"The brightest flame casts the darkest shadow." - George R.R. Martin, A Clash of Kings
Growing up in the shadow of greatness is a burden known to very few. Growing up in the shadow of the greatest Mexican fighter to ever live is a burden known to even fewer, and a burden that none can realistically hope to live up to. Even so, Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. marches bravely toward the ring this Saturday for the 51st time to test that truth. Maybe that is enough.
Since he stepped into the ring and laced up the gloves for the first time, Chavez Jr. was faced with a Sisyphean task: earning the respect of boxing fans who knew even an inkling about who his father was and what he'd accomplished. Since that first fight almost 12 years ago, Junior has given fans plenty of reasons to question his dedication to the sport. They might've looked at his DUIs and recreational drug use during fight camps as proof that he wasn't really a fighter but rather just someone capitalizing financially on the name he was born with -- a business man wearing Cleto Reyes gloves, not un hombre fighting his way toward the legend his father created.
How must it feel to have your victories discounted, overly ciritcized, or simply ignored because they didn't measure up to a standard that only one man in history (with his same nationality) had ever accomplished? In the boxing world, few all-time greats have had their offspring come close to the success that Chavez Jr. has experienced or faced the same level of criticism. Laila Ali, daughter of the "The Greatest" Muhammad Ali, might be one of the few people in the world who can empthaize with Chavez Jr. Although, the truth is, that as a female boxer, she never had the same number of eyes on her, looking for shortcomings, than what she would have experienced if she'd been Ali's son.
You might have to look outside of boxing entirely to really find another person who's had to lift anything near the weight of comparisons that Chavez Jr. has faced. Maybe Michael Andretti (son of the legendary race card driver, Mario Andretti) or Mark Howe (son of Gordie "Mr. Hockey" Howe) might share something more in common with Chavez Jr.
Andretti, Howe, and Ali all never experiened an introduction into the shadow of their father quite the way Chavez Jr. did. In the latest installment of Showtime's All Access, focusing on tomorrow's fight with Andrzej Fonfara, Chavez Jr. told the heart wrentching story of his father, by that time plauged by serious alcoholism, paying random street kids to fight his son in a twisted mimicry of the squared circle.
"No fight, no love." - Julio Cesar Chavez, Jr.
From the very beginning, boxing has been about a lot more than just boxing for Chavez Jr. With a father who is almost universally recognized as the greatest Mexican fighter to ever live, it could not be otherwise.
As sad as Chavez's Jr. introduction to the sweet science is -- to him more like bitter paganism -- the story oddly, indelibly elevates his image, giving him an almost mythic origin story befitting the son of a legend. At the same time it clearly frames the tumultuous relationship betwen father and son.
Now an elder statesman of the sport, Chavez Sr. would rather not see his son face the tall, lanky, heavier, and crafty opponent who will be facing on Saturday night. Fonfara, although not a household name, is memorable to many boxing fans as the guy who knocked down Adonis Stevenson in a losing bid for the lineal light-heavyweight championship. Fonfara (26-3, 15 KOs) is dangerous. As an debut fight in a heavier weight class, the matchup is undeniably gutsy. Long gone are the days of fighting blown up junior middleweights and no-hope, no-chance club fighters. With size of Junior's paychecks cemented in the seven-figure space, the opportunities to avoid quality competiton are rapidly diminishing.
But there's little doubt that he could have found a softer touch. Out for over a year, few would have likely balked if Junior had picked someone else, someone with a much better risk to reward ratio. With Al Haymon as his manager and huge demand from Mexican boxing fans, he could have found an easier fight. But Chavez Jr. hand picked Fonara. He stepped up to the plate. He decided that with 50 fights under his belt the time preparing for greatness is over. He may not be as good as his father. He may not fill a stadium with half of his father's 132,274 attendance record. But to be his own man, Chavez Jr. doesn't need to.
By winning a title, Junior and Senior became only the second Mexican father-son duo to have both won championships. Chavez Jr. is already special. Win, lose, or draw, on Saturday, that can't be taken away. But victory on Saturday is another step toward the light of glory, and a step away from the burden of legacy.
A former college wrestler, Taekwondo black-belt, and wannabe boxer, Paul Navarro (aka Fight Like Sugar) is now a full-time lawyer, part-time fight scribe, and high school wrestling coach.