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SAN ANTONIO -- On Saturday, Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. returned to the scene of his legendary father's first professional blemish -- an infamous draw to Pernell Whitaker at the Alamodome more than 18 years earlier. He was there perhaps to defend his family name, but also a middleweight title belt in seemingly his first strenuous test, against deserving contender Marco Antonio Rubio. Joining them on the card was Nonito Donaire, a former multidivision champion aiming for another belt in his first bout at junior featherweight, something of a grudge match against Wilfredo Vazquez Jr. Here's what we learned from one night in San Antonio:
1. Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. is a real fighter ...
Not for the first time in recent bouts, Chavez showed that when the chips are down and he has to suck it up, dig in and fight, he can do just that. Rubio was advertised as potentially his toughest foe yet, and so he proved, refusing to give any quarter even as Chavez walked him down and dug into his body with hard hooks. In fact, Rubio was landing what appeared to be the higher percentage of punches as Chavez loaded up for big combinations. But Chavez kept coming, and the final two rounds had the crowd on its feet as the two men exchanged hellacious blows, each looking to provide a definitive conclusion to the contest.
2. ... But he probably isn't a real good one
At the same time, Rubio isn't exactly a top-drawer talent. Yes, he stopped David Lemieux, but in hindsight, Lemieux was likely overrated. Rubio was flattened inside a round by Kofi Jantuah and was brutalized by Kelly Pavlik in the only fight in which Pavlik has looked half-decent in years. He showed little, if any, originality in his attack, yet Chavez was unable to nullify it. Similarly, two fights ago, Chavez went tooth-and-nail with an opponent (Sebastian Zbik) whom HBO once dubbed too poor to broadcast in a middleweight title fight.
Chavez has shown some genuine signs of improvement since connecting with trainer Freddie Roach. But there are also signs that the improvement may be plateauing. Of course, adding 20 pounds after the weigh-in couldn't have helped; if Chavez is to develop into anything more than an entertaining battler, he needs to dedicate himself a lot more to his gym work and road work, and stay away from bars during training camp. That may not be enough -- what you see may simply be what you get -- but it won't hurt.
3. Nonito Donaire has become dominant and disappointing
A year ago, Donaire blasted out Fernando Montiel in the knockout of the year, and there appeared to be no ceiling to his potential. But his two outings since then, although clear victories, have been underwhelming. In both cases there were extenuating circumstances: Omar Narvaez didn't try to fight, while Wilfredo Vazquez Jr. at times also seemed content to hide behind a tight defense, at least until Donaire apparently broke his left hand. But, notwithstanding the fact that Donaire was a clear, and mostly one-handed, winner over a good young opponent (even though one judge, maintaining the tradition of criminally bad Alamodome scorecards, somehow contrived to score the contest for Vazquez), the victory felt unsatisfying.
Part of the problem is that "The Filipino Flash" showed signs on Saturday of regressing into a home run hitter, looking to please the crowd with spectacular bombs thrown from all angles. That's all well and good, but when faced with a patient foe such as Vazquez, some basic jabbing and hooking might have served Donaire well, and perhaps helped to break his opponent down.
There's no need to panic: The train hasn't left Donaire's station. But it's warming up, and some disgruntled fans likely are starting to climb aboard. A trip back to basics would serve Donaire well if he is to reclaim and consolidate his place alongside Andre Ward as the best under-30 boxer in the world.
4. Vanes Martirosyan needs to step it up
Martirosyan is an engaging guy and a genuine talent, but in his 32nd professional contest, he needs to be facing opposition far more demanding than the utterly outmatched Troy Lowry, whom he beat up for three rounds on Saturday's undercard. Martirosyan is good at calling out opponents (after dispatching Lowry, he mentioned Mexico's Saul Alvarez), but whether because of him, his management or his promoter, he hasn't followed that up with much in the way of actual, credible tests in the ring. It's time for him to be matched in a meaningful contest against a real opponent, if only to see exactly what he can bring to the table.
5. HBO Boxing is off to a better start in 2012 than 2011
HBO's kickoff bout last year seemed, on paper, a solid one: a clash between undefeated junior welterweight titlists Timothy Bradley Jr. and Devon Alexander. But the fight was a stinker, and the venue -- the cavernous Pontiac Silverdome -- was even worse, and not even close to being filled. By contrast, although Saturday night's fights might not have had the same theoretical significance, they were far more entertaining. Meanwhile, the Alamodome was smartly configured for 15,000 people -- and close to that many showed up, providing an enthusiastic crowd that roared at seemingly every punch. All told, it was a far more positive start to the year.