- Dan Rafael, ESPN Senior Writer
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LAS VEGAS -- Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. grew up around boxing, but never needed to box.
Unlike many who take up the rough sport as a way to escape poverty, Chavez was born into a life of luxury, thanks to the riches earned by his famous father, Hall of Famer Julio Cesar Chavez Sr., considered by many to be the best fighter in Mexican history.
When he turned pro in late 2003 in his hometown of Culiacan, Mexico, there was a lot of hype, but not because he was a great prospect. The hype was because of the name, not the talent. Chavez wore the red headband into the ring that his father had made famous, but that's where the similarities with his old man ended, because Junior really couldn't fight much.
Yet, here we are, nine years and a lot of careful development and hard work later. And guess what? It turned out the kid could fight.
Chavez proved a lot of people wrong along the way, passing test after test, carving out his own career even as his father's was coming to a close. He eventually claimed a middleweight world title and has defended it three times.
"To me, it is like a dream to get to this level -- a championship-level fighter," Chavez said through translator and Top Rank publicist Ricardo Jimenez. "I always dreamed about it and I knew I'd have to work really hard to get there. I knew I had it in me, I just had to work at it and figure out how to do it and I think I have."
It has led to the biggest fight of his career (and one of the biggest fights in boxing) when he meets lineal champion Sergio Martinez Saturday night (HBO PPV, 9 ET, $49.95) at the Thomas & Mack Center. All 19,186 tickets have been sold, and the arena will rock on Mexican Independence Day weekend with a heavily pro-Chavez crowd.
But the building of Chavez to get to this point was carefully constructed by his co-promoters, Bob Arum's Top Rank and Fernando Beltran's Zanfer Promotions, who took a raw boy with a famous last name and good genes and built him into a real fighter.
"The only roadblock [for the past 18 months] to getting this fight done was [Top Rank] didn't think Chavez Jr. was ready, and that was good promotion and management," said Lou DiBella, Martinez's promoter. "Chavez Jr. is now bigger. He looks like a different guy now. He's grown up. He has a size advantage over Sergio, which is why this fight is so appealing. The fight is now universally thought of as a very dangerous fight."
Chavez, 26, had no amateur background and was still a teenager when the ride began. Nobody knew it would end up here, with Chavez being one of the most significant fighters in the sport.
In fact, Chavez was not sure if boxing was what he really wanted to do, even though he had grown up around it. Watch old videos of Chavez Sr.'s fights and often you'll see his young son in the ring with him, celebrating on his shoulders after victories.
"I was not sure I wanted to be boxer at first and started working out during late 2002 and early 2003," Chavez said. "I lived in the United States in Riverside, Calif., and when I went back home to Culiacan, I went to my father's gym and told my uncles I wanted to be a boxer. We did not have an amateur program so I just jumped into the professional ranks. If I had to do it all over again, I would have started in the amateurs to learn more. It was hard being a professional without any experience and it really was difficult to learn to fight in the professional ranks. It is a lot tougher than I expected."
Chavez's family didn't want him to fight at first, but they eventually came around.
"My father made a deal with my grandmother and she said she would let me have 10 professional fights and if I lost one, that would be the end of it," he said. "I made the same deal with my father, so when I went undefeated after those 10 fights, he had no choice but to let me continue fighting, and from then on he has supported my boxing career."
For the first five years, Chavez fought extremely weak competition, except for Carlos Molina, whom he fought to a six-round draw in 2005, followed by a majority decision win in the rematch. Molina eventually became a legitimate junior middleweight contender.
Chavez's matchmakers, Bruce Trampler and Brad Goodman for Top Rank and Sean Gibbons for Zanfer, were extremely careful about whom they would match him with. Arum described the process of building Chavez as "slow and purposeful."
For all of the fighters that Top Rank has built over the years, including stars such as Oscar De La Hoya, Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Miguel Cotto, Arum believes the job his matchmakers have done with Chavez might be their best work. Those three were Olympians with strong amateur careers.
"We have never taken a guy who had so little background in boxing and developed him to this point. Never," Arum said. "Obviously, the people we were dealing with had stellar amateur careers. They knew how to fight when they turned pro. Chavez didn't know how to fight. That I could see."
But as Chavez gained experience, he also saw his fan support from the Mexicans grow to the point where Arum began to build small pay-per-view shows around him. They weren't blockbusters, but the "Latin Fury" cards made modest profits and helped Chavez gain exposure and experience. Still, Arum was unsure of what he had.
"I never felt it was up to me to make that judgment about his ability," Arum said. "I relied completely on Trampler and Brad Goodman. And they were originally his biggest boosters. Everybody was demeaning the kid both in the press and also in my own company. But they were, I must say, forthright in the fact that the kid had enormous innate ability. That was enough for me. I'm a businessman and a promoter and I knew that if that ability could come to the fore, that we'd have something very, very valuable."
Arum said it wasn't until Chavez's 35th fight that there was a strong feeling he might truly develop. He was matched with Ray Sanchez, who was 20-1 and had been an excellent amateur. The fight was a step up for Chavez, and he blew Sanchez out in six rounds. In his next fight, Chavez needed eight rounds to stop Jose Celaya, who was 31-3 and also had been a stellar amateur.
"[Goodman and Tramper] thought that was a big step, the Sanchez fight," Arum said. "They thought Celaya was a big step. There were steps up and some steps back, but we saw him coming along."
One step back came in November 2009, when Chavez outpointed Troy Rowland on the Manny Pacquiao-Cotto undercard, but tested positive for a banned substance and was suspended by the Nevada State Athletic Commission.
Soon came one of the final pieces of the puzzle: Chavez's decision to hire trainer Freddie Roach. Their first fight together came against John Duddy, which Chavez won in surprisingly easy fashion in a performance that began to soften even his biggest skeptics.
Two fights later, in June 2011, Chavez won a majority decision in his HBO debut against Sebastian Zbik at Staples Center in Los Angeles to claim a middleweight world title, which previously had been stripped from Martinez and handed to interim titlist Zbik. Chavez said he never spent time dwelling on those who said he was just a hyped-up fighter living off his father's name, or on any particular fight where he thought he may have proved them wrong, but the Zbik fight was big for him.
"I just worked hard and everything just kept coming and getting better and better," Chavez said. "I didn't think about it. I just keep working and working and that's how I got here. But there I think there are always doubts in your mind, no matter what the fight is or how you win. I think that when I won the world championship, when I won that fight against Zbik, I felt really good about myself and that I was doing the right things."
Three dominant defenses later against Peter Manfredo Jr., Marco Antonio Rubio and Andy Lee propelled him into the fight with Martinez, one of the world's best pound-for-pound fighters. But it wasn't until Chavez, after a slow start, wiped out Lee via seventh-round knockout in June that Top Rank truly considered making the fight, even though Martinez had been campaigning for the better part of a year as fans and media were beginning to get antsy.
"Everybody has been raising questions about why Julio didn't fight Martinez before," Arum said. "One of the reasons was he was learning his trade and now he's a lot better prepared. We could have taken a chance with him and Martinez about a year ago. The problem would have been it would not have been nearly as big a fight. He's better prepared and it's a win-win for everybody. With the possible exception of Martinez, it is a win-win, but it's a win for him, too, because he will get a bigger purse [a minimum $1.4 million to Chavez's minimum $3 million]."
Nobody pushes Top Rank into making a fight until it believes its guy is ready, and the matchmakers deemed Chavez ready after the Lee fight.
"First, we didn't know if he could fight against a left-hander," Arum said. "It's one thing to handle an orthodox fighter. It's another thing to learn how to fight a left-hander. But Julio demonstrated to us in the Andy Lee fight that he could. There was no way we would ever think of making a Martinez fight unless he had the performance he had against Andy Lee. Simple as that. There is no friggin' way, because otherwise we could very well have been leading him to slaughter.
"I feel it's very, very competitive. I feel we have a great shot to win. I'm confident in Julio. Could he lose? Of course, Sergio's a great fighter. But at least we're in there competitively where our guys think he has the skill set to beat Martinez."
Roach, whose opinion is also key, agreed.
"Handling the southpaw stance of Andy Lee was, I think, a big thing," Roach said. "He hadn't had a lot of experience with southpaws and he fought that fight great. After that fight we knew it was time to step up. We knew Martinez was a southpaw. We know how to fight a southpaw now and his father and I have been coming up with a game plan."
Chavez (46-0-1, 32 KOs) said he wanted to take on Martinez (49-2-2, 28 KOs) sooner, but left the decision in the hands of those who helped get him this far.
"I always wanted to fight him," Chavez said. "When I won the title, I knew I was going to have to fight him and I wanted to fight him whenever he was ready. My promoter told me after my fight in El Paso [against Lee] that the fight was done and I was very happy. The people want to see it and I want to fight it. I am about the people and to give the people the best fights in boxing. That's why this fight is happening now."
It is also happening because Chavez and his team believe he is ready after that long developmental road.
"I think they saw the dedication and the preparation that I had in the past year," Chavez said. "I noticed improvement and I feel very confident in what I can accomplish. I know how hard it has been working day after day to get to this point and I'm not going to disappoint anyone."