Julio Cèsar Chàvez's reputation was in free fall. Regarded not long ago as that mythical champion of boxing—the world's best fighter, pound for pound—the man from Culiacàn, Mexico, had lately been seen more as a cultural phenomenon, an athlete whose immense popularity in his hero-starved country carried him further than did his skills. His decline became precipitous in September 1993, when Chàvez, then 87-0 with 72 knockouts, met his chief rival for the pound-for-pound honor, Pernell Whitaker, and escaped with a generously bestowed draw. When he suffered his first loss, to Frankie Randall, last January and then won a dubious decision in a rematch with Randall four months later, it was almost possible to dismiss the Chàvez legend.
And it wasn't only the U.S. press that subscribed to this revisionist history. In August many of his own countrymen booed him when he appeared at an NFL preseason game in Mexico City. The descent was disheartening to those in Mexico and elsewhere who had characterized Chàvez in spirit and achievement as his country's answer to Muhammad Ali. After the loss to Randall, which cost Chàvez his WBC super lightweight title, Mexican fans had been able to forgive his brief inattention to the sport. But the rematch was a different story; he more or less quit in a difficult fight but was awarded the decision when he claimed he could not continue after a head butt. It was a sorry victory that threatened to cancel out the goodwill of his people.
Last week, as he celebrated Mexican Independence Day with thousands of his countrymen in Las Vegas, Chàvez arrested that decline and restored some luster to his reputation with a successful defense of his title. And he did it against the man who, 3½ years before the draw with Whitaker, first showed Chàvez to be mortal.
In March 1990, in Las Vegas, Chàvez tried to consolidate his reputation north of the border by taking on Meldrick Taylor, a 1984 Olympic gold-medal winner with lightning-fast hands and no losses in 25 pro fights. A convincing victory over Taylor would have forever cemented Chàvez's greatness. But the fight ended strangely when Chàvez, behind on two of the three judges' cards, knocked Taylor out in the final seconds. Nobody who saw Taylor afterward or knew how much blood he had swallowed during the bout doubted that Chàvez had won the fight. But the manner of Chàvez's escape—referee Richard Steele had waved the fight to a halt with two seconds left and Taylor still on his feet—aroused doubts. Thereafter Chàvez seemed less fearsome.
Last Saturday night, at the MGM Grand hotel, Chàvez shocked Taylor with a left hand midway through Round 8. The punch sent Taylor staggering backward across the ring, where he fell on the seat of his pants, heels up. Seconds later, after Taylor had regained his feet, referee Mills Lane stepped between the two fighters, gripped Taylor's neck and sadly shook his head. The bout was over.
The TKO bought Chàvez some time. His record now stands at 91-1-1, and he wants to finish out his career in 1995, topping out at an even 100 fights. He knows he will have a third fight with Randall, who won the WBA 140-pound title earlier in the evening with a lopsided decision over Juan Coggi, and he is prepared for a difficult fight. But he seems determined to do whatever it takes to prevent more booing, although surely he must know that anybody who boxes long enough, or rather too long, arranges his own shame.
According to Chàvez's trainer, Emanuel Steward, who was brought in before the second Randall fight, Chàvez has returned to basics. "He went back to this village called Temoaya to train, the end of the world as far as I'm concerned," says Steward, marveling at Chàvez's almost mystical respect for his heritage—throughout his career Chàvez had retreated to the isolated mountain village to prepare for his fights. "Can't even breathe there. He lived like an Indian, eating his fish soup. People would be beating their wash on rocks. It was very Third World, but the tradition of it was very important to him."
Steward says that the 32-year-old Chàvez was desperate to recapture the elements of his fabulously successful youth. Training for Taylor, Chàvez seemed impelled by his own history. Two weeks before the fight he began working his way north from Temoaya, staying with the same poor family in Tijuana that had housed him at the start of his career.
"He'd take me through Tijuana," says Steward, "and show me where he bought his first car, got his first woman." Chàvez duplicated the old times in every particular, training at Cheto Gonzalez's gym for three days, boxing a 10-round exhibition for some charity there, just as he had years ago, and then heading to Los Angeles for the ritual buying of cars. "He bought three this time," says Steward. "He found out I had a Rolls-Royce Corniche, so we get to Los Angeles and he buys the Rolls and a Mercedes. He has 30 cars now, I think." Perhaps the latest buying spree reminded him of when he bought his first Jeep, in Tijuana, years and millions of dollars ago.
Of course, time and success do change people, and though Chàvez may have trained in a poor Indian village, he nevertheless kept tabs on his various businesses, talking on a cellular phone even between rounds as handlers toweled him off. Yet Chàvez is shrewd enough to know that he cannot divide his attention like this for long. He knows time is running out on his boxing career.
Taylor's time may have long since passed. He won a welterweight title after the 1990 loss to Chàvez, but successive losses in '92 to Terry Norris and Crisanto Espa‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬±a very nearly forced him to retire. He was damaged goods, without prospects or drawing power. Indeed, the MGM Grand was loath to have him fight Chàvez, and promoter Don King had to reduce his site fee to make this match.
Like Chàvez, the 27-year-old Taylor tried to return to his youth in preparation for the fight. He realigned himself with trainer Willie Rush, who had come upon him when Taylor was a 79-pound amateur in Philadelphia. Taylor also signed up a nutritionist-fitness guru named Shiloh Bey, who insisted that Taylor eat lots of raw foods and free-range chicken.
At times Taylor insisted he was not haunted by the 1990 fight—"It was just sequences and circumstances." he said, explaining his own failed career. At other times he said that he thought about it daily and was consumed by the nearness of his greatness. Just two seconds.
The rematch began with promise as Taylor boxed on his toes. Chàvez, as Steward has pointed out to anyone who would listen, has always been prey to black boxers with fast hands. Even in his prime Chàvez had trouble with the Taylors, Whitakers—even Roger Mayweather in their second fight. "It's a rhythm thing," Steward tried to explain. Taylor had some, he implied, Chàvez didn't.
But all of Taylor's dancing came to naught in the sixth round when Chàvez shot a straight right that hurt Taylor badly. Taylor pawed back at Chàvez, his mouth hanging open. He was done.
Two rounds later Chàvez made quick work of Taylor, and nobody would fault Lane for doing what Steele had done 4½ years before.
Except, of course, Taylor, who would complain, mildly, later on. But by then he was out of everybody's plans. Chàvez was satisfied enough with his victory to sit quietly by as King launched into an hourlong tirade that may have had something to do with his recent indictment on insurance fraud charges (but then again, who knows). Chàvez was looking forward to Randall, and anything seemed possible. It was hard to remember ever hearing the boos or doubting one's youth.