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Julio Cesar Chavez Redux or Secondo Carnera?

(Photo © Chris Farina / Top Rank)
(Photo © Chris Farina / Top Rank)


“The fight game today is like show business. There’s no real fighters anymore; they’re all actors. The best showman becomes the champ!”

 

-Rod Steiger as big-time fight promoter Nick Benko in “The Harder They Fall”

 

In no other sport but boxing can you get by on the merits of a name alone. If Michael Jordan’s son was only good enough to be competitive against second or third-tier teams, he could not get by only playing on those nights. If Brett Favre’s son couldn’t throw more than ten yards, you wouldn’t see him only starting whenever the team played a bottom feeder. Certainly neither imagined son would become a major ticket seller that way.

 

However, in boxing, competition can be arranged. A fighter’s record can be built creatively and promoted accordingly. All that is needed is a hook to sell the product from.

 

In the case of one Julio Cesar Chavez Jr., the name sells it all. Sure, it helps that he can take a punch, is not horrible to look at and is able to stand, trade, and bleed with his competition en route to pulling out wins through an innate toughness. But watching him fight or watching him spar- as I did last week at the Wild Card Boxing Club in Hollywood, CA- it’s immediately clear that if he was not the son of a legend and instead named Julio Gomez Jr., no one in the boxing world would give a damn who he is.


“I can’t think any other way because that is what I was born,” said Chavez. “That is my name. That is who I grew up with; that’s my father. I got into this because I wanted to. I enjoy doing it but I know sometimes it is difficult to carry the name.”

 

For years, it did not appear the son enjoyed it. He was not known as a gym rat. He reportedly stopped working with the conditioning team known as Team Velocity because the workouts were too strenuous. In his first two camps with Freddie Roach (who was brought in as a sort of boxing intervention), three fights ago to instill discipline and technique, Junior seemed to do his best to avoid coming up to California or to join the trainer in the Philippines while he trained Manny Pacquiao. The behavior, which appeared lazy at times and like a rich, entitled kid at others, led many to believe he was simply obligated to carry on his legendary father’s name in the family business.

 

“I wonder if that is what happened earlier,” Roach told me during the media day. “Since I have had him, what he has shown me, he loves boxing and he knows his sport well.”

 

With Roach as his trainer, Junior has fought the now-retired John Duddy and trial horse Billy Lyell. Both went the distance with him in back-and-forth action fights. However, both training camps were somewhat abbreviated. For this camp, in preparation for Sebastian Zbik, Chavez has been in camp a full eight weeks.

 

“The Duddy fight we were just starting,” explained Roach. “He wasn’t complete yet. We are much more into it now. He picks up on things much easier and he is much more complete. We were kind of tender from the Duddy fight because we were a little unsure of him. He is much more comfortable with the style we are working on now and I think he is a much better fighter now. The Lyell fight was good for him because he needs activity. You need more activity than once a year. We only had a three-week training camp, which is a little bit my fault and a little bit his fault. He didn’t want to come to the Philippines. He said he had visa problems or things like that so we only had a three-week training camp for Lyell. I wouldn’t measure him by that fight. He is fighting much better than that fight.”

 

“Freddie has taught me a lot,” said Chavez Jr. “The discipline I have gotten with him over the last year-and-a-half has been great. I have learned a lot from him but the extra motivation of fighting for a championship, I know I have to work really hard for it.”

 

Though the majority of fighters would agree that training in a full camp is actually their job, going from a three-week camp to an eight-week camp is an improvement. However, most fighters don’t carry the name Junior does and consequently don’t get the slack a potential cash cow like him is afforded. It is the nature of growing up Chavez Jr.

 

Chavez Jr.’s career is a study in the art of promotion. With a minimal amateur background, Chavez turned pro at a very young age- some claim 16 years old- and learned on the job. For years, Top Rank’s Bob Arum promoted Junior at his own expense on the “Latin Fury” cards, showing that you do in fact have to spend your own money to make money in the long run. The smaller budgeted shows have been very successful for Arum and have afforded him the freedom to fight Junior whenever and against whomever he wanted to. That he has survived this long and gone from an oddity to a minor pay-per-view draw on the “Latin Fury” series to now a fighter in title contention is not a minor miracle but in fact, an example of effective promoting. Unlike a lot of promoters, Arum never depended on a major network for fight dates with Chavez Jr. He actually created them for his fighter.

 

“Absolutely, that is what you have to do,” Arum told me at the media day. “You can’t expect these networks to do the job that you have to do unless you’re Al Haymon, which is something that really stinks. I mean, [Andre] Berto, it’s good he had all these fights but it shouldn’t have been on HBO.”

 

In today’s world of boxing, you don’t have to be a great or good fighter to be an attraction. You just have to be a good showman or in Junior’s case, have a great name and a crowd-pleasing style. None of, which on the surface, is really a bad thing. It is simply how it is. This is the entertainment business as much as anything but for some of us, it does matter that fighters earn the right to fight for a title. Junior’s résumé is lacking in that department. He is an anomaly. While not a great fighter or even a very good one, he has that name, thus helping him to become a draw at the box office, all of which aids him in getting moved up the rankings by the always accommodating Mexico-based WBC. This brings us back to this title fight on Saturday at Staples Center in Los Angeles, CA.

 

The fight is for the WBC strap once earned and owned by linear middleweight champion Sergio Martinez, whose mandatory defense was due against Zbik in March. However, HBO rejected Zbik, deeming him unfit to be an opponent in a title fight on HBO. Seeing as how Martinez’s promoter Lou DiBella was not about to do what Top Rank had done with Chavez Jr. (financing an independent pay-per-view in order to keep that belt), the WBC stripped Martinez of it, installed him as “Champion Emeritus” and made Zbik the new champion. Conveniently, Junior was already in place as the next mandatory despite no viable wins against top ten opponents at middleweight. In fact, Chavez Jr. has only three fights at middleweight, the aforementioned Duddy and Lyell fights and one against Troy Rowland, which was a ruled a no-contest in the wake of Chavez Jr. testing positive for a diuretic, illegal in Nevada. In the wake of Top Rank’s deal with rival network Showtime to air the last Manny Pacquiao fight, suddenly, Zbik was an acceptable fighter for HBO and they soon agreed to show the fight.

 

When asked if airing this fight was a plea of “Please come back and bring Manny with you,” Arum replied, “No. I think HBO made a mistake rejecting Martinez for Zbik. But be that as it may, Chavez is not Martinez yet. You can’t put them in the same category. If they reject a fighter for Martinez, that doesn’t mean that the fighter isn’t appropriate for Chavez. In other words, it’s like if a batter is used to a pitcher who throws 60 MPH and does well and you put him in with a pitcher who throws 100 MPH and he strikes out. So you want to match guys appropriately and Martinez is an experienced guy who has fought really good fighters. You can maybe make an argument to reject Zbik for Martinez but that argument doesn’t pertain to Chavez because this is the best guy he has fought.”

 

A solid argument for sure but then, by that logic, what does this belt really mean?

 

“I don’t know what any of these belts mean, frankly,” said Arum. “I guess, technically, Martinez had to fight Zbik to keep the belt; he didn’t. They stripped him and it enabled the WBC to make Chavez vs. Zbik but Martinez had that choice. The fact that HBO wouldn’t buy the fight doesn’t give him an excuse not to fight the guy.”

 

Again, a fair point. On the flipside, that Martinez does not sell tickets seems to be the main reason Top Rank will use to avoid Martinez should Junior get his first title. After all, why put the limited kid in with Martinez, who is a complete and dangerous fighter when they can match him with the fading Puerto Rican star Miguel Cotto and sell a ton of tickets and pay-per-views in an in-house fight?

 

“Obviously, [Martinez] is a great champion,” Chavez Jr. told me. “I consider him the best middleweight in the world but I have a promoter and a manager. This is a business. If it makes sense to fight Cotto instead of [Martinez], that is what I am going to do. It is up to them.”

 

“Martinez hasn’t demonstrated that he is much of a ticket seller,” said Arum. “To be fair, Chavez is Mexican and there are a lot of Mexicans in this country. Mexican-Americans and Martinez is Argentinean and there aren’t so many.”

 

“I really didn’t know that story. I didn’t know the politics of it,” said Roach when I informed him of the history of the belt they are fighting for. “I just knew [Zbik] was the champion. I was wondering who he won the title off of. [Zbik] has the belt. It’s important to beat this guy. Then after this fight, [Miguel] Cotto says he wants to win a belt at 160. I want that fight.”

 

You wouldn’t want to fight the champion, Martinez, next?

 

“Why? I’d rather fight Cotto first,” answered Roach. “I think [Cotto] is a much bigger fight because Martinez is that well-known yet.”

 

But Martinez is the real champion.

 

“Yes he is [the champion],” agreed Roach. “He is also a very good athlete. I don’t think he is a great fighter but he is a great athlete. Cotto is a bigger fight for us and then Martinez can come after that because Martinez will always be there. I want to catch Cotto now because I think Cotto is near the end and I think it is good timing and timing is important in life.”

 

In essence, Martinez will be there just like Shane Mosley was against Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao, older and more vulnerable, two years after his best win over Margarito.

 

“We never didn’t want to fight Mosley because of how good he was,” said Roach. “It was a money issue. We were getting more money with other fights. Risk vs. reward wasn’t there.”

 

From a business perspective, it makes sense. From a fan perspective, it can be very frustrating. While no one is exactly screaming for Martinez vs. Chavez Jr. (in order to find out who the real champion is), it is frustrating to watch the real champion get pushed aside in favor of a fighter whose best assets are his name and the company who promotes him.

 

Media days are usually for show. The fighter does his interview session, warms up, does a few exercises and then is done. Rarely if ever does a fighter go through eight rounds of sparring for a press corps armed with video cameras and iPhones. This day was an exception. We would all get a look at Chavez Jr., whose only resemblance to his father is his name. Roach gave me a verbal preview of what I was about to see.

 

“The son still wants to be the father but I am trying to make him a better fighter,” explained Roach. “He is too tall to be an inside fighter. That’s what we are working on. He knows distance. He knows timing and he knows when he makes mistakes and does things he shouldn’t do. He looks at me and smiles. I say, ‘Don’t let it happen again.’ I think it’s hard to live up to his father. It’s impossible. To compare the two is impossible but I think he is good enough to win this fight and win a world title. I see very good improvement in his boxing ability. He sees very well. He focuses very well. He sees openings and he attacks it. He scores. You’ll get to see for yourself because today is ‘boxing day.’ Normally, we don’t show the media boxing day but he said it’s OK. Vanes [Martirosyan] is a better boxer than Zbik and I think that Chavez will show you how well he can box against guys like that.”

 

I couldn’t wait. I have seen most of Chavez Jr.’s fights and have yet to be impressed. He seemed slow, unwilling to use his considerable height and reach (6’ with a 73” reach) to box from the outside and set up what power he might have (30 knockouts in 42 fights with one draw and no losses). His footwork is clumsy and his defense suspect. His best assets are his chin and willingness to keep coming forward. Watching him warm up, hopping oddly back and forth and swinging his arms wildly, Junior looked decidedly un-fighter-like. I wondered aloud how he kept from tripping over himself, which drew some laughs from nearby onlookers, who looked on incredulously. They had come to see Chavez Jr. for themselves and were shocked to discover that the kid jumping around awkwardly was him.

 

“He’s a tall fighter,” Chavez Sr. would tell me when I asked him to assess his son’s best traits. “He knows how to fight toe-to-toe. He knows how to brawl. He knows how to box but now in this fight, he has to be more aggressive and at the same time, be more intelligent. I think he made a big change [under Roach’s tutelage]. A full 360 [Editor’s note: Odds are, Chavez Sr. probably meant 180 degrees when defining his son’s change in style]. I believe he is a lot better.”

 

At 6’, the junior middleweight Junior would be sparring Vanes Martirosyan, who fights Saul Roman on the undercard. Martirosyan appears to have a larger frame and longer reach than Zbik. With a style similar to Zbik, who moves and boxes from the outside, Vanes is a solid approximation of the German-born fighter, though his inside game is much better.

 

“I looked at him and I haven’t seen anyone like [Zbik],” said Chavez Jr. “I saw the video and I looked at him and he is a different type of fighter. So we have some Russians in here. I think I am getting used to it.”

                                                  

The bell rang and it was time to see if that was true.

 

Vanes immediately lit into Junior with two jabs and right hand and at once, maybe because the shots landed so flush or maybe because it was Junior’s media day (Vanes’ would be the next day at his own gym in Glendale), a look of “Oops” went over Vanes’ face. Still, as the action proceeded, it was clear who the better fighter was and it was not Junior. The kid seemed to be an uppercut magnet, taking as many as three of the same shots in a row. His footwork remained plodding, his approach robotic and slow, the defense sieve-like. More often than not, he followed Vanes around the ring rather than cutting it off. In the process, he would take unnecessary punches, while giving up his height. This was supposed to be a problem already solved.

 

“In the beginning, I showed I wanted to fight like my father,” said Chavez Jr. “That is what I wanted to be, imitate him and try to do that. Then I realized I am too big to try and do what he was doing so I adjusted and I learned how to be a better boxer but I was always a good puncher.”

 

As for offense, what Junior had was a hard left hook to the body that he telegraphed with a wide wind-up. For the next five rounds, the two men moved about the ring with Vanes giving the better of the action. Whenever Junior landed a good shot or two, Vanes would come back with five and they’d land flush. With defense like that, it’s easy to see why Junior is facing Zbik, a fighter with ten knockouts, for his first world title. Beyond the economic realities, it is also easy to understand why Top Rank would want to put this still raw product in with the faded Miguel Cotto for a first title defense. Cotto is smaller and at middleweight, his power will be minimized. It will be a long time before Junior will face a speedy, hard-hitting fighter like Martinez. If the WBC remains as willing to protect this kid as Top Rank is able to promote their manufactured product, we may never see it.

 

When Vanes’ five rounds were up, welterweight Rashad Holloway, a speedy fighter who has spent the last several years as Manny Pacquiao’s chief sparring partner, got into the act. For three rounds, he outboxed and out-crafted a gassed Junior, who at times, flopped onto the ropes looking to rest and at others, had to be prodded to throw punches by Holloway.

 

Just a couple weeks away from the biggest fight of his young life, weighing 173 pounds, Junior looked like a sparring partner instead of a young ATM on the verge of winning a world title.

 

The oddest part of all this was that the media seemed to see something I didn’t. The work rarely lies even on media day. While it is often just for show, while sparring, a fighter can only hide his talent so much. Either Junior missed his calling as a great actor or he is simply not a very good fighter. Yet the media all clamored after Chavez Jr. to witness him hit the ironically named speed-bag that he chopped at with average aplomb. They treated him with the same verve and awestruck reverence they did his father as he entered the gym. Though there were a few whispers here and there that the kid just doesn’t have it, no one seemed willing to admit it within earshot of his handlers, instead diligently writing down the storyline and hoping maybe he gets better.

 

“He’s very young, you know?”

 

“He had no amateur career, you know?”

 

“You know, Roach is really teaching him well.”

 

These were more often than not the words and justifications bandied about on media day.

 

Watching it all, I got a sense of how it must have been to be Eddie Willis, Humphrey Bogart’s character from “The Harder They Fall,” witnessing a well-oiled machine spit out the usual quotes and the usual storylines in the hopes everyone is too afraid to not go along with the program to say anything.

 

“He found his own name. He already made his own reputation,” Chavez, Sr. would tell me after the sparring session. “I feel that he earned it.”

 

Just what the reputation is at this point is hard to say. Future titleholder, Secondo Carnera or a mixture of both. Perhaps the fight will illuminate us. Certainly time will. 

 

You can email Gabriel at maxgmontoya@gmail.com, follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/gabriel_montoya and catch him on each Monday’s episode of “The Next Round” with Steve Kim. You can also tune in to hear him and co-host David Duenez live on the BlogTalk radio show Leave-It-In-The-Ring.com, Thursdays at 5-8 PM PST. Gabriel is a full member of the Boxing Writers Association of America.

 


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