Friday November 18th, 2011

HOUSTON -- The smile on Julio Cesar Chavez Jr.'s face stretched from ear to ear, a goofy grin on a goofy kid who just so happened to be an alphabet middleweight champion of the world. Sitting as he was on a makeshift dais at a Dave & Busters, casually dressed in a Saved By the Bell-ish white T-shirt, black shorts and white high-tops look, it was tough to tell whether Chavez was there to promote a title defense against Peter Manfredo (10:30 p.m. ET/PT, HBO) or was one of the fans who had shown up to support it.

If Chavez looked tough to take seriously, it was fitting; in reality, few do. At 25, Chavez (43-0, 30 KOs) has put together a pretty impressive career. He's unbeaten and headlining his second straight HBO show. He's established himself as significant pay-per-view draw on Top Rank's small Latin Fury shows and is a sought-after opponent because of the payday he potentially brings to the table.

He's sought after too because in the eyes of many opponents, he's beatable. To them, Chavez is little more than a club fighter whose record has been padded with marginal opponents. He's popular, yes, but only because he has piggybacked on the enormous popularity of his father, Hall of Famer and Mexican icon Julio Cesar Chavez. At Thursday's press conference, Manfredo showered Chavez with the obligatory praise but was quick to add that because his name was Manfredo, he had to earn his success.

"People think he is an easy win," Chavez's conditioning coach Alex Ariza said. "Back in the day the plan for fighting him was 'just get him past the sixth round' because he was never able to fight past six rounds. Now, he's winning the fights past the sixth round. He's learning to be confident in his conditioning, he's learning not to hold back. He doesn't have that fear of running out of gas. For me, it's OK that people think they are only going in fighting the name. Better for me."

Ariza is right: Lately, Chavez has stringed together some solid wins. He knocked off former middleweight contender John Duddy last year in a fight that turned out to be Duddy's last. In June, Chavez outpointed the unbeaten Sebastian Zbik to claim a version of the 160-pound title. Under the tutelage of Freddie Roach, Chavez has become a more polished fighter. Manfredo (37-6, 20 KOs) is not considered elite but he's a durable veteran who comes in riding a six-fight win streak and has experience against the likes of Joe Calzaghe, Sergio Mora and Sakio Bika.

If Chavez is bothered by how he is viewed by other fighters, he doesn't show it.

"People can say whatever they want to say," Chavez said. "I've been very fortunate. But my name is not the one fighting. Anyone who gets in with me will see why I am the son of Chavez."

Next year projects to be critical for Chavez. If he beats Manfredo, he is mandated to defend his title against the world's No. 1 middleweight, Sergio Martinez, or give up his belt. If he does vacate the title, it will be to face 154-pound titleholder Saul Alvarez in an all-Mexican showdown that would be the country's biggest fight in recent history. While Chavez professed respect for Martinez, who will be in attendance on Saturday, he dismissed Alvarez as "not much of anything at all."

By the end of 2012, the doubters will either have grown or disappeared. Chavez's last name has made him a star but it will be his talent that determines whether he will stay at that level.

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