When Mexico’s National Boxing Hero Lost his Crown

Originally published on Ozy.com

A group of us, mostly men, sat in shocked, uncomfortable silence, all knowing what the other thought but lacking words to express it, our silence contrasted by our mostly female relatives’ joyful screams that soon felt like taunts. One aunt kept repeating, “Te lo dije!, yo sabía que iba ganar Oscarito!” — ”I told you! I knew Oscar would win!” She even blew a kiss toward the television screen as if Oscar De La Hoya had fought for her. I daydreamed of standing up and saying something to her — anything — to let her know I knew she did not even like boxing but only watched because De La Hoya was pretty, but I did not. None of us said anything.

Finally, someone screamed a Spanish obscenity and broke our collective silence. After that, everyone gave their opinion about what Chávez could have done differently to beat De La Hoya. Some thought the referee stopped the fight too early and despite the cut over his left eye, Chávez could have continued. Opinions moved into conspiracies, one claiming Chávez and De La Hoya fixed the fight to earn twice as much money in their rematch. Another stated De La Hoya must have had illegal hand wraps — how else could he have cut Chávez’s granitelike face in the first minute, leaving him a broken, bloody mess in only four rounds?

But these theories were just comforting lies we wanted to believe, allowing us to ignore the obvious that none of us had the courage to say out loud: Chávez’s career had effectively ended. To say it then was too painful.

Chávez was more than just a Mexican boxer, he was The Mexican who for many years was seemingly our only hero. Entire weekend family gatherings were planned around his fights, celebrating someone who, through boxing, defended our national honor. Three years earlier, when another opponent, Greg Haugen, whom The New York Times described as a “loud, hostile gringo,” said he did not fear fighting in Mexico City’s Estadio Azteca since there were not enough people there who could afford tickets, Chávez took it upon himself to set him straight.

And we cheered as an infuriated Chávez called him a son of a whore and warned him he would show no leniency in their fight. Then on February 20, 1993, Chávez entered the ring wearing a Virgen de Guadalupe sarape and beat him to a pulp in front of 136,000 rabid, adoring fans held back with fences and helmet-wearing police. That was one of the many reasons “El Gran Campeón Mexicano” — The Great Mexican Champion — was our hero.

In a different culture where machismo is not so tied to identity, Chávez may have symbolized something else, perhaps something more noble. Likewise, had we been from a different socioeconomic class, maybe our hero would have been someone else. But neither of those were true, so we lived vicariously through Chávez. He was our John L. Sullivan, our Joe Louis, our Muhammad Ali. He brought us pride, looked like us and spoke our type of Spanish — curses and all. We took pleasure in understanding his exact, raw and uncut words before translators overcooked them and lost half of their flavor.

Singing along to the multiple corridos — folk songs — written in his honor, we convinced ourselves that his experience was enough to overcome De La Hoya’s youth. We grew up with dichos — Mexican sayings — that worked best if unexamined. So of course Chávez would win, if nothing else than because más sabe el diablo por viejo que por diablo — a phrase that lacks a proper translation but implies that wisdom comes with age.

Like us, De La Hoya idolized Chávez, explaining in his autobiography, American Son: “Chávez looked untouchable to me. It was like you could only see him on TV, a mythical hero rather than flesh and blood.” That was Chávez. That was who we watched lose.

When De La Hoya beat Chávez, it was only natural for him to expect that he would also inherit his fan base. But not all of us were ready, so instead we made excuses. We had to — there was too much history there — to just move on.

De La Hoya destroyed our myth, and we could do little besides sit there and listen to each celebratory scream that felt more and more like acts of betrayal. Did they not know De La Hoya dreamed of being an architect and not a boxer — and now he wants to replace Chávez? Or that De La Hoya golfed at fancy country clubs where, besides him, the only other Mexicans allowed were those tending to members’ needs? Did they not realize that, although immensely talented, De La Hoya could never inspire corridos? There are no lessons learned from someone so seemingly perfect. We were flawed, some of us as deeply as Chávez, but that was what made him endearing.

De La Hoya destroyed Chávez — his own hero and ours — and they celebrated. But not us, at least not yet. Maybe a future generation that’s much more assimilated into American culture will pick different heroes. Maybe someday we will too, but not while we eulogize and process why Chávez is so important to us.