The first-born son would finish his bottle shortly before Julio César Chávez touched gloves. The moment he heard the clang of the bell announcing the first round, he felt the same angst that filled him every time his father, the winner of six world titles in three weight divisions, jumped into the ring.
He was so nervous that he opted to cover his eyes as thousands of people cheered from the stands every time his father connected on a hook or a jab, or his rival swung at him and missed. The boy didn’t understand much about boxing, but he knew his hero was in danger, and he only wanted the battle to be over.
Minutes later, the man who tried to punch his father fell to the canvas in a heap, and the roar of the fans was deafening. The child’s relief was evident, and he was quickly brought to the ring, where the sweaty, beat-up champion hugged the boy tightly. His son responded with a kiss.
He was proud because daddy had won once again. Daddy never lost. He also felt better when he realized his father was safe and sound. It was the end of the 1980s in Las Vegas.
“Please pay January gym dues,” reads the paper stuck on the staircase and another on the door of the Wild Card Boxing Club in West Hollywood, the L.A.-area gym belonging to legendary trainer Freddie Roach. Beneath the gym there’s a dry cleaners, an Alcoholics Anonymous center, a massage parlor, and a shop that does tattoos and sells Manny Pacquiao souvenirs. The Filipino fighter, the biggest boxing star today, has trained here for over a decade.
When you walk into Wild Card you’re greeted by the penetrating smell of old sweat, a gust of dense human heat. The space is small, fitting only two rings, half a dozen speed bags, a dozen sacks, and some rusty weights. A wine-colored rug covers the floor, and the walls are filled with photographs and framed posters, all of legendary boxers, with Pacquiao and Muhammad Ali topping the list. Faded flags from Cuba, Mexico, Spain, and even Tibet line the windows. Above them there’s a sign that reads: “It ain’t easy.”
“I’m not afraid of anyone. I fight so skeptics believe in me.”
Among the many images on the walls are framed articles that were published in noted sports magazines. They tell of the more than 25 world champions Roach has trained, despite his ongoing battle with Parkinson’s disease. Doctors think the progress of the disease has slowed down dramatically due to the constant training routines Roach still does with his boxers. That, or the man is simply a phenomenon.
The gym is full of reporters who want to interview Julio César Chávez Jr., the 26-year-old who has never known defeat and who in June 2011 captured the World Boxing Council’s middleweight title. Two weeks from today, “El Junior,” as he’s affectionately called, will face Marco Antonio “El Veneno” Rubio in the second fight to defend his title. Many fans consider this bout to be the biggest challenge in El Junior’s career. A short time later, he arrives, hair uncombed, dressed in shorts and a sweatshirt.
The reporters ask him the same questions he’s been hearing for years: Does he think he can follow in his father’s footsteps? Is he a TV fighter? Is he the golden boy of the World Boxing Council, and is that why he only faces easy fighters? Is he fast enough? Is he afraid of fighting Sergio “Maravilla” Martínez (a three-time middleweight world champion from Argentina who’s been challenging and insulting him for months)?
He’s calm before the questions and criticisms: “I’m not afraid of anyone. I fight so skeptics believe in me.”
When the press leaves, El Junior beings to train. The doorman at the Wild Card, a one-eyed blond man, turns on his computer and cues up tunes by Latino artists Selena, Luis Miguel, and Thalía, as well as some traditional Mexican banda.
The boxer begins his initial 10-round sparring against three fighters. One of them -- the one who connects most punches -- was brought by Chávez Jr. from his native Culiacán, Sinaloa, in the Mexican northwest. They spar together three times a week.
“You tell ‘El Veneno’ [Rubio’s nickname -- “The Venom”] this is how I’m going to fight, so let’s see if he can knock me out quickly, like he’s been saying,” Chávez Jr. tells his partner when they finish training. The man smiles and explains what kinds of punches will be easy to deliver on the big day.
THE SON OF MEXICO'S GREATEST BOXER
El Junior’s childhood and teenage years weren’t easy. Unlike most boxers, he didn’t come from poverty -- his father made millions of dollars in each fight and was able to provide him with a better life. But Chávez Sr. battled alcohol addiction and was frequently embroiled in media scandals. This, together with long training periods spent away from home, complicated the family relationship.
“There were whole seasons where I would spend more time with my two younger brothers than with my father. I had to take over a role and be responsible for my own things. I was very angry and that’s what gave me the hunger to make something out of my life, the desire to help my father and my brothers get ahead,” Chávez Jr. says, speaking in the kitchen of the four-story home in the Hollywood Hills where he stays for months before each fight.
As he drums his fingers and rubs the swollen knuckle of his middle finger, he explains how those difficult times led to his thirst for sacrifice, for seeking out the more complicated path, although he knows he had the option to put all that aside and simply enjoy the good life, as if he were the son of any politician or businessman. He had only to wait for his inheritance to kick in.
But back then, boxing didn’t entirely seduce him. It didn’t even call out to him. He trained, yes, but he also played soccer, basketball, and ran track, excelling in everything and winning national junior medals. He moved to Riverside, California, for a year in high school when he was 16 and began to box daily. When he returned to Culiacán, his uncle told him: “You look good. You should do it professionally.” He liked the idea, and soon enough, he found himself in the ring.
“Given the way this all started, I never thought I’d get so far,” he admits.
“The work is hard and tough, but the results are obvious when I have to fight.”
Since his career began to take off, he’s had four shadows around him at all times: His cook, his masseuse, his trainer, and his doctor. They never leave his side when he’s focused on boxing. They follow him, take care of him, give him advice.
They come from cities in Sinaloa or Sonora, the states bordering western Mexico on the Gulf of California. Cristian, the masseuse and first assistant, says that his first daughter is scheduled to be born a few days before the fight against “El Veneno” and he won’t be able to be there for the delivery. “Work is work and I have to do what I have to do,” he says. On his end, the doctor has seen his daughters only three times in the last six months.
This quartet of experts was with him in the worst moment of his short career: In December 2009, following his win against American fighter Troy Rowland, it was announced that Chávez Jr. had tested positive in a pre-fight analysis for furo-semide, a diuretic used to lose weight.
He admitted to having taken the drug but said he didn’t know that it was a banned substance. The Nevada Athletic Commission ultimately fined him $10,000, suspended him for seven months, and changed the results of the fight to “No Decision.” (That’s why he currently boasts a record of 45 wins, 0 losses, and 1 tie.) He felt embarrassed, but he was certain of his honesty.
Instead of spending his suspension feeling sorry for himself, Chávez Jr. followed the advice of his matchmakers and promoters: He went to train with Freddie Roach and conditioning coach Alex Ariza in Los Angeles.
“Change is always hard. I was in Culiacán and had no desire to come here. Now I feel physically very well, the work is hard and tough, but the results are obvious when I have to fight. It’s been a big change as a boxer. They helped me get the discipline I needed and made me the world champion,” says Chávez Jr.
That year, his family had to face another tough situation. Chávez Jr.’s younger brother Omar, who is also a boxer, fought in Puerto Rico against Marco Antonio Nazareth. Omar won in the fourth round. Minutes later, Nazareth fainted. He suffered a brain aneurysm and died four days later at the age of 23. His parents told the media they had begged their son to leave boxing but he didn’t listen. Omar felt terrible and confused and was in a state of shock. Chávez Jr. spoke to him, explained that those situations were part of the profession and that it was necessary to be ready and prepared to rise above them.
"I want to leave my mark and quit when the time is right."
Chávez Jr. is well aware of the dangers of his high-risk sport, but he’s never been afraid inside the ring. “The adrenaline keeps the pain away. I try to push, give everything I have, show I want to win,” he says. “Of course I’m nervous, and there’s more pressure every day. But that pushes me and makes me better. When you have that mentality and that determination, anything can happen.”
Couple that with a public life where the money comes into play as often as temptation. “I think we’re all motivated by fame and fortune. And the only way to get that is by being smarter, having your feet on the ground, and accepting reality, even when it’s harsh,” he adds.
Top Rank, the company run by controversial promoter Bob Arum, organizes all of El Junior’s fights, much as they did his father’s. Chávez Jr. is very level-headed on the subject: He will fight whomever Arum dictates. He knows that boxing is a sport, but if there isn’t money to be made by all involved, he would rather stay home.
Come two or three months before a fight, his life is reduced to training three hours a day Monday through Saturday, eating a specific diet five times a day and sleeping a lot, even when stress and an avalanche of ideas keep him awake. His level of physical and mental commitment is such, that when asked what he does in his spare time, he answers: “Nothing.”
But unlike his father, who fought until he was 43, Chávez Jr. understands that boxing is an ephemeral sport. His time is now. “I have many goals in life,” he says. “I don’t want to fight for money, or have others feel pity for me. I want to leave my mark and quit when the time is right. Afterward, I’d like to be a promoter. I have a lot of business plans in mind.”
El Junior likes to be close to his family, his friends, his girlfriend. Frida, a young lady from Culiacán he’s been seeing for the past two years, whom he met at a gym in that city, visits him frequently and provides moral support. His brothers and parents also visit. They give him strength during the long periods of isolation before a bout.
Finally, the conversation veers into the must-cover subject: Does it really help to be the son of a legend?
“In the beginning, when I was a nobody, it helped to be his son; it opened doors for me. Then, unconsciously, people wanted to see my father in me. And filling those shoes can be big pressure. I’m the son of the man who used to be the best boxer in the world. I don’t want to just live in his shadow; I’m writing my own story. I’ve broken all those stereotypes about bad sequels,” he says, adding that he has to be more careful about the friends he picks, more dedicated, more committed to always staying in shape.
The father looks nervous. He gets impatient, shouts, cheers his son on in anticipation. The fight against Rubio begins with Chávez Jr. moving his legs well, avoiding blows, connecting with a few punches. In the ensuing rounds, he gets closer to his opponent and smashes several powerful hooks -- his best blows -- into his stomach. The bell rings and another round ends. The father comes up to his corner and speaks words of support; advice, but with a touch of recrimination. During the previous fight, just an hour ago, he was the star commentator on a Mexican television station. Now his son is in the ring, and his anxiety is hard to control.
The day before, during the weigh-in, some sports journalists said Chávez Jr. looked exhausted; that he wasn’t in the best condition to fight because he’d made too great an effort to get down to the right weight. “Veneno” Rubio said he’d knock Chávez Jr. out during the seventh round at the very latest.
The bell for the final round sounds. The fight comes to an end, and the father leaps into the ring and hugs his son. He wants to pick him up and carry him on his shoulders -- he knows the judges will declare him the winner. Everyone shouts. It’s a unanimous decision for Julio César Chávez Jr., the middleweight world champ, the undefeated one, the one who keeps his crown for the second time, the one who… will write a story similar to his father’s?
Minutes later, at a table surrounded by TV journalists, the father admits that the previous day, as his son stood on the scale, was one of the hardest in his life. He was very concerned. El Junior, now sporting a swollen eyelid that looks like it could burst any second, admits he’s elated. And then he says it yet again: “I shut up those who don’t believe in me.”
Check out the July 2012 issue of Red Bulletin magazine (on newsstands June 12) for more articles. To read the magazine on your iPad, download the Red Bulletin iPad app.