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Original Issue

Head Case

Julio Cèsar Chàvez got his title back thanks to Frankie Randall's noggin

This latest boxing promotion is a kind of annuity, a never-ending series of rematches that will provide the fighters with income and the fans with excitement for years to come. The premise will never go away, the superiority will never be ascertained. Julio Cèsar Chàvez and Frankie Randall will just keep fighting each other. Like the hapless hero in Groundhog Day, neither will ever escape the smothering reality of the present.

Although Chàvez regained his title in Saturday night's super lightweight fight, beating the only man who ever dropped him to his seat, plans were instantly afoot for Chàvez-Randall III. Even as a deep gash on the forehead of Chàvez was being repaired, promoter Don King, whose Spanish is no more predictable than his English, reported that the Mexican fighter was demanding a second rematch. "He told me," King said in translation, "that 'I don't want it this way. Let's have another rematch.' "

Although, as it turned out, there was much bafflement over what Chàvez did or did not say at the end of the fight, there is little doubt that there will be yet another meeting of these two fighters. This one was totally inconclusive. The WBC title that Randall had wrested from Chàvez in January in a stunning upset—Chàvez's only loss in 91 fights—was returned via accidental head butt. Leading in the eighth round on two of the three judges' scorecards, Randall tried to duck a right hand, bowed to dig at Chàvez's body and, in rising, tore a hole in Chàvez's forehead with his own noggin. Chàvez winced and turned away. And that was that.

As in any King production, there was resultant confusion. Ring doctor Flip Homansky did say, "It was my recommendation that the fight not continue." Then again, he said that Chàvez influenced his decision by shaking his head twice. "If he felt he could continue," said the doctor, "I probably would have let him." Chàvez's trainer, Emanuel Steward, thought his fighter might have "panicked" in choosing to discontinue. But Chàvez said he stopped on Steward's say-so.

Well, it was a nasty cut; let's let it go at that. A point was deducted from Randall for the head butt in the eighth-round scoring, and Chàvez came away with a split decision by exactly that point. It was not a satisfying result. "I don't like winning this way," Chàvez said in the ring. Except for a huge crowd of Mexican partisans who were in Las Vegas as part of a Cinco de Mayo weekend, nobody was pleased. O.K., King seemed happy. "The only thing fitting and proper," said the man who has had to do without Mike Tyson as a cash machine for too long, "is to dance again."

King should always be so lucky. His hyperbole often obscures the merits of his events, but this time the worth shone through. Altogether, there were four title fights on the card, all rematches appealing enough to qualify as a feature event. There was, for example, Terry Norris's dismantling of Simon Brown to reclaim his WBC super welterweight title. Norris altered his slugging persona, which had gotten him in trouble with Brown the first time around, and boxed his way to a 12-round unanimous decision over a bemused Brown. Brown, who apparently has made his living boxing statuary, complained, "He just wouldn't stand still at all." It was a satisfying tango for everybody else, especially Gerald McClellan, who needed only 83 seconds to knock out Julian Jackson and retain his WBC middleweight title.

But what a dance the night's final event proved to be. Randall was the same sharpshooter who had floored Chàvez the first time and was willing to trade punches with the infighter as before. Steward, who had predicted Randall would beat Chàvez in the first fight, explained that Randall is the kind of guy who would have given Chàvez trouble even in his youthful prime. "Fast hands, fast feet," said Steward. "And he punches harder than Pernell Whitaker and is tougher mentally." Analysis holds.

Chàvez, who was so lax before the first Randall fight that he couldn't limit himself to less than three beers after each training session, was astonishingly abstinent this time around. "I tried to have wine with dinner one night," said Steward, who trained Chàvez for nearly two months in Toluca, Mexico, "and he wouldn't let me. No alcohol in camp. At all."

Chàvez's discipline revealed itself in the ring. Even as Randall peppered him—staggered him badly in the second round—Chàvez was able to react with enough of his trademark shots to the body to forestall any momentum. Randall seemed to batter him every other round, damaging him in the corners, but then Chàvez would reverse the fight with his infighting liver blows.

After the fight Chàvez revealed his game plan. He said he was going to wait until the 10th of the 12 rounds to pick up the pace. He knew that he couldn't match Randall punch for punch in the meantime; he simply had to wait and wear him out. It's a game plan that had kept Chàvez champion in any number of weight classes for 10 years. But it didn't work against Randall the first time, and it might not have worked this time. Or maybe it would have started working in Round 10.

Randall, who had been somewhat grouchy in the prefight buildup as he found, himself being cast as both champion and challenger—Chàvez made $1.5 million to Randall's $1 million—fought like a man who wanted to put this issue, and Chàvez, to rest. The way he fought Chàvez made it hard to believe his was a career derailed by a few key losses and a drug conviction. He's 32, and his recent effort certainly deserved more than the role of foil. But he was not especially resentful afterward. He was so looking forward to escaping Chàvez's presence, for however long, that he didn't seem to mind the circumstances. "I've got a big red 'vette that Don King bought me. I want to drive that, I want to buy my daddy a tombstone and I want to enjoy a honeymoon." That odd agenda cleared, it will be back to business with Chàvez.

Chàvez, meanwhile, is driven by a cultural imperative that is virtually impossible to understand in the United States. Steward thought he understood what kind of force a hero can be—Muhammad Ali, Michael Jordan. But they are nothing compared to Chàvez's presence in Mexico. "I can tell you that when he appears, he blocks streets," said Steward. A city is discombobulated by his appearance; his popularity is such that there are always exhibitions to be had, visits to be made. And Chàvez enjoys it just enough to keep traffic suspended in whatever city he visits.

But it's not just fan worship that distinguishes Chàvez from ordinary sports stars. Luis Donaldo Colosio, the presidential candidate of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, had spoken on the telephone with Chàvez on the very day he was assassinated in Tijuana. Ernesto Zedillo, the man chosen to succeed Colosio and who is most likely to become the next president of Mexico, reportedly had to seek Chàvez's blessing before his candidacy was announced. "He's like the godfather," said Steward. "What he is in Mexico, there's nothing like him in America."

For years there has been nothing like him in boxing. But he is 31, and the toll of too many increasingly hard and close fights diminishes him yearly. Perhaps Randall is just that special talent to close the door on this legend. But who knows how many rematches still lie down the road? Last Saturday it was strange and sad to watch Chàvez's corner, where two of his sons were following the fight. The younger hid his head each time the bell sounded for his father to do battle. How long before the rest of us can't bear to watch either?



In the eighth, Randall, ducking a punch, accidentally head butted Chàvez and ended the fight.



Chàvez reclaimed his belt while King (left) was already spouting off about another rematch.