Time to Hail Cèsar

WBA lightweight champion Cèsar Chàvez of Mexico may be the world's best fighter
February 22, 1988

At the Restaurante El Taquito in downtown Mexico City, it had seemed no more than a year-end party for the fight crowd.

From back in the '50s there were Kid Azteca and Raul Macías, the one they used to call the Rat. There was Ruben Olivares, all ear-to-ear grin and gold bracelets, perhaps the finest bantamweight ever. And so many more of those small, brave fighters that Mexico seems to produce as naturally as she does corn tortillas—the ones born with the national weapon, the golpe izquierdo al hígado, the left jab to the liver. And, most of them, with the national flaw—a total disdain for defense.

Suddenly though, as if the bell had sounded for the end of Round 15, the party noises died out. Into the restaurant walked a grinning young man in a gray suit. And from this distinguished crowd of ring sophisticates a growl of approval rose to a roar.

No longer was this a mere lunch. It had become a ceremony, a coronation, a spontaneous celebration of the fact that, for the first time since WBC feather weight champion Salvador Sànchez died when he slammed his Porsche head-on into a truck in the early morning hours of Aug. 12, 1982, Mexico had a sports hero of global stature.

The object of this adulation was Julio Cèsar Chàvez, from Culiacàn in the state of Sinaloa. At 25, he bears no trace on his somewhat Anglo features of his 55 fights, all victories, 46 of them by KO, 10 of them in gaining or defending world titles since he turned professional eight years ago.

Since last November, when Chàvez stopped WBA lightweight champion Edwin Rosario in 11 rounds, not just Mexico but the whole boxing world has been ready to concede that the young man who just entered the restaurant is, pound for pound, the best boxer around. As if to confirm that, he was named Fighter of the Year by the Boxing Writers of America this month.

There are those back in Culiacàn who have perceived a greatness in Chàvez for a very long time—men like Augustin de Valdez, who promoted him locally in his early days and paid him about $600 in 1980 for his first pro fight. "This is somebody who has never lost a fight since he was born, who never turned a fight down, not even on the street," says de Valdez. "When he beat Rosario, I heard Rosario telling his corner, I can't feel my arms anymore.' He came into the world with it, just like a great opera singer already has the voice. But you must also polish your gift, and Julio Cèsar is a devoted student. Especially in defense. He has learned that marvelously well."

And in truth, Chàvez has become boxing's most terrifyingly efficient destroyer by combining an inborn savagery with acquired skills. He has the traditional Mexican strength-sapping short punches to the body and also the knowledge of how to use his shoulders and his forearms to control an opponent. And he has rid himself of that traditional Mexican weakness—the flailing attack that leaves the aggressor wide open. Heaven knows, Chàvez is aggressive enough, but the fury is tight, controlled. He still gets hit, but seldom solidly, as Rosario, a fine puncher, discovered.

In spite of the college-kid grin he wears, in spite of his modest demeanor, there are those who detect a coldness in Chàvez that mirrors his merciless quality in the ring. "He is a young man who is utterly sure of himself, and he can be discreetly arrogant when he wants," says an acquaintance. Recently, Carlos Salinas de Gortari of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (who is almost certain to become president in next summer's elections) paid a visit to Chàvez's home in Culiacàn and was kept waiting for an hour and a half before the fighter showed up.

"Listen," said Chàvez when asked about the incident. "If I needed a job with the party, then I'd go for it. But I don't need one. It's them coming after me. The politicians just want to be associated with a winner."

And not only is Chàvez indisputably a winner, but he is convinced that it is his heavenly destiny to win. "I am going to tell you why I fight as well as I do," he says. "Never before have I spoken of this, because people might say, 'This man is crazy.' A few years ago, back in Tijuana, God blessed me; I get goose pimples when I think of it. I saw Christ on the Cross. I panicked and ran, to where I don't remember. It is something very beautiful that happened to me.

"I was born with boxing in me," he goes on. "Though the papers are wrong when they say my father was a fighter. That was only on the street after he'd been drinking. I really started because I had a couple of older brothers, Rafael and Rodolfo, who boxed. And what motivated me was that neither one of them was as good as I wanted them to be. It took me a little time to realize I'd have to do it myself, that they didn't have my gift...the gift God gave me."

Abruptly his mood changes. "But this is a sacred thing and I don't feel good talking about it."

Whether divinely inspired or not, his success is extraordinary. The early victories were in Culiacàn and Tijuana against now-forgotten Ramons and Robertos, Miguels and Eduardos. Then the money and the names got bigger, in the arenas of Los Angeles. There was the difficult 10-round decision he won in L.A. over Adrian Arreola in September '83, almost a year to the day before he won the vacant WBC super featherweight title by beating Mario Martinez in the same city. When the defenses began, against people like Rocky Lock-ridge and Juan Laporte, the fight cities were much farther from home: New York, Paris, Monte Carlo.

Home was originally Ciudad Obregón in the state of Sonora. But the railroad company transferred Chàvez's father, Rodolfo, to Culiacàn when JC was three (in the Mexican newspapers he's always JC, with no periods), and the "Fam. Chàvez Gomez," so a plaque beside the front door tells you, still lives in the little house it moved into on the heavily traveled Via Zapata. The population of Culiacàn has gone from 358,000 to half a million since the Chàvez family arrived. And it is fitting that one of its sons is the toughest fighter in Mexico, because Culiacàn is quite possibly the toughest town in Mexico.

It is not easy to put JC on the defensive, but one way to do it is to suggest that Culiacàn is, well, not exactly a hometown of which to be proud. "It's true that Culiacàn is a very complex town, much criticized, much talked about," he says. "And there is a lot of violence. But remember, the true Culiacàn people are good, simple, happy. What do I seem like to you? The bad people are the ones who come out of the sierra. The town people are afraid of them!"

U.S. and Mexican drug authorities consider Culiacàn the drug capital of Mexico, and Julio Cèsar grew up in a city where murders—nine a day, on average—are as unremarkable as traffic accidents. In one week at the turn of the year, five guards were killed during a jailbreak, a leading human rights lawyer was shot dead at the wheel of his car, a bank was held up for $70,000, and police and narcotraficantes staged a daylight shoot-out in the notorious Tierra Blanca section of the city, where one appreciates the significance of a Mercedes 190E parked outside a single-story adobe house.

Certainly, as Chàvez says, there may be fear among the common folk, but the narcos—drug traffickers—are also often regarded as heroes, not villains, by the poor. When JC came home to Culiacàn after beating Rosario last November, there was a traffic jam more than a mile long on the airport road of fans who wanted to greet him. But one would be ill-advised to back Chàvez in a local popularity contest against one "Saint" Jesús Malverde (whose sainthood is recognized by no church in the world), a Robin Hood bandit who roamed the high sierra at the turn of the century.

Malverde is the patron saint of the drug community, with his own roadside "shrine" at which, in the afternoons, ballads called corridos are sung, ballads that praise famous narcos. No one has ever suggested any connection between JC and the narcos. But it is easy to see how the savage environment of Culiacàn might create a fighter of Chàvez's ferocious ring instincts.

And yet, not all of Culiàcan is Narco City. Drive south from the fatly prosperous downtown area (prosperous from the seeds of the opium poppy) and there appears a more familiar Mexican scene: Colonia Pemex, where the rutted dirt roads are shadowed by the huge oil refinery for which the section is named. Then ask any of the local kids where one might find Juan Antonio Lopez. "The far side of the arroyo," one of them will say, and after a brief jounce over the dried-up watercourse one comes to the home of Juan Antonio, 35, who was once ranked No. 5 by the WBC in the super bantamweight class.

He is also, he says grinning broadly, JC's discoverer, was his sparring partner until recently and soon, he hopes, will be part of his management team. And maybe his laureate, as well. "I've got a group called Los Embajadores del Norte, and I've written a song about the Rosario fight," he says. "All we need is for somebody to put music to it."

It was his guitar, says Lopez, that brought him and JC together. "He loved to hear me play when he wasn't more than eight. He used to sleep over; he was one of the family. I even asked his mother if she would give him to me, so he could live here all the time." (He did not move in, although such an arrangement would not be thought of as unusual among poor Mexican families.)

Lopez laughs at a memory. "Hey, you know what was one of his first fights? With my sister! She used to throw a good punch, used to win a lot of fights in the streets against boys until she met JC. She must have been 14 then, and he was 12. He was corajudo, aguerrido, quick to flare up, warlike. That was the day my sister retired. She never fought again."

In spite of what promoter de Valdez says about the young Chàvez, Lopez claims that JC, one of 10 kids, was never a street brawler. (In fact, Chàvez studied civil engineering at the State University of Sinaloa, but he was poor, and he quit to box.) "No," says Lopez, "he didn't like to box at first. He'd prefer soccer or baseball. But I'd take him over to Costa Rica, a little town about five miles from here where there's some open country, and we'd fool around fighting there. But it was a long time before I could get him to put on the gloves in the gym."

Lopez drives to the gym, which is in another suburb, called Colonia Ejidal, where, on a dusty hillside, all the ancient T-Birds of Culiacàn seem to have come to their rusty deaths. The gym is tiny. The walls are a sickly green. There is a poster that features the fighter on the undercard. And a notice that says FAVOR DE NO PONER LOS PIES EN LA PARED Y NO RAYAR—"please keep your feet off the walls and don't scratch."

It's the sort of gym where Latino champions are made. And it has not seen the last of the Fam. Chàvez. Roberto, 15 years old, trains here. He has had six amateur fights and has won them all. "I went with him to the fights in Tijuana, and he was good," says Lopez. "Very brave, knows how to punch, moves like his brother. That daddy of theirs must have been some sire, hey?"

Lopez is very proud of his JC connection. "We party whenever he's in town," he says. "And in his next fight, I'll be in his corner."

For two months after the Rosario fight no one was at all certain who would occupy the other corner. Ordering seconds on shrimp in an elegant Mexico City restaurant, several light-years away from the little gym at Culiacàn, Chàvez ponders the suggestion that he is cursed by his own extraordinary talent, with fighters fearful of sharing the ring with him.

"Listen, don't you believe that," he says. "Don't you believe that I have no rivals brave enough to take me on. Los toros desde la barrera se ven muy bonitos. From across the barrier, all the bulls look pretty. There is no such thing as an easy fight. All fights are difficult for me."

Chàvez's immediate future remains in the lightweight division; a title defense against Rodolfo Aguilar was finally arranged for April 16. After that, Chàvez will take on his former stable-mate Jose Luis Ramirez for the latter's WBC lightweight title if Ramirez defeats Pernel Whitaker in Paris on March 12, by no means a certainty.

But by early next year, JC will have no one left to conquer as a lightweight and will move up, one division at a time. After a tune-up at junior welterweight, Chàvez will challenge either Marlon Starling or Mark Breland (whose rematch is scheduled for April) for the WBA welterweight crown.

As a world champion, Chàvez now seems more at home in the frenzied glitter of Mexico City, and his trips home to Culiacàn are more infrequent. When he does go home, says Chàvez's 23-year-old wife, Alba Amalia, who spends most of her time in Culiacàn, "he shuts himself up to watch videos of himself."

While JC studies his moves on the screen, Julio Cèsar Jr., a.k.a. Pelóncito, or Little Baldy, who is almost two years old, is already beginning to practice moves of his own. Furiously shadowboxing—short punches to the body, it should be noted—he mimes a knockout and raises his hands, yelling "íCampeón! íCampeón!"

"Just like his father," says Alba Amalia a little sadly. "In love with fighting...in love with winning."

PHOTOBARBARA LAING/PICTURE GROUPIsabelita Chàvez's son has moved on to a different title since this poster was printed. PHOTOTONY TOMSICChàvez KO'd Refugio Rojas in '86 (top), and at two Julio Jr. already packs a wallop. PHOTOBARBARA LAING/PICTURE GROUP[See caption above.] THREE PHOTOSBARBARA LAING/PICTURE GROUPNarcotics are the scourge of Culiacàn, where syringes are hawked on the street and Jesús Malverde, a bandit of yore, is a mythic figure enshrined in a most curious roadside chapel. PHOTOFERNANDO MEJIA MARTINEZChàvez (second from left) received a hero's welcome from the fight crowd at El Taquito.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)