You know strange things are happening in boxing when the fighter thought by many experts to be, pound for pound, the finest in the world is reduced to winning a technical decision against an opponent he shouldn't have been fighting in the first place. After 26-year-old lightweight Julio Cèsar Chàvez unified the WBA and WBC titles last Saturday night, at the Hilton Center in Las Vegas, on the strength of some classic combinations and an apparently inadvertent butt that split open Josè Luis Ramírez's head at the hairline in the 11th round, most observers didn't know whether to hail Cèsar or a cab.
Ramírez, Chàvez's 29-year-old Mexican countryman and former sparring partner, lost only his seventh fight in 108 outings. "To me, [the butt] was intentional," said Ramírez through an interpreter. "It's a shame you guys put up Julio Chàvez as the best fighter pound for pound, because he didn't show it tonight."
Like boxing itself, Ramírez was about half right. Chàvez didn't look like a million dollars—or even the $350,000 he got for Saturday's bout—but those mice under Ramírez's eyes weren't a Halloween mask. They were the marks of Chàvez's considerable skills in winning his 60th fight without a defeat (he has 50 knockouts). Handsome Julio didn't turn on the faucet often, but when he did let it pour, he was Ramírez's master.
Chàvez, as is his wont, sleepwalked through the first two rounds, seemingly content to stand and be admired by the throng, which included a strangely subdued group of Mexicans who had nothing to lose but the price of a ticket. Then he showed what he could do.
For five straight rounds Chàvez, comfortable in his low, bouncing crouch, fed red leather to Ramírez. In the third he began landing ripping, three-punch combinations and stunning righthand leads, switching from righty to lefty and back with ease. Then in the fourth, punching off the ropes, Chàvez tagged Ramírez on the chin with a short right. While Ramírez sagged momentarily, then hung suspended like a marionette, Chàvez curiously stepped back, apparently in horror at his own handiwork. He had to be waved back in by referee Richard Steele. "I thought he was going to fall down," said Chàvez later, "but he didn't."
And Chàvez never pressed the issue again, preferring to etch equations on Ramírez's face. Both Chàvez and Ramírez are from the city of Culiacàn, in northwestern Mexico, and have known each other for many years. Chàvez seemed to remember their friendship. "I wasn't tired," he said. "Everybody knew I was winning. I think a fight should be won intelligently. Not by force." But Chàvez also attributed his lack of aggressiveness to a rib injury he suffered during the second week of September while sparring with Pedro Sànchez, a tough young fighter from the Dominican Republic.
The end came abruptly when, with 2:06 remaining in the 11th round, both fighters lunged forward in the middle of the ring. Chàvez emerged with glassy eyes and a headache. Ramírez came out much worse. "It was a wide laceration at the hairline, and it was not going to close," said ringside physician Flip Homansky afterward. "It was a very deep cut, all the way down. Little to decide."
After having a point deducted from him as the beneficiary of an accidental butt, Chàvez won all three scorecards by at least two points (95-93, 96-94 and 98-91).
Chàvez faces a shortage of future opponents with marquee value. One challenger could be Pernell Whitaker, the 1984 Olympic gold medalist at 132 pounds. Whitaker clearly outfought Ramírez in a 12-round bout in Paris seven months ago. Yet Ramírez, who has lived in France for two years and, until last week's bout, had not fought outside of that country since 1985, was awarded the decision.
Before that bout, Whitaker had rejected a deal that would have provided for a mandatory fight between the winner of Whitaker-Ramírez and Chàvez under WBC auspices; afterward, Lou Duva, Whitaker's comanager, accused the WBC of stealing the decision from Whitaker because of his refusal. WBC officials sued Duva; his son and partner, Dan; and comanager Shelly Finkel for slander. The Duvas and Finkel counter-sued to overturn the decision and force a rematch. Both suits are pending, and given the bad blood between the Whitaker camp and the WBC, Whitaker would appear to have lost any immediate hope for a shot at the championship.
"Oh, Whitaker can get in, but not right now," promoter Don King said after Saturday's fight. "He could eventually fit in as a No. 1 contender. Julio would be more than happy to fight him. In time. But first, Julio has an agenda."
The agenda calls for Chàvez to move up in weight, perhaps starting with the winner of the Vinny Pazienza-Roger Mayweather junior welterweight title fight on Nov. 7. But Chàvez has already KO'd Mayweather, and Pazienza would be putty in Julio's hands. Or, before moving up, he might take on the winner of an anticipated Azumah Nelson-Barry McGuigan fight. Neither could hope to stay with Chàvez. Greg Haugen, who defended his IBF lightweight championship last Friday night by knocking out Gert Bo Jacobsen in Copenhagen, isn't in Chàvez's league either.
Chàvez's goal is said to be a junior middleweight fight with Sugar Ray Leonard. Says King, "If Chàvez can do his part, and Leonard can do his part with [Donny] Lalonde [in their Nov. 7 bout], I've already done my part."
Henry Armstrong, who died two weeks ago at the age of 75, was the only man in history to hold the featherweight, lightweight and welterweight titles simultaneously—a feat no longer possible under rules that require a fighter to relinquish one title when he decides to pursue another. Now Chàvez dreams of going from his original featherweight, past his natural lightweight, careening through welterweight, and on to the junior middleweight class to meet Leonard, who would have to come down from light heavyweight to meet him.
"I worked Chàvez's knockout fight with [Francisco] Tomàs Cruz," says referee Rudy Ortega. "Ray Robinson would have been proud of him that day. But Leonard? No. No way. Because Leonard is too big."
Chàvez is a terrific champion, a great fighter of classic skill, and a handsome man. He doesn't belong in a circus, which is just what Leonard-Chàvez would be.