He Broke Bones
In the last half of 1985 I had the biggest fights of my career. Three in a row, just like a nasty combination. In July, I got an offer to fill in against some unknown guy on a show telecast on ESPN from Resorts International in Atlantic City. His name was Greg Haugen. My manager, Larry Young, pronounced his name Hogan, just like the Hulkster. I don’t think his name was mispronounced very much in the years following our match. I lost an eight-round decision but didn’t show too badly for an overnight call. In September I got four whole weeks of training and got in pretty good shape for a bout with Vinny Pazienza at Harrah’s, also in Atlantic City. What a whirlwind that guy was. A great guy personally, too. I came away with a fractured collarbone in that one, and lost the ten-round decision. I was taken to Atlantic City Med Center that night where I tried to hit on the pretty little radiologist taking x-rays of my cracked collarbone, but then I got the dry heaves and came up short on that decision, too.
After I had tossed out that little brace that you get to wear around your chest to “traction” your collarbone, I went back to the gym in late October and started trying to get back into shape. Darn good thing, too. In mid-November, I got the phone call of a lifetime—an offer to fight the WBC super featherweight champion of the world, Julio Cesar Chavez, in a non-title fight. Seems he wanted to test the waters at lightweight. I would have cut off a body part to make the 130-pound super featherweight limit to get this fight but the weight was set for 135 pounds. Despite the fact that I had lost my last two fights and the title would not be at stake, I was still getting a chance to cross gloves with a world champion. December 19, 1985.
At this stage of his career Chavez wasn’t legendary, at least not outside of Los Angeles and Mexico. You could easily say he was pounding on the door of legendary, but mainstream America’s only real look at Julio had been his 2nd round blowout of Roger Mayweather the previous July. I was only 22 years old and to be extremely blunt, it’s probably a good thing that the event was much more than I could wrap my young mind around. But his stats alone were impressive enough: 45 wins—42 inside the distance—and no losses, with four of his victories coming in world title bouts. At the time I had 20 wins, 3 losses with 14 kayos. My biggest win had been in February of that same year over an undefeated fighter named Danny Ferris from Latham, New York by fourth round TKO. Comparing those stats for very long would not have been good for my self-confidence.
After I got my boss to agree to let me take a month-long vacation from work to prepare for Chavez, he asked me if I thought I could win. It took awhile to answer him. My mind flashed back to being fifteen years old with posters of Roberto Duran, Danny “Little Red” Lopez, and Rocky Marciano on my wall. I thought about watching Larry Holmes and Ken Norton battle for fifteen rounds in 1978, with the final round being the best one, and how it had almost moved me to tears. I thought about walking out the door the next morning at 6 a.m. and putting in my first mile of roadwork, the first of thousands. I thought about the day I found a boxing gym close to my hometown and walked in and smelled the heavy bags and the gloves and the dust and thought that this is all I ever wanted to be, a fighter. And now I was going to get a chance to mix it up with a world champion.
I looked at my boss, and said, “Yes, I can do this. It’s all I’ve ever wanted.”
Since Larry and I had seen Chavez and his love for a left hook to the liver, we decided upon further review that my normal body strengthening routine would not be enough. For this fight we decided physical torture followed by excruciating physical torture would be best. 200 sit-ups every night. Not regular sit ups and not taking a break, either. I would sit up with hands on my head and elbow-touch both of my bent knees twice each. Sit up, left-right, left-right, back down. Then we went to medicine ball work in conjunction with leg lifts. I’m just grateful that Larry couldn’t locate some medieval weaponry like a mace or something. After a month of that I thought you could shoot me and the bullet would bounce off. Of course I was only 22. In the end it turned out to be adequate. Barely. I ran five miles, but not the regular way. I would sprint the length from one telephone pole to the other then jog the next length. I would guesstimate that they were about a tenth of a mile apart, maybe a hair farther. Five miles of that. I sparred ten rounds a night with my friend Harold Brazier from South Bend. He was always there for me and later on in his career I was able to be there for him when he had big fights.
All this is a roundabout way of saying that pretty much every waking minute in December of 1985 was concentrated upon one thing: a fight with Julio Cesar Chavez. The whole month was a blur. I can’t remember too many details of it. Before I knew it, I was in Chicago at O’Hare with a wind chill of -12F and boarding a jet headed to sunny California. When the plane landed at LAX it was 85F. I took a deep refreshing breath of warm California air and announced, “I’m stayin’.”
The promotion company had sent a driver out and he was waiting at the gate with a bored face and a sign. My name was spelled wrong of course. We hopped in and headed over to the hotel. It was a Best Western on Figueroa Blvd, and just as we pulled up, who should walk out the front door but Julio Cesar himself. Out of the corner of my mouth, like it was a big secret, I said, “That’s him.” There were three guys with him and the driver stopped at the curbside to call out to “El Campeone!” Validated now, I turned to my manager and said, “Told ya!”
Later on that day I was treated to a workout at the legendary Main St. Gym. There was a wall that had been signed by famous fighters who had worked out there and the locals told me it was a tradition for a fighter to sign the wall board even if he was never a world champ and was only going to be in LA for a week. I read all the names on the wall, and it was a boxing historian’s paradise. I was like a kid at Christmas. I found the signature of one of my boyhood idols, Smokin’ Joe Frazier, and got my own as close as I could to his. (Anybody muttering under his breath that was as close to Smokin’ Joe as I was gonna get, you have no argument from me). I still had a workout to go through but I remember very little of it. My imagination was alive, seeing the spirit image of Ruben Olivares shadow boxing, Danny Lopez hitting the same heavy bag that I was hitting, on and on. Eventually I was called over to shake someone’s hand. It was Bennie Georgino, Lopez’s manager. It was all I could do to act professionally and not grovel but I think I still gushed about how the renowned Danny Lopez had affected my life and was one of the reasons I was standing there at that moment. He introduced me to the great bantamweight champ Lupe Pintor, whose eyes seemed to be asking Bennie if he’d lost his ever-luvin mind. Eventually my day at the Main St Gym (and amusement park) ended. I would be back four more times that week but we needed to settle in and get down to business.
Later on in the week before my workout and just as Julio’s workout was ending, a cameraman from the LA Times, I believe, took a shot of us squaring off with fists up but looking at the camera. After the pictures I shook his hand and I smiled one of those genuine “howyadoin” smiles and he returned the same smile. Fighters are like that. The square-offs and stare-downs are all for the television cameras. It’s just business and I could only get myself to dislike two or three people from my whole 41-fight career. Chavez really struck me as someone who would be cool to hang out with. Probably easy to laugh with, too. I still have the 8×10 black and white glossy the photographer gave me. It’s signed, “Con affecto, Su Amigo, JC Chavez.”
Friday night. We walked out of the Best Western and if I remember correctly the hotel next door was the Hotel Figueroa, and a mural was painted on the entire side of the building showing images from the Olympic Games held there the year before. There was writing under the athletes on the mural. It said, “We will never forget the Summer of 84.” The winter of ‘85 wasn’t something I would forget either.
I saw spotlights off in the distance and wondered to myself how close to Hollywood this place was located. Maybe a movie premiere tonight or something? When the Olympic Auditorium filled the windshield of the car, I saw that the spotlights were coming from the auditorium itself. Wow, I thought, a kid from Union, Michigan, not five years from graduating high school, and look at me now. Even though I was incidental to the spotlights and Julio was the entire show, I was just impressed that I was part of it all. Still makes me smile thinking about it.
The Olympic Auditorium hardly looked like the haven for some of boxing’s legendary duels. It looked like a five or six story red brick building. I thought, “This can’t be it. This can’t be the famous Olympic!” When I walked inside and saw the seating—almost straight up, with the optical illusion of being directly over the ring—I understood why it was such a big deal. Electric air is a rare commodity but those people were buzzing over this chance to see Chavez in person. I smiled at my manager. How many times do you get to sit back and watch your dreams unfold before your eyes? Unnoticed and not noticing anyone, mouth open in amazement at the atmosphere, I carried my gear back to the dressing room.
First, let me tell you that my accommodations at the Olympic were not stellar. There definitely wasn’t a mirror with bulbs all around it, no fruits and in fact very little room at all. It was about the size of a walk-in closet, complete with a roommate. I remember his name as Mario Miranda, a Columbian fighter who had lost to Juan Laporte for the featherweight title in the aftermath of Salvador Sanchez’s death in an auto accident. In this little room that was so small the mice ran around humpbacked, Mario had one frantic fan who visited him in this dressing room per se, and this fellow could hardly contain his excitement. His staccato sound effects and frantic shadow-boxing mapped out the entire ten-round fight and what he wanted his favorite fighter to do to the opponent. “Bidda BAM!Bidda BAM BAM!!” At one point, my trainer, Ben Barnes, got up and started to go after this overzealous fellow, shouting something to the effect of, “I’m about to pop a cap in some Columbian’s ass,” but fortunately we were able to head off this assassination attempt.
Mario left for his fight, and we heard the cheers, the lulls, the hysteria and then the final bell. Mario lost a ten-round decision to local favorite Oscar Bejines. Then the dressing room was a flurry of activity again but Mario hadn’t returned. His gloves had. We were instructed that those gloves were to be used during the main event. Now, this might be hard to believe, but the gloves were padded with “horsehair,” not foam. I believe they were Reyes, but don’t sue me because I don’t have anything you can sue me for, and it’s been a long time. Regardless of the manufacturer, the “horsehair” padding tended to slide back towards the wrist. My manager, being the bravest manager in captivity, was thrilled. He thought I would be able to cut Chavez up with these gloves. I wondered aloud what Julio’s gloves looked like. Cold chill.
I remember that the cops came back to the dressing room to escort me to the ring. Maybe it was just Olympic security people but they were dressed like LA cops. There were squad cars out in front. I should have been unnerved at the need for escort to the ring but being perfectly honest Mexican fans are the greatest boxing fans in the world. They absolutely love a great boxer, but if you aren’t great, a courageous fighter will do nicely. Courageous I could do.
Jimmy Lennon Jr. was the ring announcer, something else that made me shake my head (look at me Ma! Even the ring announcer is famous!) As part of the opening ceremony, Marvin Camel, the former cruiserweight champ, was introduced. Paul Gonzalez of Olympic Gold Medal fame was also introduced, and he turned out to be a great guy to talk to even though I only had a moment to do so. Jimmy Montoya, famed LA trainer, shook my hand and then told my manager to take me back home and get me a job pumping gas or something. I didn’t hear him but I was told later what he said.
Referee Dr. James Jen-Kin waved us to the center and we tuned out the boring ring instructions again. I realize it’s a boxing tradition and it’s supposed to build tension and give the fighters one last chance to face off before combat. “Yeah, yeah, okay, just cut me loose” is all a fighter is ever thinking at that moment. Ben pounds my right glove, my manager pounds my left, along with some muttered instructions about things we had worked on, and then it’s just me and Julio, down at the Olympic instead of the schoolyard, and the good doctor checks with the timekeeper to see if he is ready (like the guy had something else more pressing to do at that particular moment). FINALLY . . . here we go!
Julio was in no hurry. He was content to move around me, get a look and plan his mode of attack. Myself, I had been waiting my entire life, it seemed, for this moment and I wasn’t going to wait another second. I swarmed the man. I threw fast, hard, and furious and the man slipped, blocked, and moved beautifully. It became clear very early on that this was a different beast. Toward the end of the first round, I uncorked a right hook (my dime store imitation of the left hook Joe Frazier had dropped Ali with in the fifteenth round of their first fight) and it connected. It connected solidly. I had hit the champ hard. I remember the surprise in his eyes, and possibly a slight wobble. Then I saw determination and just a tinge of irritation. I thought to myself, “Uh-oh, I made him mad.”
You know, one thing they never gave Julio very much credit for was his hand speed. Let me testify for you. He drove home a right hand that had a hand grenade on the end of it. My nose bleeds when I think about this right hand. It was the first shot he hit me with that night, and he literally and figuratively crushed my nose with it. I heard the crunch. It was thrown with the speed of a lightening bolt. The world went black.
Now in retrospect, I can be comedic about this and play it lightly but let me tell you something about not being able to see with a bomber like Julio in the ring with you and no restraining order issued. He broke bones when he hit you, wherever he hit you. It’s not a good feeling. I knew that I was not down (I could feel the ring under my feet, my legs were solid) and I did some heavy praying for my eyesight to return. The way I remember it now, it was somewhere between purgatory and eternity waiting for my sight to return but it was probably only a second or two. A pinhole of light expanded into a chaotic scene as the crowd came to its feet to watch me fall down. I threw a left hand that connected instead. People sat down, the bell rang and I watched as a look of confusion crossed Julio’s eyes. You could see some wheels turning in there.
“Wait a minute . . . I turned the shoulder, drop stepped into the punch, it connected hard . . . why is he still awake?”
With blood gushing out of my nose and now cascading down onto my chest, I turned to my cornermen, once again smiling like an idiot.
“I just took your best shot, sport,” I thought.
I went back to the corner with my nose literally squashed and blood gushing. My manager pushed between the ropes and knelt in front of me, immediately addressing the nosebleed and trying to figure out something to say to me. He was obviously concerned because of the thunderbolt he had seen me take at the end of round one.
“Jeff,” he leaned in with eyes reflecting genuine concern, “Are you Ok?”
For a second, I felt pity for him. Fortunately, it was just a second. It didn’t last.
“I’d like to buy a vowel, Pat!” I said but I couldn’t suppress my laughter. I watched him roll his eyes. Ben, however, couldn’t see my bad-boy grin and started praying with his head between the ropes on my right.
Larry, still shaking his head, told Ben, “He’s all right. He’s making about as much sense as he usually does.” Touché, there.
The consensus from my corner was, if you let this guy build momentum and walk right through you, this might be our last conversation. I had let him move forward on me immediately before I got hit by that right hand. Crowd that right hand, move him back. Ben’s favorite expression for this tactic was, “White on rice!” Or in less classy terms, “Stink on shit!”
Well, how did I feel about that? Honestly, I didn’t “let” him do anything. He just moved forward but I guess I could see their point. Still, moving the man back for the next nine rounds didn’t sound too easy. I liked the part about crowding the right hand. That made sense. Didn’t want to get hit with that thing again. Then, of course, I would be introduced to his left hook to the liver.
The bell rang and Julio was a little more energetic now, as I think the blood from the nose excited him. He snapped a couple of beautiful ram rod jabs at it, and I got a little inner satisfaction about the ones I was able to slip or parry, but was reminded exactly how badly the nose was broken when he connected with a few. I tried the Joe Frazier hook again and the only thing it succeeded in doing was increasing the distance between us. I never hit that hook again the rest of the fight.
Now, here is where you are going to call me a liar. I had Julio backed into the corner and decided to rely on the old right hook again and the dude slipped it, pivoted around on his lead foot, reset himself and I found my back to the corner. This I didn’t like. So I jumped into a clinch with Julio, and put both of my forearms under Julio’s armpits. I picked him up as high as I could get him (he was five seven, toes still touching the ground) and slung him back in the corner where I wanted him. Enter Dr. James Jen-Kin, rightfully shaking his finger at me and warning me not to do that again. The crowd booed, Julio gave me a “Shame on you!” expression with his brow furled and I gave him my best “Yeah, ain’t I naughty?” grin. It worked to charm my mother when I was a kid but Julio wasn’t buying it.
I think he decided to soften me up to the body a little because he seemed to be determined to land that left hook to the liver from that moment on. He was so confident and determined to hit that punch that he started to put huge amounts of energy into the effort. It gave me my only opportunity to stay in this fight. He threw that left hook to the body so hard that his right hand, normally high and covering his face, would drop to his chest while he watched the left hit home. Thank God I tortured my body because it felt like he had a Vulcan death ray on that hook. My backbone vibrated sometimes.
But anyway, with his right hand dropped to throw that hook it gave me the opportunity to counter with my own left hand. I was hitting my left hand as often as Julio was landing his body punch. My manager told me later that Jimmy Montoya told him he had changed his mind. This kid didn’t need to pump gas; he needed to keep throwing that left hand! In the corner after the second round, the guys told me that the left counter was working and asked me how I felt. I told them that if there is anybody who hits harder than this guy does, a gun might be the only option left to an opponent.
Round three, more of the same, but Julio was getting a little more irritated while on the outside his punches were landing with greater frequency. I have no dispute with anyone who says I was being outpointed. “Outclassed” is the word KO magazine used, and I dispute its tone more than its use. “Outclassed” sounds like I wasn’t in the fight. If you mean “outclassed” as in “over his head,” I would agree. If you mean “outclassed” as in-not even hitting back and getting the royal crap kicked out of him, I think that’s an exaggeration. I was extremely happy with the frequency my left hand was countering his body punches.
In the fourth round we cracked heads—twice. Now before the booing and hissing starts, this is a common accident between southpaw and conventional stance fighters. It’s all about angle and foot placement. Has nothing to do with intent. For the record, I have nerve endings in my face as well, and it does not feel good to strike head-to-head with another human being. The first time of course, it has to be “someone’s” fault, so I was issued the warning from the good Dr. Jen-Kin. (Of course it’s my fault; I’m not the world champion.)
I think it was midway through the fifth when Julio moved in for a body shot and I was leaning into a counter left that my forehead and his clashed. A cut appeared over his eye and of course, the villain is to blame. Now, for the record, I didn’t feel this head butt, and didn’t even know it happened. So when Jen-Kin jumped in, examined the cut and waved the fight over, oh my God, I thought I had the upset of 1985!
For three or four glorious seconds, I had pulled it off. Then Jen-Kin turned my direction and said “No.” Three or four glorious seconds. In hindsight, maybe that was long enough.
In California the rules stated at that time that if the bout ends as the result of a foul before the fourth round, the fight is declared a no-contest. After that fourth round, the judges scorecards are consulted. Chavez had won all four rounds and the official decision was a technical decision victory (TW5) for the Lion of Culiacan, Julio Cesar Chavez.
Truly, he fought with greater cuts in his career and continued to win, but I think they just thought that this was a meaningless bout and why take a chance with someone who is obviously in shape and determined to give it everything? He definitely wanted to end it decisively. He wasn’t happy but was gracious to me, and when I asked him if it was a head butt that cut him he confirmed this. I apologized profusely, as I had no intention of winning on a foul. It’s usually referenced that he does not speak English but as clear as a bell in the King’s English, he replied, “Don’t worry about it!”
First order of business was to get out of there alive because we weren’t sure how the crowd was going to react. I was giddily happy at how I had fared with this guy and I started telling anyone who would listen that Chavez is the greatest fighter I had ever seen much less fought. One Mexican fellow came up to me and said that Chavez is a chicken, but his English was so bad I couldn’t understand him. My manager confirmed the “chicken” accusation and I annoyed my cornermen immensely because I chose to stop in this “dangerous” situation and explain to the man that there was nothing “chicken” about that guy over there. Ben was yanking me along, and I got a few pats from the crowd but no one shanked me or threatened me with a lynching on my way out.
First I called my family (let me make this clear, my mother is a Sunday school teacher but this was so hard on her that my step-dad got her drunk so she could handle the stress of it all) to let them know that no blood clots on the brain had formed but I wouldn’t be as handsome as when I left. I would forego the shower (let’s just say less than stellar conditions again) till I got back to my hotel and left as soon as I got out of my trunks and shoes and got dressed. Leaving the Olympic, I took one last long look at the spotlights and the red brick exterior because part of me knew I’d never see it again.
Julio arrived at the hotel for his “victory party” a few minutes later and came up to my hotel room. He used the word “strong” several times while he patted me on the shoulder and he autographed the LA Times glossies. I gave one to my manager and kept one for myself. (As I said before, he was a pretty cool dude outside the ropes and one serious individual inside.) Then I spent some time in front of my Best Western hotel mirror over the desk straightening out my crooked nose. It was crushed so badly that it didn’t really hurt that much to do so, especially compared with taking a Chavez punch to it after it was broken. I retained my “handsomest son” title after all.
So that was it. Flight back to Chicago and the 120-mile drive back home from O’Hare. My thoughts at that time were that “everything is as it should be.” I knew that Chavez was on his way to becoming a legend. I knew it as surely as if it were already in the history books. I was “on” that night and on my best night I still couldn’t beat greatness. Strangely, I find peace with that knowledge, even today. At my next fight, which was broadcast on USA network against Brett Summers in Seattle, Washington, Randy Gordon asked about Chavez. I told that “boxing analyst” that when Chavez was done, historians would speak his name in the same breath as Duran, Arguello, and Sanchez.
I saved some local Hispanic newspapers from after the fight, and after twenty years I was finally curious enough to have them translated. They were entirely complimentary to both of us. One said that Chavez had won unimpressively. I wondered out loud how far back the reporter’s seat had been. One had said that because of my intention to enter the fight “en corto” that I proved a very rough opponent. My translator couldn’t translate “en corto” because different dialects have different expressions. But I could have told her “en corto” meant “suicidally full of his own macho BS.”
But you know what? When you give something you love everything you have, and it still doesn’t work out for you, it’s comforting to know that you gave it your best. I can live with that.