(Published on Deadspin.com, May 11, 2017)
Before this past Saturday’s fight, in which his son was thoroughly dominated by Saúl “Canelo” Alvarez, Julio Chávez Sr. assured anyone who would listen that his son had changed. Chávez Jr., he insisted, no longer was the apathetic boxer who woke up for an early evening bowl of cereal while wearing pink underwear instead of getting in some early morning road work. And though many will claim in the face of such an underwhelming performance that what happened was exactly what they expected, there was reason to believe Chávez Jr. had, in fact, changed.
In February, he hired the great Nacho Beristáin—who was also Chávez Jr.’s most important and vocal critic—to train him. Under strength and conditioning coach Memo Heredia, an admitted steroid dealer who produces results, Chávez Jr. lost over 50 pounds in 9 months and got into the best shape of his life. Attempting to avoid distractions, Chávez Jr. even sequestered himself atop the Temoayan mountains in the state of Mexico, living a spartan lifestyle completely focused on training.
None of it mattered.
By the early rounds, it became uncomfortably obvious that Chávez Jr. could not beat Alvarez. Maybe five years ago—when Alvarez was 21 and went the distance against an aged Shane Mosley and Chávez Jr. was 26, an undefeated middleweight champion who mauled a good opponent in Andy Lee—the fight might have lived up to the hype. But by the fourth round on Saturday, as his right arm hugged his ribcage and refused to let it fire, it was clear Chávez Jr. had lost whatever goodwill his name afforded him.
As the middle rounds began, the once-raucous atmosphere had grown so silent that the few remaining Chávez Jr. supporters—presumably his family—could be heard yelling basic, elementary advice to their man, in case he had not heard the same coming from his trainers between each round. “Tirale Julio!”they said—Throw punches, Julio!
By the sixth round, Alvarez willingly placed himself against the ropes to tempt Chávez Jr. into engaging. Chávez Jr. threw a few punches, then retreated back to the center of the ring, where we all got a clear view of Chávez Jr.’s career—whatever was left of it—ending in catastrophic fashion.
Halfway through the ninth round, the crowd was essentially calling Chávez Jr. an asshole, with chants of “CULERO! CULERO!” replacing what not even half-an-hour earlier were those of “CHÁVEZ! CHÁVEZ!” As the round ended, Chávez Jr. sat in his corner and matter-of-factly asked if the fight was scheduled for 12 rounds. He was ready to go home.
“Tirale Julio!” they said—Throw punches, Julio!
By the end of the fight, Chávez Jr., who in the previous day looked like a wrung towel that became human after Huitzilopochtli—the Aztec god of war—breathed life into his lungs, resembled a husk of a man who had traded in a day’s worth of meals for a beating.
The promotion promised a Mexican Civil War with legitimate disdain between the boxers, but delivered a training exercise where Alvarez openly experimented with his in-fight conditioning, refusing to sit between rounds. “Whenever I spar,” he said, “I never sit down and I feel fine. I wanted to experiment with something new and truthfully, I think I felt better not sitting down. I told my corner I would not sit down until I felt it necessary and it was not necessary the whole fight.” Chávez Jr. tried the same technique, but by the second round sat down and gasped for air.
Chávez Jr. vs. Alvarez was pitched as a non-title fight for national pride (word to the WBC’s newly created, fake, decorative belt) along the lines of Jack Johnson vs. Jim Jeffries, Joe Louis vs. Max Schmeling, or even Julio César Chávez Sr. vs. Héctor Camacho. The fight was supposed to say something positive—though I am not sure what—about those of Mexican heritage, who, in the present political climate, find ourselves increasingly insecure. Not only did promoter Oscar De La Hoya invite Donald Trump to attend, but a promotional video included both boxers breaking through, presumably, Trump’s proposed border wall.
Thankfully, he did not attend. The sight of Trump would only have added to our collective disillusionment after expecting a fight that would supplant the famed 1996 bout between Oscar De La Hoya and Julio César Chávez Sr., two figures that played pivotal roles leading up to Saturday’s fight. Their history shows what was at stake—honor, pride, and a claim to Mexican authenticity, whatever that means.
The first fight, billed as “Ultimate Glory,” is arguably the biggest fight in Mexican boxing history, and one that some expected Alvarez vs. Chávez Jr. to top. The fight should have marked a transition in who would be the face of Mexican boxing. Chávez Sr., in the twilight of his career, openly talked retirement; conversely, De La Hoya was entering the prime of his career, bolstered by an uncommon popularity that brought hopes within boxing that he could become the rare crossover fighter who appealed to the casual sports fan and increased the sport’s visibility. While De La Hoya reached a rare level of popularity and fame, he also alienated many within the Mexican community who increasingly saw him as a vendido—a sell-out.
Rather than marking a changeover from Chávez Sr.’s career into De La Hoya’s, the fight exposed a divide within a Mexican community spread over two countries. It turns out that the fight was really a new form of a foundational question that has preoccupied some of the greatest Mexican and Mexican-American intellectuals: What does being Mexican mean?
There’s no fixed answer, of course, to such a subjective question. But that has not stemmed a flood of varying opinions and responses involving citizenship, class, assimilation, and—since we are talking about Mexican boxing—machismo.
By looking back at the fight, we gain a better understanding of why Alvarez vs. Chávez Jr. was important and how horribly, even tragically, Chávez Jr. failed. It was the most important fight of his career—the type that, had he won, would have made him an immortal, with songs written in his honor. But to grasp what the loss means, we must first understand what boxing means in Mexico, and that meaning is best understood through the lens of Chávez Sr. versus De La Hoya—El Gran Campeón Mexicano versus the Golden Boy.
“Child prodigy” is a term rarely applied to young boxers. The label is reserved for those with respectable talents: music, chess, mathematics, even acting. Unlike these activities, boxing is a form of violence. A true child prodigy—not just a young fighter performing amazing and sometimes pointless training exercises—evokes discomfort in those watching because they have to be profoundly skilled in violence at an early age. Some boxers have been described as prodigies, though, especially since the term evokes excitement and mystery, both of which fit perfectly in a sport as romanticized as boxing.
Oscar De La Hoya was one of these boxers, a highly decorated amateur forced to spar against professionals to get proper competition. But even that was not a given. “[De La Hoya] makes even pros look bad,” said of the owner of the East L.A. gym where De La Hoya trained. Like most stories involving prodigies, there was a father who drove and possibly forced his son’s ambitions, guiding them toward a lucrative career. This was Joel De La Hoya.
The De La Hoya family came from Durango, Mexico and they did two things: farm and box. Only the latter survived their move to the United States, a journey many have taken, lured by promises of higher pay and a shot at the American Dream. Yet many Mexicans, along with other immigrants, soon discover reaching that nebulous dream is the exception and not the norm. It was, and remains, an ideological motto of a country hesitant to acknowledge it as bullshit, in the philosophical sense of the word: not a lie, but simply phony and completely unconcerned with truth.
The American dream is all but impossible for those used as disposable, cheap labor, who are easily discarded once employers meet labor demands. And yet, fantasies are resilient, and the American Dream gets passed from one generation to the next, each hoping the latter will make all the former’s struggles worthwhile.
For Joel De La Hoya, the dream was boxing. He was certain that if he focused only on training, he could have been a contender. But with a family to support, he gave up that dream and worked in construction. Instead of potentially living a life of boxing glory, or at least realizing dreams of “big money and a beautiful American home,” he lived the hard life of a Mexican immigrant, working construction that left his “fingers split and dusty [and] muscles aching.”
Joel De La Hoya’s boxing ambitions never dissipated; they were just forced on his younger son, Oscar, who started boxing at just six years old and exhibited a rare talent. From then on, Joel De La Hoya honed his son’s talent, maybe as a way of making his own struggles stand for something.
“I gotta become champion. I gotta win every time.”
“I wanted him to be somebody,” Joel De La Hoya explained. “Not like me, working for eight to  dollars an hour. He was a little boy, but he always obeyed me—went to school then straight to the gym. No messing up. Come home and do schoolwork. No booze or girl problems.” And for the most part, Oscar De La Hoya lived up to his end of things—for the good of the family whose future, without him, seemed bleak. “If I don’t win, a lot of things would go away instantly for me,” De La Hoya said. “I know that. I gotta become champion. I gotta win every time.”
De La Hoya won—plenty—and his talent became clear to others besides his father. By the time he was 17, Julio César Chávez Sr. and his trainers sought him as a sparring partner to prepare for their 1990 fight against Meldrick Taylor.
A grainy, nine-minute video captures their encounter. The training occurred inside a Mexican restaurant in L.A.—tables and chairs pushed aside, making room for a boxing ring to fit in the middle. Between rounds, a Mexican band entertained the crowd playing two traditional Mexican songs. The first was “El Sinaloense,” a nod to the reason people were there: Sinaloa native, Mexican boxer, and national hero Julio César Chávez Sr.
The second song was “El Ausente,” which describes the optimistic homecoming of a long-absent vagabond. Returning after scouring the world in search of fulfillment, El Ausente realizes that in his travels he has lost those who loved him the most. The upbeat music can hardly drown out the somber lyrics—“Por andar en la vagancia perdí un amor que tenía”—“Living as a wanderer, I have lost the love I once had.”
Unsurprisingly, Chávez Sr., who was in the prime of his career, 10 years older, and 10 pounds heavier, got the best of their sparring, knocking De La Hoya down in the second round before both sides stopped the session. Afterwards, according to De La Hoya’s autobiography, American Son, Chávez Sr. met with De La Hoya, shook his hand and said, “You hit me with some good punches. You’re a great fighter.” The compliment boosted already sky-high confidence for De La Hoya, who represented the United States in boxing during the 1992 Olympics.
Hundreds of fans and admirers waited on his arrival at the Los Angeles International Airport as the gold medal-winning De La Hoya returned from the 1992 Barcelona summer Olympics. The crowd chanted, “Os-car, Os-car, Os-car!” and one admirer held a sign reading, “Oscar your mother must be so proud.” The sign pointed to a promise he made to his mother, who, in her last days—when De La Hoya briefly quit boxing, finding the sport meaningless with her dying of cancer—told him to be strong and win the Olympic gold medal.
When he won the gold medal, De La Hoya honored his mother and celebrated by holding the United States flag in his right hand and the Mexican flag in his left, symbolizing his country and heritage.
When he appeared at the arrival gate, fans swarmed De La Hoya and tried to touch him, kiss him, and have their pictures taken with him and the gold. Many of those who showed up at the airport accompanied De La Hoya in a celebratory caravan of hundreds of cars. They joined another large group gathered outside of De La Hoya’s home in Boyle Heights, a Mexican and Mexican-American working-class neighborhood.
That year, 1992, the neighborhood had 97 homicides, 57-percent of them gang-related. But for that night, those concerns were secondary, with the neighborhood decorated with flags, Olympic rings, and signs calling De La Hoya “the pride of East L.A.”
“He’s going to be a millionaire,” De La Hoya’s trainer said. “He’s going to be a world champ … I know that.” These words were more than just a hollow statement influenced by emotion—he spoke with a warranted optimism. All the sacrifice appeared close to paying off, not just for De La Hoya and his family, but also for the community who had shielded him. Even neighborhood gang members protected him. And the one time thieves accidentally held-up De La Hoya at gunpoint, by the time he returned home, the stolen items were at his home, returned once the robbers learned his identity from the contents of his wallet.
That year, De La Hoya served as the grand marshal for East L.A.’s Mexican Independence Day Parade. Although there is no account of how the crowd reacted to De La Hoya, it’s safe to assume they showed the same love and respect as they had a month earlier. Four years later, De La Hoya, for a second time, served as grand marshal of the same parade. But unlike the first time, by 1996 the love and respect were gone despite his having become the millionaire and world champion his trainer predicted.
Some in attendance no longer viewed De La Hoya as “the homeboy who made good, coming back to the place that had nurtured his biggest dreams,” as Latina magazine described him—evidence of his growing fame beyond the usual boxing world. Instead, as De La Hoya rode atop a new, shiny red Corvette, some threw eggs and tomatoes in his direction. De La Hoya’s biographer Tim Kawakami states that in that same parade, someone held a sign asking, “What’s Oscar doing at a Mexican parade?” Another person at the parade referred to De La Hoya as “that white guy?”
“What’s Oscar doing at a Mexican parade?”
De La Hoya could only smile and wave as he dodged the projectiles, laughing it off as best he could. The reception did not surprise De La Hoya. In fact, he expected it. “In the rest of America, they love me,” De La Hoya said. “But this little community here, something’s wrong with them.”
Several things caused the drastic change and tension between De La Hoya and his community. One of them was the growing sense that De La Hoya—the Golden Boy—had it easy, unlike those who increasingly turned on him. Kawakami expands on this perception. “[Oscar] had been handed talent, looks, and a gold medal.” And on behalf of those who rooted for him, “the least [Oscar] could do was suffer a little. To feel life the way they lived it for once.”
But life was different for De La Hoya, who became persona non grata once he unsurprisingly left the barrio. “What was the first thing he did after he came back from the Olympics?” one critic rhetorically asked. “He moved out of here and went to the Montebello hills.”
It wasn’t just his physical move that strained relations with his community. De La Hoya also distanced himself politically. He espoused assimilationist politics that furthered his alienation, refusing to even comment on California’s Prop 187, a ballot measure aimed at preventing illegal immigrants from using state services. De La Hoya did, however, take a political stand on language, stating in his autobiography, “I … believe strongly that those who immigrate to this country, regardless of where they are from, should learn English.” De La Hoya said. “This is America. The first language is English.”
Like El Ausente, De La Hoya realized it was nearly impossible to return home. No longer welcoming, home became a place where he had to defend his Mexican identity. “I found myself having argument after argument,” De La Hoya said, in his autobiography. “Always forced to defend myself. ‘Where were your kids born?’ I would say. ‘Here in East L.A.,’ they would admit. ‘So what’s the problem?’ I would ask. ‘I was born here, too. My parents are Mexican just like you.’ ‘Don’t tell me you’re Mexican,’ They would say … ‘You’re a gringo.’ ‘I’m an American,’ I would say, my voice rising. ‘What’s wrong with that? I’m the same as your kids.’ ‘That’s different,’ they would insist.”
Julio César Chávez Sr. magnified this supposed difference. And unlike De La Hoya, Chávez Sr.’s Mexican identity was beyond reproach.
Despite the common portrayal of Mexicans as recent immigrants, many trace their history back hundreds of years to the United States’ Southwest. This territory was Mexico until 1848, when it was transferred to the United States as part of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that concluded the U.S.-Mexico War. Although Mexico lost roughly half of its territory, a group of American political leaders advocated taking all of Mexico. What finally tempered this wish was not a newfound altruism, but the realization that in taking the rest of Mexico, the United States would inherit the Mexicans living there.
This was an insurmountable problem for those who saw Mexicans as a mongrelized race—a mixture of what they saw as inferior and immoral races: African, Indian, Spanish, and Moorish. Of course, the terms used to describe Mexicans were not as kind. Instead, as Arnoldo De León shows in They Called Them Greasers, Mexicans were described as “redskins,” “niggers,” and “greasers.” A mixture of all that contributed to them being called “a complete pest to humanity.”
And so the United States settled for only half of Mexico, but the question remained: What to do with the Mexicans in those lands?
Under the treaty’s article IX, Mexicans, suddenly living in a different country, had three choices. First, they could “remove” themselves and essentially resettle on the new Mexican side of the border. Second, they could stay in their homelands that were now part of the United States and claim Mexican citizenship to keep it. The third choice required no action—if within a year, they neither moved to Mexico nor claimed Mexican citizenship, the United States government would consider them citizens. Unfortunately for the many Mexicans who chose to join their new country, their new status made them citizens in name only.
For Tejanos, Californios, Nuevo Mexicanos, and other Mexicans who suddenly became United States citizens, the transition was a perilous one. Stripped of their land, legal rights, education, and for many, ability to work as more than just cheap labor, some fought back in ways common to oppressed people. Those who defended themselves, like Joaquin Murieta, Juan Cortina, and Gregorio Cortez, just to name a few, became folk heroes. And though they lived more than a century and a half ago, Mexican and Mexican Americans remember them through corridos—Mexican folk songs—retelling their exploits in fighting against oppression which, in their own way, reaffirmed Mexican national pride.
Corridos remain popular both in Mexico and among some Mexican Americans in the United States. And though their role has changed, they originally functioned as newspapers, spreading news among poor, uneducated, and often illiterate Mexicans. Corridos continue influencing Mexican culture, celebrating—even immortalizing—those who inspire Mexican pride. National pride.
This is the overwhelming difference between the places that Julio César Chávez Sr. and Oscar De La Hoya occupy within Mexican culture. De La Hoya, though one of the most financially successful boxers of all time, does not have Chávez Sr.’s social standing. And though De La Hoya’s talent is clear, Chávez Sr. is beloved in Mexico as well as among Mexicans and Mexican Americans in the United States. Suffice to say, there are several corridos written by major Mexican artists in Chávez Sr.’s honor, each noting the national pride he inspires.
There is even a corrido written about Chávez Sr.’s father Rodolfo, who, according to the song, saved Guamuchil, Sinaloa in 1974 by stopping a runaway train of burning gasoline cars before it hit the Mexican town. Whether he actually saved the town is unknown, but it doesn’t quite matter. Chávez Sr.’s list of exploits might also house a few tall tales, but they are part of the myth that made him into a folk hero, each song adding to Chávez Sr.’s aura as a strong, secure, stoic figure, which, according to one corrido, made it much more satisfying when he beat the loudmouthed Hector “Macho” Camacho. Another corrido calls him “brave and indomitable,” inspiring an unforgettable national pride.
One corrido gives a divine explanation of Chávez Sr., stating that God wanted him as a champion, and so equipped him with a great heart that kept Chávez Sr. from mistreating his rivals. These were not just stories entirely concocted by corridos. As with all myths, there were elements of truth that keep them from being entirely unbelievable.
Some corridos portray Chávez Sr. as a Robin Hood type, which was easier to believe when he gave part of his earnings to the elderly, orphans, and hospitals. His 1993 fight against Greg Haugen is all the evidence one needs to support the notion that he inspired national pride while remaining stoic.
Haugen said he did not fear Chávez Sr., claiming the latter’s then 84-0 record came against Tijuana taxi drivers. Haugen further claimed he would fight Chávez Sr. in Mexico City’s Estadio Azteca without fear since “there aren’t 130,000 Mexicans who can afford tickets.” Chávez Sr. beat him to a pulp in front of 130,000 adoring fans—a boxing attendance record. After the fight Chávez Sr. simply said Haugen deserved the punishment.
Adding to the perception that he was one of us, Chávez Sr.—unlike De La Hoya—never left where he was from. At the height of his fame, Chávez Sr. remained in Culiacán, Sinaloa, which by the mid-1990s was becoming increasingly dangerous due to drug cartels. And even if Chávez Sr. lived in the biggest house in the neighborhood—a vast difference from the boxcar he grew up in—he supported the area financially, buying and giving bags of rice and beans to the poor, feeding an estimated 5,000 people per week.
All of this goodwill—along with the powerful friends he made, like Mexican president Carlos Salinas de Gortari and members of drug cartels—served Chávez Sr. well. The admiration and distinction between Chávez Sr. and De La Hoya is clear from the receptions each received from their communities.
Even Los Angeles, the same area that once took pride in De La Hoya’s accomplishments, thoroughly embraced Chávez Sr. This acceptance was on full display when on an afternoon walk in downtown Los Angeles, Chávez Sr. strolled through what quickly became a gauntlet of arms and hands, each reaching out to touch him. Chávez Sr. basked in the recognition, smiling and affectionately yelling to the crowd.
They, in turn, responded with chants of, “Me-xi-co!, Me-xi-co!, Me-xi-co,” justifying Chávez Sr.’s nickname as El Gran Campeón Mexicano—The Great Mexican Champion.
Boxing neither prospers nor dies. It survives, in part, by manufacturing its own hope that a boxer will emerge and through charisma, skill, and proper marketing, will attract an entire country. In the process, that boxer will return the sport to the prominence it enjoyed decades ago.
This is boxing’s version of El Dorado—a tantalizing reward that justifies searching for something that is not there. (Or at least not to the extent imagined by boxers, promoters, managers, corporations, and everyone else who stands to gain financially from it.) Still, once every generation or two, a variety of factors come together and a fighter comes close to fulfilling boxing’s greatest dream.
From 1990 to 2000, the U.S. Hispanic population increased by 57.9%, with the Mexican population accounting for 58.5% of that growth. Mexicans, Mexican-Americans, and, to some extent, other Hispanics have occupied an ambiguous place within the United States’s racial hierarchy—somewhere between the white and non-white. (Or perhaps, as Laura E. Gómez, in Manifest Destinies: The Making of the Mexican American Race, has labeled them, “Off-White.”) Regardless of their racial label, the vast population increase of Hispanics attracted the interest of corporations, which attempted to appeal to them, with language serving as their marker of class.
Advertisers saw Hispanics who took in Spanish-language media as a lower-class audience and those who chose English-language media as comparatively upper-class, making Hispanics who chose English-language media a much more attractive demographic. Of course, an appeal to both the Spanish and English-speaking audience would be ideal, as it hypothetically could make white, middle-class America reachable. This became a possibility in the 1990s, as popular culture embraced Hispanics, especially in music.
Ricky Martin, Jennifer Lopez, Mark Anthony, Shakira, and Enrique Iglesias found themselves at the top of the pop charts toward the end of the 90s. Some well-established, popular artists in Latin America made the decision to record in English to capitalize on the so-called Latin Explosion. During this time, audiences rediscovered Carlos Santana, and Christina Aguilera did not even change her name while being sold as the newest teen-pop sensation. In fact, her name added to her appeal. She even recorded an album, Mi Reflejo, of essentially Spanish versions of her earlier songs, even though she only understood but did not speak the language.
Boxing was not exempt from this wave, and language became a vital component of the never-ending search for boxing’s savior. Charisma and skill remained valuable components, but with the changing demographics, marketing a boxer who was not only talented and attractive, but also bilingual, became ideal.
This is how Oscar De La Hoya became the Great Off-White Hope.
Bob Arum, De La Hoya’s promoter, claimed his fighter’s marketability and appeal would be the largest in boxing history this side of Muhammad Ali’s reign. Arum elaborated, saying of De La Hoya, “He’s bilingual … An American Olympic star carrying a Mexican flag … The demographics are right. The Hispanic market is huge and, to some degree, untapped. They’re becoming boxing’s core audience.”
At first, Arum said De La Hoya’s marketing campaign would be “totally as a Hispanic project.” But as De La Hoya’s appeal transcended the boxing and Hispanic audiences, that strategy changed. And as De La Hoya moved towards becoming a crossover fighter, he and Arum inadvertently contributed to the notion he had embraced mainstream, corporate American values, which were inherently white and middle-class.
Incidentally, this is one theory for why the Latin Explosion in music, at least in the pop charts, ultimately failed in sustaining momentum. Fans loyal to those artists before their attempted crossover felt “betrayed or abandoned” by those who sought “acceptance from Anglo-Americans.” The same is true for De La Hoya. It did not help when he explained, “I don’t fight just for Hispanics. I want to break that barrier.”
De La Hoya did break that barrier. Corporate offices and advertising agencies all wanted a piece of him. At the height of his career, De La Hoya was among the most popular and highest-paid boxers, a position usually reserved for heavyweights. Besides the large corporate backing that helped make him a public figure, De La Hoya also enjoyed a large female fan base due to his movie-star good looks and image as the “rich, lonely boy in need of mothering.”
HBO and pay-per-view executives claimed women influenced 40 percent of all De La Hoya fights ordered. His appeal and marketability were so great that HBO gave him special treatment as he was a pay-per-view franchise. Everywhere he went, large female crowds rushed to see De La Hoya, who had to hire extra bodyguards during press tours.
One newspaper account described the crowds as the “kind you see with a Brad Pitt or a Mick Jagger or even Frank Sinatra when he was king.” This comparison to two major musicians is not too far-fetched, as De La Hoya tried to hitch his wagon to the Latin explosion and had a short-lived musical career that earned him a Latin Grammy nomination.
Although De La Hoya’s popularity soared, some in the Mexican community continued to view him a sell-out. Machismo is an inextricable part of Mexican boxing, and De La Hoya’s image as a singing Latin lover, who also wanted to act, did not help his un-macho image. De La Hoya was steeped in this culture and perhaps understood this better than anyone else.
“To get their respect,” De La Hoya said of Mexican fight fans in Donald McRae’s Dark Trade, “you have to prove that you’re ready to die in the ring. They want you to be a warrior. That’s why they love Duran and Chávez—those guys have been through so many fights. They’ve proved their machismo over and over again.”
Machismo is the less philosophically refined Mexican cousin of the Nietzschean ubermensch—without the historical baggage. It is both an ideal and a stereotype. Because of its prominence in Mexican culture, trying to find what conditions birthed machismo has occupied some of the greatest Mexican and Mexican-American thinkers.
Samuel Ramos and Octavio Paz—arguably Mexico’s greatest writer—contend that machismo comes from a deep-seated inferiority complex. This inferiority leads towards “irrational imitation,” as Ramos states in Profile of Man and Culture in Mexico. Historically, the Mexican object of imitation has been Europeans, namely the French. When their imitation cannot measure up, they fall deeper into a solitude from which they cannot escape.
For Ramos the macho is most clear in the pelado—a tramp—whom he describes as a primitive man situated below the proletariat in the economic hierarchy. The pelado, understanding his social place, consoles himself by saying: “A European has science, art, technical knowledge, and so forth; we have none of them here, but … we are very manly.”
For Paz, the macho is El Gran Chingón—literally and in every sense of the word, the Great Fucker—who attempts to escape feelings of inferiority by asserting power. They are not only aggressive, but insensitive and invulnerable. Chávez Sr. was and is macho personified, a mixture of Octavio Paz’s “El Gran Chingón” and Samuel Ramos’s pelado.
When asked about his style of boxing, Chávez Sr. responded, in a similar fashion to the aforementioned Ramos quote. “Everything I have is natural,” Chávez Sr. explained, “I do everything by instinct. I am not like the ‘gringos,’ with all of their apparatus.”
“I do everything by instinct. I am not like the ‘gringos,’ with all of their apparatus.”
Chávez Sr.’s machismo was clear to his many fans, but his appeal was still confined to boxing fans. He lacked the crossover appeal De La Hoya possessed. There is, again, a linguistic component to consider.
Unlike De La Hoya, Chávez Sr. did not speak English, even though Don King insisted that learning it would increase his marketability. And while the small boxing audience recognized his greatness, there was a tragic hint of sadness to Chávez Sr.’s inability to reach audiences outside Mexico. “You don’t fight for Mexico when you are as good as Chávez,” boxing trainer, Lou Duva argued. “You fight for the world. But you can only do that by speaking to the people.”
The boxing industry recognized Chávez Sr.’s greatness while remaining hesitant on De La Hoya. They recognized the latter’s marketability and appeal to the casual boxing fan. As Donald McRae described him, “[De La Hoya] was glamorous and cordial, beautiful and talented. He was made for Letterman, for Leno, for late-night chat about the product he was pushing.” Conversely, Chavez Sr.’s inability to speak English hamstrung his potential appeal.
The Ring described Chávez Sr. as almost a cruel gift from God, who “bestowed on him such a rare blend of skills and character, gift-wrapped those blessings in a package … then delivered that package to the dirty backroads of Culiacan, Mexico, a place that is 2,000 miles away from Madison Avenue, but might as well be another planet.”
Madison Avenue spoke English, not Spanish. This is partly why corporations and casual boxing fans flocked to De La Hoya and ignored Chávez Sr. And yet, the purist sect within boxing lamented Chávez Sr.’s position, almost as if they knew Chávez Sr. was boxing’s El Dorado, a treasure ignored by the masses because few understood his words.
Boxing, more than any other sport with the possible exception of baseball, lives on its own myths. One of these legends states that Willie Pep won the third round of his 1946 fight against Jackie Graves without throwing a single punch. Instead, Pep focused on defense and frustrated Graves, whose inability to land a punch impressed the judges so much they awarded him the round. It is almost certain that winning a punch-less round did not happen; there is no primary source of it anywhere, only stories that get passed down through the years. And though there is an acknowledgement that the story likely is false, it remains part of the sport’s folklore.
Before facing Chávez Sr., De La Hoya’s trainer, Jesus “The Professor” Rivero, recommended that he study Pep’s fight films. Even by boxing standards, Rivero was an odd, enigmatic figure who disappeared for decades after guiding Miguel Angel Canto, a Mexican flyweight, to a world championship. “I love to read philosophy, politics, economics and that’s what I wanted to pursue,” Rivero said in explaining his absence. “It’s more beautiful than boxing.”
Apart from having De La Hoya study Pep, he also had him read Shakespeare, trying “to awaken him,” because more than anything, “Shakespeare understood human passion—jealousy, human ambition.” There is no in-depth explanation why Rivero would have De La Hoya read Shakespeare. Maybe he thought he could learn from his work and apply those lessons to a life that increasingly appeared to contain elements of a Shakespearean tragedy. Or, maybe not. What we do know is De La Hoya’s reaction to studying old tapes of Pep. De La Hoya, impressed, said of Pep’s style, “To hit and not be hit. That Willie Pep was a boxer.”
The boxer and the brawler are two completely different beings, united only in their mutual belief that their distinctive style is superior to the other. The boxer is a calculating, measured, and patient fighter, manipulating opponents into exposing their own flaws then pouncing. The romantic might even call them artistes. But a boxer, more than anything, is a chess player who, at his best, looks like a magician. He can, as Stanley Crouch put it in Unforgivable Blackness, “turn their opponent into an assistant in his own ass whipping.”
By contrast, brawlers do not hide their intent. Their strategy is overt aggression and violence. Confident his unrelenting attack will wilt his opponent’s desire, the brawler lacks any modicum of finesse. And even if his opposition is technically superior, the brawler knows there is only so much punishment his opponent can sustain before they either quit or abandon their patience and fall into their trap of turning the boxing match into a brawl. The brawler is an uncomfortable reminder of the sport’s savagery, and can excite the darkest emotions, making a society question how far they have evolved.
De La Hoya, thanks to Rivero’s tutelage, was a boxer whose strategy to beat Chávez Sr. relied on his intelligence. “People want to see blood and bruises,” De La Hoya said on his strategy against Chávez. “[B]ut I’m not going to give them that. I love boxing, but I hate fighting.”
Understanding he was facing Chávez Sr., the symbol of machismo in Mexican boxing, De La Hoya elaborated. “Of course, I could fight him, because I have a big heart, also. I know I can take his punches … But I also want to be known as a great boxer. I don’t want to be known as just a gladiator.”
Chávez Sr. as the gladiator, or brawler, took pride in his aggression, which left his opponent a lesser man. His style involved complete emasculation, with one opponent admitting that after fighting Chávez Sr. his body was so damaged “he couldn’t make love for weeks.” Chávez Sr. promoted his style of fighting as an expression of innate Mexican superiority in boxing, earning an even bigger following from the Mexican fanbase, while also claiming a Mexican authenticity apart from De La Hoya, who based his fighting on intelligence, not bravado.
“Mexican boxing is very aggressive; you go forward with great heart,” Chávez Sr. said, “the American style is always that you run around, you try to be elusive. The Mexican style is much better. I never tried to be elusive.”
Right before their fight was about to begin, Chávez Sr. stood there, relaxed as usual. His corner men behind him donned their familiar red headbands to ward off evil spirits, an idea a brujo had suggested when Chávez Sr. visited him years earlier after hearing an opponent had put a spell on him. De La Hoya stood in the opposite corner wearing his usual boxing trunks representing both his Mexican and American heritage, despite (as De La Hoya claimed in his autobiography) Mexican officials having threatened to sue him if he entered the ring wearing the flag on his trunks. The announcer introduced Chávez Sr. to loud crowd approval, while De La Hoya received a mixture of whistles, boos, and high-pitched cheers.
Just a minute into the fight, De La Hoya connected with what looked like a harmless jab—the most basic of punches—that opened a gash over Chávez Sr.’s left eye. Commentators noticed the cut and wrote it off as harmless. As the round continued, however, the cut became visible to the crowd as Chávez Sr.’s face gradually became covered in blood. The audience fell into a quiet, anxious state while De La Hoya used the cut as a point of aim, punching at it, opening it further with each successful connection. With a minute left in the first round, the referee stopped the fight, moved Chávez Sr. towards the neutral corner and had the ringside doctor examine the cut.
The doctor allowed the fight to continue, but as the fight continued, the cut grew progressively worse. Finally, in the fourth round, the ringside doctor stopped the fight. De La Hoya, barely a mark on his handsome face, left Chávez Sr. a bloody mess. The fight, billed as “Ultimate Glory,” was an easy victory for De La Hoya. Arum and De La Hoya assumed that Chavez Sr.’s fans would naturally start rooting for De La Hoya.
“They’ll have to love him,” Arum noted, “They won’t have anybody else.”When asked how he hoped Latino fans would treat him after beating Chávez Sr., De La Hoya stated in the in-ring post-fight interview: “I hope there are some on my side, because I want to try to be like Julio César Chávez. I want to try to be like the great champion that he is. And he will still be the great champion of the future.”
But despite Arum’s and De La Hoya’s naïve optimism, borne of a bloodless economic understanding of popularity, that acceptance never came. Chávez Sr. refused to acknowledge De La Hoya’s superiority, saying the cut originally occurred during training. Imprisoned by his own machismo, Chávez Sr. refused to either postpone the fight or give De La Hoya credit for his victory. Instead, Chávez Sr. claimed De La Hoya’s punches never hurt him, and he was not alone in making excuses as his fans also refused to accept De La Hoya.
Speaking on Chávez Sr.’s fans, an infuriated De La Hoya told Tim Kawakami in Golden Boy: The Fame, Money, and Mystery of Oscar de la Hoya, “You know, I’m learning how these people are … We call them La Raza—ignorant. They don’t know what boxing is, they don’t have the slightest idea what a boxer is. They just want to see blood and guts, and that’s all it is. I was very happy … I beat [Chávez], but I wasn’t satisfied. But I knew that ‘La Raza’ was going to say, ‘Oh, he was cut already.’”
The statement only added to the tension between De La Hoya and parts of the Latino community.
Ironically, the only route De La Hoya had to gaining respect would have been not only to lose, but to lose in a “manly” way. Since he did not, he only reinforced the existing perceptions of who each man was. De La Hoya was the calculating, scientific boxer who refused to engage Chávez Sr., the brawler. When De La Hoya’s pretty face left the fight unmarked, it confirmed the belief he could not replace a warrior like Chávez Sr., who, though he had lost, remained an idol.
Maybe Octavio Paz was right. “The Mexican,” wrote Paz in Labyrinth of Solitude, “venerates a bleeding and humiliating Christ, a Christ who has been beaten by the soldiers and condemned by the judges, because he sees in him a transfigured image of his own identity.”
Or maybe Mexican cultural critic Carlos Monsiváis’s nihilistic assessment in The Chaos Rituals has a grain of truth to it. In this case, Chávez Sr. represents the nation that was “born to lose,” burdened by the question: “How is it possible that he, an ugly Mexican, a peladito, can defeat a gringo?” If true, then Chávez Sr.’s loss was heroic, even if expected.
If true, then Chávez Sr.’s loss was heroic, even if expected.
As for De La Hoya, after the fight he and Arum continued searching for what money could not buy: respect from the people who made Chávez Sr. a demigod. “We’re going to have to get him to Mexico,” Arum stated. “We’ll meet with the Mexican president. That will help.”
It did not help.
Boxing is, above all else, violence. And as deplorable as that is for those who think our society should have advanced past a blood sport’s brutality, boxing will exist so long as there is an “other.” De La Hoya and Chávez Sr. were each other’s “other.” Each wanted what their opponent had without knowing it was impossible for them to have it.
De La Hoya yearned for the respect that Chávez Sr. had in plenty, even from De La Hoya’s family. “When I faced Chávez, the Mexican national hero, there were even times when family members … like my father was like, ‘Hey, take it easy. He’s our guy,’” De La Hoya said.
Chávez Sr., however, resented that his hard-earned respect had not brought the material benefits that De La Hoya possessed. “If I was a U.S. citizen, I’d be a bigger star,” Chávez Sr. stated in an August 1993 interview with The Ring. “No U.S. boxer has done what I’ve done.”
When neither could get what the other had, they each criticized the other for what they symbolized. For De La Hoya, Chávez Sr. proved “La Raza” was too ignorant to appreciate anything other than blood and guts—a pointless machismo.
For Chávez Sr. and those who identified with him, De La Hoya was the assimilated Mexican American who forgot who he was, becoming less “Mexican” and more gringo, a vendido who pushed the products of corporate America while making it painfully clear he differed from the people of his community. He achieved the mythical American dream and in doing so, flaunted it and its attainability in front of those who had long recognized it as false.
In the 20-plus years since De La Hoya vs. Chávez Sr., boxing has continued to trudge along, searching for a crossover star who can appeal to both the hardcore and casual fan. In the United States, the sport now relies on its large Latino fanbase. Important fights are no longer scheduled for the July 4th weekend as they were a century ago, when Jack Johnson faced Jim Jeffries in 1910 for national pride. Johnson walked into the ring while a band played the patriotic song, “All Coons Look Alike to Me.” Johnson easily disposed of Jeffries, prompting riots across the United States.
Now, more than a hundred years later, boxing’s most important fights occur during Cinco de Mayo and 16th of September holiday weekends—arguably, the two most important Mexican holidays, though the former is more popular in the United States than in Mexico.
May 5, 1862 was the first day of a three-day Battle of Puebla where an outnumbered Mexican army continuously repelled the French army. It was a stunning and unlikely victory for the Mexican side, which didn’t even have a cavalry but still forced France to retreat—something that had not happened since nearly fifty years earlier at Waterloo. Among those who most celebrated the victory were Mexicans in Western United States—California, Oregon, and Nevada.
Cinco de Mayo celebrations began in California in 1862 as a way of commemorating the improbable Mexican victory over the French. The celebrations were a way to forge unity between the “pro-democracy” population of Mexico and the United States—both of whom were in the midst of their respective civil wars. In fact, as David E. Hayes-Bautista notes in El Cinco de Mayo: An American Tradition, Mexicans fought on the Union side of the U.S. Civil War and during these Cinco de Mayo celebrations, both the Mexican and United States flags flew beside one another.
Ironically, the first Cinco de Mayo celebration occurred on June 7, 1862—a little over a month after the Battle of Puebla. The money raised during the Cinco de Mayo festivities went towards Mexico’s continuing war against the French who, welcomed by Mexico’s conservative elite, attempted to establish a monarchy in Mexico. When France occupied Mexico City, Maximillian I became the country’s emperor, ousting Mexican President Benito Juarez.
Pro-Juarez Mexicans and pro-union Americans equated the Mexican and the American civil wars as battles to protect democracy. Benito Juarez and Abraham Lincoln’s battles became intertwined, both trying to keep their democratic governments against illegitimate rule. They had a mutual enemy in France, which sympathized with the Confederacy.
Juarez and the Mexican liberals eventually triumphed over France, helped by the United States once their civil war ended. But unlike the United States, there would be no pardons within Mexico. Juarez ordered Maximilian’s execution along with Mexican generals Miguel Miramón and Tomás Mejia.
Though Cinco de Mayo celebrations continued, the connection to binational unity during the Mexican and United States civil wars faded. As generations passed and Mexican immigrants continued arriving into the United States, Cinco de Mayo celebrations evolved around their different experiences. Still, they represented a national pride in asserting one’s Mexican identity and overcoming the many obstacles that immigrants face.
Today, Cinco de Mayo is, as with most holidays, a commercialized celebration whose origins are widely unknown. Most people confuse Cinco de Mayo with Mexican Independence day. That holiday is is celebrated on the 16th of September, the other big boxing weekend when Alvarez—whom De La Hoya promotes and sees as the inheritor to his boxing success, at least from a financial standpoint—will finally face Gennady Golovkin.
For at least another generation, the high expectations of unfair and unrealistic comparisons to Chávez Sr. will burden Mexican boxers. His legacy is impossible to live up to, even if only ideologically. We can never understand the pressure that must come from being the namesake of Mexico’s greatest fighter, but it is inarguably immense.
Imagine yourself as the son of Mexican boxing royalty and “beginning” your boxing career when as a restless child, your father, El Gran Campeón Mexicano, offered neighborhood children 500 pesos to whoever could hit you. Or being the prepubescent son of a legend and fighting in a televised match against another son of a Mexican boxing great. It is not a stretch to think the pressure for Chávez Jr. was too great, and frankly, who can blame him?
The problem with Chávez Jr. is not that he was all hype. He is an accomplished fighter who, at his best, flashed skill and determination. Rather, the problem with him was that he was not an exact clone of his father, which his fans—who watch his fights with a stomach full of food, half-drunk, ignoring our failures, and with an unrealistic belief in our own toughness—hold against him.
For the foreseeable future, no great boxer, much less a merely good one like Chávez Jr., will escape Chávez Sr.’s shadow. Alvarez will not be able to either. Not even De La Hoya could overcome it, and he beat Chávez Sr. twice.
After Chávez Jr.’s disastrous showing against Alvarez, his camp immediately argued that his lack of urgency came from a body refusing to respond—a consequence of the drastic weight loss required for Chávez Jr. to meet the 164.5 weight limit. The excuse would hold more merit had this been the first time in Chávez Jr.’s career where he appeared uninterested.
In his dressing room afterward, Chávez Jr. appeared relieved—eating pizza and drinking soda—almost smiling while noting in broken English, “when you lose, nobody comes, you know. When you win, everybody.” A delusional Chávez Jr. continued to state he would fight anyone from 160 to 175, including claims of a big fight already in the works. Having reached the point where all his credibility is gone, Chávez Jr. can say anything he wants.
If it even continues, no one will ever take his career seriously again except maybe for his father, who all but gave his word that his son had more huevosthan Alvarez and continuously said before the fight that his son could lose to anyone else, but not against Alvarez. The son lost and while he lovingly played with his own daughter, the somber father offered explanations and excuses for why his son did not fight back.
Chávez Sr. knew the crushing weight of what was at stake and all that was lost.