In fighting the unbeaten champion Sebastian Zbik (30-0, 10 KOs) on June 4 at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, Chavez has a chance to not only show he belongs in the ring with a quality fighter, but is deserving of a big money fight in the fall against Miguel Cotto. The pressure on Chavez (42-0-1, 30 KOs) couldn't be higher.
"I don't know if there have been many sons of great fighters who equaled their fathers," says HBO analyst Larry Merchant. "They're always compared against their father's very high standard, and that is difficult to live up to. Most of the fathers overcame extreme poverty and had a certain kind of hardness because of that. Sons had it a lot easier growing up, and even though they lived in the gym, they didn't have that kind of hardness inside. They're able to get to a certain level, able to make some money, but the question remains, will the son also rise?"
Zbik clearly is the best fighter Chavez has faced so far. Since turning pro at 17 after a brief amateur career, Chavez has been getting on-the-job training, working through a long succession of fighters with just a marginal chance at beating him. The only opponent resembling a step up was John Duddy, against whom he won a unanimous decision last year in what was far from a breakout fight. Despite having a solid 29-1 record at the time, Duddy was always something of an overhyped journeyman, and this year he announced his retirement.
"Chavez is a protected fighter," Merchant says. "Whether he is good enough to compete at the highest level remains to be seen. Zbik is better than the boxers Chavez has fought so far. Top Rank (his promoter) must think that fighting before a favorable home crowd against a guy without a lot of power will give him a good chance to win. Top Rank evidently has decided to find out if he is going to be a fighter, if he belongs at the prime time level."
Whether Zbik represents prime time is open to debate. The German's competition has been only slightly better than Chavez's, and all of his fights have been in his native country. Zbik's last five opponents had a combined record of 128-7, two were undefeated, but none would be considered upper echelon. What Zbik does have going for him is polish and skill, with an extensive amateur background and a solid defense. He moves around the ring more like an American than a typical stand-up European, has fast hands, a crisp jab and good chin. Perhaps most importantly, he is a precision puncher who wastes few shots and rarely leaves himself open for counter punches. That could prove to be a problem for Chavez, whose defense remains suspect, even after a year under new trainer Freddie Roach.
In some ways, the 25-year-old Chavez has yet to develop a coherent and constant style. Where his father was known for his relentless aggression, Chavez Jr. seems still to be figuring out just what kind of fighter he is. In some ways, that makes him the perfect lab rat for Roach, who took a very good Manny Pacquiao and turned him in a great fighter and future Hall of Famer. "I can't say what kind of effect Roach will have, but the fact that he took him on must mean he thought he has some possibilities," Merchant says. "And also it's a good pay day for Freddie. Interesting enough, Chavez is his father's son but doesn't fight like his father. Earlier in his career there were times he fought too much like his father, and people felt that wasn't a good style for him, given his physical differences. He needed to fight a style that was more suited to him."
Chavez and Roach apparently are in the process of developing one based on his physicality. Whereas his dad was only 5-7 ½ with a 66-inch reach, Chavez is six feet with arms seven inches longer. He is a tall, lanky kid with a boyish face, and likes to box from the outside and counterpunch. What may have hampered his development was his failure until recently to find a division he felt comfortable at and didn't have to struggle to make weight. His first 35 fights were at lightweight and junior welterweight, his next six at junior middleweight, and now he has fought his last three at 160.
Zbik is something of an audition for Chavez, with Cotto scheduled to be at ringside. "The boxing talk is if the kid wins, they'll put him in with Cotto, another fight between a Mexican and Puerto Rican, a tradition with a lot of history that should generate serious bucks," Merchant said. "Before they can put him in with Cotto, in order to be credible he has to fight somebody like Zbik, who at the least is credible." Zbik is also auditioning, with an eye on making his mark in the U.S. His stated goal is to land a fight with Sergio Martinez, and beating Chavez would be the first step toward that showdown.