July 12, 2016
July 12, 2016
Julio Cesar Chavez

Action Images/Reuters

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THE definition of what a Mexican fighter ought to be. Rugged, relentless, a man who would never back down, Julio Cesar Chavez became a hero to boxing fans with his body punching, grit and ferocious aggression.

His 1990 unification battle with Meldrick Taylor made him a legend. By that stage Chavez, raised in Culiacan, Sinaloa, had been a champion for years. He won his first title at super-featherweight but beating Edwin Rosario in an outdoor arena at the Las Vegas Hilton in 1987, with Chavez, in merciless mood, breaking him down to take the WBA’s lightweight crown confirmed his star power. He added the WBC version to his collection when he defeated veteran Jose Luis Ramirez.

A move up to light-welter soon followed. For a second time he stopped Roger Mayweather, father and trainer of modern star Floyd. The power he carried in his fists may have been the antidote to the slick skills of American boxers. But in IBF champion Taylor, Chavez faced the ultimate test.

Meldrick was a tremendous talent. When he was just 17, he was a member of the USA’s outstanding 1984 Olympic team and won a gold medal. By the time he met Chavez he was a hard-bitten champion inclined to a tear-up as much as making full use of his glittering array of skills.

Initially Taylor seized total command. He rattled home his punches in bursts, on the inside as well as at range, hugely out-throwing the Mexican, all the while winning round after round. It showed Chavez’s flaws, the difficulty he could sometimes have with movement and speed. But the fight would dramatise his virtues. For Chavez never gave up nor ever stopped coming.

He swallowed the pain and walked through it. Taylor had landed so many more blows but Julio Cesar began to hit home with the punishing ones. Meldrick’s face was swelling, bearing all the marks of war. He was wilting but had such a lead that only a knockout could spare Chavez defeat.

In the final round Taylor should have run for it. Perhaps his fighting spirit wouldn’t allow that. A massive right hand bombed Meldrick off his feet. Referee Richard Steele would later say, “He went down like there was no more life in him.”

But Taylor made it upright, one arm resting on the ropes. Steele looked closely and deemed him unable to continue. Two seconds remained on the clock, two seconds that separated Taylor from what would have been a victory on the scorecards.

It is one of boxing’s most debated stoppages. Taylor himself was never the same after the fight. He declined almost straightaway. Chavez did box Taylor again, halting him in eight rounds four years later.

Julio Cesar had 87 fights before the first blemish of his career, a draw with Pernell Whitaker, the WBC’s reigning welterweight champion and future great himself, though Chavez was widely considered fortunate to have escaped undefeated. In his 91st professional contest Frankie Randall dropped and outpointed him on a split decision. That was his first loss and when you consider the few amateur bouts he’d had, that record is a testament to his will to win. The Randall loss was avenged a few months later, though the decision was controversial when a clash of heads cut Randall too badly in the eighth and the judges had Chavez ahead.

The Mexican hero couldn’t carry on forever. He hit the next generation in 1996 when matched against the “Golden Boy”, Oscar de la Hoya. The older man’s skin did not hold up, cuts stopped him in four, his first loss inside the distance. It showed it was Oscar’s time. De la Hoya would halt him again two years later.

He shared the ring with another great, Kostya Tszyu his final ‘world’ title bout, though it ended in another stoppage. A 2004 comeback was a faint echo of his past glory and the great champion bowed out on a defeat, retiring after four rounds with little known Grover Wiley.