Patient, careful matchmaking by promoter Top Rank has enabled Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. to arrive at stardom with an unbeaten record, but one (45-0-1, 31 KOs) that does not include a major challenge. Andy Lee, a tall, highly-skilled boxer-puncher and southpaw, will present the most significant test yet for Chavez. How Chavez deals with Lee in their June 16 clash in El Paso, Texas, will go a long way toward predicting if and when he will finally crawl out from the long shadow cast by his father, Julio Cesar Chavez Sr., one of the greatest boxers in history.
Make no mistake about it. Lee (28-1, 20 KOs) is a definite step up for Chavez. So much so that some have wondered why Top Rank would even take this fight. "I don't think they had much choice," says Emanuel Steward, the Hall of Fame trainer who has conditioned Lee in Detroit's famed Kronk gym since he turned pro. "Chavez has been well protected, but they ran out of fighters. They must feel he has made enough progress to face Andy. Also, the middleweight division is not all that deep."
The biggest name in the middleweight division right now is Sergio Martinez, and there are some indications that the Argentinean might fight the winner of this bout. That the southpaw Martinez waits in the wings may partially explain why Top Rank chose to fight Lee, says his promoter, Lou DiBella. "They know that if Chavez is ever going to fight Martinez, he needs the experience," says DiBella, who also promotes Martinez. "Andy is one of the top lefty middleweights in the world."
So carefully matched has Chavez been that he has not faced a lefthander since 2007, when he took on then 20-1 Ray Sanchez. That experience with Sanchez -- who was ahead on two scorecards before getting knocked out in the sixth -- might have made Top Rank wary of pairing Chavez up with other southpaws in the future. Going into his fight with Lee, the 26-year-old Chavez has gone 12 straight fights without facing a lefty.
The 27-year-old Lee presents more problems for Chavez than just being left-handed. One is that at 6'2 ½-, Lee will be the first fighter that Chavez (6'0) has ever fought who is taller than him. "It will be up to Chavez to adjust to Andy's height," Steward says. Losing the height advantage will take away a significant part of Chavez's game. In previous fights, Chavez has consistently used his height -- and weight -- to dominate shorter, lighter fighters. He will not be able to do that against Lee.
Lee is different from the majority of Chavez's previous opponents in other ways. Most of Chavez's opponents have basically stood right in front of him, giving him an easy target. Lee, on the other hand, is a classic boxer-puncher with a strong amateur background and the movements of a skilled dancer. That means Chavez will have to constantly stalk Lee, who prefers to stick and move. Lee's swift, fluid footwork might also keep Chavez from getting inside, where the Mexican excels in much the way his father did. If Lee sticks to his game plan, and does not get caught up in a brawl - as he did in his only loss, to Brian Vera in 2008 - he should be able to negate one of Chavez's major strengths: body punching.
Because of his size, Lee could also take away Chavez's well-known weight advantage come fight night. Although Chavez has never failed to make the 160-pound middleweight limit, he often will blow up after hitting the scale and come into the ring as high as 181 pounds, as he did in his last fight against Marco Antonio Rubio. In that bout, Chavez constantly leaned on Rubio, using his weight to wear his fellow Mexican down. "He was too heavy for me," Rubio said after the fight. "It was body against body, and his weight was too much for me to handle."
After beating Rubio by unanimous decision, Chavez acknowledged his issues with weight in post-fight remarks. "I had a little problem with the weight," Chavez said. "After the seventh or eighth round, my legs were starting to feel it, and I was paying the price for just making the weight."
If Chavez's body wore down against Rubio -- who barely moved around the ring -- it will be interesting to see how his legs hold up against the slick Lee. Certainly Chavez's conditioning will be a major factor in this fight -- especially since he elected work without his usual strength and conditioning guru, Alex Ariza.
Steward feels Lee's power could be another edge. "Andy is a bigger puncher than Chavez," Steward says. "And not just to the head. Andy has knocked out six opponents with body shots." That being said, Chavez has an excellent chin, which he often needs because of his so-so defense. "Chavez is very hittable," DiBella says. "His defense is somewhat easy to get through." It is Chavez's strong chin which has allowed him to keep plowing forward, despite eating leather along the way. How his often wide-open chin will stand up to a real banger like Lee remains to be seen.
Add up the pros and cons for each fighter, and ultimately none of it will matter as much as who dictates the style of the bout. Steward wants Lee to box Chavez from the outside to use his height and reach advantage, and to avoid the Mexican's trademark kamikaze assault to the body. Chavez's handlers will be urging him to constantly apply pressure in an effort to get inside and break Lee down. "Engaging in a boxing match with Andy," DiBella says, "is not going to be Chavez's real game. He'll try and get Andy into a rumble." Either way, this fight looks to be one of the more intriguing ones at middleweight in a long time.