Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Making of Julio Cesar Chavez Jr.

I remember watching Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. fight Troy Rowland in 2009 on the Manny Pacquiao-Miguel Cotto undercard. It wasn't the first time that I had seen Chavez in action but I had lost track of him to a degree. I was interested in checking out his progress. It was his 42nd professional fight and he wasn't matched particularly tough. Rowland, a 34-year-old club fighter from Michigan, hadn't even participated in a ten-round bout in over four years.

Chavez turned in a listless performance. His punch output was minimal and his footwork was atrocious. Rowland had so little power that Chavez barely concerned himself with defense. Nevertheless, the skill level difference between the two fighters was significant. Chavez dug his punishing left hooks to the body and followed up with a few straight right hands. His superior power shots were enough to win rounds but he showed no inclination to make a statement or win definitively. Rowland took a few rounds based solely on effort but he didn't have any real weapons. Chavez cruised through the fight and made the least of his position on a mega-fight undercard in Las Vegas.

After the fight, Chavez failed a drug test; a diuretic was found in his system.
Diuretics can help fighters lose weight or they can assist in covering up steroids or other performance enhancing drugs. To boxing observers familiar with Chavez, both possibilities for failing a drug test seemed plausible. He loathed training and his weight ballooned during fights. He also had a reputation for living the high life. In short, like many privileged sons, Chavez liked shortcuts.

The Chavez of 2009 was nothing more than a curiosity factor, a sideshow. Here was a boxer who was handed opportunities and advantages in the sport that thousands would kill for and yet he showed so little effort or dedication. Did he even want to be a professional boxer? Did he enjoy it? Was he just boxing to please his father? Did he even care?

Flash forward two-and-a-half years and the change in Chavez has been remarkable. He is now regarded as one of the top half-dozen or so middleweights in the world and he is headlining his first major pay per view card in September against the 160-lb. king, Sergio Martinez. Today's Chavez barely resembles the one who fought Rowland. Over the last 13 months, he has defeated two top-15 middleweights in Sebastian Zbik and Andy Lee. He also bested the rugged Marco Antonio Rubio and sent Peter Manfredo into retirement.

So what contributed to Chavez's transformation? How does a raw, sluggish, bloated and disinterested fighter become one of boxing's hottest commodities in such a relatively short time frame? In my mind, there are four people that deserve the most credit for his ascendency. I'll discuss them below.

Julio Cesar Chavez Sr.
Both nature and nurture helped Junior improve. The elder was arguably the best Mexican fighter of all time. He was a relentless pressure fighter and an owner of one of the most vicious left hooks to the body in the sport's history. Junior always had a very good left hook, but he wasn't literally born with it. He obviously received excellent instruction from his father.

The younger Chavez, like his father, also has shown that he has a first-rate chin. (It hasn't fully been tested against the same caliber of fighters that Senior faced, but to this point, so far so good.) Certainly, there are things that can be done to improve defense, resiliency and endurance, but the ability to take a punch, like power or speed, has a significant genetic component to it. Some, like Junior, just have a gift in this area.

As Chavez has taken his career more seriously, these gifts, particularly his left hook and chin, have helped him tremendously. He's become one of the best body punchers in the sport and his hook is his money punch. His chin enables him to stand and trade with foes. He took the best shots from Zbik, Rubio and Lee, and he kept coming. These attributes have allowed Chavez to find his ring identity and press forward.

Credit also must be given to Senior for sticking with his son throughout his many lackluster bouts and out-of-the-ring distractions (Senior was no saint in the latter category either). He continued to encourage his son and he stood by him. An offspring trying to live up to his father's illustrious legacy can be extremely difficult but Senior has seemingly given the right amount of support and distance for his son to flourish.

Bob Arum
This actually applies to the full Top Rank apparatus as well as Chavez's co-promoter, Fernando Beltran of Zanfer Promotions. (Zanfer and Top Rank have enjoyed a very successful partnership for many of Top Rank's Mexican fighters. Chavez turned pro at 17 without a real amateur background. He quickly became an attraction based off of his lineage. In time, Chavez headlined a number of smaller Top Rank pay per views, often under the "Latin Fury" brand. On these shows, Chavez continued to amass victories against mediocre opposition.

The media, boxing observers and parts of Chavez's own fan base started to question his suspect competition and overall boxing ability (these were quite reasonable complaints, actually); Arum and Co. held firm. They were accused of milking Chavez's name to make steady revenues. The critics claimed that Top Rank didn't care about developing Chavez; the company was merely exploiting his lineage to line its pockets.

However, as Top Rank has demonstrated repeatedly throughout its history, the company is unequaled in its ability to develop fighters from scratch. With ace matchmakers such as Bruce Trampler and Brad Goodman, Top Rank has the best eyes in the business and the company understands patience. To Top Rank, Chavez's first 40 fights were his amateur career. Arum didn't cave into pressure or criticism. As Chavez started to progress, he was matched in fights that gave him experience. The Top Rank matchmakers found guys like Matt Vanda and Luciano Cuello, who were there to win and make competitive fights. Sure, there were a number of turkeys along the way, but there was a method to the madness.

By the time Arum matched Chavez against better competition, the young fighter far exceeded the boxing's community's expectations. Even throughout the last 13 months, when Chavez's victories were against solid opposition, Top Rank continued to use its expert matchmaking abilities to carefully protect and develop him.

Arum steered clear of Sergio Martinez and placed Chavez in a title fight (however bogus in its origins) against light-hitting Sebastian Zbik of Germany. To the Top Rank brass, they knew that Chavez wouldn't get hurt against Zbik and that he had a good shot to overwhelm his opponent with his superior size and strength. They next fed Chavez a faded "name" with Peter Manfredo, who was contemplating retirement even before the fight. For Chavez's second title defense, he faced Marco Antonio Rubio, who was almost a cruder and smaller version of Chavez. Most recently, Chavez defeated Andy Lee, an Olympian with one-punch knockout power and Emanuel Steward as his trainer. Despite eating some hellacious shots, Chavez dispatched Lee in seven rounds. Lee's body just couldn't hold up.

Top Rank waited until Chavez had defeated enough quality opponents and demonstrated significant improvement before placing him in with Martinez. If it were merely about quick money, Top Rank would have cashed Chavez out a year ago against Martinez. Instead, they played the long game. Chavez improved and now the fight is worth millions more than it would have been in mid-2010. The match has also galvanized the boxing public and box office sales have reportedly been very strong. Top Rank played a significant role in creating demand for the fight.

Throughout Chavez's development, Arum also focused on building a cross-border boxing attraction. He kept his fighter in the southwestern United States (which had healthy Latino populations) and in Mexico, often in border towns whereby it would be easy for Mexican and Mexican-American fans to support Chavez live. This emphasis on making Chavez into a regional attraction differs from other U.S. promoters, who, with minimal exceptions, emphasize overall exposure rather than geography for their young fighters.

The locations of Chavez's fights bear out the Top Rank/Zanfer strategy: 12 fights in Texas, 8 in Nevada, 3 in California, 2 in Arizona and 1 in New Mexico. In addition, Chavez fought five times total in the border towns of Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez. He had three more matches in Mexican cities relatively close to the U.S. border – one each in Hermosillo, Chihuahua and Monterrey.

Essentially, Top Rank employed a coherent strategy for developing its fighter and building a local fan base. By the time Arum got Chavez on HBO against the unknown Zbik, Chavez was able to draw a very healthy television rating. Chavez has continued to expand his base and he has now become one of HBO's signature fighters.

Freddie Roach
A few years ago, Top Rank realized that Chavez still lacked enough technical skills to compete at the highest levels of the sport. Even though Chavez had the stamina and chin to win ten-round bouts and he featured a killer left hook, the fighter's arsenal was limited; his defense was suspect. Arum convinced Chavez to train with Freddie Roach (Senior also publicly supported the move). Roach's previous success in expanding Manny Pacquiao's offensive arsenal had helped elevate Pacquiao to Top Rank's number-one star.

The Roach/Chavez union garnered numerous headlines in boxing circles but it didn't immediately produce memorable results. Chavez skimped on training camps and he didn't lead a Spartan lifestyle outside of the rink. Nevertheless, improvement started to show. From the Zbik fight, where Chavez featured little-to-no head movement and got hit with everything, to the Rubio fight, where Chavez displayed a new ability to slip punches, Chavez's defense improved to the point where it became serviceable. He still would never be confused with a slick defensive whiz, but with his ability to slip, counter and smother opponents, he no longer is the piƱata that he used to be.

On offense, Chavez has shown more confidence in his right hand. He still doesn't throw his right cross as frequently as he does his left hook, but he's using the punch more in each fight; it's very accurate and it catches opponents by surprise. In addition, Roach has refined Chavez's left uppercut and it's become a real weapon.

Roach has also improved Chavez's footwork and strategy. Chavez doesn't walk into opponents as much as he used to and his improved stance allows for better countering opportunities. Chavez has done an excellent job of baiting people to the ropes. He also has an acute understanding that his size and physicality are key attributes that help win him fights.

Julio Cesar Chavez Jr.
A Hall of Fame father, promoter and trainer are meaningless unless the fighter wants to become great. Chavez's maturation and improvement in professionalism are perhaps the most significant changes from where he was a few years ago. As Chavez and Roach further solidify their relationship, the fighter has become a much better pupil. Chavez no longer insists on a shortened six or eight-week training camp. He now puts in the time to learn and execute new punches, techniques and strategies. In fights, his desire to win – and to look impressive – is highly visible for the boxing world to see. He wants it.

Perhaps he doubted himself prior to Roach and he didn't believe that he could be a top fighter. Maybe thoughts of the legendary accomplishments of his father eroded his confidence. It could have been simpler. He was in his early 20s and had money; he wanted to party. Also, it's possible that he grew frustrated with Top Rank's deliberate development program. Maybe all of these factors held Chavez back.

Chavez now faces Sergio Martinez in September in the biggest fight of his career. Most likely, he will fill the Thomas and Mack Center in Las Vegas, despite the presence of a competing card on the same night, which features Mexican rival Saul Alvarez just a few miles down the road. Chavez is an underdog against Martinez, but just a slight one. In short, he has put himself in a great position to win.

Martinez may wind up victorious, but the boxing world expects this fight to be a tough, bruising battle, not the walkover of mid-2011 when the match was first proposed. Win or lose, Chavez will remain a viable presence in boxing for some time. He's a needed star in a sport in short supply of them, but most importantly, he's become a real fighter.

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