20 years ago today, on June 7, 1996, one of the most notable crossroads fights in modern boxing history took place. It was a throwback fight of sorts, held outdoors at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, unavailable on home television in any way, shown only for those not attending on closed circuit television.
That night, under the bright lights and in the scorching Vegas heat, a 33-year-old Julio Cesar Chavez Jr, entered the ring with a record of 96-1-1, though his best days were pretty obviously behind him. His opponent was a 23-year-old Oscar De La Hoya, "The Golden Boy," a 1992 Olympic gold medalist whose story was one of those that stole the show in Barcelona.
De La Hoya, coming in with a record of 21-0, had already won world titles at super featherweight and lightweight, both under WBO sanction. He was now taking aim at Chavez's WBC junior welterweight title, and more than that, the legend of Chavez, one of the greatest Mexican fighters and boxing heroes of all time.
Five months earlier, the two had been on HBO in separate bouts, auditioning for their July fight with one another. "One ringside wag dubbed the show an 'informercial,'" wrote Philadelphia Daily News writer Bernard Fernandez after the bout, "which is as apt a description as any for a show whose thinly veiled purpose was to whet the public's appetite for the bigger and better event that is to follow. "
Nowadays, we see this sort of thing all the time. Even in 1996, it wasn't quite as palatable to the boxing media, but it was a sign of changing times.
Remarking on his upcoming opponent, Chavez said, "My impression of De La Hoya is that he's fast, good and strong. I had to win this fight to demonstrate that I can beat De La Hoya."
Chavez beat Scott Walker, a tall but nondescript fighter from Arizona, who in 1995 had beaten Alexis Arguello, 42 years old and attempting a comeback after an eight-year absence from the ring. Chavez stopped Walker in two rounds, equaling what De La Hoya did on the card with a second round knockout of Darryl Tyson, a 35-year-old veteran who had been in the ring with Miguel Angel Gonzalez, Livingstone Bramble, Roger Mayweather, Freddie Roach, Freddie Pendleton, and Rafael Ruelas, among others.
The ideas behind the matchups were obvious. Chavez, at a little over 5'7", faced Walker, who was about six feet tall, even taller than the 5'10" De La Hoya. Walker's height was meant to show that Chavez could handle a much taller opponent. De La Hoya, meanwhile, faced a tough veteran about Chavez's size who had only been stopped one time, by Freddie Pendleton in 1995. Both of them won easily, and set the stage with performances that could be called impressive, even if they were exactly as designed by promoter Bob Arum and his matchmakers.
De La Hoya was only four years removed from the Olympics, but he had already learned how to speak like a promoter, learning from one of the best, and knew just how to overstate the importance of any fight.
"Julio Cesar Chavez and I are going to put on a great show," he said. "It's going to be a huge event. It's going to be the biggest event in sports history. I can't wait for it to happen."
There were several storylines going into the fight, perhaps none more interesting than the one involving 66-year-old Jesus "The Professor" Rivero, a former manager for flyweight champion Miguel Canto in the 1970s, who had joined De La Hoya's team after Oscar's less than stellar win over John-John Molina in early 1995. De La Hoya wasn't happy with his performance, and wanted to find someone to add to his squad. Rivero came on not as his trainer -- that was still Robert Alcazar -- but as a sort of guru, who not only wanted to teach him about boxing, but about art and music and culture. Everything, really.
"The 'Old Man' is like a gift from God," De La Hoya said. "He has taught me so much about boxing, and about life. He is helping me achieve my goal of becoming a great champion and a better person."
Like something from a quirky film or the like, De La Hoya was said to be a bit resistant to Rivero's methods early on, before something changed and the benefits sunk in for Oscar.
"Oscar realizes it is to his benefit to have knowledge of life, to have culture," Rivero said. "Does it help him as a fighter? Of course. It gives him a more panoramic view of his profession.
"I am not only teaching him boxing, but other values . . . history, geography, classical music. I want Oscar to know there are other things to boxing than money, fame and glory."
And on the boxing side, Rivero said, "Oscar needs to know the history of his sport. I've shown him tapes of (Willie) Pep's fights with Sandy Saddler because there are elements of Pep's style I want him to incorporate into his own. But I also have made him familiar with Sugar Ray Robinson, with Joe Louis, with Jack Johnson, with Jim Corbett. Oscar is like a sponge. He absorbs everything."
The Other 'Old Man'
Chavez didn't need any extra schooling. Well, maybe he did, but that ship had sailed. As De La Hoya put it leading up to the fight, Chavez had fought almost 100 times as a professional with one style. They didn't expect that he would change it on June 7, but De La Hoya would be prepared for anything. If Chavez wanted to brawl, that would be fine. If he wanted to box, they'd be ready for that, too.
Just under three years earlier, Chavez had suffered his first pro blemish, a draw against Pernell "Sweet Pea" Whitaker, a decision so controversial that Sports Illustrated ran a cover with the word "ROBBED!" in big, bold letters, and Boxing Illustrated's cover urged readers not to buy the issue if they actually thought the fight had been anything but a Whitaker win.
That fight sort of broke the seal on Chavez's career. In 1994, he was upset by Frankie Randall, who put the Mexican warrior down for the first time in his career, and won a split decision. Chavez would win a rematch less than four months later, by disputed technical split decision. He had also taken a bit of a beating against David Kamau in September 1995, a fight that Chavez won over 12 rounds.
It was clear that this was no longer the Julio Cesar Chavez of 1984-92, whose closest brush with defeat came against Meldrick Taylor in their infamous 1990 bout. That version of Chavez had been lost to time, and to some bad habits outside of the ring. For the De La Hoya bout, Chavez reportedly was no longer drinking at all, or at least he said that.
Chavez said he'd be in great shape, faster than he'd ever been before, but the young De La Hoya didn't seem to buy it.
"Chavez has had 99 fights, and now he's faster? What does that mean?" Oscar wondered. "Is he trying to psych me out or something? Chavez says he's in the best shape of his life. That's good. I don't want there to be any excuses."
Another of the stories leading up to the fight was the divide between fans, Mexicans and Mexican-Americans, and the rooting interests for the fight. Chavez was a hero to Mexican fight fans, a legend who represented the working class. De La Hoya was something of a teen idol, a Mexican-American fighter from East Los Angeles who never had it easy, but had been managed and marketed as "The Golden Boy," something Chavez never had been depicted as in his life.
Rick Kulis, President of Event Entertainment, was with the fighters on their media tour and diplomatically offered this comparison: "Julio Cesar Chavez's is the story of a Mexican national who used boxing to become an international superstar. Oscar De La Hoya is a barrio Mexican-American success story. He used boxing to realize the American dream of success."
In the same Chicago Tribute article, Jose Sotero, professor of sociology and anthropology at DePaul University, said there had been a decline in Chavez's popularity, however, "stemming from divorce, unpopular political stances and rumored drinking":
Chavez remains an idol to "poorer Mexicans for whom he has long represented escape," Sotero said. "But there is a segment of middle-class Mexicans who, even though they like Chavez, want to see the passing of the torch to a successor.
"And De La Hoya looks like he might be the real one. He has been a smart businessman, very careful not to upset Chavez's followers. He has been deferential to the man he calls his idol."
On the press tour, De La Hoya was booed by fans in Phoenix, San Diego, and Los Angeles. Though he was the future of the sport in many ways, there was resistance to him among Mexican fans when he was put up against Chavez.
Perhaps it was simply that De La Hoya was not marketed as the gritty, rough and tumble warrior that Chavez had embodied. Chavez was a dirty hands guy, all hard work and determination. De La Hoya had been spiffed up. Chavez earned the dedication of his fans through his fights, with his blood. De La Hoya was now being presented to these same people on a silver platter. They were not the same. And a divide was, in retrospect, inevitable.
It may also be worth considering whether or not a portion of the fan base saw the fight for what it was: Top Rank using a declining, aging Chavez as a stepping stone for De La Hoya. "Here is your new Mexican superstar," they seemed to be telling the audience. "He's going to beat the old one to prove it."
Whatever the reason, De La Hoya, though he tried his best, was not the fan favorite.
After the fight, "Professor" Rivero wondered, "Why does the Mexican public favor Chavez and boo Oscar? I don't understand. Oscar is a good person, he's not arrogant. Chavez is arrogant. Chavez has embraced a corrupt government; he has dedicated every one of his fights to the former president, Carlos Salinas. How is it possible that a boxer gains prestige by serving a government that steals from its people?"
Chavez called Rivero a traitor.
It was unreasonably hot on June 7 in Las Vegas. With a high of 107 degrees, it was still around triple digits at fight time. De La Hoya received a mixed reaction during Michael Buffer's introduction, with boos coming in to battle the initial cheers. Oscar looked fit and ready.
Across the ring, Chavez was here for the 100th time, at least as advertised. (It was either the 99th or 100th. It doesn't matter much.) His reception was mostly positive as he jumped up and down, taking a quick swig of water to spit back out.
"This is youth, talent, ambition, against experience, will, and pride; a fight that may be as simple as the power and speed of youth, or as complicated as the will of a great warrior," Larry Merchant said before the opening bell sounded.
Chavez sported white trunks with a red waistband and green down the sides of each leg, the colors of the Mexican flag. De La Hoya's right leg was blue with white stars and red stripes, and on the left leg, it was white, with a Mexican flag on the thigh.
About a minute into the fight, Chavez had a cut over his left eye from a sharp jab. De La Hoya targeted the cut with his right hand after, and the blood began to flow. The right hand just kept landing, the blood kept getting worse.
With a minute left in the round, referee Joe Cortez halted the fight to have the doctor take a look at the cut.
"That cut was opened in training, you can believe that," said George Foreman, calling the fight with Merchant and Jim Lampley. Foreman was right. Chavez said after the bout that he'd suffered a "nick" over his left eye in training, but did not want to postpone the bout. De La Hoya reopened the problem area quickly. The rout was on, with Chavez saying he was essentially fighting blind from the second half of the opening round.
Back to action, Chavez tried to take the initiative and force De La Hoya into a show of machismo. Throwing while the two tangled arms, Chavez tried to get in his opponent's head, but De La Hoya stayed cool and calm, barely acknowledging the tactic before the round ended.
De La Hoya stayed patient to start the second round, landing another right hand that reopened the cut. Chavez came back with a left hook, but De La Hoya went down to the body with one of his own. Oscar's hand speed began to really show for a moment, but the always-determined Chavez wasn't backing down, landing a counter right hand that kept Oscar honest.
With a minute left in the round, a portion of the audience began to chant, "Mexico! Mexico!" in support of Chavez, but it was short-lived. There was already a feeling that the fight was slipping away from the old icon.
De La Hoya's jab and body work dictated the first half of the third round, keeping Chavez at bay, and at times backing up. De La Hoya drew some boos for a quick shove behind Chavez's head. "That's an old Willie Pep move there," Foreman noted. "The Professor" must have smiled at ringside.
Chavez's occasional attempts to force a fight continued to go nowhere. Oscar tried to bait Chavez, who stayed still and waited for an opening, landing a left hook late in the round. Few and far between, though.
Between rounds, Chavez's corner tried to convince him that the cut was "no problem." Chavez, however, clearly didn't buy that, leaning forward on his stool before he came back out, and then attacking immediately, getting a rise from his supporters. De La Hoya tried to settle it back down quickly, and a left hand to Chavez's jaw did reset the tempo a bit.
A good left hook from Chavez landed, but once again the cut opened up, with De La Hoya throwing back, and the heads scraping together. Seeing the blood, Oscar saw a target, throwing his hands aggressively and smashing Chavez with both hands. Chavez's nose became bloodied, and he began to back away.
Referee Cortez halted the action again with 27 seconds left in the fourth round, sending Chavez over to the ring doctor, Flip Homansky. Homansky took a close look at the cut, plus the now-busted nose, and called the fight. Chavez did not protest, his head hanging in defeat, as his team came in to tend to him.
Official time: 2:37 of round four.
"Julio Cesar Chavez was in the best shape of his life," De La Hoya said after the fight. "I had to keep my composure. I had to keep cool. Now I'm going to go back to the gym, and I still need work. I still need one or two more years to become a really great fighter.
"I knew if he got injured, it'd be a big problem for him. He's a true warrior, but when I cut his eye and broke his nose with a left hook, I knew I had him. I heard it break; I heard it."
Chavez-De La Hoya should have been a massive pay-per-view blockbuster. It probably would still be among the leaders in sales to this day had it been a pay-per-view fight. But as mentioned earlier, the fight was distributed only on closed circuit, which was a dead format by 1996. The last time a major fight had been shown only on closed circuit was 1987, when Marvin Hagler fought Sugar Ray Leonard.
Arum tried to make PPV deals in markets where closed circuit was weak, but was shot down. Either cable companies needed national pay-per-view, or none at all.
When Arum approached Time Warner Cable of New York City, Richard Aurelio, the president, told the promoter "to go to hell." Why the rancor? As Aurelio described it, Arum wanted to sell Time Warner pay-per-view rights in some pockets of its systems, but not others. "It would be a nightmare to market it to some areas he's cherry-picked and black out the others," Aurelio said.
Aurelio added: "He'd call me and say he'd made a deal with Time Warner systems in upstate New York. I said, 'Oh, yeah, really?' And he said: 'No, no, I didn't actually sign a deal. But I can give you Manhattan.' I said, 'You've already got the Garden, and the Garden says it would violate their contract if I put it on in Manhattan.' It's impossible doing business with him."
Hugh Panero, president of Request Television, a major pay-per-view distributor, said: "He's doing this to squeeze more out of cable operators. And while he's found he can resurrect the closed-circuit network for this fight, it'll be enormously difficult to resurrect it again."
Arum, as he always has, tried to play the martyr role, decrying the "monopolists" in the cable industry and speaking of antitrust violations, but it largely fell on deaf ears. Average boxing fans don't much care about this stuff, after all -- they just want to see the fights.
But instead of the 1.7 million closed circuit customers that Arum anticipated, only 750,000 paid to see the fight, grossing about $14 million. Arum had boasted that the fight would bring in $60-80 million on closed circuit, and had said that he'd already sold 800,000 of the three million seats he had reserved through various venues. It was, relative to those expectations, a complete bust. It was an ill-fated idea, and the results were fairly disastrous.
At the gate in Nevada, they sold 14,738 tickets for a total of $7,579,100, making it the third-highest Nevada gate of 1996, behind Holyfield-Tyson ($14,150,700) and Tyson-Bruno II ($10,673,700). It was also at that point the fourth-highest gate in Nevada boxing history, behind those two fights and the 1995 bout between Mike Tyson and Peter McNeeley. As of this time, Chavez-De La Hoya still has the 31st highest gate in Nevada boxing history.
Directly after the fight, De La Hoya met with Larry Merchant in the ring. "He's a true warrior, he's a true champion, but the blood, the cut, the broken nose was affecting," he said of Chavez.
Asked about how he felt Mexican fans would treat him after the win, he said, through the practiced smile that made him so much unlike Chavez, "I hope they're on my side. I want to try to be like Julio Cesar Chavez. I want to try to be a great champion like he is, and he will still be a great champion of the future, because he's a great person inside the ring and outside the ring."
Chavez's plan was to fight two more times and then "beg De La Hoya for a rematch." That turned into five fights, where Chavez went 4-0-1 with a 1998 draw against Miguel Angel Gonzalez, before he got his rematch with De La Hoya at welterweight on September 18, 1998. De La Hoya beat him again, this time winning after eight rounds.
Though De La Hoya became boxing's brightest pay-per-view star over time, and was the king of the format until his final fight in 2008, he never did gain the admiration of the Mexican boxing fans quite to the level that he seemed to desire. He had faced some resistance from those fans when he fought Rafael Ruelas in 1995. It was worse against Chavez. And it came back notably in 2002, when he fought Fernando Vargas, who was from Oxnard, California.
As Sports Illustrated put it in their coverage of the fight:
"De La Hoya will never win over the entire crowd, no matter how desperate his quest for support becomes. On Friday, his team colors were half Stars and Stripes and half Mexican flag. But it is not citizenship that is at stake. By now De La Hoya’s values are so stubbornly suburban that he can never again be identified with the rough-and-tumble barrio culture that inspired him to fight. He wants to play golf? He wants to study architecture? He wants to retire by age 28?"
Simply put, he didn't match the image of the beloved Mexican warrior. He wasn't macho. He was a pretty boy, a well-groomed, smiling, corporate boxer. He was not a fighter for the people, didn't represent the working class. That was the image that made De La Hoya a star in ways that someone like Julio Cesar Chavez could never have been, but it was also what held him back from being the type of star that Chavez was; he couldn't have both, no matter how much he wanted it.