The idea of defense is particularly appealing to De La Hoya, who is unlikely by temperament ever to wear Chávez's mask of blood. Against Chávez, at the Professor's advice, De La Hoya adopted a strange stance, keeping his hands uncharacteristically low. The idea, De La Hoya explained after the fight, "was to keep my body covered and move my head all the time." This is exactly what kept Chávez out of contention; without the possibility of breaking De La Hoya down with body shots, there was no way he could win against the taller man.
Hearing De La Hoya espouse the benefits of such surgically clean boxing in the promotion of the event may have led some people to believe he planned an attack that was entirely tactical. The perception that De La Hoya is concerned more with the aficionado's appreciation of skill than with the casual fan's appetite for raw meat haunts him. It is this view of De La Hoya, partly, that makes him unpopular with the Latin crowd, which prefers fights to be proving grounds for machismo—a typical Chávez fight, for example—instead of chess matches. Perhaps some critics were won over, watching De La Hoya turn Chávez inside out. There were ring subtleties there, but concussive blows, too.
Of course, De La Hoya will never win over the entire crowd, no matter how desperate his quest for support becomes. On Friday his team colors were half Stars and Stripes and half Mexican flag. But it is not citizenship that is at stake. By now De La Hoya's values are so stubbornly suburban that he can never again be identified with the rough-and-tumble barrio culture that first inspired him to fight. He wants to play golf? He wants to study architecture? He wants to retire by age 28? This idea of executive boxing, first formulated by Leonard, ought to be more appealing to fight fans than it is. If the game truly is hard and dangerous, nobody should have to do it long and for diminishing benefits. Take the money and get on with your life.
This, arguably, is what Chávez has failed to do. Not that old at 33, he is nevertheless the worse for wear after 100 bouts. His peak was reached in the late '80s, in fights with Edwin Rosario and Jose Ramirez. Since then, it seems that all his major bouts have been won in curious circumstances or not won at all. He escaped Meldrick Taylor on a referee's decision, got a questionable majority draw with Whitaker and finally lost to Frankie Randall. In the rematch he bled all over the place to win—win!—on a head butt.
Everlastingly popular in Mexico, Chávez has survived this decade more as a marketing phenomenon for promoter Don King, who used him relentlessly while meal ticket Mike Tyson was imprisoned and inactive. Yet Chávez apparently has kept little of the money he made under King. Even on the eve of this payday, he got a reminder in a Nevada court that he allegedly owes King $1.35 million in unpaid loans and advances.
Chávez intends to keep boxing. All during the promotion, he promised that there would be no excuses. However, immediately after the fight he told the closed-circuit audience that he had been nicked in sparring just five days earlier. A remarkable story. Ring officials were flabbergasted; Chavez had passed a physical inspection just the night before. How does a fighter hide a cut, anyway? Then on Saturday morning he entertained the media with another tale, "this one the truth," about being cut while sparring about four weeks ago and being reinjured three days before the fight when his three-year-old son, Christian, playing in his lap, unintentionally head-butted him. Any of these things could have happened, but it's likely the wear and tear on his brows has simply left scar tissue so brittle that the smallest jab will indeed open it.
The excuses were the only salve available to him, those and five stitches. "He took advantage of the moment," he said sadly. "If Oscar had knocked me down, I'd have retired last night. But he was lucky, and this doesn't mean he's better than me." Chavez was insisting upon one fight to prove his worth and then a rematch. The idea was not met with any vigorous applause.
There remains a deep reservoir of goodwill for Chávez among his countrymen, and his legacy will not suffer much because of this one fight. He may be able to rehabilitate it a little with a few well-chosen bouts, or he could become somebody's trial horse as he attempts to regain his financial footing. Either way, he won't be horribly diminished in history. He was too great for too long.
You hope De La Hoya is paying the same attention to Chávez's career as he is to Pep's. The one thing De La Hoya must learn from Friday's fight is that somewhere down the line another boxer will appear in the ring, shrouded in relative mystery, a cold desire hidden behind his polite smile. Such boxers come along once a generation or so. The lesson is, you should be gone when they do.