By Hamilton Nolan
Is Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. a good fighter?
In one sense, the question seems preposterous. He's 43-0 with 30 knockouts at the age of 25. His genetic pedigree, as evidenced by that name, is as good as it gets. He's trained by Freddie Roach, the best in the business - who, as a rule, does not train bad fighters. And, perhaps most pertinent to the big shiny TV fight at hand, he is, for lack of a better comparison, the Justin Bieber of Mexican boxing. The man has fans. There's no denying that.
Perhaps because Justin Bieber does not call to mind a vision of fury personified, Chavez Jr. also has plenty of detractors. If he were named "Julio Cesar Jones the first" this would not be the case, but then again, if that were his name he would be a relatively anonymous middleweight slowly trudging up the ladder, rather than a multimillionaire boxing rock star. Might as well get the knocks on Chavez right out in the open: he hasn't fought anyone good! (Not true.) He's slow! (Well. Let's say average, for a middleweight.) He has no power (edging a bit closer to truth territory) and he does not fight with the fire of his father, meaning many of his fights end up as long, colorless slogs against overmatched opponents that Chavez doesn't bother to put away decisively, because he doesn't have to. (Of this, he has at times been indisputably guilty.)
In his last three fights, Chavez has won decisions over John Duddy, Billy Lyell, and Sebastian Zbik. None of those three men are A-level fighters, but none of them are bums, either; they're all solid B to B-plus fighters capable of putting any A-level fighter who takes them lightly on the floor. Chavez even looked, we daresay, dominating against Duddy, who retired after that fight. Chavez is not a powerful puncher, but he is an accurate one. He's long-limbed, loose and rangy, and he uses his reach well. He's also methodical, not easily flustered and capable of fighting on the inside if called upon to do so.
But is he a real A-level fighter? There's a difference between a star and a champion, and in boxing, the truth will always play out, eventually. Peter Manfredo Jr., much like Chavez's last few opponents, is a solid but not top-flight middleweight who can reliably be counted upon to give a hard fight to just about anyone, but not to beat the division's best fighters. Manfredo has beaten Matt Vanda and Alfonso Gomez, but lost to Sergio Mora and Sakio Bika, which is enough information to tell a boxing fan everything they need to know. Though he's a definitely workmanlike puncher, Manfredo (37-6, 20 KOs) certainly can punch - in a far more dangerous fashion than Chavez, it could be argued. But what Manfredo really has going for him is his fire. He's the "Pride of Providence," and he behaves in the ring exactly how someone with "Pride of" in his nickname should. He fights passionately, straight ahead, never backwards, and while for some fighters that's just code for "he's dumb," in Manfredo's case it's a true asset. He has won many fights by displaying more grit than his opponent. And he's about to fight a man whose grit is perpetually in question.
For all of the advantages he's been given in boxing, Chavez now finds himself in a rather tight spot. To be taken seriously by the boxing cognoscenti (as opposed to the fans who will love him no matter his level of competition), Chavez must defeat Manfredo decisively. Then he must proceed to decisively defeat yet another top-10 middleweight - and a glance at the rankings shows few if any fighters in that category who would be considered real, solid underdogs to Chavez. What the Mexican golden boy is building up to must be either a Mexican super-fight with fellow national hero Canelo Alvarez (a fight in which Alvarez would be a distinct favorite), or a middleweight championship fight against pound-for-pounder Sergio Martinez (a fight for which Chavez is euphemistically "not ready," in the same sense that a human is "not ready" to fight a grizzly bear).
On November 19, Peter Manfredo Jr. must work his way close enough to his opponent to crack him with one of those looping, clubbing right hands, and prove through sheer power that Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. is a false idol. For Manfredo - riding a streak of six straight impressive victories, but now in his 30s-- this could be his last true chance to open the door to more big money middleweight fights. Chavez, to win, must move his feet and stick Manfredo with enough of those snappy straight punches to prove that Manfredo, beneath his whole bull-on-speed routine, is not first class material. Chavez, in fact, has the harder task. Manfredo just needs to land one good punch. Chavez needs to dismantle the Pride of Providence, step on his head as a climbing stone to greatness, and go on to even tougher challenges, all while protecting his most valuable asset: his pretty face.