by Kieran Mulvaney
In many ways, they could not be more different.
Julio Cesar Chavez Jr.
One is the scion of his nation’s most esteemed boxing family, son of the greatest pugilist ever produced in the most boxing-mad country of Mexico. He carries the hopes of his nation on his broad young shoulders. The other had never even laced up a pair of gloves until his 20th birthday. He left his country for another, and then departed that adopted land for a third.
The paths that Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. and Sergio Martinez have taken are far apart indeed. But those paths have led each man to a slice of the middleweight championship, and they converge in Las Vegas on Saturday, when Chavez and Martinez will battle for supremacy at the Thomas & Mack Center. Here’s a brief map of the contrasting journeys that have led the two men to this Saturday’s HBO pay-per-view main event:
Born: February 16, 1986
Turned professional: September 26, 2003 (age 17)
When Chavez stepped into the ring against Oisin Fagan at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas in February 2004, he had been a professional boxer for five months, during which time he had compiled a 4-0 record. He had just turned 18, but the consensus reaction ringside questioned the authenticity of that claim; he looked, everyone exclaimed, as if he were a lot younger.
The fresh-faced man-child nonetheless beat up the adult Fagan and set out on a career that, on one level, seemed preordained and yet was strewn with brickbats. His father, Julio Cesar Chavez, is the most decorated and celebrated boxer in the history of Mexico. And critics soon derided the son for being a manufactured phenomenon with a famous name.
Chavez Jr.’s promoters pointed out that prior to turning professional, he had had zero amateur experience; they made no bones about the fact that they had every intention of matching him carefully and building him up slowly. But because of his name and parentage, that slow-but-steady matchmaking took place on pay-per-view cards. Chavez Jr. was a star and a draw long before he was a fully-formed boxer.
Yet, over the last couple of years, a transformation has steadily taken place, inside the ropes and in public perception. Especially since hooking up with trainer Freddie Roach, Chavez has shown technical improvements. He has also shown a genuine fighter’s heart, engaging in tough brawls with experienced opponents such as Marco Antonio Rubio and Andy Lee. The crown prince is now being taken more seriously as a legitimate middleweight contender, and a fight that not long ago would have been viewed as a mismatch is increasingly regarded as pick-‘em affair.
Born: February 21, 1975
Turned professional: December 27, 1997 (age 22)
Martinez was born, as most people are, into anonymity. The section of Buenos Aires in which he grew up was marked by poverty and danger, and he turned to sport as a way to a better future. But initially it was into cycling and soccer that he sank his energies; not until he was 20 did he ever even walk into a boxing ring. Although, he says that within days of doing so he knew he would be a boxer. He turned professional two years later, piling up victories in his native Argentina (except for one 2000 appearance in Las Vegas, where he lost to Antonio Margarito) before decamping in 2002 for Spain. There, he continued to toil in relative obscurity until he was brought to the attention of promoter Lou DiBella, who swiftly brought him to the United States and to HBO.
Even when Martinez finally gained recognition and exposure, it seemed he couldn’t get the breaks. In 2009 he hit Kermit Cintron so hard – knocking him down for the count -- that Cintron protested the blow couldn’t possibly have been a punch and had to have been a headbutt, successfully persuading the referee that he deserved to carry on. That fight went the distance and ended level on the scorecards, prompting boxing’s many media wags to dub Martinez the man who had to knock his opponent out to get a draw.
In his next bout he had Paul Williams down and badly hurt in the first round; but the bell rang, Williams recovered, and Martinez dropped a close decision -- in which one judge, incredibly, gave Williams 11 of the 12 rounds. Since then, however, it’s all come together for Martinez, with a middleweight title victory over Kelly Pavlik and four stoppage defenses – although even then, it hasn’t been plain sailing, with the WBC stripping him of the middleweight title that now finds itself wrapped around the waist of Chavez.
Two different paths to the top of the mountain, two different journeys that are still not quite complete. Chavez has the popularity but has yet to gain full acceptance of the boxing cognoscenti. Martinez has hardcore recognition, but not yet public fame. Each has what the other wants. Each plans to take it from the other on Saturday.
Julio Cesar Chavez Jr.