Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. is, by the most literal of definitions, another Julio Cesar Chavez.
But in the more figurative sense, he ain't no Julio Cesar Chavez.
And nobody ever really expected him to be.
Junior turned pro at age 17 as a big-name novelty, selling tickets and headlining minor pay-per-views on the strength of that name that his Hall of Fame father established. Now, nearing his 26th birthday, Junior is still a big-name novelty. It's just that the balance between those two defining terms has shifted. There's only the slightest hint of novelty remaining, and he's become one of the biggest names in boxing partially on the strength of what he - not his father - has done.
It's a fine line between being blessed with opportunity and being burdened with expectations, and Chavez Jr. has straddled both sides of that line his entire career.
With Mexican and Mexican-American fans, his name resonates as loudly these days as any other fighter's, including legends who've been fighting professionally for 20 years like Juan Manuel Marquez and Erik Morales. Chavez is making more money than a fighter with his in-ring resume should ever be entitled to.
But he also takes heat from the fans and the media at every turn. Even though nobody believes he's ready to be competitive with lineal middleweight champion of the world Sergio Martinez, Chavez is being accused of "ducking" Martinez. Promotional company Top Rank has moved Chavez masterfully, yet they've been criticized, essentially for not throwing him to the wolves. It doesn't make rational sense. And yet, on an emotional level, the Chavez backlash is perfectly understandable. Only those who've benefited from nepotism are pro-nepotism; everyone else has a burning urge to find out if the son also rises.
"If a public figure is using a name to appeal to the public, then all's fair," says HBO expert analyst Larry Merchant. "Chances are that Chavez is going to get more attention and make more money than an athlete who doesn't have that running start to a career, and with that comes that scrutiny. There is perhaps unfair pressure to perform, but it's an opportunity, and the question becomes, does he seize the opportunity? Does he have the stuff? History is filled with sons of famous prize fighters who did not become famous prize fighters. It's a really hard thing to do. But you get compensated in a way an ordinary young fighter might not."
Dubious as nearly every observer was of Julio Jr.'s fighting authenticity during his teens and early 20s, in the last couple of years he's reached a level very few children of superstar boxers have ever achieved. The only fighter from recent years who compares, odd though the comparison might be, is Laila Ali. The sons of everyone from Thomas Hearns to Aaron Pryor to Marcel Cerdan never got beyond the club-fighter level. It could even be argued that Chavez Jr. has already achieved more than Marvis Frazier, who once challenged for the heavyweight championship of the world.
Chavez's road to respect began with his comprehensive points victory over John Duddy in June 2010. He narrowly defeated Sebastian Zbik to claim an alphabet belt in his HBO debut one year later, and then he added a name to his resume last November with a dominant fifth-round knockout of Peter Manfredo Jr.
On February 4 at the Alamodome in San Antonio, Chavez faces his most proven, and quite possibly his most dangerous, opponent yet. Marco Antonio Rubio marks a real threat, having won 19 of his last 20 fights, the lone defeat coming against then-middleweight champion Kelly Pavlik in 2009. Among those 19 victims were Jose Luis Zertuche, Enrique Ornelas, Rigoberto Alvarez, and previously unbeaten stud prospect David Lemieux.
"Rubio is perhaps the toughest fighter that I've ever faced," Chavez told BoxingScene.com's Salvador Rodriguez in January. "I can not take anything for granted against him, but I have a special motivation to prove to everyone why I am the champion, and what better than doing this with a knockout?"
Knocking out Rubio won't make Chavez "the champion" - it will simply allow him to keep his particular version of the belt that was stripped from Martinez - but he's right that a KO victory would make a statement. And he's not the only one talking about ending the fight early.
"I will go for everything from the moment the bell rings. I want to knock Chavez Jr. out," Rubio said at the press conference announcing the fight. "I don't want to leave the decision to the judges and wait for a wrong decision."
As Zbik (and a few others earlier in Chavez's career) learned, it isn't easy to win a close points verdict over the undefeated drawing card. And if Chavez keeps progressing under trainer Freddie Roach, it's only going to get harder to find a way to beat him.
"It looks like Chavez Jr. is taking it seriously now, he's matured," observes Merchant. "He's added some tactical weapons to his arsenal, and he's left the impression out there right now that, well, maybe he is a serious fighter. He comes across as being a little bit more comfortable in his skin as the son of a legendary figure."
If Chavez passes this test against Rubio, it won't make him a legend overnight, but it might set him up for the sort of fight that would. Names like Martinez, Miguel Cotto, and Saul "Canelo" Alvarez are being bandied about, and while there are reasons to doubt that any of those will happen, there's also the chance that 2012 is the year when everyone on Team Chavez decides it's time for Junior to shed his "novelty" label once and for all.
How he looks against Rubio will go a long way toward determining what level of risk Chavez faces next. If Chavez wins in fine fashion, then his reputation is bolstered ... and the burden of expectation increases right along with it. That's the way it goes when you're the son of a legend.
HBO WCB - Feb 4, 2012
Nonito Donaire vs. Wilfredo Vazquez, Jr.