Publish date:

Chacon was from hunger

The featherweight champ steamed and starved and finally made the limit. But there was the well-fed challenger just licking his chops

Bobby Chacon, the featherweight champion of the world, stared down at his dinner plate in disgust. It contained three slices of tomato and some lettuce—all untouched. There was also a small mound of pieces of sirloin. The steak had been chewed, but not swallowed. "It's just not worth all this torture," Chacon said sadly. "I'm so weak I can't keep my balance. Fight? Huh, I can't even walk."

Two nights later—last Friday at the Forum in Los Angeles—Chacon, painfully thin and woefully weak, would fall under the fists of Ruben Olivares. It would take less than six minutes and although he would make more than $150,000 it would cost him the World Boxing Council title. And he would smile and say, "It was some fine way to end a crash diet."

But now, as Chacon stared down at the remains of his dinner in the small dining room of the Pico-Burnside Baths in downtown Los Angeles, there was only pain and the thought that he would have to endure it for another 48 hours.

Two weeks before the fight, Chacon had weighed 140 pounds. That's 14 pounds more than a featherweight is allowed. He had boxed more than 200 training rounds and put in another 150 on the heavy bag, but it just wasn't doing the job.

"For breakfast he was having two poached eggs and dry toast," said Fran Ginn, his manager and brother-in-law. "So we took away the toast. Then we took away the eggs."

And they headed for the steam rooms at Ellis Pasovoy's baths. Each night an attendant would beat Chacon with a whip of eucalyptus leaves to open his pores. Then he would turn up the heat. "Look," complained the attendant, "I've lost 16 pounds since I met the guy."

For Chacon, the loss in weight was much less dramatic. Three days before the fight he was still six pounds over the limit and the strength which had brought him 24 knockouts in 27 fights was fading fast. "I can't stand it," he said. "I can't eat, I can't sleep. I'm dying of thirst. It's like I'm pregnant: I've got cravings. All I can think about is hot dogs and root beer."

"Bobby has always had a weight problem," said Ginn. "I remember when he fought Danny Lopez in a non-title bout last year. Bobby would go to bed and then three guys would sit there to keep him away from the icebox. Sometimes we had to tackle him. There were some wild nights."

The problem is simple—in the three years the 23-year-old Chacon has been fighting professionally he has matured into a natural lightweight. But when a fighter steps up in class, which Chacon now surely must, he often has to start over down the list. "But I've been at the bottom before," Chacon says wryly. "The real bottom. Dope, stealing, one step away from them closing the door on me."

That was in high school and all Chacon's fights were on the street. He carried a blackjack in his lunch pail. He had been arrested for stealing, for possession of drugs. One day he took on four guys in an alley and his girl friend Valery, now his wife, said she had had enough. "You want to fight, go to a gym," she said. "Or just go away."

Chacon went to the gym. "The only thing in the world I was afraid of was losing her," he said. He won his first 19 fights, was stopped by Olivares two years ago, and then won the next seven—two of them title bouts. Now he had to face Olivares again, the jaunty Mexican playboy who at 28 seemed just a step away from obscurity.

Olivares is a folk hero of Mexico, but he has been slipping badly the last few years, with only an occasional bright moment. Twice the bantam champion, he had won and then lost the featherweight title in 1974. A crunching hooker with either hand, he had scored 70 knockouts in 83 fights, but when he moved up in weight class his punches became less deadly, which is not unusual. He lost confidence in his hooks and became a boxer, circling instead of boring in as he had in the past. He has a fondness for tequilla, for muchachas and for the cucaracha, and when Olivares did train, which wasn't often, it was without spirit.

"But not this time," said Armando Muniz, a friend and U.S. welterweight champion. "Olivares is training at about 80%, and that is 25 more than he has ever done. He's even quit drinking, except for a couple of beers."

Word of a serious Olivares filtered back to Mexico, where he still ranks right up there with Benito Juarez. Mexicans ask their fighters to be brave, not sober. Now in Olivares they had both, if only for a brief spell. Still, they forgave him. "In Mexico, people don't care what Ruben does with his life," said Ramon Marques, a writer for Excelsior of Mexico City. "The history of our boxing is that the boxer-drunks are the most popular because the poor people like to drink a little, too. They like to see that their heroes are just like them. Some people say Olivares is a bad example, that he has three houses with two wives and a lover and five, six, seven kids. But the poor people would like to have that, too."

On the night before the fight, while Olivares relaxed in his hotel room, Chacon spent an hour and a half in a sauna. He staggered out at 129, three pounds away. The next morning he went back. And then came the 10:30 a.m. weigh-in. Olivares was there two hours early, stretched out on a couch in the Forum lobby.

"You going to make 126?" Promoter Don Fraser asked Chacon.

"I'll probably make 120."

They weighed Olivares first. He came in at 125¼. Then Chacon stripped down. Olivares looked at him wide-eyed.

"My God, he looks like a survivor of the Bataan Death March," said Jack Disney, a Forum publicity man.

"He's so thin," said Valery, the champion's wife, "I could wrap my arms around him two or three times."

Chacon stepped on the white Detecto scale. It read 124½ pounds. "They boiled him too long," said a stunned reporter. "He's a whole pound and a half under. It's stupid."

Olivares was grinning. "He said he was going to knock me out in three rounds. Well, I just saw him. I'll knock him out in one or two."

"Ruben's wife could knock him out," someone said.

"Which wife?" someone asked.

With Chacon in under the limit, the Forum quickly sold its last 3,000 seats. That put the live gate over $400,000, a record for a featherweight fight anywhere. For his share, Olivares would receive $60,000, plus all the TV and radio rights in Mexico.

By fight time close to 19,000 people had jammed into the Forum and the large security force eyed them nervously. The cops were wisely wearing white crash helmets; Mexican fight fans have been known to dismantle arenas. Occasionally, they set the Forum on fire—one night they set 50—but this time they were content just with firecrackers and cherry bombs, most of which went off to accompany a long version of the Mexican national anthem.

Then the bell rang. Chacon came out slowly, almost wearily, wearing a curious, lopsided smile of disdain. Olivares banged him, and Chacon winced. "It was my first punch and he buckled," Olivares said later. "I knew then it would not last long."

Reverting to his old style, Olivares bored in, firing with both hands. Chacon fought like a man sleepwalking. He did nothing except survive. He went back to his corner, sighed and said, "It's going to be a long night."

But it wasn't. Olivares came out swinging and dropped Chacon with a crushing left. "Why wait," he said. "Twice in the first round I grabbed him and pulled. He offered no resistance. I knew how weak he was." Chacon lay with his head resting on the lower strand of the ropes, staring up at Referee Larry Rozadilla. Slowly he pulled himself up at the count of eight. Thirty seconds later he was down again. Once more he staggered to his feet. Then Olivares penned his foe in a corner and started banging away to the head with both hands. Chacon was defenseless. Rozadilla stepped in and stopped the fight. It was a wise move.

Later Chacon sat in his dressing room and wondered where his strength had gone. Except for a slight bruise, his handsome face was unmarked. "I had nothing. My legs were gone. I was awful," he said.

Then he looked up and grinned. "But I guess everyone could see that, couldn't they?"


Boring in confidently, Ruben Olivares (left) figured, "Why wait? I knew how weak he was."