Originally written on The Queensbury Rules  |  Last updated 9/9/14
Middleweight Julio Cesar Chavez, Jr.'s career arc resembles that of a kiddie pop star exiting his teenage years: Once ridiculed by boxing's grown-ups for his avid following's disproportionate ratio to his actual talent, Chavez is now growing up and flirting with respectability. It took more than one album for Justin Timberlake to come around to universal critical acclaim, but Chavez is right around the "Justified" phase -- he's shown us that he's more than a pretty face, but he hasn't convinced everyone that they can be proud to call themselves fans. And maybe he'll flame out like so many kiddie pop stars of the past.

Chavez takes the latest step toward "FutureSex/LoveSounds" when he faces Marco Antonio Rubio Saturday night on HBO. Chavez has gotten better with each fight, although mostly against competition a bit below the "contender" level. Sebastian Zbik was an exception. So is Rubio, even if he's more of a "fringe contender." There are some boxing cognoscenti who are of the opinion that Rubio could pull off an upset because of Chavez' flaws and because Rubio is the best opponent of Chavez' career; there are others who are convinced Rubio won't beat Chavez, since Rubio wouldn't have gotten this fight if Top Rank Promotions thought he stood a chance at all to smash open the Chavez piggy bank.

On the undercard, surefire indisputable talent Nonito Donaire tests the waters at junior featherweight against Wilfredo Vazquez, Jr. Some small percentage of folk are enthused about this match-up, although lately it's been overshadowed by the two boxers' respective wives getting into a Twitter fight. Ultimately, though, both Chavez-Rubio and Donaire-Vazquez are tests that the broader public expects the A-sides to pass; Chavez is a 4-1 betting favorite, and Donaire as much as a 15-1 betting favorite. And there are mostly good reasons for this.


Because Donaire is also a junior, this is, as our Alex McClintock mentioned earlier this week, a night of juniors. And Vazquez is like Nonito Donaire, Jr. Jr., in many ways. And they're fighting at junior featherweight! I think I just blew my own mind.

Donaire, of course, is about one of the five best fighters in the game today, regardless of weight class, by popular consensus. It's a good consensus. Packages of such speed and power don't come around too often -- Donaire has been faster by a bajillion miles than everyone he's faced, and can score a Knockout of the Year candidate in any given fight, as he did in the consensus KO of the Year for 2011 against Fernando Montiel. Another fine consensus.

Vazquez has a nice package of speed and power himself, it's just that it's all in smaller quantities than Donaire has. Where Donaire's most vaunted weapon is his counter left hook, Vazquez has a pretty good one himself -- it's a punch he decked Jorge Arce with and landed plenty throughout the fight. (Vazquez' straight right is also pretty good.) Despite having speed that would point them toward being "cuties" who employ a lot of boxing technique, neither Donaire nor Vazquez use their jabs enough, preferring to engage with combination punches. Vazquez, in particular, is eager to exchange punches.

For the first time I can remember, Donaire will also be fighting someone around his physical size. Donaire has been a like a giant against flyweights, junior bantamweights and bantamweights. That size advantage could start being nullified more often starting Saturday. Donaire is listed at 5'5 1/2", only a half-inch taller than Vazquez. Vazquez is a real junior featheweight who's been in the division for a while, too, and he looks the thicker, stronger lad of the two. Vazquez' plan, he says, is to get in Donaire's space, pressure him, exploit that strength edge.

I'm not sure what the plan is to beat Donaire, really, so I can't criticize Vazquez' idea. All I know is that Donaire is at his best against aggressive opponents. Both of his most well-known KO of the Year-type shots were on counter lefts against opponents coming at him. Maybe Vazquez' best hope is to go after the thing that's least proven about Donaire -- whether he can handle a junior featherweight -- but there's more bad news for him in that Donaire has always had a good chin, and whether he's stronger or not, Donaire surely hits harder than Vazquez. You don't typically see a guy scoring insane one-punch knockouts, moving up one division, and not retaining at least some of that dynamite.

And it gets worse for Vazquez still. I like Vazquez -- he's fun, and he's better than I ever thought he'd turn out to be as a boxer fighting in his dad's shadow -- but he's nowhere near as talented, skilled or experienced as Donaire. Vazquez lost to a very old (albeit revived-looking) Jorge Arce last year and is barely a top-10 man in his division. Donaire would obliterate Arce.

As similar as they are, there is a wide divide between Donaire and Vazquez in almost every way, where Donaire is ahead of Vazquez other than "who's fought at junior featherweight more times." That probably won't be enough for Vazquez to get it done. The only other hope for Vazquez is that Donaire has taken him lightly, and I can't say Donaire's physique looked very impressive at the weigh-in Friday. Nonetheless, "Donaire by early KO" is usually a safe prediction, but based on the size difference, I'll give Vazquez until the middle rounds to succumb in a fight that probably won't have very many moments of competitiveness.


Once, I was as skeptical of Chavez as anyone. Even understanding that his lack of an amateur career meant that he was fighting bum after bum for the experience of fighting at all, he looked far too slow and hittable to ever amount to anything. Combine it with him being popular merely because of his name, and a reputation for being lazy, and throw in the occasional boring fight to his offset his usual life-and-death struggles, and it all amounted to a fighter I couldn't appreciate on hardly any level whatsoever.

But I've come around on Chavez, mostly. He's still slow and hittable. Rumors still surface of him not working hard at his craft. And he's still mainly popular because of who his dad is. But he really has gotten better at being a pro boxer, under the tutelage of famed trainer Freddie Roach -- he uses his height well and his timing and body attack are increasingly impressive. Those random stinkers are all gone -- I haven't seen a bad Chavez fight in a long while. Sure, he's a paper "champion" -- having been bequeathed his belt by the WBC's "give every Mexican a title" plan -- but if I were his handlers, I'd keep him away from the real champ, Sergio Martinez, for a good while longer, too.

Rubio is the kind of opponent Chavez ought to be facing right now. Chavez' competition has been inching upward, and I'm not of the mind that Rubio is a quantum leap in that regard. Nobody expected Zbik to challenge Chavez seriously, but in retrospect, Zbik was pretty good. I'm not sure Rubio would beat him. But Rubio's better than Peter Manfredo, Jr., Chavez' last opponent, by a pretty good margin, and everyone else, too.

Rubio is a slow but sturdy and reasonably savvy veteran. Last year he got the best win of his career, a shocking upset of heavily-hyped prospect David Lemieux. Rubio was probably best known for his slugfest with Enrique Ornelas and his ultra-timid loss to Kelly Pavlik before that, but Rubio showed both guts and boxing ability against Lemieux. He fought beautifully, using his height to keep the right distance against an explosive but short-armed opponent. He worked his jab and fired combos off it to the head and body. When he got trapped against the ropes, Rubio blocked punches with his gloves or rolled with them to minimize the damage from a big-time puncher. He stood up to Lemieux for several rounds before Lemieux got tired and then Rubio took over, eventually hurting and dropping Lemieux with right hands -- Rubio's best punch -- before Lemieux' corner threw in the towel.

I hate to knock a guy for doing everything exactly right and getting his shining moment out of it, but Lemieux was ripe to be defeated by someone exactly like Rubio. Lemieux, it turned out, had been slacking off in training, to the point his trainer parted ways with him over it. He'd fallen in love with his power and lost again last year to a faded Joachim Alcine, too. And I've been making fun of Lemieux' short arms for years. Length, sturdiness, stamina -- those were the ingredients for beating Lemieux, and Rubio had them.

Rubio won't have length on Chavez, who's both taller and has a better reach. Rubio was completely flummoxed by Pavlik's superior height and reach. And Chavez' volume attack has been another Rubio bugaboo; even Lemieux outworked Rubio for the first five rounds, and Pavlik just swamped him. Chavez, despite rumors of poor work habits, hasn't shown many signs I can recall of having bad stamina. Quite the opposite.

Rubio has enough veteran tricks to give Chavez some trouble, and maybe enough power -- although Chavez also has shown he can take a hell of a punch. What Rubio won't have is enough size or enough activity to beat Chavez, I don't suspect. I'm in the "no way Top Rank makes this fight unless Chavez beats Rubio easily" camp, although there's at least a chance Rubio pulls it off, and I expect it to be entertaining and moderately competitive based on the match-up. Rubio's more likely to keep it close enough that he can complain of Texas favoritism of the more popular Mexican fighter than he is to win outright. Give me Chavez by late stoppage or a 116-112 kind of unanimous decision.

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