Will pride take a fall? Boxing: "Macho warrior" Julio Cesar Chavez is playing an unfamiliar underdog role against a young rival.

June 07, 1996|By Alan Goldstein | Alan Goldstein,SUN STAFF

LAS VEGAS -- The tape of the two-round sparring session is of poor quality, shot in a makeshift ring in the back of a Los Angeles restaurant in spring 1989.

Look closely and you can see the grainy images of then-lightweight champion Julio Cesar Chavez and a lanky Oscar De La Hoya, at the time a promising teen-age featherweight with Olympic aspirations.

Using his height advantage in the first round, De La Hoya peppers Chavez with quick jabs. But in the second round, Chavez catches his youthful rival with a right cross to the chin. More embarrassed than hurt, De La Hoya jumps up quickly and fights back gamely until the bell rings.

"All I remember was that the kid showed some speed and I felt some of his punches," said Chavez. "He was trying hard, not me. It didn't mean anything. But that was then, this is now."

Tonight at Caesars Palace, Chavez will be an unfamiliar 2-1 underdog when he defends his World Boxing Council super lightweight title against De La Hoya, now an unbeaten champion in his own right.

Once regarded as the best fighter pound-for-pound, Chavez, a month short of 34, has shown signs of vulnerability in recent years, benefiting from some questionable decisions to maintain his crown.

At the same time, De La Hoya, 23, has grown rapidly in stature, winning all 21 of his fights while also capturing International Boxing Federation and World Boxing Organization lightweight crowns.

Technically, Chavez has lost only once -- a 12-round decision to Frankie Randall in May 1994 that temporarily cost him his super ** lightweight crown. But there was also his controversial, last-second stoppage of Meldrick Taylor in 1990 and his draw with elusive Pernell Whitaker in 1993.

Jose Sulaiman, president of the World Boxing Council, said it was Chavez's immense pride that cheated him of an unblemished record.

"He fought Whitaker with a broken left hand," Sulaiman said. "I tried to stop the fight, but he wouldn't let me. With Randall, he didn't train properly. His legs were bothering him, but he had promised the MGM Grand he would be on their first show. Pride, so much pride."

Vinny Pazienza, a former champion who overcame near paralysis to continue his career, said: "He's amazing. If you look at him, there is not one thing he does great. He's not real fast or a one-punch knockout artist. And he doesn't have a great defense. He just wins."

Home Box Office president Seth Abraham recalled a lunch meeting some years ago when he shared a table with Chavez, promoter Don King and Mike Tyson.

"King asked Julio who he wanted to fight next," Abraham said. "He pointed to Tyson. 'I'll fight him.' But he wasn't joking. He just has so much chutzpah."

It all goes back to his days of growing up in dirt-poor Culiacan, Mexico, one of 10 kids of a train conductor raised in a converted railroad car.

"The government owned it, and we paid rent," he recalled. Years later, he would buy the land, tear down the house and build a new one for his parents.

He began boxing at 14 and displayed a natural gift.

"From the first time he put on the gloves, he had his own unique style," said his older brother, Rudolfo, who serves as a business adviser. "He was the kind of kid who had to do things his own way, and he has stayed that way."

He made his pro debut at 17 in his hometown against a fighter named Andres Felix, winning a six-round decision. Promised a purse of $150, he remembered being paid off with a couple of live chickens.

Things have grown considerably better for Chavez. Now a multimillionaire, he has remained in Culiacan, close to his roots and adoring fans. Three years ago, a record 136,000 witnessed his fight with Greg Haugen in Mexico City.

"These are my people," he said, waving to an army of flag-waving admirers crowding him at fight headquarters. "I must win for them."

It will be no easy task against De La Hoya, 10 years younger and brimming with confidence.

"This reminds me of my first fight with Roberto Duran in Montreal," said former five-time world champion Sugar Ray Leonard. "Oscar is the boxer, and Chavez is like Duran, the macho warrior.

"Oscar can't get caught up with the crowd and forget his game plan like I did with Duran. Oscar has fought big fights, but nothing of this dimension. Youth is good to have, but experience is a great neutralizer.

"I see a rage building in Chavez. This fight has stimulated him. It is more than another fight. For Chavez, this is for all of Mexico."

Pub Date: 6/07/96

Fight facts

Who: Julio Cesar Chavez (97-1-1, 79 KOs), Culiacan, Mexico, vs. Oscar De La Hoya (21-0, 19 KOs), Los Angeles.

What: For Chavez's World Boxing Council super lightweight title.

Where: Caesars Palace, Las Vegas; 16,000-seat arena is sold out.

When: Tonight; closed-circuit television broadcast begins at 9; main event will begin approximately at 11: 15.

Area viewing: Pikesville Armory, 610 Reisterstown Road, (800) 487-4535. Tickets, $35. Mexico Lucinda restaurant, Bladensburg, (301) 779-7988. Tickets, $30.

Purses: Chavez, $9 million; De La Hoya, $8.99 million.

Odds: De La Hoya is a 2-1 favorite.

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