Julio Cesar Chavez Jr and Sergio Martinez are headed into one of the most highly-anticipated fights of 2012 this Saturday night, headlining an HBO pay-per-view live from the sold-out (19,186 tickets gone) Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas.
Usually, fight previews are a pretty standard thing, and we'll have staff picks where people probably talk about footwork and stuff on Friday evening, but the reason this fight is more than another fight to me is the story layers behind it, the way the fighters interact and speak about one another, the genuine animosity that isn't so much, "I will kick your ass," as it is a deep feeling of envy on both sides, I think, where they each now wish they had what the other man does. Martinez wants Chavez's fame and A-side status. Chavez wants Martinez's credibility.
So in order to talk about those things, I'm going a different route and using Jenny Lewis (and Rilo Kiley) songs as trail markers to discuss the matchup.
Well, I mean, first of all, I'm a Jenny Lewis fan, from Rilo Kiley through the Watson Twins album and up until now. But "I like her music" isn't why I chose to use Jenny Lewis songs for this idea, because that would mean I could also choose from the vast discography of Bob Dylan (whose new album Tempest is excellent, for the record, and not just another bogus "Rolling Stone" five-star) or pick through the songs of my all-time favorite musical artist, Waylon Jennings. Hell, a lot of artists that I like would have been easier to do this with than Jenny Lewis, even counting her time with Rilo Kiley and all that.
It's because to my surprise earlier this year, I learned that Jenny Lewis is a boxing fan. I was on Twitter during the Pacquiao-Bradley fight in June, as I usually am during fights and much of the day, talking boxing. Most of my Twitter follows are boxing-related, although that is coming closer and closer to not being true as I realize how pointless it is to follow most fighters who have nothing particularly interesting to say, ever, and I don't mean like Adrien Broner, who is nuts and it's funny.
But I also follow some artists because I was bored one night and clicked follow on some I liked, and then randomly in the middle of the card, there's @jennylewis popping up with the comment, "God I love boxing." Go figure.
I'd almost forgotten about this until yesterday, when she started Tweeting about the Chavez Jr vs Martinez card, which she will be attending on Saturday night.
So I thought, for no particular reason, how could I bring Jenny Lewis and boxing together for a stupid fucking blog post that might appeal to maybe 100 people in the entire universe? And then here we are. I wasn't sure I could actually get this done, and I'm not saying that this is coherent or cohesive or anything like that. I did this because I wanted to, and nothing more. For a lowly, lousy blogger, I guess this might be called a "passion project," like one of those movies that big stars make because they saw some documentary about some semi-obscure old outlaw or politician or cause, and they just had to do it.
So here's to you, Jenny, and your love for this "dying sport."
(I need to note that these are not, like, literal translations of the lyrics or songs. Just in case someone couldn't figure that out. That would be impossible with basically any artist, to find songs that truly fit 100%.)
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What's in a Name? ("It's a Hit" by Rilo Kiley)
Any idiot can play Greek for a day
And join a sorority or write a tragedy
And articulate all that pain,
And maybe you'll get paid.
But it's a sin when success complains
The main angle -- and rightly so -- of this fight is the differences in upbringing, both in life and in boxing, between Julio Cesar Chavez Jr and Sergio Martinez. Chavez was, as Lou DiBella noted at yesterday's press conference, a kid that boxing fans saw on TV dressed in a tuxedo and held above his iconic father's head. Chavez Jr has never wanted for anything in his life -- he's never been denied the things he desired, never really had to put in the work.
Martinez, on the other hand, was a poor kid in Argentina, who came up the hard way, and had to earn his living in the ring by repeatedly convincing American fans, finally, that he was legitimate. This is a fighter, now considered one of the best in the world, who didn't get on HBO until he was 33 years old, back in 2008 when he smashed Alex Bunema and opened some eyes.
Even when Sergio got that shot, though, setbacks came. He received a bogus draw against Kermit Cintron in 2009, and then had to fight Paul Williams on short notice late that year. It was a breakthrough performance of sorts, as Williams won the fight, but it was a Fight of the Year candidate and a jaw-dropping display of gritty, all-out brawling in a fight that was expected to be a rather mundane technical encounter with tactics ruling the day between a pair of southpaws with their own distinct styles.
Then came Pavlik and the middleweight championship, and Sergio was king when he knocked Williams silly in two rounds a year after their first fight. Since then, he's had fairly routine title defenses and main event fights -- HBO main events, yes, but there is no denying that Sergio Martinez, despite his natural charisma, his fan friendly style, his good looks, and his talent, has not become anything near a "superstar" fighter.
Chavez never had to earn this. From the time he stepped into a pro boxing ring at age 17 in 2003, he's been groomed for mass appeal. It's not as if he can help it. His name is Julio Cesar Chavez, and he is the son of Mexico's most beloved pugilistic warrior. He fought constantly for a few years, learning his trade while on the job. No, these weren't marquee wins, but he was learning. He was a student.
Once he became notable enough that he was at least facing decent fighters, though, it became pretty well-publicized that he was kind of a crap student. He was known for laziness. He was known for receiving great favoritism from the boxing politicians.
There are few things fight fans hate more than a coddled, spoiled brat who hasn't earned fame but has become famous anyway. Chavez Jr, for years, became one of the sport's most beloved fighters in one sense, and one of its most reviled in another. While he was loved by many simply for having his name and his father, other fans couldn't stand him, and retched at the mere mention of him as some sort of "contender."
He failed a drug test in Nevada in 2009 following a fight with Troy Rowland, and the WBC -- his other parent, if you will -- came to his aid with impassioned pleas for public understanding. Medical issues, they wanted us to believe. He must see doctors and determine the best course of action. Chavez Jr using a diuretic was made out to be a deadly disease. No single moment of his career has better defined why so many still refuse to take to him, or believe in any of the puff pieces you can read about his personal and professional turnaround.
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The Anger of Sergio Martinez ("The Big Guns" by Jenny Lewis with The Watson Twins)
Well you praise him
Then you thank him
'Til you reach the by-and-by
And I've won hundreds at the track
But I'm not betting on the afterlife
Then you kiss his lips
He forgives you for it
He forgives you for all you've done
But not me
I'm still angry
When Sergio Martinez had his middleweight championship belt removed in 2011 in what amounted to a boxing coup d'état, it went somewhat criminally ignored in the boxing press just how transparent and blatant this was. Both the WBC and HBO had some hand in it, as well as Top Rank -- I'm not really saying they did something illegal, because boxing belts aren't that big of a deal in the grand scheme of things, I'm just saying it was totally unsportsmanlike and ridiculous. I've said many times over that boxing is in many ways not really a sport anymore. This is one example of that.
What happened was that Martinez held the WBC title, and, well, the WBC wanted Baby Boy to have it. Sebastian Zbik was named the mandatory challenger, which was fine with Martinez. It was not, however, fine with the old HBO regime, who turned down the fight and had Martinez instead fight Sergiy Dzinziruk, as if somehow Dzinziruk were a more notable or legitimate challenger than Zbik was. Dzinziruk is a better fighter than Zbik, but that cannot be used as reasoning to defend a move like this. It had absolutely nothing to do with quality.
Lo and behold, HBO approved Zbik as an opponent for Chavez Jr for a fight just three months after Martinez beat Dzinziruk, and wouldn't you know it, but Zbik had been promoted from interim to full champion, and Julio got to face a weak titleholder. They -- the WBC and HBO -- might as well have put a bow on the green belt.
Despite getting screwed, Martinez has kept paying WBC sanctioning fees and hoping for this shot to come. When they took away the title anyone recognizes, they had him fighting Dzinziruk for their phony "Diamond" title, which he has since defended against Darren Barker and Matthew Macklin.
Martinez has been noted by promoter Lou DiBella as being abnormally angry in the lead-up for this fight, and it's clear he's got a chip on his shoulder. Don't believe that it's merely that Chavez is a spoiled rich kid who "disrespects boxing." Martinez has a lot to be angry about. This is the fight where he can, at least temporarily, right the wrongs that he's endured at the hands of a crooked, biased organization and sport. Despite the fact that he smiles and writes checks to The Distinguished and Esteemed Don of Dons, Master of Disaster, King of Boxing Jose Sulaiman, Martinez's anger is and should be deeper than the TV will tell you.
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The Myth of Julio Cesar Chavez Jr's Improvement ("Rise Up with Fists!!" by Jenny Lewis with The Watson Twins)
What are you changing?
Who do you think you're changing?
You can't change things, we're all stuck in our ways
It's like trying to clean the ocean
What do you think you can drain it?
Well it was poison and dry long before you came
Freddie Roach was hired, in theory, to make Chavez Jr a "real fighter." While he had run up a fluffy undefeated record (with a little help from his friends along the way), fact is he'd run out of Matt Vandas and Jason LeHoulliers to fight. It was almost too good to be true from a promoter's perspective. Here was this second-generation kid, a true cash cow, money in the bank without any risk. Chavez Jr honestly could have made a career out of never trying. But they decided that truly great riches lie ahead, if only he could get a little better.
There has been much made of the "improvements" that Chavez has made since joining Roach, but what are they, really, and how have they been the doing of Roach? This is not meant in any way as disrespect to Freddie, but I mean, you've seen 24/7. And you know that Chavez Jr struggled mightily to make weight earlier this year. And you know that just before that fight, he was busted for a DUI in California. (The WBC chose to take no action here, despite their then-recent ruling that Dereck Chisora had become a menace to the sport for slaps and spits and despite the fact that they once removed Chris Arreola from their rankings for cursing.)
I'm not sure that Chavez has actually gotten a whole lot better through association with Roach. He's still depicted as lazy, arrogant, and often indifferent. His weight is an issue in nearly every fight. And for all the hype about how good he's become -- and he has gotten better -- he's also had deep struggles against the likes of Sebastian Zbik and Marco Antonio Rubio, fighters that Sergio Martinez would have chopped up.
Is he better? A little, but it's because he's a 26-year-old fighter with nine years of pro experience who has started to come into his own physically, more than it is because Freddie Roach has been able to drag some kind of hidden talent out of him.
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The Reality of Julio Cesar Chavez Jr's Legitimacy ("A Better Son/Daughter" by Rilo Kiley)
And sometimes when you're on
You're really fucking on
And your friends they sing along
And they love you
But the lows are so extreme
That the good seems fucking cheap
And it teases you for weeks in its absence
But you'll fight and you'll make it through
You'll fake it if you have to
And you'll show up for work with a smile
And you'll be better
You'll be smarter
More grown up and a better daughter or son
And a real good friend
But there's also another clear fact, at least in my mind: Chavez Jr may not be a world-class boxer, and may never be. In fact, I'd consider it pretty enormously unlikely.
What he is, however, is a fighter. There are moments, and there are fights, when Julio Cesar Chavez Jr flips the switch on and he can be truly impressive. Peter Manfredo Jr is no superstar, but Chavez treated him like a true nobody. This is a fighter on about the same level as Rubio or Zbik, quite frankly. Even when the "Pride of Providence" threw caution to the wind, that seemed to be right up Chavez's alley, as he outmuscled Manfredo and beat him down.
In his last fight, Chavez Jr was at his very best. Performing in front of a fairly large and adoring crowd at the Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas, Julio showed up in shape to face Andy Lee, a fighter his team had blatantly avoided the year previous, to face Manfredo, in fact. Chavez busted him to pieces and broke his will. It was the best he'd ever looked.
It is hard to get a serious read on Chavez. He has some significant tools. He's a massive middleweight, not really abnormally tall so much as large and thick, he's a thunderous body puncher when he's in shape and has the energy, he's got an iron chin like his daddy had, and the true spirit of a fighter is in him. What he has lacked for me in noticeable technical or overall attitude improvements, he has made up for by convincing me that he's not just some little shitty kid who can't take it when it gets tough. He can take it. He can battle. He's got intestinal and testicular fortitude.
But the bad memories don't go away so easily, either. It's hard to forget laborious efforts with Rowland, Rubio, and Vanda. Hard to forget how he struggled with the mediocrity of Zbik. Coming off of the Zbik performance, I wasn't jazzed. Out of Manfredo, kinda jazzed. Rubio, not jazzed. Lee, jazzed.
He's a fucking mystery sometimes, this kid. And he's about as frustrating as they come.
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But, Look, Sergio Martinez Is Just Better ("Silver Lining" by Rilo Kiley)
And I'm not going back
Into rags or in the hole
And our bruises are coming
But we will never fold
And I was your silver lining
As the story goes
I was your silver lining
But now I'm gold
Enough about Chavez.
Sergio Martinez is better than him. And I can't figure that he's about to drop a fight to some big, plodding brawler just because said brawler has proven his toughness and made at least a half a fan out of a longtime non-believer, and many more of those, to boot.
Sergio Martinez is so much more talented and gifted than Chavez Jr that this really shouldn't wind up being a contest.
Boxing is a funny sport. No matter how much of it you watch, you can always be convinced that something that shouldn't happen could or even is going to happen. "Chavez Jr is bigger, he's going to pound away with those body shots and break down the smaller man, Sergio can't hurt him, he doesn't have that sort of power."
I remember hearing and saying the same things before Manny Pacquiao beat the shit out of Oscar De La Hoya in 2008. Pacquiao, for all that talent, was a Little Man. Comparatively, Oscar was the Big Man.
2008 Oscar and 2012 Chavez Jr aren't the same fighter. That Oscar was washed-up mentally, overtrained physically, and just at the end of his line. He had been a part-time fighter for years, and Pacquiao made him look like an unqualified sparring partner who just embarrassed the guy who brought him to the gym and recommended that the champ work out with him some, promising he could give some good looks.
Chavez Jr has heart -- or at least he's shown heart so far. But will that heart remain when Sergio Martinez is dicing him up from angles? When he can't find the sleek and crafty Argentinean no matter how aggressively he hunts? And given that Martinez can actually move around the ring -- not a great trait of your Zbiks, Manfredos, Duddys, Rubios, or Lees -- and attack when it's not obviously coming, and not obvious what is coming, will Chavez Jr's heart remain?
Or will he be frustrated by his inability to cope with a superior technician, tactician, and just plain old professional boxer?
Sergio Martinez has climbed to the mythical heights of the sport, where title belts are awarded and P4P accolades are handed out on in the style sheets of a web site. He's been named Fighter of the Year by guys who also kept naming Freddie Roach Trainer of the Year even when others deserved it more. His praises have been sung.
And yet he's never been as famous as Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. And he'll be making half the money of Chavez Jr in purse totals on Saturday night.
Despite his achievements, legitimate and semi-imaginary both, he is the B-side. To some kid who doesn't take this job as seriously as he does. Who never had to earn it the way that he has. Who has never faced the sort of adversity that he has. And whose best win wouldn't be in Martinez's top five.
Martinez has been told he's great. And he believes in his ability and what he's done with his career. But there's no doubt it gnaws at him that no matter who pats him on the back, Julio Cesar Chavez Jr has been given a private, paved road to the stardom he's not been allowed to reach despite all the work he's put in.
His road, from Argentina to Spain and the United Kingdom, and finally to the United States and a little place in Oxnard, California, has been a snowy mountain pass in comparison, filled with tire-blowing puddles that come from nowhere.
This is the night that Sergio Martinez has been waiting for his entire career. He's 37 years old. He's one of the best fighters on the planet. And in his mind, no smug, grinning, punk kid who doesn't know the true meaning of boxing's newest cliche -- hard work! dedication! -- is going to take this glory away from him.
Sergio Martinez's time has come. And so has Julio Cesar Chavez Jr's.