Boxing: Warring lord of the ring: Profile: Julio Cesar Chavez

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GOOD BOXERS, particularly world championship contenders, do not scare easily. However knowingly outgunned an experienced fighter may be, it is a great surprise if he succumbs palpably to terror in the ring. It does occasionally happen, and, when it does, there is no hiding place. The symptoms are easily recognisable: a cold, clammy texture to the skin, uncharacteristically confused coordination, and eyes wide with dread and shame. The phenomenon is rarely seen, though, even when a boxer is pitted against an all-time great.

It happened famously to Max Baer when he fought Joe Louis; it happened to Patterson when he fought Liston, and to Spinks when he went in with Tyson. The only time I have seen it happen in a title match recently was a few years ago when a New Orleans fighter named Johnny 'Super D' Duplessis arrived in Las Vegas to fight Julio Cesar Chavez for the world lightweight championship, on the undercard of the first Tyson-Ruddock fight. This was the Chavez who boxes Britain's Andy Holligan for the light-welterweight title in Mexico next Saturday.

Johnny Duplessis was hardly a stranger to the anxieties of the ring. He had been one of the South's most titled amateurs. He had lost only a couple of his 40 professional fights and was a popular attraction in his home city. 'Super D' was good-looking and cocky, with a slick boxing style, and if you heard him speak it was barely possible to believe he could lose a round, let alone a points decision. No one expected Duplessis to beat Chavez. But he had the style to go the distance, perhaps even to trouble 'El Gran Campeon' and to be able to blame the judges afterwards.

But something strange happened to Duplessis as the referee called them together for the final instructions. He couldn't look at Chavez, even fleetingly. His left leg quivered in the breeze in the outdoor ring. He could barely touch gloves. And when the action commenced, Duplessis ran and cowered and wore a look of such mourning that he could have been a carnival pallbearer at Mardi Gras. Carnival aptly translates from the Latin as 'Flesh, Farewell', and only when Duplessis went down gratefully in the fourth did the death mask lift, when he realised that he was still alive. Chavez sneered, not concealing his contempt.

The only other time I have seen Chavez was earlier this year when he fought and beat a Guyanan named Terrence Alli. Even though in the end Alli took a beating, he fought spiritedly and was certainly not intimidated. Coupled with Chavez's most recent title bout, against Pernell Whitaker, when Chavez was widely reckoned to have been outboxed and given a draw, this might suggest that the Duplessis incident was a one-off. But those who have watched him throughout his extraordinary career (89 bouts, 88 wins and one draw) say that this is far from being the case. Most boxers who have gone in with him, they say, have been terrified: not surprisingly, since Chavez is known not only for administering beatings but for drawing them out, particularly when he fights in his home town of Culiacan, lest the fans don't get their money's worth.

In winning world championships at three different weights, Chavez has devastated some of the most talented boxers of his generation. Meldrick Taylor, a dazzling gold medal-winner at the 1984 Olympics, was stopped, swallowing blood, when ahead on points with less than 10 seconds of the bout to go. Taylor was never the same. Chavez also handed out hideous beatings to two brilliant Puerto Ricans, Edwin Rosario and Hector Camacho.

A lone English journalist whose travels led to the Azteca Stadium in Mexico City earlier this year, where Chavez fought the American Greg Haugan in front of 135,000 fans, describes it as the most frightening experience of his professional life. A laser show superimposed Chavez's face over the map of Mexico and depicted Haugan as the despised Yankee invader. Haugen was a broken fighter as early as the first, but Chavez mercilessly propped him up and seemed disappointed three rounds later when Haugen could not get up to take more punches.

Outside the ring, Chavez is a jovial hombre prone to wearing an outsized sombrero and designer denim. He does not speak English and is always accompanied by his interpreter, Gladys Rosa, a

demure-looking brunette who might pass for a bank cashier but who is in fact herself licensed as a boxing promoter (Chavez's actual promoter is Don King, whose operation Chavez has chiefly funded since Mike Tyson's demise). Chavez's background is that of the stereotypical hungry Latin. He was born into grinding poverty in Sonora in July 1962. His family was so poor that he and his seven brothers and sisters lived most of their childhoods in a disused railway carriage. By the age of 15, Chavez was punching for pay.

He has now amassed a dollars 10m ( pounds 6.7m) fortune. Inevitably, unsubstantiated rumours have sprung up that he is unable to keep control of it. The latest is that the only reason King holds Chavez to such a hectic schedule is to keep him in training and off the bottle.

It is the image of cold-eyed killers of the ring like Chavez, and before him Roberto Duran, that Western sportswriters have in mind when they frequently counsel domestic fighters in the lighter weights against pitting themselves too soon against fiendish Latins and Orientals. But it is an image that may already be out of date. Prodigious economic growth in Latin America and the Pacific rim has diminished the lure of the prize ring. It is in the West - particularly Britain - and in Eastern Europe that the numbers of professional boxers are growing most.

So it is perhaps not surprising that Chavez's next opponent will be, in Holligan, a Briton of hard upbringing in Merseyside. Holligan will be earning by far his biggest purse: pounds 120,000. The problem is that, unlike the hapless Duplessis, he is not known for taking evasive action. Holligan is just the sort of brave, walk-forward bruiser whom Chavez will be licking his lips about. But that, cynics would point out, is why Holligan has been given his chance.

The worst thing for Holligan and other Chavez opponents, with the exception of super-slick types such as Whittaker, is that they are seldom the same afterwards, as Chavez tends to end careers. Even Duplessis's. The bunker mentality had enabled Duplessis to avoid most of Chavez's bombs, but the following night, driving no doubt relievedly through New Orleans, Duplessis was pulled over for speeding. In an attempt at mitigation, Duplessis explained he'd just fought for the world title. 'I know,' the cop said. 'I saw it. And I'm definitely booking you.' Unfortunately, 'Super D' has not been heard of since.