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And not only is Chávez indisputably a winner, but he is convinced that it is his heavenly destiny to win. "I am going to tell you why I fight as well as I do," he says. "Never before have I spoken of this, because people might say, 'This man is crazy.' A few years ago, back in Tijuana, God blessed me; I get goose pimples when I think of it. I saw Christ on the Cross. I panicked and ran, to where I don't remember. It is something very beautiful that happened to me.
"I was born with boxing in me," he goes on. "Though the papers are wrong when they say my father was a fighter. That was only on the street after he'd been drinking. I really started because I had a couple of older brothers, Rafael and Rodolfo, who boxed. And what motivated me was that neither one of them was as good as I wanted them to be. It took me a little time to realize I'd have to do it myself, that they didn't have my gift...the gift God gave me."
Abruptly his mood changes. "But this is a sacred thing and I don't feel good talking about it."
Whether divinely inspired or not, his success is extraordinary. The early victories were in Culiacán and Tijuana against now-forgotten Ramons and Robertos, Miguels and Eduardos. Then the money and the names got bigger, in the arenas of Los Angeles. There was the difficult 10-round decision he won in L.A. over Adrian Arreola in September '83, almost a year to the day before he won the vacant WBC super featherweight title by beating Mario Martinez in the same city. When the defenses began, against people like Rocky Lock-ridge and Juan Laporte, the fight cities were much farther from home: New York, Paris, Monte Carlo.
Home was originally Ciudad Obregón in the state of Sonora. But the railroad company transferred Chávez's father, Rodolfo, to Culiacán when JC was three (in the Mexican newspapers he's always JC, with no periods), and the "Fam. Chávez Gomez," so a plaque beside the front door tells you, still lives in the little house it moved into on the heavily traveled Via Zapata. The population of Culiacán has gone from 358,000 to half a million since the Chávez family arrived. And it is fitting that one of its sons is the toughest fighter in Mexico, because Culiacán is quite possibly the toughest town in Mexico.
It is not easy to put JC on the defensive, but one way to do it is to suggest that Culiacán is, well, not exactly a hometown of which to be proud. "It's true that Culiacán is a very complex town, much criticized, much talked about," he says. "And there is a lot of violence. But remember, the true Culiacán people are good, simple, happy. What do I seem like to you? The bad people are the ones who come out of the sierra. The town people are afraid of them!"
U.S. and Mexican drug authorities consider Culiacán the drug capital of Mexico, and Julio César grew up in a city where murders—nine a day, on average—are as unremarkable as traffic accidents. In one week at the turn of the year, five guards were killed during a jailbreak, a leading human rights lawyer was shot dead at the wheel of his car, a bank was held up for $70,000, and police and narcotraficantes staged a daylight shoot-out in the notorious Tierra Blanca section of the city, where one appreciates the significance of a Mercedes 190E parked outside a single-story adobe house.
Certainly, as Chávez says, there may be fear among the common folk, but the narcos—drug traffickers—are also often regarded as heroes, not villains, by the poor. When JC came home to Culiacán after beating Rosario last November, there was a traffic jam more than a mile long on the airport road of fans who wanted to greet him. But one would be ill-advised to back Chávez in a local popularity contest against one "Saint" Jesús Malverde (whose sainthood is recognized by no church in the world), a Robin Hood bandit who roamed the high sierra at the turn of the century.
Malverde is the patron saint of the drug community, with his own roadside "shrine" at which, in the afternoons, ballads called corridos are sung, ballads that praise famous narcos. No one has ever suggested any connection between JC and the narcos. But it is easy to see how the savage environment of Culiacán might create a fighter of Chávez's ferocious ring instincts.
And yet, not all of Culiácan is Narco City. Drive south from the fatly prosperous downtown area (prosperous from the seeds of the opium poppy) and there appears a more familiar Mexican scene: Colonia Pemex, where the rutted dirt roads are shadowed by the huge oil refinery for which the section is named. Then ask any of the local kids where one might find Juan Antonio Lopez. "The far side of the arroyo," one of them will say, and after a brief jounce over the dried-up watercourse one comes to the home of Juan Antonio, 35, who was once ranked No. 5 by the WBC in the super bantamweight class.