Life as Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. knew it changed in April, nine rounds into his 52nd professional prize fight. That's when a left hook from light heavyweight challenger Andrzej Fonfara dropped him to the mat for the first time in his career. More importantly, that's when he quit on his stool, betraying his trainer, his fans, his famous father and, most importantly, himself.
When champions fall, they are expected to get up and fight to the bitter end. That's the code in boxing, a warrior's mentality that brooks no dissent. No circumstances forgive it. Even the great Roberto Duran, arguably the greatest lightweight in boxing history, is best remembered for a single weak moment, "No Mas" wiping away every shining moment like an eraser across a chalkboard.
It was a shocking moment, not just for the fans still hanging steadfastly to the Chavez Jr. bandwagon, but as The Ring's Andreas Hale writes, even for those closest to Junior:
Here he was, the son of arguably the greatest Mexican boxer of all time, being beaten up and broken. What would his father think? What would the fans who have only gravitated toward him because of his namesake think of him now?
The look on trainer Joe Goossen’s face as Chavez urged him to call off the fight was one of both disappointment and shock.
Why did he do it?
Three months later that complicated question dominates the narrative as Chavez Jr. attempts to return to the ring against Marcos Reyes on Saturday on Showtime. It's the hidden query lurking behind every softball question he'll answer this week, the question on the mind of every fan, reporter and boxing insider watching the fight to see how the golden son handles adversity for the first time in his life.
It's a question that, obviously, haunts Chavez Jr. too. He brings it up unprompted during a short interview several times, grappling with what will become a career-defining moment.
"I was tired more than the other guy hurt me or punished me like some people think," Chavez Jr. told Bleacher Report.
"I was tired. Down in the scorecards, you know? I didn't have the power to knock out this guy. I think it wasn't the right time for taking more punches. I didn't want to take more hits than necessary. It didn't make sense to continue. At that point, after sitting out for a year, I wasn't prepared to go out there and take more hits...I am young and had my future to consider."
There is a certain logic to that explanation, an instinct for self-preservation that would probably help extend a lot of careers if spread more liberally throughout the broader boxing world. But it's not how things are done. Will the fans who littered Chavez with both boos and booze after the Fonfara fight understand that, more than anything, it was a business decision?
"It won't be easy. It's going to take a few fights," new trainer Robert Garcia said. "But after a few fights, especially with good results, not only will they forgive but they'll forget. They'll see Chavez winning and becoming champion again, and that's what the fans want to see."
Garcia, the 40-year-old former super featherweight champion turned trainer, sees an opportunity in Chavez Jr. to leave his own legacy. He's had success with fighters such as Nonito Donaire and Brandon Rios, but taking the notoriously work-averse Chavez to the promised land would be the defining accomplishment of his growing legend.
"The best thing for him to do was to come right back," Garcia said. "He called me right away. A lot of boxing people were telling me 'don't do it. It's going to be too much trouble.' It's totally the opposite. It's been easy. I think that fight taught him a lot. He said 'I've got to change things around and do things right,' and he's been doing everything the way I want him to do it.
"Junior is a person who needs somebody that believes in him. Somebody who is going to be his friend, to know him personally. He needed an older brother type of trainer, and I think it was the perfect decision for him to come to me."
Those close to him hope this is the wake-up call Junior needs to rescue his career from what appears to be a downward spiral toward disaster. After the first loss of his career, against future Hall of Famer Sergio Martinez in 2012, Chavez could at least point to his opponent's impressive pedigree and his own late surge that almost won him the fight in the bout's final moments.
"The fight with Martinez, I lost the fight, but I won the war," Chavez Jr. said. "Because the guy was never the same after fighting with me."
Against Fonfara, he had no such available fallbacks to ease his landing. It was the kind of loss that mandates a long look in the mirror. After starting strong, Chavez faded badly in the latter rounds, victim of his opponent's size and skill, yes—but just importantly, victim of his own poor stamina and fatigue.
"I picked a good opponent, and I did well in the first rounds," Junior said. "Everything happened because I was tired. If I had better conditioning, I would have beaten this guy, because I throw more punches. He hurt me only when I was tired."
His problems, at least in part, were self-inflicted. In boxing, where the margin of error is so slim, that's simply unacceptable. To his credit, even Junior realized a change was in order.
"I fought Saturday and started training Monday," he said.
"It's never too late to start over. I hope on Saturday that we will see a new Julio," Julio Cesar Chavez Sr. said. "The loss to Fonfara didn't take him down; it woke him up."
The elder Chavez, despite standing about six inches shorter than his progeny, casts a shadow that looms over his son, eternally eclipsing even his greatest accomplishments.
"I am very proud to be the son of Julio Cesar Chavez. I will always be my father's son," Junior said. "But I have my own history. I am the first Mexican fighter to win the middleweight title...I can beat the best fighters in the world, and the people sometimes don't give me credit because I'm the son of Julio Cesar Chavez."
It's a double-edged sword. The famous name brings pressure and almost absurdly high expectations. It also brings with it unprecedented opportunities, the kind from which jealousy and resentment spring. Grantland's Eric Raskin explains:
Boxers rarely grow up privileged; most of them start fighting because they have few other options. Chavez Jr. grew up more Ricky Stratton than Ricky Hatton. His childhood was spent shoulder-riding to the ring in the entourage of the most beloved Mexican champion ever — his father. So, naturally, outside of his inherited Mexican fan base, the boxing community rejected Chavez early in his career.
Boxing fans, it seems, were divided broadly into two categories—those who worshiped Junior as a reflection of his famous father and those who despised him for the same reason. The perception that his career has been one long series of gifts, unwrapped by a spoiled and unappreciative brat, informs much of the anti-Junior vitriol. A DUI arrest and high-profile drug-test failure did little to change that perception.
|Tale of the Tape: Father and Son|
|Fighter||Julio Cesar Chavez||Julio Cesar Chavez Jr.|
|Reach||66.5 inches||73 inches|
|Record||107-6-2||48-2-1 (1 NC)|
"There will always be comparisons," Junior's brother Omar Chavez told Showtime's Mark Kriegel. "Our dad left very big shoes to fill. It will obviously be very difficult. But in this case it is harder for my brother because he carries the same name."
Of course, you can only feel so sorry for Junior. Yes, carrying his father's legend on his back has no doubt been exhausting. But he's also gone out of his way to invite comparisons, even coming to the ring with the same iconic red ribbon wrapped around his head just the way Senior did it.
The result is a dearth of honest analysis about Junior as a boxer. While he will never equal his father, he is a gifted fighter in his own right, combining an iron chin and flurries of punches to great effect. What he lacks in power, he makes up for in volume. What he lacks in defensive prowess, he makes up for with his stout beard.
While the Chavez name certainly greased the skids, success in the ring cannot be given. It has to be earned. His father didn't step into the ring against solid opponents such as Andy Lee, Sebastian Zbik and Marco Antonio Rubio. Junior did—a fact Garcia says critics are too quick to forget.
"He doesn't get the credit," the trainer said. "He's a much-better fighter than many people think. He has not just the potential to compete with, but to beat all those great champions.
"There are a lot of great fights. Fights that could be pay-per-view fights. The boxing the world is going to see it, not only in this fight, because it is our first fight together, but four to five fights from now. That's when the fans will see what I'm doing with him."
Still just 29, there's a chance Junior can live up to at least some of the grand expectations he's carried on his shoulders since his very first fight. His future, he believes, is at 168 pounds, a happy middle ground between the extreme dieting required to make middleweight and being extremely undersized at 175.
But before Chavez Jr. can really focus on the future, he must first prove something to his fans and the boxing world at large. Leading into the fight with Reyes, a small middleweight who can scrap, Junior is saying all the right things. Sometimes, however, words aren't enough. In his heart Chavez Jr. knows what he needs to do.
"Having a fight in front of me is a blessing," he said. "I want to show the people a good fight."
Jonathan Snowden covers combat sports for Bleacher Report.