Saturday, June 15, 2024

Boxing in Mexico: A legacy of champions

It’s the year 1918 in Tampico, a port city on the Gulf Coast. In front of a local bordello is a set of 4 chairs surrounded by a crowd of spectators. Two seafaring men have napkins wrapped around their knuckles. Sweat pours from their temples as their biceps flex. When the sailors lift their fists, the crowd roars. The signal sounds and the anticipated fight for that evening’s drinking money commences. The first Mexican boxers have just been born.

Even though boxing is thousands of years old by this time, Mexico is just getting started. Fast forward over a century later and Mexican athletes reign supreme. Their technique is characterized by close-range combat and intricate combinations, as well as unyielding pressure on their opponents. They are relentless and resilient in the ring, a description often attributed to the country’s national identity. 

Mexican boxers
Boxing is a national passion, and thousands attend boxing classes across Mexico. (Mario Jasso/Cuartoscuro)

David Hanes-González is a Chicano photographer who created a series about boxers in Mexico, No Te Dejes, and described them as “having the most heart and always moving forward in the ring”.

Perhaps the “work hard, fight hard” mentality needed to overcome daily life in parts of Mexico is the reason more boxing champions were born here than any country in the world. Some names you might know, like Chávez, and others you may not, like Jackie Nava. Jalisco’s Saúl “Canelo” Alvarez is presently one of the sport’s top contenders. 

But do you know who the most important Mexican fighters are?

Who is Julio César Chávez?

Julio Cesar Chavez Career Highlights

In short, one of the greatest boxers of all time.

The long version starts in Ciudad Obregon, his birthplace. His father’s job as a railway worker took the family of 2 parents and 10 children to Culiacán where they lived in an abandoned train car. Chávez’s four older brothers started boxing against his mother’s will, and Julio fell quickly in line. 

Even though he trained at the same gym as his brothers, he kept it hidden by attending at different hours. One day, his brother Rodolfo arrived at a local tournament to hand out trophies to the winners. Imagine his surprise when he looked into the ring and saw his little brother throwing punches. 

Julio won that bout by decision, and from there his career as a boxer exploded. He went from making 250 pesos a fight to over US $10 million. He won his first world title in 1984 and enjoyed a 13-year winning streak. Chavez retired in 2005 with 107 wins and only 6 losses.

His personal life has mostly been kept under wraps. Chavez briefly dated actress Salma Hayek before marrying Amalia Carrasco, with whom he had two sons who are also professional boxers. His addiction to alcohol and cocaine may have been the catalyst for their divorce. In 2014 he married his current wife Myriam with whom he had a daughter. In 2017, his brother was murdered during a home robbery, prompting Chavez to speak publicly against crime and corruption in Mexico. He currently works as an analyst for ESPN and TV Azteca.

Who is Saul “Canelo” Alvarez?

20 Minutes Of Canelo Alvarez's Best Moments In The Ring

At 5’9 and 168 lbs, the red-haired, fiery fighter from Guadalajara is presently one of the world’s best boxers. He is the undisputed super middleweight champion and has won 39 of his 60 professional bouts by knockout. He started his boxing journey at the age of 13, following in the footsteps of his 6 older brothers, all of whom ventured into professional fighting. 

Canelo broke onto the international scene when he played undercard at a Floyd Mayweather Jr. fight in Las Vegas, effectively crushing three-division world champion Shane Mosley. He continued to rise in popularity, even when a 6-month ban from a failed drug test kept him out of the ring. 

One of the biggest reasons for his jump to international fame is his dedication to learning English. He also improved his skill on the golf course, where he also often dominates. In an interview with Marca, Canelo revealed “The truth is that I always practice with my golf friends, I’m playing with them, I practice, I speak a lot of English and now I say, if I make a mistake, it doesn’t matter”. Canelo confidently conducts interviews with English-speaking reporters and, more importantly, talks trash English speaking fighters like Demetrius Aldadre in the press room. 

Want to watch Canelo in action? He will be up against Tijuana-born Jaime Munguía on May 4, 2024 in Las Vegas. The fight will be live-streamed on Prime Video and accessible from Mexico on ESPN and TV Azteca.

Who is Oscar de la Hoya?

Oscar De La Hoya | Top Knockouts, HD

Los Angeles born De la Hoya started boxing at the tender age of 6. His grandfather had been an amateur boxer and his father a professional before De la Hoya’s parents moved from Mexico to the US. In 1992 he won the Gold medal at the Barcelona Olympics granting him the nickname “Golden Boy” and kickstarting a very successful career in the ring. By age 24, he was earning up to US$20 million per fight. At 28, he became the youngest boxer ever to win five world titles. 

Life seemed equally as exciting outside of the ring. His good looks attracted the likes of Miss USA Shanna Moakler and Puerto Rican singer and model Millie Corretjer, both of whom he married. He dabbled in entertainment, releasing an album called “Oscar” in 2000 and receiving a Grammy nomination for his song “Ven a Mi”. In 2002 he started a successful promotion agency that now represents multiple champions in boxing. 

In 2023, HBO released “The Golden Boy,” a documentary about de la Hoya’s life. Reviews are mixed about the authenticity of the boxer’s confessions, seemingly in line with the way he’s presented himself to the media during past controversies. Despite this, de la Hoya remains a popular character, and represents both Mexico and the United States in the ring.

Who is Jackie Nava?

Jackie Nava vs Alys "La China" Sanchez

Tiny and fast, Jackie Nava’s name is well-known in the world of women’s fighting. Her small size is somewhat ironic — as a child she was drawn to combat sports after a gym teacher called her chubby. She started with karate which led her to Limalama, Muay Thai, and kickboxing. Her professional boxing debut came in 2001 when she beat Vicky Cozy in Honolulu. 

Despite her petite 5 ‘3 stature, Nava holds world championship titles across two weight classes and is affectionately called “La Princesa Azteca”. She retired in 2022 at 42 years of age with almost as many victories, finishing with a total of 40 wins and 16 knockouts (or nocaut in Spanish, how cute is that). 

Nava has advocated for gender equality in fighting sports and inspired many Mexican women, including Flyweight champion and CDMX-born Yessica “Kika” Chávez, to pursue their passion. Now that she’s no longer throwing punches, Nava raises her two girls and works as an architect in her hometown of Tijuana.

Bethany Platanella is a travel planner and lifestyle writer based in Mexico City. She lives for the dopamine hit that comes directly after booking a plane ticket, exploring local markets, practicing yoga and munching on fresh tortillas. Sign up to receive her Sunday Love Letters to your inbox, peruse her blog, or follow her on Instagram.

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