Eric Raskin

Chavez Jr. is back, but will he get back on track?

Eleven. Ten. Six. Five. Four. Three. One.

No, that’s not Forrest Gump attempting a countdown. It’s not some complicated mathematical sequence where you divide a number by pi and then multiply it by the square root of itself to find the next number.

It’s the number of times Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. has fought in each of the last seven calendar years.

In his first full year as a pro boxer, 2004, Chavez fought 11 times. In 2005, 10 fights. In 2006, six bouts. One fewer in ’07, one fewer in ’08, one fewer in ’09. And only once all of last year.

That countdown from 11 to 1 doesn’t end with a “Blastoff!” Rather, it has a “Houston, we have a problem” feel to it.

Chavez (41-0-1, 30 knockouts, 1 no-contest), will be turning 25 next month. He’s not exactly graying around the temples, but the reality is that he’s no longer that scrawny, knock-kneed kid who doesn’t own a razor. What could be excused as logically careful matchmaking when he was 19 or 22 is now a lot harder to excuse.

The night of Dec. 1, 2007 was a turning point in the career of Chavez. The then-21-year-old headlined a “Latin Fury” pay-per-view bout against Ray Sanchez III that exceeded all expectations by drawing nearly 100,000 buys, and promoter Top Rank made a strategic shift with Chavez as a result.

Talk of a 2008 HBO Boxing After Dark appearance against Alfonso Gomez or Carlos Baldomir abruptly ended, and instead Chavez found himself atop a slew of small pay-per-view shows against safer opponents over the next two years. That’s not to say Jose Celaya, Matt Vanda, Jason LeHoullier, etc., were total pushovers. They just weren’t serious threats to win (even though Vanda nearly did the first time they fought).

It was obvious what was happening, and it was all perfectly logical: Why put an unbeaten ticket seller in a fight he might lose when he’s generating money in fights we know he’ll win? The lateral manner in which Chavez was moved in ’08 and ’09 was justifiable especially when you consider he didn’t have a substantial amateur career and was learning how to be a professional boxer fight by fight.

But there is no sugar-coating what happened in Chavez’s career in 2010. He fought only one time. Yes, the opponent was his most recognizable yet — John Duddy — and Junior fought well to win a clear-cut decision. But he had a seven-month layoff heading into that June bout (thanks to a suspension for testing positive for a banned diuretic) and has followed it with another seven-month layoff heading into this Saturday’s fight in Culiacan, Mexico, against journeyman Billy Lyell.

Lyell isn’t just another lateral move. He is a backward step. And any momentum Chavez built with the Duddy fight is gone.

“After the Duddy fight, you wanted to see more, and the ‘more’ hasn’t happened yet. That’s the frustrating part,” said Top Rank Vice President Carl Moretti. “We wanted him to keep that momentum going. He just needs to get active. I think if he’s active, then a lot of the question marks go away. But until he gets in the ring, the criticism is justified to an extent.”

So why hasn’t Chavez been active? Shortly after he beat Duddy, massive steps up against the likes of Kelly Pavlik and Miguel Cotto were discussed. The latter seemed serious for a moment. But any possibility of such a challenge disappeared when Chavez’s new trainer, Freddie Roach, went to the Philippines in September to begin camp with Manny Pacquiao, and Chavez elected not to follow him there.

Chavez isn’t exactly known for being a gym rat. And when you have a reputation for being lazy, the fans are quick to turn on you and suspect it’s bull when you pull out of fights. That’s precisely what happened when Chavez backed out of a December pay-per-view headliner against Pawel Wolak less than a week before the bout, though Top Rank stands firmly behind the fighter on that one.

“He definitely had a fever of about 102 or 103, so he just couldn’t have gone through with that fight no matter who the opponent was,” Moretti said. “It was bad timing, because it was the end of the year, then you’ve got the holidays, then you’ve got to restart the whole thing.”

And that brings us to Chavez-Lyell. It’s a restart fight. At 22-8 with only four knockout wins, Lyell is the perfect opponent for shaking off some rust at no risk. The second best middleweight from Youngstown, Ohio, has one meaningful win in his entire career, a split-decision upset of Duddy in ’09. Lyell has lost to Sebastian Sylvester, Vanes Martirosyan, David Lopez, Yory Boy Campas and James Kirkland. He’ll be easy to hit, and he’ll make Chavez look good, plus he’ll likely give Junior some rounds.

According to Moretti, if things go as planned, we can expect to see Chavez step up immediately after the Lyell fight. Sebastian Zbik, an undefeated but unproven German middleweight who was oh-so-mysteriously handed a belt last week by a certain Mexican-based organization that would just love to collect sanctioning fees from a certain kid with a certain famous Mexican boxing surname, is being lined up to potentially fight Chavez in May.

It’s hard to know just how good Zbik is, but he’s ranked in THE RING’s Top 10 and would unquestionably represent the most meaningful test of Chavez’s career. That’s what the boxing world is asking for right now.

“It’s time to see what he’s really made out of,” said Raul Marquez, who will be providing commentary for the Chavez-Lyell fight for Fox Deportes. “Just talking boxing with fans, a lot of them are saying, ‘When is Chavez going to fight for a title? When is he going to fight a legitimate name? When is he going to get a legitimate test?’ Chavez isn’t ready for a Sergio Martinez, obviously, but he should be ready for a Top-10-type of guy. Other than Martinez, the middleweight division is wide open, so I would like to see him take on a couple of Top-10 guys and then take it from there. I’d like to see him fight a guy like David Lopez, or Marco Antonio Rubio, or Andy Lee, or even the guy that I beat in the eliminator in 2008, Giovanni Lorenzo. He needs to step up. It’s time now.”

It’s impossible not to contrast Chavez’s career trajectory with that of Saul “Canelo” Alvarez, as the two of them are, in one order or the other, the two most-popular young fighters in Mexico. At just 20 years of age, Alvarez has been taking small but significant steps up recently, defeating proven (if faded) veterans Baldomir and Lovemore Ndou.

Alvarez’s next fight will be on HBO on March 5. Chavez seemed HBO-bound three years ago. Are his people thinking about getting him under the bright lights of HBO or Showtime anytime soon?

“No, that’s not a goal,” said Moretti. “That’s not what we’re driving for, to get to fight on HBO. I don’t want to say Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. is bigger than HBO, but he has his own market. The goal isn’t to get to HBO.”

Clearly, Top Rank intends to keep doing things their way, and that’s fine — especially if the inactivity of 2010 proves an anomaly. Nothing necessarily has to change there.

With regard to Chavez’s training, however, something did have to change, and that’s why Roach and conditioning coach Alex Ariza were brought in last spring to replace Chavez’s uncles, Rodolfo Chavez and Miguel Molleda.

Roach has been in Mexico for the last couple of weeks, and Ariza got there several days prior. Together they’re trying to get the most out of a fighter who has been viewed differently and treated differently from your typical prospect throughout his pro career.

“He’s not a kid from the ghetto,” Moretti said. “He’s Julio’s son and was always provided for. So I don’t know if that has taken its toll, but it’s been established that the driving motivation for a lot of fighters is money, so you can speculate based on that. It’s up to Julio to show that he wants to create his own legacy and be his own man and do what he can as a fighter.”

As for just what he can do as a fighter, Marquez believes it goes beyond what we’ve seen so far.

“I think Chavez has got a lot of room for improvement, and I think Freddie and Alex are going to be able to get that out of him,” Marquez said. “Training with the Manny Pacquiao team and being around Manny and Amir Khan, that can really help him and build his confidence.

“It’s already helping his conditioning. I believe that in the Duddy fight, if Chavez would have been the fighter he was prior to working with Freddie and Alex, he would have gotten tired in that fight and Duddy would have beaten him.”

But Duddy didn’t beat him. Chavez won and looked good, and now seven months later, he’s getting back into the ring.

Assuming Chavez’s temperature can hold steady at 98.6 for another couple of days, his pattern of fighting fewer times each year than he did the previous year is about to be disrupted. That’s a start. But he’ll need to do more than that to recapture the momentum he once had.

With Roach in his corner, with a real Top-10 opponent in his sights and with his built-in fan base, he can do it. Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. can still become one of the biggest stars in boxing.

It’s just a bit frustrating that he isn’t there already.

RASKIN’S RANTS

• I asked Moretti if he’d heard any reports on Chavez Jr.’s training camp for this fight and whether things were going well. “Well, we haven’t heard any reports that they aren’t going well,” he responded. When it comes to Junior in training, no news is good news.

• I considered making this week’s column a pay-per-view running diary of the Evander Holyfield-Sherman Williams show, figuring I might never see comedy material like this again. But the average American male’s life expectancy is only 75.5 years. That simply isn’t high enough to justify sacrificing those three hours.

• Live on pay-per-view, March 12, it’s Bob Arum vs. Don King! What’s that you say? You say there are fighters on this card also? Hmm, that’s odd, last week I saw a stream of press releases trying to sell the event on the strength of its promoters. Maybe I’m reading too much into this, but my assumption is that the main event can’t be all that compelling if this is how they’re marketing the show.

• The boxing community as a whole has been critical of many of the things Arum has done and said over the last few months, but you have to give credit where it’s due: The man made a bold move taking the Pacquiao-Mosley fight to Showtime’s pay-per-view arm, and the potential prefight prime-time exposure on CBS might prove a significant forward step for boxing. Just cross all of your fingers and toes that Mosley turns back the clock and offers a competitive performance, because attracting first-time pay-per-view customers doesn’t do the sport much good if they’re also last-time pay-per-view customers.

• Video Daily Double: Did you hear how many times DeMarcus Corley was knocked down by Lucas Matthysse on Friday night?

• Important alert for Ring Theory fans: The show is no longer affiliated with RingTV.com and will no longer be linked on the home page, and this week’s brand new episode will explain in detail all the news regarding the future of the show. We’ll also have RING Editor-in-Chief Nigel Collins on for a guest appearance, we’ll preview Timothy Bradley vs. Devon Alexander and we might even use a few swear words. So do yourself a solid and check it out.

Eric Raskin can be reached at RaskinBoxing@yahoo.com. You can read his articles each month in THE RING magazine and follow him on Twitter @EricRaskin.

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