In a nation where boxing has a rich tradition and great champions are revered, Julio Cesar Chavez surely stands above the rest as Mexico's supreme fighter.
Chavez, who enters the International Boxing Hall of Fame on Sunday, was the first Mexican boxer to become a champion in three weight classes. His long career, spanning more than 100 victories, is the type associated with the long-lasting fighters of yore.
There were faster fighters than Chavez, flashier boxers and superior one-punch sluggers, but he overcame them all until, with the inevitable decline setting in, he lost in a stunning upset to a talented and inspired Frankie Randall in 1994.
Four of Chavez's six defeats -- two of them against superstar Oscar De La Hoya -- came in his last 17 fights. He avenged three losses in rematches.
At his best, Chavez was an almost perfect fighting machine. He was a relentless aggressor who punched hard and fast, and never seemed to tire. If Chavez got caught by hard blows, he could shrug them off, as he showed when withstanding a full-impact right hand from Roger Mayweather -- something of a Thomas Hearns of the lighter weight classes -- in a 1985 bout.
No, Chavez said afterwards, Mayweather hadn't hurt him. "I have too much chin," he said through an interpreter.
Too much chin, too much everything, for the opponents who faced him.
Chavez's second-round TKO of Mayweather marked his U.S. television debut -- on CBS, in an era when weekend-afternoon bouts were a network TV staple -- but his prowess had been noted by boxing insiders at least two years earlier. "Chavez, all of 19, displayed animal ferocity and fearsome punching power," Richard Hoffer noted in the Los Angeles Times after Chavez had destroyed a boxer named Romero Sandoval in two rounds in an undercard bout at the old Olympic Auditorium in June 1983.
Consistency was to become Chavez's keynote. He just kept on winning, capturing his first championship at 130 pounds in 1984 and going on to win belts at 135 and 140 pounds. A bid for a fourth title failed when he was considered fortunate to escape with a draw against welterweight champion Pernell Whitaker at the Alamodome in San Antonio in 1993.
Yet if one mark of a fighter's greatness is his ability to win big fights against opponents considered to be of equal stature, Chavez passed that test with his dramatic victories over Edwin Rosario and Meldrick Taylor.
When Chavez faced Rosario, the lightweight champion, outdoors at the Hilton Hotel in Las Vegas on Nov. 21, 1987, it was considered essentially an even fight. Chavez was a slight 7-5 favorite at the Las Vegas sports books, but seven of 14 reporters polled by USA Today picked the bigger and supposedly stronger Rosario to win -- and six of them thought he would do so by knockout. However, the eagerly awaited bout turned out to be one-sided, with Chavez wearing down Rosario and punishing him severely before the Puerto Rican boxer's corner threw in the towel in the 11th round.
"The Culiacan cutie (for his baby face, not his style) has all the ingredients for all-time greatness," veteran boxing writer Jack Fiske enthused in the San Francisco Chronicle.
At the finish, Rosario's left eye was closed, he was cut over the right eye, and blood was coming from his mouth. This might have been Chavez's most masterful performance. Everyone knew Chavez was a tough fighter, but he showed skills in his domination of a hard-hitting champion. "Chavez proved he was an excellent boxer by repeatedly making Rosario miss by ducking under and away from Rosario's big punches," noted long-serving reporter Royce Feour in the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
It was this performance that established Chavez as a special type of fighter in the minds of the American boxing public. "Rosario's blood-smudged and distorted face was graphic proof that attention must now be paid to Chavez," wrote Phil Berger in the New York Times.
Chavez faced another major challenge in what was deemed basically an even-money fight when he took on unbeaten Olympic gold medalist Meldrick Taylor in a clash of junior welterweight champions on March 17, 1990. This, of course, was the fight that Chavez famously won with just two seconds remaining in the last round. Chavez was behind on points, but referee Richard Steele -- who would not have been aware of the judges' scores -- deemed Taylor in no fit state to continue.
The controversy lingered seemingly for years. Taylor was on his feet after a right-hand blow had blasted him to the canvas in the closing moments, but he was a bloodied, beaten-up fighter. Although Taylor was two seconds away from victory, the argument goes, just one more big punch from Chavez could have done lasting damage. "My first response was that Steele had done the wrong thing," wrote experienced reporter Stan Hochman in Taylor's hometown newspaper, the Philadelphia Daily News. "When I heard ... that X-rays revealed a shattered bone near Taylor's left eye, that tests showed complete dehydration that kept him in the hospital overnight, a possible blood clot in the kidney area, I thought that perhaps Steele had done the right thing."
While Chavez scored many triumphs over worthy opponents, including a number of world champions, he will probably be most remembered for that controversial, and indeed sensational, win against Taylor.
Mexican aficionados adored Chavez, and the reasons are manifold. To distill the sentiment, though, it seems most accurate to say he was beloved for being a fighter who, for many years, gave his all, who came into the ring in tremendous condition and who beat everyone put in front of him -- a fighter who was reliable and determined. There was a hint of surrender in his first rematch with Frankie Randall after Chavez was cut in a clash of heads, declined to continue but won narrowly by technical decision ("He shook his head twice to me," Nevada commission doctor Flip Homansky explained at the postfight press conference). Chavez didn't answer the bell for the ninth round in his rematch with De La Hoya (although Chavez said afterwards that his corner had stopped the bout). But he already had given so much of himself, in so many fights, that these were minor blemishes on a wonderful record -- and the loss by retirement against De La Hoya was an honorable defeat: "Chavez had shown his valor and given the crowd and TV viewers their money's worth," I reported from ringside for Boxing Monthly.
In a historical context, Chavez could have been matched, one imagines, against history's greatest fighters from 130 to 140 pounds and fought with distinction against the very best of them. His place in the Hall of Fame has been well-earned.