33 isn’t necessarily old for a fighter, but Julio Cesar Chavez had been through the wars and then some by the time he showed up at that age to face Oscar De La Hoya in 1996.
Chavez came in with a record of 96-1-1 (78 KO), and while he was the holder of the WBC junior welterweight title at the time, his best days did seem clearly behind him. Back in 1993, he’d been gifted a draw against Pernell Whitaker, then split two fights with Frankie Randall in1 994.
After the rematch win over Randall, Chavez had beaten a faded Meldrick Taylor in a rematch, plus Tony Lopez, Giovanni Parisi, Craig Houk, David Kamau, and Scott Walker. Not a bad run, and he was winning fights, but he was no longer the Chavez of old. Time was taking its natural course with his career.
De La Hoya, meanwhile, was 23 years old, fresh, skilled, naturally bigger than Chavez, and being anointed the new king of boxing’s non-heavyweight weight classes. He’d go on to eventually become the clear PPV king of the sport, period, for a while, and his successes in that area really opened the doors for two men he’d pass the torch to in defeat, Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao, and another he would promote, Canelo Alvarez.
The fight was billed as “Ultimate Glory.” On the poster, Chavez had the Mexican flag behind him, De La Hoya the American flag.
De La Hoya, a Mexican-American, would seemingly never fully be embraced by the Mexican fan base or by the diehards, and people have offered various theories about that over the years. Sometimes the focus is on De La Hoya having been a rather extreme example of a “pretty boy” in terms of marketing, and as a result of that, Oscar brought in paying female fans who likely never would have cared about boxing otherwise. He also recorded pop albums and did Skip/Fit and all kinds of things that didn’t fit the typical macho image of a fighter, which the more dedicated boxing audience tends to lean toward.
But specifically with the Mexican fans, there has also been the sense that De La Hoya battering an aging Chavez didn’t sit well with a lot of them. Julio was and is a true hero in the proud and glorious tradition of boxing in Mexico, and the theory is that they never “forgave” Oscar for using the legend as a stepping stone.
This is at least a bit unfair, of course. Chavez was not just an active fighter, but he had a world title. De La Hoya was an ambitious young fighter, and he wanted that world title. They fought. It wasn’t competitive. Life went on for both — in fact, they’d do it again in 1998, to basically the same result.
But boxing fans, like all sports fans, can be driven in large part by emotion, and “fair or unfair” is not something the majority think about in terms of favorites and whatnot. We like what we like, we like the fighters we like, we have those favorites, and sometimes as young people especially, we have heroes. Imagine if you were a young fan and Chavez was your favorite fighter, the hero who’d been there in boxing for you as you fell in love with the sport, and then De La Hoya just dominates him. If your appreciation and even love for Chavez is that deep, that can stick in your craw.
But even if he was never 100% accepted by the Mexican fans, it would be fair to say that De La Hoya overall did OK for himself. In this fight, he claims a world title in a third weight class at age 23, in just his 22nd professional fight. He’d go on to win further belts at 147, 154, and 160, too, making him a six-division champ and a modern boxing legend, all of that not even taking into account what a major box office draw he was. By achievements alone — and even if you discount the questionable belt at 160 — De La Hoya is a Hall of Famer.
Chavez would just keep fighting for nearly another decade, even after the second loss to De La Hoya in ‘98. He had 10 more fights from that one through 2005, and took losses against Willy Wise, Kostya Tszyu, and Grover Wiley. A prime Chavez would have had no trouble with guys like Wise and Wiley, and he really should have stepped away when he lost a wide decision to Wise in ‘99, though he did win a rematch with him in 2003. In the end, Chavez retired with a record of 107-6-2 (85 KO), and his own unquestioned place in the Hall of Fame as maybe Mexico’s all-time greatest fighter.