September 2000 issue
Lion in Winter
|By Rick Farris
Boxing and controversy were holding hands long before the
Marquis of Queensbury laid down the ground rules. Generally,
controversy surfaces sometime after the opening bell.
However, from the moment it was announced that WBC Jr.
Welterweight Champ Kostya Tszyu would defend his title against
38-year-old Julio Cesar Chavez, controversy flourished. Even
today, three days after the fight the controversy continues.
The Tszyu-Chavez title fight would be my first live coverage assignment and I had a special interest in it. I had been in
the house the night Chavez made his Los Angeles debut at the
Olympic Auditorium more than seventeen years ago, and again the
following year, when he won his first world title. Now I
would be present for what I expected to be the once great
champion's final fight.
I had hoped to catch Chavez working out at the Madison Gym in
Phoenix where today I train boxers. However, my schedule
interfered with the chance of seeing Chavez during the week he
conducted his final workouts in Phoenix. I didn't see the
former champ until the friday afternoon weigh-in at the Airport
Hilton Hotel in Phoenix.
When I arrived at the Hotel I saw a lot of old friends and
familiar faces from my era in Los Angeles boxing. Marty
Denkin, who was scheduled to judge the bout was sitting in the
lobby with another L.A. based official, Chuck Hassett. A
group of amateur boxers representing several Phoenix area gyms
were standing by hoping to get a glimpse of Chavez when he entered
the building. Arizona boxing commissioner John Montano was
having a discussion in the corner with one of the promoters and
Jimmy Lennon Jr. crossed the room on his way to the restaurant.
Kostya Tszyu had quietly slipped into the media room where the
weigh-in would be held and quickly checked his weight on the
scale. After stepping off the scale he disappeared.
About ten minutes later a commotion could be heard coming from the
lobby and it marked the entrance of the greatest Mexican boxer
ever, Julio Cesar Chavez. Chavez was quickly surrounded by
the media. Anxious reporters and camera crews positioned
themselves close to the former champion and began asking
questions. Chavez sat down in the lobby and talked
with the media but not with the strength that he once projected.
As I watched Chavez talk to the media I could see that this was
not the same man I had watched win the W.B.C. Jr. Lightweight
title sixteen years earlier. The Chavez I saw knockout Mario
Martinez was 21 years old and had that hungry look in his eyes.
The Chavez I saw in the lobby of the Hotel looked uncomfortable,
almost irritated. The only confidence projected that
afternoon came from a loyal group of young followers that somehow
believed that there hero could pull off a miracle. "Vamos
Rumbo A La Victoria" were the words emblazoned on the back of
their T-Shirts. They had come to win.
Chavez's behavior in the days leading up to the fight indicated to
me that he was in trouble. Last week he became upset when
learning that Willy Wise, the welterweight who had defeated him
last September, would be appearing on the undercard. Chavez
demanded that the promoter drop Wise from the card or he would not
fight. The request was honored. This is something that
Chavez would have never done a few years ago. However, as I
said, this was not the same Chavez.
A few minutes later Chavez stood and headed for the media room
where the weigh-in was scheduled to take place in less than twenty
minutes. Chavez and his handlers headed directly toward the
scale to check his weight. Chavez stripped to his briefs and
stepped onto the scale. After finding his weight to be
exactly 140 lbs. Chavez nodded seriously and slipped into a robe
provided by one of his team members. Every move the great
Mexican made after entering the room was followed by loud cheering
from the spectators. It was obvious they had come to see
In a matter of seconds the room was packed wall-to-wall.
Former World Champ Danny Romero shook hands and posed for pictures
with many of the young fans who had come to watch the festivities.
Hector Camacho Jr. smiled and flexed his muscles as photographers
snapped pictures. It wasn't long before the official
weigh-in would take place and after weighing the other boxers on
the card Commissioner John Montano called Chavez to the scale.
"Julio Cesar Chavez . . .140 pounds", Montano announced.
The spectators cheered. A minute later Montano called for
the champion to be weighed. "Kostya Tszyu . . .139 1/2 pounds". The crowd booed but Tszyu just
smiled and confidently flexed his muscles for the media before
stepping down. The champion was about as popular with the predominantly
Mexican crowd as Lee Harvey Oswald was with the American public on
November 22, 1963.
Chavez never smiled, aside from a weak effort after his weight was
announced. He was obviously upset over the events leading up
to the fight. In addition to the Wise incident, Chavez
was angry that Senator John McCain had attempted to stop the fight
from taking place. Fearing that Chavez could be seriously
hurt by Tszyu, McCain had petitioned Arizona Governor Jane Hull to
step in. However, the fight would go on and Chavez
considered the Senator's efforts an insult. Adding to the
insult was the fact that Las Vegas was refusing to take action on
the bout, citing that Chavez was anywhere from a 40 to 100-to-1
underdog. Chavez trained hard and vowed to prove them wrong.
After the weigh-in, Tszyu told the press he would stop Chavez in
two rounds while Chavez said he would knockout Tszyu within eight.
I looked closely into the dark gamecock eyes of Chavez as he made
the prediction and nothing gave me the impression that he believed
what he was saying.
Early the next evening I arrived at Phoenix's Veteran's Memorial
Coliseum a couple of hours before the title fight was to start.
It had been 112 degrees
that day and those who had bought tickets parked their cars and
hurried across the parking lot to escape the heat.
"Thank God for air conditioning" was all I could think
about upon entering the cool Coliseum. I had arrived about
halfway thru a prelim featuring former World Champ Robert Garcia.
As Garcia pounded his opponent I wanted to get with the boxing
people. Thanks to my press credentials and familiar face
among the boxing crowd I was able to go just about anywhere I
After locating my seat I went directly to the dressing room area
located behind giant curtains shielding that part of the arena
from the crowd. I passed by the Showtime crew who were
running a sound check on Bobby Czyz as he and Steve Albert
prepared themselves for their ringside commentator roles later on.
As I passed by the security reps guarding the dressing room area,
I saw my friend Richard Rodriguez, owner of the Madison Gym
where Chavez had finished his training for this fight. I
asked Rodriguez how Chavez had looked in the gym during the
previous week and he answered, "He looked good. He's in
good shape". That's all Rodriguez could offer.
I then spot America Presents promoter Dan Goossen who was standing
in the back outside the dressing room area with Jimmy Lennon Jr.
I knew that Goossen would be too busy to talk about the fight so I
just said hello and asked him if his brother Joe was around.
"Joe couldn't make it", Dan said, "He usually does
all the work but I guess it will be just me tonight" he said
smiling. Goossen had good reason to be happy, the event was
a near sellout.
As I made my way toward the dressing rooms I saw Sugar Ray Leonard
enter surrounded by several security guards who would usher him to
his ringside seat. A few minutes later Johnny Tapia walked
in holding hands with his wife. Tapia had a mischievous
smile on his face and clowned with a few friends he'd met. I
have to give Johnny credit, he sure knows how to work a crowd.
Throughout the evening I saw Tapia shaking hands and posing for
pictures with fans. I doubt he ever sat down. And as
usual there were many other boxing celebs on hand such as Fernando
Vargas, Danny Romero and Zab Judah, who had come to check out
Kostya Tszyu, a man whom he will face in the ring one day.
When Don King emerged from the dressing room area with four
giant body guards the crowd greeted him with boos.
After Garcia had won a ten round decision, Vassily Jirov the IBF
Cruiserweight Champ took on a cagey Phoenix veteran named Earl
Butler. Butler was not expected to last long but it was
Jirov who was lucky to finish the first round on his feet.
About halfway thru the opening round Butler discovered that Jirov
could be hit with right cross and caught the champ flush on the
chin with one. Jirov staggered and struggled to remain on
his feet. Before the round ended he'd caught several more
and wobbled to his corner after the bell. However, in
the second round Jirov went to work and and knocked out Butler.
After the Jirov fight I wondered back to the dressing room area
where Hector Camacho Jr. was being boosted up onto a large wooden
horse on wheels. Camacho had intended to make his ring
entrance riding a real horse down the aisle but the Phoenix Fire Dept. said "No way".
Instead, Camacho would make his entrance on the back of the wooden horse pulled down the
aisle by an assistant. As Camacho awaited the cue for his entrance, he
sat patiently on the wooden horse with his pretty young wife
standing just below him carrying their baby in her arms. I
spoke briefly with Ted Morton, Camacho's American representative
whom I had met several years back. Needless to say,
Morton was very excited about his unbeaten young fighter. After
watching Camacho stop Phillip Holiday in a less than exciting bout
I returned to the dressing area where I was able to casually slip
inside the dressing room of Chavez. I just acted like I
belonged there and quietly stood to the side watching the Mexican
legend as he warmed up shadow boxing. He broke a sweat but
didn't appear ready to me for action to me. An official
prompted Team Chavez that it was about time for the once brilliant
champion to head down to the ring. A second tied Chavez robe
while another rubbed his shoulders. About this time a group
of about a dozen young members of Team Chavez along with his
handlers surrounded Julio and began to chant a pre-fight cheer,
something to raise the fighters spirit before the match.
When they finished, Cristobal Rosas, the great Mexican
trainer who had once worked with the late Salvador Sanchez, gave
Chavez a hug and kissed him on the forehead. Rosas had once
trained Chavez and was Julio's special guest for the fight.
They exchanged a few words in Spanish and then Julio headed out.
Before reaching the curtain leading to the arena Chavez,
surrounded by the most loyal entourage I have ever seen,
stood waiting for the final cue to walk down the aisle.
Gathered before Chavez was a large Mariachi band that would play
as he entered the ring. A moment later Don King and his
escorts appeared and King hugged Chavez. King, never one to
miss an opportunity to be seen, stood behind Chavez with his hands
on the former champion's shoulders. King would accompany
Chavez for his last walk down the aisle. I looked closely
into the face of Chavez and didn't see the look of a man who had
held world titles for more than twelve years during his brilliant
career. I saw a man who knew his great pride was about
A Showtime official gave the Chavez delegation the signal, in Spanish,
that it was time. "Tiempo" he shouted. Long
before Chavez walked thru the curtain and began his walk down the
aisle the crowd exploded. "CHAVEZ, CHAVEZ,
CHAVEZ!", they chanted. As Chavez slowly made his way
to the ring the flashes from cameras created a strobe light effect
around the Coliseum and the sound of Mariachi music was drowned
out by the thunderous ovation from the audience. I have seen
a lot of title fights and dozens of great champions over the years
but nothing compared to the excitement that took place when Chavez
entered the ring Saturday night. You would think that Chavez
was the champion and Tszyu was an unpopular challenger. When
Tszyu entered the ring a few minutes later he was greeted with
Chavez did his best but had little to offer. On a couple of
occasions he was able to land solid blows but they had no effect
on the talented Russian. In the sixth round the great Julio
Cesar Chavez hit the canvas for only the second time in his
career. He made it to his feet and desperately tried to
fight back but within seconds referee Bobby Ferrara had no choice
but to stop the fight.
Too many years have separated Chavez from the skills that made him
great, however, the legend will never die. When the
disappointment of Chavez's fans turned to anger, the beer started
to fly. Growing up in Los Angeles I know how Mexican fans
react when their favorite loses. Long before Jimmy Lennon
announced the winner of the fight I was safely tucked away in the
press room waiting for the post fight press conference.
Chavez announced his retirement after the fight and I hope he was
serious. Even so, the controversy continued when he
refused to take the drug test following the fight. Many
would assume that this suggests Chavez had taken an illegal
substance prior to the match. However, nothing I saw
in the eyes or behavior of the great Chavez indicated he had.
I think the greatest Mexican boxer in history had been insulted
enough and just wanted to get out of the place. Chavez
has earned his place in boxing history, what could a bit
more controversy hurt.
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