You know strange things are happening in boxing when the fighter thought by many experts to be, pound for pound, the finest in the world is reduced to winning a technical decision against an opponent he shouldn't have been fighting in the first place. After 26-year-old lightweight Julio C�sar Ch�vez unified the WBA and WBC titles last Saturday night, at the Hilton Center in Las Vegas, on the strength of some classic combinations and an apparently inadvertent butt that split open Jos� Luis Ram�rez's head at the hairline in the 11th round, most observers didn't know whether to hail C�sar or a cab.
Ram�rez, Ch�vez's 29-year-old Mexican countryman and former sparring partner, lost only his seventh fight in 108 outings. "To me, [the butt] was intentional," said Ram�rez through an interpreter. "It's a shame you guys put up Julio Ch�vez as the best fighter pound for pound, because he didn't show it tonight."
Like boxing itself, Ram�rez was about half right. Ch�vez didn't look like a million dollars—or even the $350,000 he got for Saturday's bout—but those mice under Ram�rez's eyes weren't a Halloween mask. They were the marks of Ch�vez's considerable skills in winning his 60th fight without a defeat (he has 50 knockouts). Handsome Julio didn't turn on the faucet often, but when he did let it pour, he was Ram�rez's master.
Ch�vez, as is his wont, sleepwalked through the first two rounds, seemingly content to stand and be admired by the throng, which included a strangely subdued group of Mexicans who had nothing to lose but the price of a ticket. Then he showed what he could do.
For five straight rounds Ch�vez, comfortable in his low, bouncing crouch, fed red leather to Ram�rez. In the third he began landing ripping, three-punch combinations and stunning righthand leads, switching from righty to lefty and back with ease. Then in the fourth, punching off the ropes, Ch�vez tagged Ram�rez on the chin with a short right. While Ram�rez sagged momentarily, then hung suspended like a marionette, Ch�vez curiously stepped back, apparently in horror at his own handiwork. He had to be waved back in by referee Richard Steele. "I thought he was going to fall down," said Ch�vez later, "but he didn't."
And Ch�vez never pressed the issue again, preferring to etch equations on Ram�rez's face. Both Ch�vez and Ram�rez are from the city of Culiac�n, in northwestern Mexico, and have known each other for many years. Ch�vez seemed to remember their friendship. "I wasn't tired," he said. "Everybody knew I was winning. I think a fight should be won intelligently. Not by force." But Ch�vez also attributed his lack of aggressiveness to a rib injury he suffered during the second week of September while sparring with Pedro S�nchez, a tough young fighter from the Dominican Republic.
The end came abruptly when, with 2:06 remaining in the 11th round, both fighters lunged forward in the middle of the ring. Ch�vez emerged with glassy eyes and a headache. Ram�rez came out much worse. "It was a wide laceration at the hairline, and it was not going to close," said ringside physician Flip Homansky afterward. "It was a very deep cut, all the way down. Little to decide."
After having a point deducted from him as the beneficiary of an accidental butt, Ch�vez won all three scorecards by at least two points (95-93, 96-94 and 98-91).
Ch�vez faces a shortage of future opponents with marquee value. One challenger could be Pernell Whitaker, the 1984 Olympic gold medalist at 132 pounds. Whitaker clearly outfought Ram�rez in a 12-round bout in Paris seven months ago. Yet Ram�rez, who has lived in France for two years and, until last week's bout, had not fought outside of that country since 1985, was awarded the decision.
Before that bout, Whitaker had rejected a deal that would have provided for a mandatory fight between the winner of Whitaker-Ram�rez and Ch�vez under WBC auspices; afterward, Lou Duva, Whitaker's comanager, accused the WBC of stealing the decision from Whitaker because of his refusal. WBC officials sued Duva; his son and partner, Dan; and comanager Shelly Finkel for slander. The Duvas and Finkel counter-sued to overturn the decision and force a rematch. Both suits are pending, and given the bad blood between the Whitaker camp and the WBC, Whitaker would appear to have lost any immediate hope for a shot at the championship.