In Mexico, soccer is everything. There are regional favorites that take over parts of the country, like basketball and even American football fandom, sure, but it all comes back to fútbol. There is only one other sport that captures the imagination of the entire country: the sweet science, boxing.
And there is one man most responsible for pushing boxing to those stratospheric heights. Julio César Chávez, he of the inhumanly long undefeated streak, remains one of the most respected Mexican athletes. His tear through three weight classes from 1980 to 2005 did more than make Chávez personally famous.
He solidified growing boxing fandom into a cultural phenomenon. And, on the global scale, his fame encouraged subsequent generations of Mexicans to hit the gym and put on the gloves. Here’s how he became the most beloved boxer in Mexican history.
How Julio César Chávez became Mexico’s favorite boxer
Chávez, born July 12, 1962, quickly found himself in a gym learning to box. His older brothers were already into it, so he did what any good little brother would do. Mimic, and try his best to match his siblings. He went beyond that and emerged as a successful amateur boxer with obvious professional chops.
By 1984 — four years into his nascent boxing career — he won the World Boxing Council’s junior-lightweight championship. His first title, and far from his last. The bigger World Boxing Association gave up their title to Chávez in 1987. These huge title wins made him a household name in Mexico, and one of the fastest-growing stars in the sport globally. But one fight set him in stone as a canonically great fighter.
It was March 17, 1990. Chávez was up against gold medalist and all-around fast-punching genius Meldrick Taylor. It was billed, in an almost cheekily overhyped way, as the fight of the century. It ended up surpassing even the wildest expectations.
Chávez was undefeated with 66 wins with 56 K.O.s going into the fight. He was a brutal brawler in a division often associated with defense and speed. Taylor, however, was noted for his own aggression. He wasn’t a bruiser, but he could land damage constantly. Chávez relied on spaced out flurries of heavy body blows, while Taylor went technical, forcing constant whiffs.
Taylor came up ahead after 12 taxing rounds. Both fighters had enough. Chávez summoned the strength to land a taxing, brutal combination, while Taylor somehow summoned the strength to stay on his feet. Then it happened: the right hook that finally sent Taylor wobbling to the ropes.
He still stood, but was unresponsive as the referee counted down. With two seconds left in the match, it was called. One of the most thrilling matches of the decade ended in Chávez’s favor.
How his legacy solidified boxing’s venerated place in Mexican sports
With so many fighters inspired to take up boxing in Chávez’s wake, Mexico and the closely-tied Mexican-American community remain hotspots for producing elite boxers to this day. Fighters like Abner Mares namecheck Chávez as they carve their own legacies into the history of the sport.
Boxing has since achieved a level where it can reasonably be referred to as a Mexican sports tradition to train in it. Even in bouts where hope looks dim for the Mexican contender, the country tunes in. According to ESPN, 8 out of 10 Mexican households tuned into watch underdog Saul “Canelo” Alvarez try to figure out the solution to the Floyd Mayweather problem.
It’s about the love of the sport, supporting the fighters, and a sense of national pride. It goes beyond simply waiting for a new winner to emerge. But when they do, like Chávez did, they are capable of moving mountains in terms of the popularity of boxing.