By Chuck Mindenhall
April 21, 2016
If ever there was a fight that has epitomized Julio César Chávez’s as a champion in the boxing ring it was his first bout against Philly’s own Meldrick Taylor in March of 1990. That fight, which was to unify the WBC and IBF super lightweight titles, was the first time in 67 professional bouts Mexico’s greatest fighter himself adrift in the deep water.
The 23-year old Taylor, an Olympic gold medalist, fought masterfully that night in Vegas. He regularly beat Chávez to the punch in nearly every round through the tenth. As part of his game plan, he stayed well off the ropes, as if they were tension wires teeming with electric charge. He didn’t want Chávez wailing away at him with no escape hatch. When Chávez plowed forward with that bullish tenacity we’d seen a million times before, Taylor slowed him with slick in-fighting. Chávez’s left hook, forever a death knell for those who encountered it, was rarely finding a home. Chávez was about to suffer the first loss of his career, which to that point spanned ten years, back to the days of beating the local scene at Revolution Park in his native Culiacan, Sinaloa.
The great champion was about to fall.
Yet sometime around the 10th round, Taylor began to wear. He was slowing down, and Chávez — whose desire only intensified in a fight — kept coming on. By the end of the 11th, the quiet toll Taylor had been taking during his finest hour began to tell. Both his eyes were nearly closed from the cumulative punishment, and when the bell rang he didn’t know which corner was his. He needed to win one more round to defeat the great J.C. Chávez.
Yet Chávez had a flare for such dramatics. As the fight drew near its end, his first loss as clear as the sound of that final bell, he went for broke. He pressed Taylor to the corner, and glanced a left through him that set up the right. It was the right that downed Meldrick Taylor. Referee Richard Steele examined Taylor as he got back to his feet at the count of five. He asked if he was okay when he got to ten. When he didn’t get a response, the fight was over. The official time was 2:58 of Round 12. The great Julio César Chávez, whom thousands of his Mexican faithful traveled to see fight all over the southwest and beyond, prevailed in the most unthinkable way.
He moved to 67-0. He would fight 115 times overall in a career that stretched to 25 years. He wouldn’t lose until his 91st bout. He lost only six times in his career, and held the same number of titles — six — in three different weight classes. Julio César Chávez was one of the greatest boxers that ever lived. Through it all he remained the cruelest kind of give-and-take fighter.
He provided Meldrick Taylor a night full of glistening superlatives throughout the broadcast, and still took his heart at the end.
That fight was one of many that Chávez ultimately made him a legendary figure, not only in his native Mexico, but in the canon of boxing’s greats. There were so many others. After racking up an undefeated record fighting in Culiacan and later Tijuana — where he moved so that he could give his life to boxing — Chávez made his first big wave north of the border against Mario Martinez. At the Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles, Chávez arrived. His eighth-round TKO over “Azabache” won him the vacant WBC Super Featherweight title.
From there, Chávez became a draw in the fight capital of the world, Las Vegas, and a folk hero in Mexico. He looked the part, with his leathery, pug-like features, a rough exterior that he could just as easily soften with a smile. He was a bit eccentric, too. He wore his trademark red headband to ward off bad spirits, which had been brought on by a witch doctor attempting to curse him during his lightweight title bout with Edwin Rosario. He fought his own demons, too, bouts of drugs and alcohol. Yet through 25 years, he persevered until the end.
In the ring, J.C. Chávez was relentless, and he rose up to meet every challenge stoically. His fighting style helped bring the smaller weight classes into vogue at a time when the heavyweights reigned king.
Mike Tyson, the game’s greatest draw, went to jail in 1992 — right when Chávez was generating millions. When he fought Spanish Harlem’s Hector “Macho” Camacho at the Thomas & Mack Center that year, it was right at a time when boxing needed a name. Chávez, who didn’t shy away from American glitz, delivered in his biggest spot. He dominated the flamboyant Camacho, even though he was competing with an injured hand.
Chávez embodied the epic event. He knocked out Greg Haugen in front of more than 130,000 people — including Mexican president, Carlos Salinas de Gortari, whom he gave a pair of fight-worn gloves — at Aztec Stadium in Mexico City. The next year, after breaking boxing’s record by winning his 87th bout in a row against Terrence Alli, he challenged Pernell Whitaker for the WBC welterweight title. Whitaker was the first man that Chávez didn’t beat.
But nor did he beat Chávez. They fought to a draw. It took 13 years and a fighter of Whitaker’s caliber for somebody to deal Chávez a draw.
And it was Chávez who opened the MGM Grand in Vegas, today’s center of fight world, back in 1994 when he fought Frankie Randall. That night Chávez suffered his first defeat. He avenged the loss just a few months later (and then again a decade after that). He’d win many others in the course of his storied career, fights against Giovanni Parisi, Joey Gamache and David Kamau. His battles with Oscar De La Hoya became historical markers in boxing’s most anticipated events. He may not have won the fights, but the second one in 1998 — when they stood toe-to-toe swinging from the heels in the middle of the ring — only served to solidify Chávez as one of the boxing’s most respected all-time figures.
Chávez has said throughout his career that he’s a “born fighter,” that he was ready to scrap since the days of the womb. As one of 11 children who grew up in impoverished circumstances in Mexico, it’s not hard to appreciate his rise through the ranks — or understand how he came to stand as a national icon in his country. For a quarter of a century, Chávez left a lot of legacy in the prize ring. He scored 88 knockouts in that time, and defending his titles 27 times. Through it all, he took everything that was thrown at him.
Angelo Dundee, Muhammad Ali’s famed trainer, said Chávez was the toughest fighter he’d ever seen. And that he possessed the strongest chin in history. That’s high praise from a man who helped shape the very fighter we know today as “The Greatest” of all time.
Yet Julio César Chávez inspired just that kind of awe.