Boxing Bloodlines: Fathers and Sons

Photo: Will Hart

Photo: Will Hart

By Kieran Mulvaney

When Julio Cesar Chavez, Jr. steps into the ring at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas on Saturday night (9 p.m. ET/6 p.m. PT, HBO Pay-Per-View), he won't just be fighting his designated opponent, Canelo Alvarez. He will also be battling expectation and the burden of his name, of being the famous son of an even more famous father. That father, Julio Cesar Chavez Sr., is widely regarded as the greatest boxer ever to come out of Mexico, a fact that in many ways doomed Junior's career, or at least limited the degree to which his countrymen would view him as a success. When Julio Cesar Chavez is your dad, nothing you can do -– no amount of world titles you secure, fans you win or money you earn -- will ever be enough. You will never be as good as your father.

Over the past few years, it seems the impossible demands of being Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. – of not being Julio Cesar Chavez Sr. – have overwhelmed the younger man. After a promising start to his career, in which he showed heart and fire that was perhaps surprising for someone who did not need to put himself through such punishment, he fell just a few punches short on his most important night, against then-middleweight champion Sergio Martinez, in 2012. Since then, his professional life has been in something of a spiral. Saturday night’s bout against Alvarez is, perhaps unfairly, seen as an opportunity for him to right the ship and prove that he deserves to carry his famous name.

It's an extraordinary amount of pressure, but while it may be scant consolation, he is far from the only famous boxing son to fall short of the achievements of his famous boxing father. Even still, some manage to match up quite well to their old man's success, and one or two even leave their daddies in the dust.

Couldn’t Escape the Shadow

The truly exceptional boxers rarely, if ever, give us progeny whose talent comes anywhere close to matching theirs. There are good reasons for that, of course: exceptionalism is, by definition, a rare commodity; and even if he possesses at least some of the genetic qualities that propelled his parent to the top, anyone raised in a world of fame, money and world championships simply isn’t going to have the same poverty-driven fire and anger that drives the most successful.

Carlos Zarate was one of the greatest fighters in Mexican history, and in 1999 was voted the joint-best bantamweight of the 20th century. His son, Carlos Jr., never really got the opportunity to prove whether he might have reached similar heights. He turned pro in 2009, ran up a record of 20-1 in the junior welterweight division, and retired in 2014 after a series of shoulder injuries. For a time, Marvis Frazier looked as if he might be a worthy boxing heir to Smokin’ Joe; he was a National Golden Gloves champion in 1979. But despite scoring some decent wins against the likes of James Tillis, Joe Bugner and Bonecrusher Smith, his professional career is defined largely by two crushing first round knockout losses, to Larry Holmes and Mike Tyson. He retired with a record of 19-2 and became an ordained minister.

Photo: Will Hart

Photo: Will Hart

Zarate and Frazier did better than most. Ronald Hearns shares the lanky frame of his father, Thomas, but not much else – except perhaps the suspect chin that was his father’s one weakness: every one of his six career losses to date has been by KO. Julius Jackson, son of famed knockout artist Julian, started his career well, winning his first 19 bouts; but his last two outings have been KO losses. It’s a similar story for the younger Jackson’s brother John, who went 18-1 and looked on the verge of stopping Irish middleweight Andy Lee in 2014 until Lee uncorked his patented southpaw right hook and knocked out Jackson, who has subsequently also been stopped by Jermell Charlo.

The flamboyant Puerto Rican Hector Camacho raised a son, Hector Jr., who is an altogether more subdued and sober personality, but who never found the boxing success that was hoped of him. He presently has a record of 58-6-1 and last fought in 2014, but is expected to return to the ring in June. Before he became celebrated as a trainer, Buddy McGirt was a fine fighter, winning world titles at 140 and 147 lbs. in the early 1990s. His super middleweight son, James Jr. is carving out a perfectly respectable professional career, presently with a record of 26-3-1; but at age 34, there’s no indication he’ll be following in his father’s world championship footsteps.

Maintaining the Family Tradition

That said, there are those in whose gloved hands the family business has proven perfectly safe. It’s something of a cheat to include former heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson and Tracy Harris Peterson here, as the former adopted the latter, but Tracy merits featuring not least because he was pretty darn good, picking up title belts at 122 and 130 lbs. in a lengthy career that ran from 1985 to 2001.

After shockingly beating, and then less shockingly losing to, Muhammad Ali, Leon Spinks saw his career all but collapse; Leon’s son Cory, however, found more consistent success, winning straps at 147 and 154 lbs., and splitting a two-fight series with Zab Judah.  Tony Mundine was a popular boxer who held titles across four different weight divisions in his native Australia, although he fell short against world-class opposition; his son Anthony, a more polarizing figure, actually won a couple of title belts, although he too is at a level below the very best.

Wilfredo Vasquez is one of Puerto Rico’s most celebrated boxers, a champion at 118, 122 and 126 lbs; his son, Wilfredo Jr., hasn’t reached those heights, but he has competed solidly on the world stage, at one stage holding a strap at 122 lbs. Neither Guty Espadas, nor his son Guty Espadas Jr., are likely to wind up in the Hall of Fame, but each had a solid career and a brief spell in charge of a world title belt, father at flyweight and son at featherweight. Ray Mancini is in the Hall of Fame, despite a short career that came to a premature halt at the age of 24, with Mancini never truly recovering from the death of opponent Duk Koo Kim; his success built on the groundwork laid by father Lenny, a welterweight and middleweight from whom Ray took the nickname “Boom Boom.”  

And then there are the Eubanks. Chris Eubank was one of the dominant players in the middleweight and super middleweight divisions in the 1990s, and his rivalry with fellow Brit Nigel Benn was legion. His son, Chris Jr., appears on the cusp of breaking through to true world level, although at present the father-son team is perhaps better known for its mercurial tendencies, maintaining the independent, somewhat eccentric streak established by Chris Senior during his in-ring career.

(I have, by the way, very deliberately not to this point mentioned the Hilton family – Dave Sr. and his sons Dave Jr. and Matthew. Yes, they were among the most popular sporting figures in Quebec for a while, but their criminality – and particularly the repugnant crime for which Davey Jr. was jailed for five years – is disqualifying. I wrote an article about the family ten years ago, and still feel dirty. So, let's move on, shall we? )

Anything You Can Do …

Occasionally – very occasionally – boxing sons can even outshine their fighting fathers. One could easily put the Mancinis in this category, and perhaps even the Spinks family. But a couple truly stand out. Carl Penalosa was a fair-to-middling boxer, truth be told, more famous for training alongside Filipino great Gabriel “Flash” Elorde. But his sons achieved greater success. One, Jonathan, challenged for an alphabet strap in 1992; another Dodie Boy, held titles at flyweight and junior flyweight in the 1980s; and Gerry won straps at 115 and 118 lbs., and contested several more, in the late 90s and early 2000s. Interestingly, Dodie Boy’s sons, Dodie Boy Jr. and Dave are also presently-undefeated boxers, making the Penalosas a rare example of potential three-generational boxing success.

Photo: Will Hart

Photo: Will Hart

This category, however, belongs to one father-son combination in particular. Floyd Mayweather was a pretty decent fighter, although not anything like as accomplished as his brother Roger. His son, Floyd Jr., on the other hand, needs no introduction, nor do the details of his career require much explanation and elucidation. The very finest boxer of his generation, and among the best of all time, Floyd Jr. will sail into the Hall of Fame as a very rare example of a son whose light utterly eclipsed that of his father. And, as anyone who watched some of the two men's occasionally strained interactions on various episodes of 24/7 will appreciate, that appears to have not always been something with which the patriarch was altogether comfortable.

Special Mention: The Daddy and Daughter Duo

Unsurprisingly, we have focused on fighting sons of fighting fathers. But let's not forget one of the more successful parent-child boxing combinations. Laila Ali did not come close to matching her father’s accomplishments. Who could? Muhammad Ali was, after all, The Greatest. And whereas he was able to test himself against perhaps the greatest generation of heavyweights that ever lived, she had Jacqui Frazier-Lyde. (She did noticeably retire without facing Ann Wolfe, but who among us can truthfully say we’d have done differently?) But she showed legitimate skills, and, while not possessing the same quick wit as her father (again, who could?) she inherited much of his talent with the media, too.