Thursday, June 16, 2011

Julio Cesar Chavez: "The Lion in Winter" By Rick Farris

This was my last look at the great Julio Cesar Chavez . . .
Phoenix - July, 2000



"The Lion in Winter"
by Rick Farris


Boxing and controversy were holding hands long before the Marquis of Queensbury laid down the ground rules. Generally, controversy surfaces sometime after the opening bell. However, from the moment it was announced that WBC Jr. Welterweight Champ Kostya Tszyu would defend his title against 38-year-old Julio Cesar Chavez, controversy flourished. Even today, three days after the fight the controversy continues.

The Tszyu-Chavez title fight would be my first live coverage assignment and I had a special interest in it. I had been in the house the night Chavez made his Los Angeles debut at the Olympic Auditorium more than seventeen years ago, and again the following year, when he won his first world title. Now I would be present for what I expected to be the once great champion's final fight.

I had hoped to catch Chavez working out at the Madison Gym in Phoenix where today I train boxers. However, my schedule interfered with the chance of seeing Chavez during the week he conducted his final workouts in Phoenix. I didn't see the former champ until the friday afternoon weigh-in at the Airport Hilton Hotel in Phoenix.

When I arrived at the Hotel I saw a lot of old friends and familiar faces from my era in Los Angeles boxing. Marty Denkin, who was scheduled to judge the bout was sitting in the lobby with another L.A. based official, Chuck Hassett. A group of amateur boxers representing several Phoenix area gyms were standing by hoping to get a glimpse of Chavez when he entered the building. Arizona boxing commissioner John Montano was having a discussion in the corner with one of the promoters and Jimmy Lennon Jr. crossed the room on his way to the restaurant. Kostya Tszyu had quietly slipped into the media room where the weigh-in would be held and quickly checked his weight on the scale. After stepping off the scale he disappeared. About ten minutes later a commotion could be heard coming from the lobby and it marked the entrance of one of the greatest Mexican boxers ever, Julio Cesar Chavez. Chavez was quickly surrounded by the media. Anxious reporters and camera crews positioned themselves close to the former champion and began asking questions. Chavez sat down in the lobby and talked with the media but not with the strength that he once projected.

As I watched Chavez talk to the media I could see that this was not the same man I had watched win the W.B.C. Jr. Lightweight title sixteen years earlier. The Chavez I saw knockout Mario Martinez was 21 years old and had that hungry look in his eyes. The Chavez I saw in the lobby of the Hotel looked uncomfortable, almost irritated. The only confidence projected that afternoon came from a loyal group of young followers that somehow believed that there hero could pull off a miracle. "Vamos Rumbo A La Victoria" were the words emblazoned on the back of their T-Shirts. They had come to win.

Chavez's behavior in the days leading up to the fight indicated to me that he was in trouble. Last week he became upset when learning that Willy Wise, the welterweight who had defeated him last September, would be appearing on the undercard. Chavez demanded that the promoter drop Wise from the card or he would not fight. The request was honored. This is something that Chavez would have never done a few years ago. However, as I said, this was not the same Chavez.

A few minutes later Chavez stood and headed for the media room where the weigh-in was scheduled to take place in less than twenty minutes. Chavez and his handlers headed directly toward the scale to check his weight. Chavez stripped to his briefs and stepped onto the scale. After finding his weight to be exactly 140 lbs. Chavez nodded seriously and slipped into a robe provided by one of his team members. Every move the great Mexican made after entering the room was followed by loud cheering from the spectators. It was obvious they had come to see Chavez.

In a matter of seconds the room was packed wall-to-wall. Former World Champ Danny Romero shook hands and posed for pictures with many of the young fans who had come to watch the festivities. Hector Camacho Jr. smiled and flexed his muscles as photographers snapped pictures. It wasn't long before the official weigh-in would take place and after weighing the other boxers on the card Commissioner John Montano called Chavez to the scale. "Julio Cesar Chavez . . .140 pounds", Montano announced. The spectators cheered. A minute later Montano called for the champion to be weighed. "Kostya Tszyu, 139 1/2 pounds". The crowd booed but Tszyu just smiled and confidently flexed his muscles for the media before stepping down. The champion was about as popular with the predominantly Mexican crowd as Lee Harvey Oswald was with the American public on November 22, 1963.

Chavez never smiled, aside from a weak effort after his weight was announced. He was obviously upset over the events leading up to the fight. In addition to the Wise incident, Chavez was angry that Senator John McCain had attempted to stop the fight from taking place. Fearing that Chavez could be seriously hurt by Tszyu, McCain had petitioned Arizona Governor Jane Hull to step in. However, the fight would go on and Chavez considered the Senator's efforts an insult. Adding to the insult was the fact that Las Vegas was refusing to take action on the bout, citing that Chavez was anywhere from a 40 to 100-to-1 underdog. Chavez trained hard and vowed to prove them wrong. After the weigh-in, Tszyu told the press he would stop Chavez in two rounds while Chavez said he would knockout Tszyu within eight. I looked closely into the dark gamecock eyes of Chavez as he made the prediction and nothing gave me the impression that he believed what he was saying.

Early the next evening I arrived at Phoenix's Veteran's Memorial Coliseum a couple of hours before the title fight was to start. It had been 112 degrees
that day and those who had bought tickets parked their cars and hurried across the parking lot to escape the heat. "Thank God for air conditioning" was all I could think about upon entering the cool Coliseum. I had arrived about halfway thru a prelim featuring former World Champ Robert Garcia. As Garcia pounded his opponent I wanted to get with the boxing people. Thanks to my press credentials and familiar face among the boxing crowd I was able to go just about anywhere I wanted.

After locating my seat I went directly to the dressing room area located behind giant curtains shielding that part of the arena from the crowd. I passed by the Showtime crew who were running a sound check on Bobby Czyz as he and Steve Albert prepared themselves for their ringside commentator roles later on. As I passed by the security reps guarding the dressing room area, I saw my friend Richard Rodriguez, owner of the Madison Gym where Chavez had finished his training for this fight. I asked Rodriguez how Chavez had looked in the gym during the previous week and he answered, "He looked good. He's in good shape". That's all Rodriguez could offer. I then spot America Presents promoter Dan Goossen who was standing in the back outside the dressing room area with Jimmy Lennon Jr. I knew that Goossen would be too busy to talk about the fight so I just said hello and asked him if his brother Joe was around. "Joe couldn't make it", Dan said, "He usually does all the work but I guess it will be just me tonight" he said smiling. Goossen had good reason to be happy, the event was a near sellout.

As I made my way toward the dressing rooms I saw Sugar Ray Leonard enter surrounded by several security guards who would usher him to his ringside seat. A few minutes later Johnny Tapia walked in holding hands with his wife. Tapia had a mischievous smile on his face and clowned with a few friends he'd met. I have to give Johnny credit, he sure knows how to work a crowd. Throughout the evening I saw Tapia shaking hands and posing for pictures with fans. I doubt he ever sat down. And as usual there were many other boxing celebs on hand such as Fernando Vargas, Danny Romero and Zab Judah, who had come to check out Kostya Tszyu, a man whom he will face in the ring one day. When Don King emerged from the dressing room area with four giant body guards the crowd greeted him with boos.

After Garcia had won a ten round decision, Vassily Jirov the IBF Cruiserweight Champ took on a cagey Phoenix veteran named Earl Butler. Butler was not expected to last long but it was Jirov who was lucky to finish the first round on his feet. About halfway thru the opening round Butler discovered that Jirov could be hit with right cross and caught the champ flush on the chin with one. Jirov staggered and struggled to remain on his feet. Before the round ended he'd caught several more and wobbled to his corner after the bell. However, in the second round Jirov went to work and and knocked out Butler.

After the Jirov fight I wondered back to the dressing room area where Hector Camacho Jr. was being boosted up onto a large wooden horse on wheels. Camacho had intended to make his ring entrance riding a real horse down the aisle but the Phoenix Fire Dept. said "No way". Instead, Camacho would make his entrance on the back of the wooden horse pulled down the aisle by anassistant. As Camacho awaited the cue for his entrance, he sat patiently on the wooden horse with his pretty young wife standing just below him carrying their baby in her arms. I spoke briefly with Ted Morton, Camacho's American representative whom I had met several years back. Needless to say, Morton was very excited about his unbeaten young fighter. After watching Camacho stop Phillip Holiday in a less than exciting bout I returned to the dressing area where I was able to casually slip inside the dressing room of Chavez. I just acted like I belonged there and quietly stood to the side watching the Mexican legend as he warmed up shadow boxing. He broke a sweat but didn't appear ready to me for action to me. An official prompted Team Chavez that it was about time for the once brilliant champion to head down to the ring. A second tied Chavez robe while another rubbed his shoulders. About this time a group of about a dozen young members of Team Chavez along with his handlers surrounded Julio and began to chant a pre-fight cheer, something to raise the fighters spirit before the match. When they finished, Cristobal Rosas, the great Mexican trainer who had once worked with the late Salvador Sanchez, gave Chavez a hug and kissed him on the forehead. Rosas had once trained Chavez and was Julio's special guest for the fight. They exchanged a few words in Spanish and then Julio headed out. Before reaching the curtain leading to the arena Chavez, surrounded by the most loyal entourage I have ever seen, stood waiting for the final cue to walk down the aisle. Gathered before Chavez was a large Mariachi band that would play as he entered the ring. A moment later Don King and his escorts appeared and King hugged Chavez. King, never one to miss an opportunity to be seen, stood behind Chavez with his hands on the former champion's shoulders. King would accompany Chavez for his last walk down the aisle. I looked closely into the face of Chavez and didn't see the look of a man who had held world titles for more than twelve years during his brilliant career. I saw a man who knew his great pride was about to suffer.

A Showtime official gave the Chavez delegation the signal, in Spanish, that it was time. "Tiempo" he shouted. Long before Chavez walked thru the curtain and began his walk down the aisle the crowd exploded. "CHAVEZ, CHAVEZ, CHAVEZ!", they chanted. As Chavez slowly made his way to the ring the flashes from cameras created a strobe light effect around the Coliseum and the sound of Mariachi music was drowned out by the thunderous ovation from the audience. I have seen a lot of title fights and dozens of great champions over the years but nothing compared to the excitement that took place when Chavez entered the ring Saturday night. You would think that Chavez was the champion and Tszyu was an unpopular challenger. When Tszyu entered the ring a few minutes later he was greeted with boos.

Chavez did his best but had little to offer. On a couple of occasions he was able to land solid blows but they had no effect on the talented Russian. In the sixth round the great Julio Cesar Chavez hit the canvas for only the second time in his career. He made it to his feet and desperately tried to fight back but within seconds referee Bobby Ferrara had no choice but to stop the fight.

Too many years have separated Chavez from the skills that made him great, however, the legend will never die. When the disappointment of Chavez's fans turned to anger, the beer started to fly. Growing up in Los Angeles I know how Mexican fans react when their favorite loses. Long before Jimmy Lennon announced the winner of the fight I was safely tucked away in the press room waiting for the post fight press conference.

Chavez announced his retirement after the fight and I hope he was serious. Even so, the controversy continued when he refused to take the drug test following the fight. Many would assume that this suggests Chavez had taken an illegal substance prior to the match. However, nothing I saw in the eyes or behavior of the great Chavez indicated he had. I think one of the greatest Mexican boxers in history had been insulted enough and just wanted to get out of the place. Chavez has earned his place in boxing history, what could a bit more controversy hurt.

1 comment:

brian said...

A classic..