Julio C�sar Ch�vez's reputation was in free fall. Regarded not long ago as that mythical champion of boxing—the world's best fighter, pound for pound—the man from Culiac�n, Mexico, had lately been seen more as a cultural phenomenon, an athlete whose immense popularity in his hero-starved country carried him further than did his skills. His decline became precipitous in September 1993, when Ch�vez, then 87-0 with 72 knockouts, met his chief rival for the pound-for-pound honor, Pernell Whitaker, and escaped with a generously bestowed draw. When he suffered his first loss, to Frankie Randall, last January and then won a dubious decision in a rematch with Randall four months later, it was almost possible to dismiss the Ch�vez legend.
And it wasn't only the U.S. press that subscribed to this revisionist history. In August many of his own countrymen booed him when he appeared at an NFL preseason game in Mexico City. The descent was disheartening to those in Mexico and elsewhere who had characterized Ch�vez in spirit and achievement as his country's answer to Muhammad Ali. After the loss to Randall, which cost Ch�vez his WBC super lightweight title, Mexican fans had been able to forgive his brief inattention to the sport. But the rematch was a different story; he more or less quit in a difficult fight but was awarded the decision when he claimed he could not continue after a head butt. It was a sorry victory that threatened to cancel out the goodwill of his people.
Last week, as he celebrated Mexican Independence Day with thousands of his countrymen in Las Vegas, Ch�vez arrested that decline and restored some luster to his reputation with a successful defense of his title. And he did it against the man who, 3� years before the draw with Whitaker, first showed Ch�vez to be mortal.
In March 1990, in Las Vegas, Ch�vez tried to consolidate his reputation north of the border by taking on Meldrick Taylor, a 1984 Olympic gold-medal winner with lightning-fast hands and no losses in 25 pro fights. A convincing victory over Taylor would have forever cemented Ch�vez's greatness. But the fight ended strangely when Ch�vez, behind on two of the three judges' cards, knocked Taylor out in the final seconds. Nobody who saw Taylor afterward or knew how much blood he had swallowed during the bout doubted that Ch�vez had won the fight. But the manner of Ch�vez's escape—referee Richard Steele had waved the fight to a halt with two seconds left and Taylor still on his feet—aroused doubts. Thereafter Ch�vez seemed less fearsome.
Last Saturday night, at the MGM Grand hotel, Ch�vez shocked Taylor with a left hand midway through Round 8. The punch sent Taylor staggering backward across the ring, where he fell on the seat of his pants, heels up. Seconds later, after Taylor had regained his feet, referee Mills Lane stepped between the two fighters, gripped Taylor's neck and sadly shook his head. The bout was over.
The TKO bought Ch�vez some time. His record now stands at 91-1-1, and he wants to finish out his career in 1995, topping out at an even 100 fights. He knows he will have a third fight with Randall, who won the WBA 140-pound title earlier in the evening with a lopsided decision over Juan Coggi, and he is prepared for a difficult fight. But he seems determined to do whatever it takes to prevent more booing, although surely he must know that anybody who boxes long enough, or rather too long, arranges his own shame.
According to Ch�vez's trainer, Emanuel Steward, who was brought in before the second Randall fight, Ch�vez has returned to basics. "He went back to this village called Temoaya to train, the end of the world as far as I'm concerned," says Steward, marveling at Ch�vez's almost mystical respect for his heritage—throughout his career Ch�vez had retreated to the isolated mountain village to prepare for his fights. "Can't even breathe there. He lived like an Indian, eating his fish soup. People would be beating their wash on rocks. It was very Third World, but the tradition of it was very important to him."
Steward says that the 32-year-old Ch�vez was desperate to recapture the elements of his fabulously successful youth. Training for Taylor, Ch�vez seemed impelled by his own history. Two weeks before the fight he began working his way north from Temoaya, staying with the same poor family in Tijuana that had housed him at the start of his career.
"He'd take me through Tijuana," says Steward, "and show me where he bought his first car, got his first woman." Ch�vez duplicated the old times in every particular, training at Cheto Gonzalez's gym for three days, boxing a 10-round exhibition for some charity there, just as he had years ago, and then heading to Los Angeles for the ritual buying of cars. "He bought three this time," says Steward. "He found out I had a Rolls-Royce Corniche, so we get to Los Angeles and he buys the Rolls and a Mercedes. He has 30 cars now, I think." Perhaps the latest buying spree reminded him of when he bought his first Jeep, in Tijuana, years and millions of dollars ago.
Of course, time and success do change people, and though Ch�vez may have trained in a poor Indian village, he nevertheless kept tabs on his various businesses, talking on a cellular phone even between rounds as handlers toweled him off. Yet Ch�vez is shrewd enough to know that he cannot divide his attention like this for long. He knows time is running out on his boxing career.