prepares to face Andy Lee this weekend at the Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas.
"I had an excellent training camp. It started in Mexico and we finished in Las Vegas,” Chavez (45-0-1, 31KO) reveals. “It was one of the best camps I had. We had some great sparring and the weight is coming off very well for this fight. There will always be some issues in any training camp but I feel that this was one of the best of my career."
It may sound like hyperbole when stated prior to a fight, as it’s almost standard practice for any fighter to claim a career-best camp during the pre-fight build-up. But the sentiments are echoed from his entire team, all of whom expressed disappointment in his conduct last time out and all of whom couldn’t be more pleased with the immediate turnaround.
“I’m most proud of his dedication for this fight,” acknowledged Hall of Fame trainer Freddie Roach. “It was an issue in the past, but he’s working harder than ever now. Julio always trains hard with me in the gym. He does everything we ask to prepare for a fight like this. He is prepared to fight Andy Lee."
The fight is arguably the toughest of Chavez Jr’s career, currently in its ninth year. It took a while to get him out of the gate, in part due to his lack of an amateur career. Back when he first turned pro, there was industry-wide wonder as to just how much progress he’d make before being exposed as little more than a talentless cash cow.
Top Rank always had faith, but also knew to exude patience as Chavez Jr had ‘work in progress’ written all over him.
“When we first signed him, he was starting in boxing,” explains Hall of Fame promoter Bob Arum. “Most of the kids we sign come in with a lot of amateur experience. The ring isn’t new to them. Julio had to learn everything as a pro from the ground up.
“It was a great challenge for him and for (Top Rank matchmaker) Bruce Trampler. We had to be very patient on how we matched him and knew there would be criticism..We didn’t care what anyone was saying. We had to make up for the lack of an amateur background. We had to teach him boxing while he was in the ring. Bruce did a masterful job.”
Chavez Jr. isn’t yet a master of the game, but his current standing as a top middleweight is a long way from expectations on his career back when was still a skinny teenaged welterweight feasting on a steady diet of Midwestern journeyman.
The proof began with his remaining headstrong in outlasting Sebastian Zbik last summer to lay claim to a middleweight belt. Chavez Jr. is now making the third defense of that title, with each defense taking place in various parts of Texas.
The second-generation star blew past Manfredo Jr. last November in Houston, then outlasted Marco Antonio this past February in San Antonio. Each event was bigger than the predecessor, drawing well over 10,000 for the showdown with Rubio.
Saturday night will mark Chavez Jr’s fourth straight appearance on HBO. Some have cringed at the thought of the perceived cash cow receiving prime time opportunities, but the ratings don’t lie. The unbeaten middleweight continues to pull in big viewership numbers and has become a favorite son in the state of Texas.
His showdown with Lee (28-1, 20KO) has already hit the 20,000 ticket mark, with Top Rank eying a possible crowd of more than 25,000 – all for a fight that was nearly run out of town by overzealous state university system officials on the day the formal announcement was scheduled on the UTEP campus.
“We are on our way to sell over 20,000,:” Arum confirmed. “We will have 20,000-25,000 in the Sun Bowl, which is what the venue was originally configured to hold for this event. We kept the prices reasonable, from $200 down to $25. The tickets are moving well and we’ll have a fun event.”
The question is whether Chavez Jr. will have another successful title defense. Doing so could result in a pay-per-view showdown with lineal middleweight king Sergio Martinez in mid-September, all the more reason for Chavez Jr. to remain focus in camp and make boxing his everything.
The 26-year old believes his career has finally reached that point.
"Andy Lee is a young, hungry fighter who wants what I have - a world title - so sure I am concerned,” Chavez Jr admits. “I’ve had a great camp and I am ready to fight. My trainer Freddie Roach is really helping with a plan to beat Andy Lee.
“The difference may be this - boxing is my life. It means everything. I don't know if Andy Lee feels the same way."
The buzz in El Paso confirms that the fighter means everything to the fight fans in town. A massive crowd was on hand for an open workout Tuesday afternoon, with nary a grumble from anyone in attendance as traffic delays resulted in Chavez Jr. arriving nearly an hour late.
"I am very happy to return to Texas and especially to El Paso,” Chavez Jr said in between media workout sessions Tuesday afternoon. “The people have always supported and I can feel how much they care for me. I want to give them a great fight one that they will remember for a long time."
Behind the reborn fighter is all of the struggles that came with the last camp. A recent court hearing saw the fighter strike a plea deal on one count of driving with blood alcohol level of .08 or higher. The plea arrangement helped limit his punishment to three months of probation and 30 AA meetings – having already completed the latter.
The other key change was the rotating sites for training camp. Rather than stay in one place and succumb to outside distractions and temptations, Chavez Jr. managed to keep busy and focus solely on boxing.
“He was much better (physically) when we saw him training in Las Vegas,” said Arum. “He seemed to be working a lot harder and with fewer distractions than in L.A.”
Aside from the change in scenery is also the maturation process. Too much is at stake in his career to not take it seriously. Lee represents the fourth straight consensus Top 10 contender Chavez Jr. will face, with a showdown against top-rated Martinez waiting in the wings.
For some critics, the process took much longer than expected. But as far as the fighter and his handlers are concerned, better late than never.
"I believe that at this stage of my career I am putting all together,” Chavez Jr. believes. “I now have the experience to deal with everything that might happen in the ring, and I think my last few fights have helped me to become a better fighter.
“What I need now, is to follow Freddie's plan and make this fight one of my best."
Jake Donovan is the Managing Editor of Boxingscene.com. Follow Jake on Twitter at twitter.com/JakeNDaBox or submit questions/comments to [email protected]