By Thomas Gerbasi
July 20, 2016
As an idol to fight fans throughout Mexico, former two-time UFC heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez knows what it’s like for his followers to meet their hero.
Of course, the humble Velasquez wouldn’t use words like “idol” or “hero” to describe himself, especially when there is another man out there who is truly the patron saint of combat sports in the country of his parents’ birth.
And when Velasquez met that man, Julio Cesar Chavez, it all clicked.
Before his third fight with Junior Dos Santos in October of 2013, Velasquez was fulfilling some media duties at the Floyd Mayweather-Canelo Alvarez bout in the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas. As he was doing an interview, he caught a glimpse of Chavez, the greatest of Mexican boxing champions, out of the corner of his eye.
“I was doing an interview, and all of a sudden he was there,” Velasquez said. “I was at a loss for words, but it was cool and a great experience that I was able to meet one of my heroes growing up. It was a big thing for me.”
The two took a picture together and Velasquez hastily shot off a text to his father Efrain with the photo and the words “El Gran Campeon.”
Reception issues only sent those three words, with the photo getting lost in space.
“He was like, ‘What are you talking about,’” Velasquez laughed. “So all during the fights I’m trying to send the picture and finally it did get sent.”
It was almost as if Velasquez had come full circle, letting his dad know that he made it. The fighter father and son had watched growing up not only shook his hand, but treated him as a peer. That moment was priceless, and Velasquez isn’t the only one to feel that way about the native of Culiacan whose fights stopped all of Mexico.
Think about it. What fighter of any nationality can stop a country? Manny Pacquiao, maybe. Conor McGregor, possibly in the future. But Chavez was a phenomenon like no other.
“Nobody has even filled his shoes and we’re talking about a lot of great Mexican fighters that have come along in the last 20 years,” former Top Rank publicist Ricardo Jimenez told me. “And no one’s been able to even come close to him.”
That means Ruben Olivares, Salvador Sanchez, Marco Antonio Barrera, Erik Morales, Juan Manuel Marquez and so many other Mexican greats never captured the imagination of a nation like Chavez did.
And while there’s no way to accurately point to a particular trait or traits that separated him from his peers, there are a few touch points that may give a better insight into the Chavez phenomenon.
First, he was a man of the people. To Mexicans, Chavez was one of them, and when he won, they won. And together, they won a lot. Over the course of a career that spanned 115 fights, he only lost six times, and when his hand was raised, it was a reason to celebrate. Yet as the men and women celebrated, this fighter wearing the colors of their country, singing their national anthem, and representing all of them, fascinated a younger generation.
Former super middleweight contender Librado Andrade remembers going to the fights as a child with another future fighter, brother Enrique Ornelas. And as their older brother celebrated, they focused on the ring.
“He used to go because he liked to party,” said Andrade of his older brother. “But we would pay attention to the fights.”
It was the same thing for UFC bantamweight Erik Perez, who didn’t dream of taking to the soccer pitch, but to the ring, and eventually, the Octagon.
“Julio Cesar Chavez was one of my favorite fighters,” Perez said. “I wanted to be like him and like Erik Morales and (Ricardo) “Finito” Lopez. The best boxers in the world are the Mexican boxers.”
That loyalty remained. From his early years, to the championship era, and even through his decline and retirement, Chavez retained a fan base that never left his side. Why? Because he was a fighter. A fan’s fighter and a fighter’s fighter.
“If you see the Julio Cesar Chavez and Meldrick Taylor fight, it was the last few seconds of the fight and he (Chavez) never gave up, and he scored the knockout,” said “Sugar” Shane Mosley, who sparred with Chavez. “ He kept going and going, and a guy who keeps fighting until the end is a true warrior. He’s fighting for the love of the sport.”
You can’t teach that love and you can’t fake it. And while Chavez began fighting to provide a better life for his mother, and then stayed in it to give his family the finer things in life, eventually, the goal turned to greatness, and he achieved that too.
“He proved you can accomplish greatness, as long as you don’t look back,” rising UFC featherweight star Yair Rodriguez said of Chavez, who also proved that when you get knocked down in life – both literally and figuratively – you can still win as long as you get up.
At 54 years old, Julio Cesar Chavez is still standing. Clean, sober, and still an idol to millions, including the fighters that hope to one day be mentioned in the same sentence with him.
That’s a legacy worth celebrating.