For pride and for money, Julio Cesar Chavez has come here, maybe for the last time, to fulfill a final promise:
He will not go quietly into the darkening twilight of his career, even if his time seems up and even if Chavez himself concedes that his opponent seems to outmatch him in almost every aspect of the sport.
“Win or lose, this is going to be one of the greatest fights,” said Chavez, who will earn the largest purse of his 16-year career--a guaranteed $9 million. “If I were to lose, I wouldn’t be frustrated. Even if I lose, I’m going to be very, very proud of this.”
For Oscar De La Hoya, who is scheduled to earn a guaranteed $8.85 million to challenge for Chavez’s World Boxing Council super-lightweight title, there are other goals tonight, as the two vastly contrasting fighters finally meet in the Caesars Palace outdoor arena.
A decade younger and four inches taller, De La Hoya, 23, senses that a dramatic victory in what is being billed as the biggest Latino fight in history could herald the dawning of his own era in boxing.
The issues for De La Hoya are not age and money, but nerves and experience: Will he be intimidated by the moment, or be sucked into an unwise brawl by the frenzy of the pro-Chavez crowd? Will he be confused by the veteran’s guile, in the way Marvelous Marvin Hagler was upended by the aging Sugar Ray Leonard in the same ring nine years ago?
“He’s a fighter who will never give up and will do anything to win the fight,” De La Hoya said of Chavez. “I will be a smart boxer up in the ring. . . . Of course, I could fight him, because I have a big heart, also. I know I can take his punches.
“But I also want to be known as a great boxer. I don’t want to be known as just a gladiator.”
Others have wounded Chavez (97-1-1, 79 knockouts), and Frankie Randall is the only man to have put him on the canvas and beaten him. But only 22 fights into his professional career, De La Hoya (21-0, 19 KOs) is aiming to be the first man to stop Chavez.
“Chavez has never been up against a fighter who hits very hard and at the same time is a fast fighter,” said De La Hoya, who is making his second fight at the 140-pound limit, after winning titles at 130 and 135. “I’m going to be very aware up in that ring, throw flurries of punches.
“The power’s there, the speed is there, the strategies are perfect right now. So it’s kind of hard to say that he presents me with a lot of dangers right now.”
The casual confidence is not without logic:
--Chavez, who weighed in at 139 pounds Thursday afternoon, the same as De La Hoya, hasn’t beaten a top-flight fighter since March 1990, when he survived 11 1/2 rounds of battering to pull off a controversial knockout victory over Meldrick Taylor with two seconds left in the fight.
--He was outclassed by Pernell Whitaker in September 1993, but was given a gift draw when the judges disagreed with almost everyone else who saw Whitaker embarrass Chavez with his mobility.
--He was bombarded by Randall twice (though he was given a controversial technical-decision victory in the May 1994 rematch) and was hammered hard by journeyman David Kamau in a tough decision victory only nine months ago.
De La Hoya, under the guidance of new trainer Jesus Rivero, has developed a quick-bending, side-to-side style that, in part, was designed a year ago thinking about this fight.
“Frankie Randall had a perfect game plan for Chavez, but he didn’t have the power to stop Chavez,” De La Hoya said. “A fighter who stays in front of Chavez and tries to stop him, that’ll stop him in his tracks.”
But, bucking assumptions that he took this fight only for the quick cash--he and promoter Don King are entangled in legal action over his contract and $1.35 million of disputed money--Chavez clearly is in excellent shape for a fight he acknowledges could be his toughest.
Chavez is 31-1-1 in world title fights and says he has trained to become faster in preparation for this bout.
“Chavez has had 99 fights, and now he’s faster?” De La Hoya said. “What does that mean? Is he trying to psych me out or something? Chavez says he’s in the best shape of his life.
“That’s good. I don’t want there to be any excuses.”
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De La Hoya vs. Chavez
“It depends on what shape Chavez is in. If he’s in great shape, I see a long fight that could go either way. But if he’s not in shape, Oscar will win.”