At the Restaurante El Taquito in downtown Mexico City, it had seemed no more than a year-end party for the fight crowd.
From back in the '50s there were Kid Azteca and Raul Macías, the one they used to call the Rat. There was Ruben Olivares, all ear-to-ear grin and gold bracelets, perhaps the finest bantamweight ever. And so many more of those small, brave fighters that Mexico seems to produce as naturally as she does corn tortillas—the ones born with the national weapon, the golpe izquierdo al hígado, the left jab to the liver. And, most of them, with the national flaw—a total disdain for defense.
Suddenly though, as if the bell had sounded for the end of Round 15, the party noises died out. Into the restaurant walked a grinning young man in a gray suit. And from this distinguished crowd of ring sophisticates a growl of approval rose to a roar.
No longer was this a mere lunch. It had become a ceremony, a coronation, a spontaneous celebration of the fact that, for the first time since WBC feather weight champion Salvador Sánchez died when he slammed his Porsche head-on into a truck in the early morning hours of Aug. 12, 1982, Mexico had a sports hero of global stature.
The object of this adulation was Julio César Chávez, from Culiacán in the state of Sinaloa. At 25, he bears no trace on his somewhat Anglo features of his 55 fights, all victories, 46 of them by KO, 10 of them in gaining or defending world titles since he turned professional eight years ago.
Since last November, when Chávez stopped WBA lightweight champion Edwin Rosario in 11 rounds, not just Mexico but the whole boxing world has been ready to concede that the young man who just entered the restaurant is, pound for pound, the best boxer around. As if to confirm that, he was named Fighter of the Year by the Boxing Writers of America this month.
There are those back in Culiacán who have perceived a greatness in Chávez for a very long time—men like Augustin de Valdez, who promoted him locally in his early days and paid him about $600 in 1980 for his first pro fight. "This is somebody who has never lost a fight since he was born, who never turned a fight down, not even on the street," says de Valdez. "When he beat Rosario, I heard Rosario telling his corner, I can't feel my arms anymore.' He came into the world with it, just like a great opera singer already has the voice. But you must also polish your gift, and Julio César is a devoted student. Especially in defense. He has learned that marvelously well."
And in truth, Chávez has become boxing's most terrifyingly efficient destroyer by combining an inborn savagery with acquired skills. He has the traditional Mexican strength-sapping short punches to the body and also the knowledge of how to use his shoulders and his forearms to control an opponent. And he has rid himself of that traditional Mexican weakness—the flailing attack that leaves the aggressor wide open. Heaven knows, Chávez is aggressive enough, but the fury is tight, controlled. He still gets hit, but seldom solidly, as Rosario, a fine puncher, discovered.
In spite of the college-kid grin he wears, in spite of his modest demeanor, there are those who detect a coldness in Chávez that mirrors his merciless quality in the ring. "He is a young man who is utterly sure of himself, and he can be discreetly arrogant when he wants," says an acquaintance. Recently, Carlos Salinas de Gortari of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (who is almost certain to become president in next summer's elections) paid a visit to Chávez's home in Culiacán and was kept waiting for an hour and a half before the fighter showed up.
"Listen," said Chávez when asked about the incident. "If I needed a job with the party, then I'd go for it. But I don't need one. It's them coming after me. The politicians just want to be associated with a winner."