Nov. 21, 1987: Chavez vs Rosario

No one questions the fact that Julio Cesar Chavez Sr. is an all-time great and, for me at least, the best Mexican pugilist ever, though my editor, Mr. Carbert, disagrees and has stated his reasons why. I of course respect the informed opinion of The Fight City’s fearless leader but, while Salvador Sanchez, Carlos Zarate and Ruben Olivares all have strong cases to be made for the top of the Mexican mountain, I must hail “The Lion Of Culiacan” as the greatest pugilist to ever emerge from “Tierra Azteca.” Proof? Just look at that stretch from 1984, when he won his first world title, to 1993 when he got a gift draw in his bout with fellow all-time great Pernell Whitaker. Almost a full decade of nothing but wins at the elite level, a run that holds its own with those of the all-time greats of the Golden Age, such as Henry Armstrong or Sugar Ray Robinson.

Julio Cesar Chavez

And which victories during that time when Chavez dominated the fistic landscape are most note-worthy, most demonstrative of Julio’s superiority? His points win over two-time world champ Rocky Lockridge? His battering of former champion Greg Haugen in front of the biggest crowd ever assembled at a boxing match? His thrilling, last second, come-from-behind stoppage of Meldrick Taylor? His twelve round domination of Jose Luis Ramirez? His one-sided thumping of Hector Camacho?

All significant and important, no doubt, but for me his greatest performance happened in 1987, when he moved up to lightweight and completely dominated a talented, dangerous and experienced world champion in Edwin Rosario. This was Chavez’s finest hour, his most impressive performance, the fight in which all his gifts were on clear display. He was like a master painter at the peak of his talent, the brush strokes flowing free, and the brilliant end result was nothing short of awesome, a masterpiece of pugilistic perfection.

It’s easy to look back and question the significance of Chavez vs Rosario given what we now know about “Chapo,” a boxer of immense talent and crippling power but also a man who, between fights, did not live an athlete’s life and would suffer an untimely death at only 34 years of age. The Puerto Rican prodigy was no doubt past his prime by at least a couple years when he locked up with Chavez, but that doesn’t change the fact that he represented Julio’s biggest challenge to date, both literally and figuratively.

Edwin Rosario

The pre-fight build-up was marked by some harsh words and bad blood, which is always to be expected when you have another episode in boxing’s greatest national feud, Mexico vs Puerto Rico. Chavez leveled some choice insults Rosario’s way when he accused Puerto Rican fighters of always being too cocky.  “The Puerto Ricans talk too much,” declared Chavez. “They’re always boasting, always saying, ‘I’m going to crush you, I’m going to knock you out,’ but then they can’t back it up. Rosario has a big mouth, and the people around him have big mouths.”

At a pre-fight press conference the two almost came to blows and Rosario fired his own volley, telling Chavez “I will send you back to Mexico in a box, you coward!”

Pundits were divided, some pointing out that Chavez looked to be the fresher fighter, while others made much of the fact that the Mexican was the one moving up in weight to challenge a boxer who had proven knockout power at 135 pounds. There was also the fact that while Julio’s most recent match of serious consequence was a close struggle with Juan Laporte that left many underwhelmed, Rosario’s awesome two round destruction of Livingstone Bramble was still fresh in everyone’s memory. At this particular juncture, it was difficult to say which fighter was more lethal, but it seemed reasonable to conclude that “Chapo” had an edge in both power and physical strength.

Chavez vs Rosario
Rosario, Don King and Chavez hyping the big fight.

But as we all know now, Rosario’s power was nullified before the opening bell by the fact Chavez was the proud owner of one of the sturdiest chins in boxing history. In his prime, he was rarely stung, let alone seriously hurt, his ability to take shots and keep firing back one of the keys to his amazing ring success. And as for strength, well, in fact it was the Mexican who, unlike Rosario, stayed away from the parties and the nightlife between fights and was the stronger and more rugged of the two.

That left boxing skill and hand speed as Rosario’s only weapons to offset his aggressive adversary, but as early as round one it was clear that would not be enough. The Puerto Rican attempted to keep Chavez at bay with his jab and earn his respect with his powerful right hand, but from the outset Julio showed his quarry absolutely no respect at all, walking straight to him and unleashing heavy artillery to Rosario’s body. The first two rounds were all Chavez as he continually backed the champion up and beat him to the punch. All the talk of Chavez being at a disadvantage because he was moving up in weight went right out the window.

Round three was a better one for Rosario as he matched Chavez’s pace and found more punching room, landing some wicked shots to give the challenger pause, and he rode the momentum into round four, even pinning Chavez to the ropes briefly and unloading some heavy blows. But then the challenger ruthlessly reversed the momentum, turning Rosario and forcing him to the ropes and landing one deep dish body punch after another. It was a terrific action round, but by its end Chavez had re-established control.

From that point on Chavez vs Rosario slowly devolved into a one-sided beat down. What surprised many was not only Julio’s ability to shrug off Rosario’s supposedly lethal power punches while out-muscling the supposedly bigger man, but also his technical prowess. His hands were quicker and more accurate and his jab worked to set up his vicious body attack. He also anticipated Rosario’s big right hands and consistently smothered them, denying the champion the puncher’s chance he now desperately needed. At the end of round six he began to find the target upstairs with his own right, staggering Rosario more than once.

Chavez vs Rosario
Rosario tries to battle back.

“Chapo” re-discovered his jab in round seven, throwing it with conviction and backing up Chavez but he lacked the strength and stamina to maintain the intensity and in the final minute of the round he was trapped on the ropes again and getting the painful end of the ferocious toe-to-toe exchanges. The Mexican pounded away with fury, digging viciously at the champion’s torso like it was a pinata and inside Rosario’s rib cage was the great prize that Chavez had to have.

An increasingly desperate champion was seriously hurt for the first time near the end of round eight when Chavez backed him into the corner and landed a flush one-two to the head. Stunned and now bleeding, with lumps all over his face, Rosario hung on and tried to shake off the cobwebs as Julio sought to land the one big shot that could end it. Showing tremendous courage, “Chapo” dug in and fought back, but it was clear that Chavez was methodically taking him apart, piece by piece, like a butcher doggedly chopping up an unwieldy carcass.

Chavez vs Rosario
Referee Steele takes a close look as a trapped Rosario soaks up more punishment.

Round nine saw the champion in full survival mode and staggered again at the end of the stanza by more Chavez right hands, and in round ten the Mexican picked up the pace, looking for the finish. The crowd, sensing impending doom for Rosario, began chanting ‘Cha-vez! Cha-vez! Cha-vez!’ as the Mexican warrior chased his quarry from corner to corner, hurting Edwin with every solid blow. The gallant champion never stopped battling back, but he knew better than anyone that all hope of victory was gone. At the end of round ten he was almost defenseless in the face of Julio’s unyielding attack.

Why Rosario’s corner chose to send their man out for another round of misery is anyone’s guess, but round eleven was strictly an exercise in masochism for the brave Puerto Rican. He refused to give up, refused to go down, but he was taking a terrible beating. His left eye was completely closed now and blood was seeping from his nose and mouth, but he never stopped fighting back as best he could until finally, belatedly, his corner signaled surrender and the massacre was stopped.

Chavez corners the battered and bleeding champion.

Amazingly, Chavez looked not the least bit tired, as if he had enough strength and stamina to battle on for several more rounds if necessary. Reflecting the intensity of the decades old Mexico vs Puerto Rico rivalry, he had shown Rosario no mercy, pounding him repeatedly with his best punches, but failing to send the proud champion to the canvas. It hardly mattered. From all corners of the boxing world came fulsome praise for the man many now hailed as the best boxer, pound-for-pound, in the game. His performance had been so dominant, almost without flaw, that it immediately elevated him, removing all doubts. The next true boxing legend of Mexico, following in the footsteps of Ruben Olivares, Carlos Zarate and Salvador Sanchez, had officially assumed the mantle of greatness.

As I say, for me, Chavez is the greatest of all Mexican fighters and this was his finest hour, his masterpiece, a performance to stand alongside those of the legends of the past. He took a dangerous and proud champion and he battered and humbled him, winning almost every round. For the next few years there was no question as to who was the best pressure fighter and body puncher in the game. With his demolition of Rosario, Julio Cesar Chavez marked his arrival as not just a multi-division champion, but a true latter-day great, and a legend of Mexican boxing.         — Neil Crane 

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