By Eric Raskin
“These guys cannot stand each other.” It’s promoter-speak. Oscar De La Hoya carefully considers each of those seven words as he stares into the camera and says them. The instinct of the viewer is to shrug it off as the meaningless messaging of a man who stands to make more money if he can convince fans they’re going to see bitter violence. But this feels different.
Maybe De La Hoya was all but reading off a teleprompter on HBO’s “A Fighting Tradition” special. The words he spoke, however, rang true. When Canelo Alvarez and Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. step between the ropes on May 6 at Las Vegas’ T-Mobile Arena (9 p.m. ET/6 p.m. PT, HBO pay-per-view), they’ll pack disdain in their left hands and resentment in their right hands. This is not just a battle for the hearts and minds of Mexican fans. This is about personal pride. This is about settling a rivalry that’s been building for a decade. This is about being able to say “I told you so,” whether it’s Chavez’s insistence that Canelo has feasted on smaller, hand-picked opponents or it’s Alvarez’s assertion that Junior lacks discipline and dedication.
Sometimes you want to win a fight because it’s critical for your career. Sometimes you want to win a fight because you very much would like to see the other guy lose a fight. In Canelo vs. Chavez, both motivating factors are in play.
The two biggest stars in Mexican boxing are bridging a 15-pound weight gap to make this mega-event possible, a highly unusual circumstance resulting in an utterly bizarre 164½-pound weight limit that speaks to how badly they both wanted this fight. And sure, for both men, the size of the paycheck plays a big role. But if you look at where they each are in their careers at this moment, you can see why they gravitated toward this showdown.
The 26-year-old Alvarez is, with the possible exception of new heavyweight top dog Anthony Joshua, the most bankable star in the sport. He’s the lineal middleweight champion with a glistening record of 48-1-1 with 34 KOs, but he’s at something of a career crossroads. The public has demanded for the past year or so that he take on unbeaten middleweight titlist Gennady “GGG” Golovkin, and so far, Alvarez and his promoter De La Hoya have kept finding excuses not to. Enter Chavez Jr.
“I think Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. was the only opponent that Canelo could face not named GGG that wouldn’t have a backlash from the Mexican fight fans,” says ESPN boxing broadcaster Bernardo Osuna. “Historically, the Mexican fight fans want courageous champions who don’t choose their opponents, who take on the next comer. The Mexican fan doesn’t want somebody to talk and maneuver their way out of fights. For them, I think Chavez Jr. was the only acceptable name for Canelo Alvarez that doesn’t have three Gs in it.”
For Chavez, meanwhile, the clock was ticking and the memories of his time as a serious contender rather than a punchline were fading. He’s 31 years old. He gradually overcame the perception that all he had going for him was his father’s name, as he beat contenders like Marco Antonio Rubio and Andy Lee to earn a crack in 2012 at middleweight kingpin Sergio Martinez. Since his dramatic 12th-round rally fell a punch or two short, however, Chavez has stumbled at nearly every turn. He was suspended for testing positive for marijuana, he needed friendly judging to beat journeyman Brian Vera, he got knocked down and out by Andrzej Fonfara, and along the way, he became the Thomas Edison of weight divisions, inventing one after another. But following two straight solid decision wins, Chavez, now 50-2-1 with 32 KOs, appears ready to be taken seriously again.
Chavez has a reputation to restore. What better way to do it than to beat the only Mexican fighter who’s a bigger deal than he is?
“When I have done things with heart, I have done them well. When I haven’t done them well, the results have shown,” a humbled Chavez admitted. To that end, he’s sucked up his pride and acquired a new trainer, one who has been plenty critical of Chavez over the years, the wise old owl of Mexican pugilism, Nacho Beristain. “Nacho doesn’t tell me what I want to hear,” Chavez said, again sounding like a man aware of his past sins. “If I do something wrong, he tells me. That’s what I like about him.”
Chavez’s revamped corner stands in contrast to the consistency of Canelo’s, where the father/son team of Chepo and Eddy Reynoso continue to hold the reins. Both camps have been hard at work not only on strategy but on poundage. For each of his last five fights, Chavez has come in between 167½ and 172½. For each of his last five, Canelo has weighed between 154 and 155. They’ve set that creative limit of 164½ for Friday’s weigh-in, and if one of them (cough, cough, Chavez) doesn’t make it, he’ll pay a $1 million-per-pound penalty.
Assuming both make weight, speculation is that on fight night, Chavez will likely weigh in the mid-180s, some 10-15 pounds more than what his opponent is likely to weigh. The 6-foot-1 Chavez has four inches on Canelo. This is one of the more stark test cases in recent memory for whether bigger is better. Canelo is quicker of hand and foot, he throws sharper, straighter punches, and he has exhibited a higher ring IQ. Can Chavez’s size, which might translate into harder punches and superior punch resistance, make up for all of that?
It will depend in part on how Chavez chooses to fight. Typically, he bends forward at the waist, charges in, and tries to impose his strength. However, with such a significant height advantage, and with technical guru Beristain behind him, this might be the time for Chavez to fight tall. It wouldn’t be the most Mexican thing to do, or the most Chavez Sr.-like thing to do, but perhaps for a fighter in search of his own identity distinct from his legendary father, that’s exactly what’s needed.
Alvarez is certainly in no rush to let people forget who Chavez Jr. is and where he comes from.
“I’m a disciplined fighter who came from the bottom, and he’s the opposite, having the great support of his father and not being able to take advantage.” Canelo said with more than a twinkle of disdain in his eye. “I come making my own path, my own name.”