By Graham Houston
Photos: Scott Foster
There are sceptics to be sure, but Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. has shown sufficient improvement to get respect from within the boxing industry. I don’t think anyone will ever call him the best middleweight in the world, but Chavez can fight, and he is the clear favourite over Marco Antonio Rubio in Saturday night’s all-Mexico middleweight championship bout on HBO. On paper, this is Chavez’s stiffest test. Rubio is on a run of six consecutive stoppage wins, the most dramatic of which was his seventh-round victory over David Lemieux when he survived an early onslaught and came back to hammer an exhausted and discouraged opponent.
We now know that Lemieux was not all that he appeared to be, but, nevertheless, Rubio showed a veteran’s craftiness in rolling and ducking on the ropes and letting his over-eager opponent exhaust himself by blasting away at arms and gloves and throwing big misses.
It is three years since Kelly Pavlik pounded Rubio into surrender. I believe that Rubio has improved and also gained in confidence. He was meeting Pavlik on his opponent’s home ground in Youngstown, OH, and Rubio never seemed to fancy his chances. However, Rubio has long sought a match against Chavez — it is a fight he feels he can win although Rubio’s adviser, Julio Guidino, admitted in a phone conversation: “We know it is a much tougher fight now than it would have been two years ago.”
Sen. Guidino is right about that — this is now a very tough fight for Rubio. Chavez was derided for years as being a limited and protected boxer, trading on the name of his father, the all-time Mexican great Julio Cesar Chavez, but he was learning on the job, as it were, having had negligible experience as an amateur. Now Chavez, at 25, has emerged as a highly capable professional fighter. Top trainer Freddie Roach has polished Chavez’s technique, and working with ace conditioner Alex Ariza has enhanced the boxer’s stamina. Chavez has always had a good chin and a big heart, but he seemed disturbingly easy to hit in many of his earlier bouts. Under Roach’s tutelage, though, Chavez has learned how to move and box, and in his last fight, the impressive fifth-round win over Peter Manfredo Jr., he appeared to be stronger, faster and even bigger physically.
So, at long last, we can say that Chavez is a fighter to be taken seriously. Yet Chavez faces on Saturday a challenger who surely hits harder than anyone he has faced before and who seems to be going into the fight with belief in his ability to win against the odds. This, I feel, is a potentially dangerous fight for Chavez.
While Chavez looked poised and technically proficient against Manfredo, in his last fight before this he was being hit with everything that Sebastian Zbik threw at him. I had no doubt that Chavez deserved to win that fight, although I know that many disagree, but he had to dig deep and needed a surging attack in the last few rounds to pull out the majority decision victory.
If Rubio can land his punches with anywhere near the success rate that Zbik achieved, he can do damage. Rubio hits hard with either hand, but his right hand through the middle, thrown behind the jab, is the punch that can bring him his greatest success, assuming, of course, that he can land it.
Then again, if Chavez can take Rubio’s punches — or avoid getting hit by them — and start to bring pressure, will Rubio, who has been stopped three times in his 12-year career, be able to stand up to the sort of body punches that seemed to be breaking Zbik in half in the later rounds?
Despite the odds, I see this as an intriguing fight. Chavez was almost a revelation against Manfredo, but Rubio also looked very good in his last fight when walking through Matt Vanda in five rounds. While Vanda is at best a tough journeyman, he usually sticks around, but Rubio was really hurting him from very early in the fight, and I sensed that as early as the third round Vanda was hoping the referee would rescue him.
Possibly Rubio is one of those fighters who find their best form late in their careers, and certainly he will need a career-best performance to win on Saturday. Chavez is younger, bigger and stronger, and he will have the Roach/Ariza A-team in his corner and the sentimental support of the San Antonio crowd. Rubio, though, is a seasoned professional who has been in many 12-round fights, and he came through a stormy passage to take the crowd out of the fight in his win over Lemieux.
It will no doubt pain the family man from Torreon to be booed by his Mexican compatriots on Saturday, but Rubio didn’t let the crowd’s hostility unsettle him when he stopped Lemieux in Quebec and I think that, at 31, he has the experience to focus on the task at hand and not be rattled by outside influences.
Rubio will certainly need to be steadfast and ready for a gruelling ordeal on Saturday because Chavez will never surrender, nor will Chavez run out of gas in the Lemieux manner. Rubio must be prepared to fight hard in every round and be ready to come back after getting hurt, just as Chavez will surely come back at him should Rubio gain a temporary advantage.
Before Chavez linked up with Freddie Roach I would have picked Rubio. Now, though, Rubio definitely faces an uphill climb, although I do give him a good chance. It is imperative, though, that Rubio gets into the fight early. He cannot let Chavez dictate the tempo and pile up points.
If Chavez uses the same method he did against Manfredo, keeping on the move and triggering off bursts of punches, he can race into an early lead, but I am not sure he can maintain this type of style for 12 rounds, especially if he starts getting caught. I believe that we could see Chavez revert to the dogged, trench-warfare tactics that saw him through against Zbik — except that this time he will be meeting a boxer who can hurt him.
With so much in his favour Chavez should win, but, let’s put it this way, I wouldn’t be too shocked if he didn’t.
Visit fightwriter.com For subscribers we have previews of the Hernandez-Cunningham, Alexeev-Licina, Quigg-Arthur and Donaire-Vazquez fights plus some betting suggestions and a look at Chavez-Rubio from the wagering angle.