It started around 1918 in the bordellos of Tampico and other port cities along the Gulf of Mexico. Sailors and fishermen would set up improvised rings, where men would fight for drinking money, wrapping napkins around their hands for protection and passing the hat afterward.
These unsupervised brawls were not only popular, they were dangerous, which led to the formation of Mexico's first boxing commission, in Tampico in 1921. From this crude beginning, boxing quickly spread throughout the country and flourished, fertilized by a macho culture not long removed from revolution.
The latest manifestation of Mexico's enduring love affair with "boxeo" takes place this Saturday at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, when native sons Canelo Alvarez and Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. do battle in a 12-round super middleweight bout (164½-pound catch weight) broadcasts by HBO PPV.
There's nothing quite like a showdown between two Mexican boxers to divide a nation's loyalties. Alvarez is a big favorite with the oddsmakers, anywhere from -550 to -900, but the rooting sections won't be as one-sided come fight time. The Chavez name still carries a lot of weight in Mexico.
The scene and setting have changed tremendously over the decades. Alvarez and Chavez are fighting in a state-of-the-art venue, and they will be paid millions of dollars, not coins in a hat. But the soul of Mexican boxing has remained unaltered, immune to the lure of trappings and treasure. It is innate. It is of the heart.
It is also the reason we look forward to their fights with such anticipation. Mexican fighters at almost every level come with a guarantee. In shape, out of shape, it doesn't matter. They will give you everything they've got. It's the only way they know.
Revolutionary Emiliano Zapata was preaching to the choir when he said, "It's better to die on your feet than to live on your knees." The sons and daughters of the Mexican Revolution who threw off the yoke of oppression had been on their knees so long, they knew he spoke the truth.
Mexico's first boxing star was Kid Azteca, a native of Tepito, known as "Barrio Bravo," the same fierce Mexico City neighborhood that would also give us Marco Antonio Barrera, Ruben Olivares, Carlos Zarate and Raton Macias.
His real name was Luis Villanueva Paramo. He had black curly hair, a broad nose and a wistful smile. The left hook to the liver was his specialty, and he is as responsible as anybody for popularizing the signature punch of Mexican boxing.
The boy who became Kid Azteca was born during the revolution, but the exact date varies, depending on the source. It's generally agreed, however, that he was around 13 years old when he made his pro debut in 1929, losing a six-round decision to Pancho Aranda for which he earned 4 pesos.
Azteca lost to the same guy again in his second fight, but he couldn't afford to quit. Besides, Mexican fighters don't back down, and they don't quit. It's part of the code. Azteca embraced the message and became a legend.
His 252-bout career spanned five decades and encompassed a remarkable 16-year reign as the welterweight champion of Mexico. He fought on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border and beat Ceferino Garcia (twice) and Fritzie Zivic in nontitle bouts. But it was his unprecedented term as Mexico's welterweight champion that defined him -- until it suddenly didn't.
El Conscripto (Tomas Lopez), another Mexico City fighter, finally ended Azteca's tenure as national welterweight champ. They had a five-fight rivalry, with Azteca holding a 3-1-1 advantage when all was said and done. But El Conscripto's only victory came in their fourth fight, Jan. 28, 1950, when he stopped Azteca in the 10th round, ending an extraordinary streak that began Oct. 23, 1932.
Kid Azteca's best years were over by then, but the arrival of TV in the 1950s created a fresh start. He was already famous, but instead of thousands, millions now saw his fights. It made him a bigger star than ever. He appeared in Mexican potboilers such as "Kid Tabaco" and "Guantes de Oro" and hung around with Cantinflas. His likeness graced a 24,000,000-peso lottery ticket.
Best of all, his TV ratings were so high he was able to cruise through the backstretch of his career beating obscure opponents. Such was the Mexican people's love for their enduring hero.
Azteca and other top Mexican fighters of his era, including Juan Zurita, Chico Cisnero, Baby Arizmendy and Rodolfo "Chango" Casanova took the sport from humble beginnings to a world-class level. And just as important, they set the standard for what a Mexican fighter is all about.
It's a reputation that has spread around world, a badge of courage respected by all. For many non-Mexicans, it's something to aspire to. Junior lightweight Michael Armstrong changed his last name to Gomez and called himself "The Irish Mexican." Gennady Golovkin likes to fight "Mexican style."
For Mexicans, it's just who they are.
The generations of fighters who came in the wake of Kid Azteca and his contemporaries have not only carried on the tradition, they've enhanced it.
Ruben Olivares, another Chilango, turned pro three years after Azteca retired and eventually became a central figure of a period considered the last Golden Age of California boxing.
With his snaggletooth smile, party-hardy lifestyle and paralyzing left hook, Olivares was a perfect fit for L.A. in late 1960s and 1970s. His three-fight rivalry with fellow Mexican Chucho Castillo was arguably the high point of the era, an orgy of action that was the envy of the boxing world. Olivares won the first and the third, and a combined audience of more than 53,000 reveled in the glory of it all, setting new indoor gate records.
The dynamics of the various rooting interests among people of Mexican heritage are often delineated by geography. Fighters from Mexico City are generally hated by boxers from outside the Distrito Federal. The rivalries between Mexican Nationals and Mexican-American are particularly intense, and it's not unusual to see Mexican-Americans cheering for the boxer from south of the border.
Oscar De La Hoya said he was surprised when fans booed him during his 1996 bloodbath with Julio Cesar Chavez. The old "Lion of Culiacan" almost bled out before it was stopped in the fourth, but he was still No. 1 in the hearts of Mexicans fans regardless of where they lived.
Interestingly, Julio Cesar Chavez did not have significant fights with a Mexican adversary after winning a vacant junior lightweight belt from Mario Martinez in 1984. He went where the money was, and who can blame him? But Marco Antonio Barrera, who will be joining Chavez as a member of the International Boxing Hall of Fame in June, participated in one of the most celebrated rivalries of the new millennium.
Barrera's three showdowns with Erik Morales were paeans to savagery, especially the first one in February 2000, when they went at each other with unrelenting fury. Barrera deserved that win, but they gave it to Morales, who should have won the second but didn't. Barrera won the rubber match fair and square. The first fight is often mentioned when people talk about the best fights they've ever seen.
If further proof is needed of the vital role Mexico plays in U.S. boxing, I give you the magnificent first three fights between Israel Vazquez and Rafael Marquez, which took place between 2007 and 2010.
Officially, they ended even at 2-2, but their final fight should never have been sanctioned. Vazquez's eyes were so severely damaged winning two of the first three fights, he wasn't fit to box in the fourth. But he knew he would never fight again and needed that final payday.
In the end, it cost him his right eye. Marquez was also spent. He lost four of his next six fights, three by knockout, and packed it in. They would probably both still do the same thing if they had to do it all over again. Most fighters would.
On Saturday, Alvarez and Chavez will be measured against a fighting tradition passed down from the days of Kid Azteca. Chavez has faltered in the past, and this is probably his chance to prove himself. He doesn't even have to win to do so. He just has to remember where he came from.