Chris Farina/Top Rank
BEFORE Julio Cesar Chavez became a boxing Hall of Famer and a beloved icon to those in his home country of Mexico, he was just a son trying to make life better for his hard-working and struggling family. His way to do that was with his fists, and while just a teenager, he began fighting professionally. When he started, the 17-year-old made a vow to his mother, Isabel.
“After I told my mother that I wanted to box, I promised her that when I get my first loss I will retire from it,” Chavez told Boxing News through translator Carlos Pena.
He then pauses for both dramatic and comedic effect.
“After a few fights you can imagine that I realised how good I was.”
It’s dramatic, because to reach the heights that he did, he had to break that promise. Comedic? Well, Chavez did go 14 years and 90 pro fights until his first defeat, so he can be given a pass for sticking with the sport.
Chavez laughs, and the laughs do come a lot easier and quicker these days. Sober since 2011, the man widely considered to be the greatest Mexican boxer of all-time is in a good place in his life at 54 years old. He works as a television analyst for ESPN and Azteca, the latter network putting together a 26-episode drama series about his life, and he remains a popular ambassador for his sport. Yet it’s his sobriety that is the most important aspect of his life.
“Now that I realise that life gave me a second chance after my addiction to alcohol and drugs, I want to give that same second chance to people struggling with this awful problem,” he said. “I have two rehab clinics called Baja del Sol, one in Tijuana and the other in Culiacan Sinaloa, where it used to be my own house.”
It’s the rare happy ending for a man who seemed to be heading to anything but that. By the time his career finished in September of 2005 with a fifth-round stoppage loss to journeyman Grover Wiley, his demons were in full bloom. He didn’t want to fight anymore, knowing that he already lost the hunger to pay the bills necessary in the gym to cash in on fight night.
“Everything is a sacrifice,” Chavez said of the fight game. “The diet, your family, getting your body into shape with the extreme training. But you have to give everything you have to give to get to your goal.”
The drugs and alcohol took precedence over winning fights and taking titles, and by 2005, it had been years since he was a serious threat for either. But six years after that final bout, he won his biggest fight. And he has no regrets about how his career ended.
“I don’t miss anything as a boxer,” he said. “Everything is discipline. But winning the fights, that was my satisfaction.”
And no one won like “El Gran Campeon Mexicano.” Chavez made the walk to the ring 115 times over the course of his 25-year career, winning 107 of those bouts, with only six losses and two draws. Four of those defeats came in the final seven years of his storied run, which means that from 1980 to 1998, he went 99-2-2.
Included were world titles in three divisions (super-feather, light, super-light) and wins over a ‘Who’s Who’ of the sport. From Roger Mayweather and Edwin Rosario to Jose Luis Ramirez and Hector Camacho, Chavez fought and beat them all, doing it with a no frills style that featured a punishing body attack and relentless pressure. Add in a cast iron chin, and it’s no surprise that Chavez wasn’t just seen as a great Mexican fighter, but perhaps the best ever, pound-for-pound. It’s praise he takes humbly.
“I only did what I liked most, which was to box the best possible to win,” he said. “I appreciate that people look me at the best Mexican boxer and it’s really an honour when people tell me that.”
Inspired by countrymen Salvador Sanchez and Raul Macias, among others, Chavez seemingly brought Mexico with him every time he walked up those four steps into the ring. And his local fans responded in kind, most famously in 1993, when 132,247 fans packed Estadio Azteca in Mexico City to watch Chavez punish and stop Greg Haugen in five rounds.
But to his fans, the media, and Chavez himself, there was no night that represented who he was as a fighter and a man than his first bout with Meldrick Taylor, which took place on St. Patrick’s Day in 1990.
Chavez, 27, was 68-0 and the WBC champion at 140lbs. Taylor, 24, a 1984 Olympic gold medallist for the United States, was 24-0-1 and the IBF super-lightweight boss. Both were at the top of their game at the Hilton in Las Vegas, but for 11 rounds, the fight belonged to Taylor, who was too quick and accurate for his hard-charging foe. That never stopped Chavez from moving forward though, and eventually the wear and tear of the fight began showing on Taylor’s face. As the fight entered the 12th and final round, both fighters were exhausted, but neither thought of taking their foot off the gas.
“I really wanted that fight to end,” Chavez admitted. “I was tired and thought I couldn’t go anymore, but I really knew I had to give everything in me; that’s how I am.”
Taylor was up on two judges’ scorecards by tallies of 108-101 and 107-102. On the third card, Chavez led 105-104. In short, Taylor had to stay upright for three minutes to get the biggest win of his career and hand Chavez his first defeat. That’s enough motivation for any fighter.
Chavez’s was bigger.
“I always represent my country, because I will always be honoured to be Mexican,” he said. “In the last round of the fight with Meldrick Taylor, my corner told me to give everything, to do it for Mexico. And that’s when I realised that the whole country was counting on me.”
He delivered, but not without some help. Some would say that help came in the form of referee Richard Steele, who controversially stopped the bout with two seconds remaining. But it really was Taylor, who refused to run out the clock, and in his desire to stand and trade with Chavez, found himself on the deck thanks to a blistering right hand delivered with moments left. Taylor rose, but when he didn’t respond to Steele, the fight was halted.
No matter what Chavez did before or after that night, that victory would be cemented in boxing history forever. But he would win 21 more times before losing for the first time against Frankie Randall in 1994. The “Lion of Culiacan” also became Don King’s go to fighter while Mike Tyson was in prison, becoming an international superstar in the process.
That doesn’t mean he was perfect. His 1993 draw with Pernell Whitaker was widely panned as one of the worst decisions of the 90s, and even Chavez admits that “Sweet Pea” was “probably” his toughest opponent, the one he didn’t know if he could beat in the ring. The two never met again, and when asked if there is any opponent he wished he got another crack at, he laughs, saying “I don’t know.”
There were rematches though. The loss to Randall was avenged less than four months after their first bout (they even fought a third time in 2004, Chavez winning again), and he defeated Taylor a second time in 1994, but the Philadelphian was a shell of his former self, a state of affairs many believe was due to their first bout.
Chavez’s last major bouts were 1996 and 1998 matchups with Oscar De La Hoya, but “The Golden Boy” won both in one-sided fashion, apparently passing the torch from the Mexican to the Mexican-American, and even while he praises fellow greats Marco Antonio Barrera, Juan Manuel Marquez and Erik Morales for representing his country well in and out of the ring, to the diehards, Chavez would always be their hero.
“I always went and fought in the ring giving my best, with only one goal: to win and give the best of me as a boxer,” he said when asked to explain his appeal. “As a boxer, you always know that you have your fans backing you up, and you wouldn’t like to let them down.”
Time waits for no man though, and like it happens for all the greats, one phase ends and another begins. Some can’t handle that second phase of retirement, and for a while, Chavez couldn’t. But eventually, he found his way, and like fellow icons of the sport such as Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard and Mike Tyson, he’s found favour with a new generation of fans who may have never even saw him fight live.
Check out social media for proof, as Chavez’s association with the popular Canada-based clothing brand Roots of Fight has resulted in a clothing line that has resonated with fans, as well as celebrities like actor Mario Lopez, middleweight champion Gennady Golovkin and former WWE superstar Rey Mysterio.
“The truth is that it really makes me happy to know that I still have that effect on boxing fans, and I know that they appreciate wearing the shirt,” he said. “The new collaboration with Roots of Fight was all thanks to my team, and they have been taking care of my image and revealing it to a new generation.”
That doesn’t mean Chavez is letting his team do all the work, as the former world champion is an active poster on Twitter (@JCChavez115), where he is enjoying the immediate interaction with his followers.
“I love to see all my fights, and everybody on Twitter always retweets parts of my fights and highlights and I really love to see them,” he said. “It brings really good memories.”
It’s only fitting, considering the memories fight fans have of Chavez. It’s not of him losing to De La Hoya or Wiley, but of the relentless tank who, at his best, could not be beaten.
So, could he have been defeated in his prime?
“The truth is that I never thought that way,” Chavez said. “I always trained to win, because in the ring anything can happen, so you can’t take anyone for granted.”