Bodyshots, Bravado and Blood: Understanding “Mexican Style”

Photo: Ed Mulholland

Photo: Ed Mulholland

By Eric Raskin

The blood pushes past a glob of Vaseline and spills from a cut over his eye, but he pays it no mind as he barrels forward, trying to corner the man who a few minutes ago was his predator but now has become his prey.  

He steps at just the right angle to cut off the ring, then fires off a left hook to the rib cage, causing his opponent’s hands to drop and his legs to lose their bounce. He seizes the opening with a vicious torrent of punches upstairs, then goes back to the body. One more left hook liquefies the liver, and the helpless victim crumples, doing little more than roll around and make tragedy-mask faces until the count reaches 10.

The ring swells with bodies, and the victor is carried around the ring. The blood is still flowing, but it’s no longer a cause for concern. Now it’s a point of pride, part of the legacy, adding color, quite literally, to the tale of the night the great warrior prevailed in dramatic fashion.

When you close your eyes and picture this scene, whom do you see? Julio Cesar Chavez Sr.? If you’re a tad older, maybe Ruben Olivares? If you’re slightly younger, perhaps Erik Morales?

It’s not the precise “who” that’s important. It’s the “where.”

The great majority of fight fans, when reading the description above, are sure to picture a fighter from Mexico. That’s not to say that a Ricky Hatton or a Micky Ward or a Shane Mosley or a Miguel Cotto couldn’t end a fight in the exact same way. But the notion of the “Mexican fighter” is potent. It is its own sub-genre of boxing.

You don’t have to be from Mexico, or even from anywhere in the Americas, to aspire to “Mexican style,” as a certain Kazakh middleweight has shown us. Perhaps “Mexican fighter” is a stereotype, but it’s the good kind of stereotype, almost always meant as a compliment.

“When I think of a Mexican fighter,” says veteran ESPN and ESPN Deportes boxing broadcaster Bernardo Osuna, “I envision a warrior, a fighter who comes forward, who’s willing to take a punch to give a punch, who, when the chips are down, is willing to do what it takes to win. He’s willing to bleed to score a victory. He’s willing to get up off the canvas to score a victory. There’s a saying in Spanish, ‘Morir en la raya,’ which translates to English as ‘Die on the line.’ That’s how they feel. The Mexican fighter is willing to go that far in order to come away with the victory.”

While the heart and desire that Osuna cites are a key part of the picture, there are also certain stylistic tendencies associated with Mexican pugilists. The approach is built around pressure, around aggressiveness, around body punching, with an emphasis usually on the left hook. There’s no rule against having skill or utilizing defense, but there are unwritten rules about how to employ them. A potshotting jabber who’s always on his toes, circling, bouncing out of danger, doing anything that could be remotely construed as running—that stuff doesn’t fly south of the border.

While the legendary “Lion of Culiacan” Chavez is the most famous purveyor of the Mexican style, he wasn’t the first Mexican to use it at the elite level. That distinction most likely goes to Luis Villanueva Paramo of Mexico City, much better known during a 255-fight career spanning all the way from 1929 to 1961 as Kid Azteca. He scored 114 knockouts among 192 wins, and is said to have influenced such 1960s and ’70s successors as Vicente Saldivar and Olivares, the latter of whom was probably the most beloved Mexican fighter until Chavez came along.

After Chavez elevated the ceiling for star power in the ’80s and ’90s — notably scoring the most iconic and most Mexican-style win in the nation’s history, stopping Meldrick Taylor with two seconds left in the final round while trailing on the scorecards — he helped open the door for a generation that included rivals Juan Manuel Marquez, Marco Antonio Barrera, and Erik Morales.

Among all those names are many with sublime skills, men who didn’t need to take a punch in order to land one. But they all took their share anyway, and are adored for it.

“I think the Mexican fan feels, if you have a skill set, you can use it, but when it comes down to it and you need to come up with something special, that’s when the Mexican in you comes out,” Osuna says. “When I think of who best embodies what it means to be a Mexican fighter, I would say Ruben Olivares. He was skilled, but that guy would take a shot to give a shot, and he just had a huge heart. If you want to go to a more modern fighter, I’d say Juan Manuel Marquez, especially when you look at the Manny Pacquiao fights. In the first one, he gets off the canvas three times. In the fourth fight, he’s bloodied, it looks like he’s about to be knocked out, and he finds a way to land that one punch.

“The Mexican fight fan respects someone who works as hard as they do. The Mexican fan is, say, a gardener that goes out every morning at 4 a.m. and then works until sundown and comes home to his family. When Marquez gets up off the canvas three times in the first round, that’s representative of the Mexican fight fan. Someone who goes out there and, whatever it takes, however many hours it takes to get the job done, they’re gonna get it done and they’re gonna get it done right.”

All of which begs the question: How “Mexican” are the two men set to square off on May 6 in the biggest all-Mexican showdown since … well, maybe ever, if you’re looking at the size of the event and fighters’ purses? Canelo Alvarez and Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. are the two biggest boxing stars Mexico currently has to offer, but they also have their detractors on both sides of the border.

About Chavez, who didn’t come from an impoverished background and was literally born marketable, there are doubts about whether he works as hard as those blue-collar fans demand. About Canelo, there are questions about his willingness to take on all comers — specifically, that “Mexican-style” fellow, Gennady Golovkin.

And neither Chavez nor Alvarez has had a signature Mexican-style victory yet, that dramatic win achieved via heart and relentlessness in the face of adversity. On May 6, fans of all nationalities will tune in, hoping to see the battle of Mexico’s two biggest stars settled in as Mexican a style as possible.