As Oscar De La Hoya climbed off the mat, he surely knew he was in the ring with a legend. The year was 1992. De La Hoya was sparring with Julio Cesar Chavez prior to the Barcelona Olympics.
In this two-round session, the veteran Chavez stepped in with his vintage left hook to the body and followed it with a straight right hand to the head, flooring the young De La Hoya in the process.
De La Hoya rose from the knockdown, nodded and touched gloves with Chavez, and continued the round until the closing bell. The seeds had been sewn for a future showdown between a great and future great.
Chavez began his professional career in 1980. After running his record to an incredible 44 wins without a loss, Chavez won the vacant WBC Super Featherweight title in an eighth round TKO over Mario Martinez. He continued his dominant march into history with impressive wins over Roger Mayweather, Edwin Rosario, Hector Camacho and Greg Haugen.
As the wins mounted, Chavez began showing what many considered to be chinks in his armor. In a 1990 showdown with Meldrick Taylor, Chavez was in serious trouble when he escaped the jaws of defeat by delivering a crushing right hand that dropped Taylor with only seconds remaining in the fight. Referee Richard Steele, controversially, stopped the fight with only seconds remaining to end the thrilling bout.
In 1993, Chavez again escaped what looked like certain defeat after fighting to a “draw” with Pernell Whitaker. Most fans and pundits still believe Whitaker won the fight, handily, and that he was robbed of a well-deserved unanimous victory.
Just three fights later, in January of 1994, Chavez lost his WBC Light Welterweight crown to Frankie Randall. An 18-1 underdog, Randall dropped Chavez to the canvas for the first time in his career and went on to score a split decision win, handing Chavez his first official loss.
In the mold of a great champion, Chavez rebounded and defeated Randall in an immediate rematch to regain his title. He then settled the score with Taylor, knocking him out four-and-a-half years after their first encounter. While the champion Chavez (96-1-1, 79 KOs) was nearing the end of a hall-of-fame career, a familiar young lion was lurking and making his way up the ladder.
De La Hoya won a Gold Medal at those Barcelona Olympics and turned professional in November of 1992. In just his 12th fight, he captured the WBO Super Featherweight title in a 10th round TKO win over Jimmy Bredahl.
Just two fights later, De La Hoya won the WBO Lightweight title from Jorge Paez in a dominant second-round knockout.
The “Golden Boy” then laid the hammer down and went on a terror of his own, beating top-rated fighters like John John Molina, Rafael Ruelas, Genaro Hernandez and Jesse James Leija. He was more and more impressive each time he fought and had built quite a following of his own. After 21 straight victories with 19 knockouts, the 23-year-old De La Hoya signed to meet Chavez.
The fight was billed as “Ultimate Glory” and would take place June 7, 1996, at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, NV. Scorching heat in the desert had a ringside thermometer at nearly 120 degrees on fight night. Over 15,000 fans braved the heat and packed the outdoor arena to witness the legend and icon, Chavez, duel with the young upstart, De La Hoya.
Chavez, 33, would be making the seventh defense of his WBC Super Lightweight title. Though far more experienced, odds hovered in De La Hoya’s favor as he was installed as a 2-1 favorite.
The fight, scheduled for 12 rounds, was broadcast on closed-circuit television with HBO announcers Jim Lampley, Larry Merchant and George Foreman ringside to call the night’s action.
The Vegas sun had finally set and both fighters were now in the ring. Also coping with the heat was ring announcer Michael Buffer, who donned a collared short-sleeve shirt instead of his normal tuxedo. Buffer introduced both fighters as a boisterous crowd cheered wildly for their man, many hoisting signs and waiving their country’s flag.
Both men weighed in at 139 pounds and looked in superb condition as they met referee Joe Cortez in the center of the ring. Cortez provided instructions as Merchant summarized the matchup, “This is youth, talent, ambition, against experience, will and pride.”
Round 1 began, De La Hoya, wearing red, white, blue, and green trunks that represented both Mexico and the United States, immediately began to circle and use his five-inch reach advantage behind a long left jab.
With his knees bent and immediately pursuing De La Hoya, Chavez, representing Mexico wearing white trunks with red and green trim, was trying to close the distance and pressure his challenger. The start was cautious with both men relying mainly on their jab. With just a minute gone by, Merchant interrupted Lampley and Foreman’s early analysis, “Already there is a cut alongside the left eye of Chavez!”
Indeed, as Chavez continued to stalk De La Hoya he was wiping the blood that flowed into his eye. Both men began to stand closer and mix in more-and-more power punches. After another minute passed, Cortez called time and brought Chavez over to the ring doctor. A stunned Lampley cried out, “Round one!”
The action resumed and Chavez desperately tried to engage De La Hoya. Both men continued to hammer away as the bell sounded to end the round. Lampley offered a concise account of the first three minutes of action, “Round one has been like Christmas for Oscar De La Hoya!”
As the second got underway, it was De La Hoya moving forward, sticking the jab and backing Chavez up. The blood again began to flow just one minute into the round. Bouncing on his toes, De La Hoya began pulling the trigger on left hooks and right hands. The Chavez fans tried to rally their man with chants of, “Mexico! Mexico! Mexico!”
As the bell sounded to end the round, Chavez walked to the wrong corner and seemingly needed help from Cortez to find his way.
Round 3 began with Chavez attacking De La Hoya while the blood continued to flow. De La Hoya reemployed his jab and quickly reestablished tactical command of the fight. As the round came down the stretch, Chavez charged in at De La Hoya and landed a brutal left hook. De La Hoya countered and tagged Chavez with his own blistering left hook and a sizzling right uppercut at close quarters.
Chavez found himself backing up more than any fight in recent memory and was struggling to get inside where he could launch the better part of his arsenal. As the round ended, Merchant opined, “So far, Chavez is looking his age.”
After three rounds, the fight was easy to score as all three judges had De La Hoya up 30-27.
As the bell sounded to begin the fourth, De La Hoya looked as calm as an assassin. As he came to mid ring, Chavez went into fifth gear and opened up, perhaps feeling like time may be running out as the blood continued to stream down his cheek. Halfway through the round, Chavez strafed De La Hoya with his best punch of the night, a thrashing left hook that landed flush on De La Hoya’s chin.
As Chavez continued to bombard De La Hoya, the challenger countered with a left hook to the body and a pair of flurries that included lefts, rights, hooks and uppercuts. As the punches landed with precision on the face of Chavez, blood was now pouring from his wounded eye and gushing from his nose. His face was a bloody mask.
Cortez stepped in again and called time to bring Chavez over to the ring doctor. Within seconds, the fight was stopped due to the sustained assault that had ripped open Chavez’s eye and busted his nose.
In an anti-climactic stoppage, the fight ended at 2:37 of the fourth round.
It would later be revealed that Chavez had been cut in sparring prior to the fight. In an effort to avoid the fight being postponed, he and his camp kept it a secret, a secret that De La Hoya was happy to expose and share with the world courtesy of a stiff jab in the opening moments of the contest.
Chavez refused to give his conqueror credit for his performance after losing his title. The two would meet again in a September 18, 1998 rematch. In a far more competitive battle, De La Hoya again secured victory when Chavez refused to come out for the eighth round.
Both of their fights had come a long way from that 1992 sparring session.