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In the place where the world's greatest fighter lives, men eat a leg of goat and drink a can of beer for breakfast. They drive with a gun jammed in their pockets and with a cold beer sweating between the denim heat of their legs and with a small red crescent of chili powder sprinkled on the backs of their hands to dab upon their tongues between each swallow. From the speakers in their cars thump songs that tangle love and bullets and longing while their dark eyes sweep from left to right, alert always for enemies but more so for the beautiful women with their skirts tight as skin, for which their state, Sinaloa, is renowned. And then, in the morning, a few more bodies are fished from the three rivers that run through the place where the world's greatest fighter lives.
It is October in Culiac�n, the drug capital of Mexico. In the foothills of the Sierra Madre Occidental just east of town, the poppy seeds are ripe, the marijuana leaves full-fingered and ready to be taken. Traffic in Culiac�n is thick, the shops hum. No federal troops have come this year to suck the city's lifeblood.
Outside a modest white house at 1181 R�o Churubusco, men of all ages have gathered in the heat. They are the children of the world's greatest fighter: brothers, brothers-in-law, cousins, neighbors, childhood friends, house-watchers, car-washers, car-starters, cornermen, cameramen and journalists, all waiting for him to awaken. "�Somos una armada! [We are an armada!]" exults the fighter's brother-in-law Miguel Molleda. "�Un batall�n! �Una infanter�a!"
It is 10 a.m. It is nearly 90�. The world's greatest fighter is upstairs. The world's greatest fighter is sleeping one off. There's a coldness inside of him that makes him think he can keep people waiting for hours—and a warmth that makes him right. On the fringes of the infantry now are gathering the poor and the gaunt, come from the far reaches of Mexico to beg alms from him. One of them is a cross-eyed man named Andres Felix. In the sixth round on Feb. 5, 1980, he became the first professional boxer to fall at the feet of the world's greatest fighter, but now 13 years have gone by, 68 more knockouts and 83 more victories without a defeat have passed, and Andr�s F�lix has returned with his hand out too.
Like the others, he is patient. In Spanish, one word means two things: Esperar is "to wait"; esperar is "to hope." Inside the house, though, a pretty young woman holding a three-week-old baby peers through a window at the crowd that awaits her husband. Her eyes fill with sadness. This is what happens to every great Latin fighter: His family, his friends—his whole nation—begin to wait and hope for him each day on his doorstep, often until he buckles beneath their weight or severs his roots and runs away. And even though Amalia grew up here as one of 10 children, just as her husband did, sometimes she wonders why he stays and lets this happen to their lives.
There are things she doesn't know yet. The world's greatest fighter has never told his wife that he's afraid to be alone.
But wait, already we speak of intimacies, and you may not even know the name of the world's greatest fighter: Julio C�sar Ch�vez. In the 1970s Tibetan monks would have chanted " Ali! Ali!" had Muhammad Ali passed them in a parka on a Himalayan trail; in the '80s there were grandmothers in Grand Rapids who could spot Ray Leonard and Mike Tyson through a tinted limo window. But on a brilliant autumn day just a few months ago, hundreds of New Yorkers stopped and gawked at a horse-drawn carriage carrying four singing and laughing members of Ch�vez's infanter�a through Central Park, never recognizing that the best fighter, pound for pound, of recent years was sitting in the next open-air carriage, directly in front of their eyes.
No man in the history of boxing has been undefeated for longer than has Ch�vez—13 years. In 84 bouts the only part of his body ever to have touched the canvas are the soles of his feet. He creates no dark aura as Tyson or Roberto Dur�n did; he takes away no one's manhood before a fight with looks or words. His is a methodical, matter-of-fact devastation, devoid of persona, the product of a man who knows exactly why he is involved in this sport. With a cranium—abnormally thick, according to a CAT scan taken four years ago—capable of absorbing enormous shock, with his eyes fixed on his opponent's sternum, he comes at his foe slowly and carefully at first, and then with a terrible linear relentlessness, a cold, patient fury, savaging the torso with short hooks and uppercuts for seven or eight rounds, making the head above it sag and the legs below it fold because there is nothing between them but pain. Then he finishes him, leaves him, often, a lesser man. He puts his opponents in hospital beds, he turns their toilet bowls red. " Meldrick Taylor, Edwin Rosario, Roger Mayweather, Juan LaPorte, they were never the same after Ch�vez," says Bobby Goodman, the matchmaker at Madison Square Garden. "LaPorte told me he couldn't make love for weeks after they fought in '86."
"The toughest fighter I've ever seen," says trainer Angelo Dundee, "bar none."
Ch�vez has averaged one bout every 57 days over his pro career, two or three times the frequency of other top fighters—the conscientious laborer bringing home the bimonthly bacon. He explains his 84-0 record in an unusual way. "I could not bear the thought of losing," he says, "because it would hurt my family." The world is looking—no, it is not looking—at a rare stone, a Latin fighter who has no trouble with the scales, no trouble with the law, no trouble in the bars, no lapses in the ring. A Latin fighter in control of his life. At age 30, Ch�vez, who is the reigning WBC super lightweight champion, has won five titles in three weight divisions—super featherweight and lightweight as well as super lightweight—and after he defends his crown against Greg Haugen before 120,000 people in Mexico City's Azteca Stadium Saturday night for $2.5 million, he will fix his eyes on a fourth championship, the welterweight. So why do none but the Latin faces light up when Julio C�sar Ch�vez walks by?