Thanks to the antics this week in advance of his HBO return Saturday, we have a new variant on the old riddle about the 800 pound gorilla: What weight does Julio Cesar Chavez, Jr. fight at? A: Whatever weight he wants to. For a sport that has been around under the Queensberry rules for more than 100 years, boxing somehow continues to innovate new offenses, with Chavez's ever-shifting weight target — it's up to 173 pounds as of this writing, but what will it be Friday afternoon? — the latest.
That he's doing it to an honest pug in Brian Vera who is eager for the paycheck both compounds and enables the offense. That this could otherwise be a fight we might be looking forward to were it at middleweight makes it yet more galling. The last time we saw Chavez, after all, he was engineering one of the most unlikely and mind-blowing 12th round rallies you'll see, in what ultimately was a loss to 160-pound champion Sergio Martinez. Chavez's last name and brawling style have made him popular, one of the bigger ticket and ratings draws on U.S. soil. His spoiled brat routine was old long ago, and bending Vera over and making him take 163 then 168 then 173 then ? has gone some way toward spoiling interest.
At least the HBO undercard offers a potential brawl, too, and one unsullied by malfeasance. Newly crowned light heavyweight champion Adonis Stevenson takes on rugged contender Tavoris Cloud in a meeting of big punchers, although of two variants. Stevenson is explosive, Cloud strong. As basic as Cloud is, he's still sturdy and hits harder than the man Stevenson took the 175-pound crown from, Chad Dawson, in what was Stevenson's debut against a light heavyweight of at least contender caliber. Cloud can expose Stevenson as a natural super middleweight who caught the champ a division higher at a vulnerable point in his career, if that's what Stevenson is. And Stevenson can make a statement by stopping Cloud, if he can manage that. It will be bombs away until we see which is which.
JULIO CESAR CHAVEZ, JR.-BRIAN VERA
Chavez would have been the favorite at any weight, but the extra pounds all but assure victory. Chavez was a massive middleweight and he'll be a massive light heavyweight, too, I suspect. Vera has fought junior middleweights and been stopped, and has fought super middleweights and been stopped, although only once each. What's more, Vera hasn't beaten anyone on Chavez's level, which isn't exclusively down to weight; Chavez's size helped him become a middleweight contender, mind you, but he's also improved his boxing over the years and has serious power and punch resistance. OK, those last two might also be related to his size, but the point is, Vera has never beaten anyone at a time when that person could be considered a contender.
That's why he was chosen for the assignment, in part, to give Chavez an assignment he can pass in his return to the ring after a year-long layoff (originally it was to be slightly less than a year, but then he got cut in sparring, or was fat, or both, so Chavez-Vera was delayed). Vera was so underwhelming in his last showing against Donatas Bondorovas, in fact, that he nearly lost the fight entirely, because if Vera isn't flashing "might upset someone on a good day" form (he twice bumped off Sergio Mora, for example), and instead is flashing "fringe contender who struggles with other fringe contender" form, then how can you offer this up as anything at all? That goes to the other part of why he got the Chavez assignment, which is that he's happy to slug, so it figured to be entertaining as long as it lasted.
So, uh, how does Vera make a fight out of this? Let's say somehow that Chavez's typically lazy, decadent training camp, complete with pot-smoking and Fruit Loops, adds in some Twinkies and beer to become lazier and more decadent still. Let's say with his father in his corner instead of former trainer Freddie Roach, he basically didn't train at all and tuned out his pa. And let's say the slow, pressuring, power-punching Vera figures out how to dance and dodge Chavez the way the quick and nimble Martinez did, maybe aided by Chavez being more lumbering than usual…
…in other words, he can't. Chavez stops him after he takes too severe a pummeling, around round 8 or 9. P.S. There was no way HBO or Top Rank were going to stop this farce. Even an audience diminished by the controversy is going to produce more of an audience than most fighters would, thereby making each party money, so that means it would've been up to Vera to pull out — which he wasn't going to do, either — or California regulators to pull the plug, something that would be hard for them to do if both fighters agree to fight under mutual conditions. There's no incentive for anyone here to "do the right thing," so unless someone wants to make a rule at the state level saying you can't change the weight on fight week, there's not a soul here that was going to put a halt to this. It's unfortunate. The only thing that will change a situation like this going forward absent an unlikely rule-making is if fans don't tune in or buy tickets this time, which in turn would give Top Rank and HBO motive to leash Chavez. We'll see if either thing happens in sufficient percentage to change the balance.
ADONIS STEVENSON-TAVORIS CLOUD
Of the two men, Stevenson is the more athletic even at age 36 and the more technically capable. Cloud is naturally bigger and more resilient. Stevenson was stopped, lest we forget, in 2010 by gatekeeper Darnell Boone, even though he later avenged the loss. We got no sense of whether Stevenson could take punches from a big light heavyweight from the mere seconds of Stevenson-Dawson that ended in the 1st round on one big overhand left. It was a Knockout of the Year contender that suggested at least some of Stevenson's vaunted 168-pound power carried up, although it's not clear how much. Those mysteries give Stevenson-Cloud some of its life, because Cloud can take a shot from big light heavies and he can give one.
Stevenson's clear advantages — speed, athleticism, technique — are not profound. His hands will be faster, and he'll maneuver around the ring better, and he'll dodge punches better when he gives it a thought, although he also won't be confused for Floyd Mayweather. The southpaw stance doesn't hurt, either. I suspect he has the bigger one-punch power even at 175, but it's hard to tell from the Dawson fight. Dawson might've just gotten caught cold, or he might still have been feeling the physical effects of having shrunk down to 168 for his previous fight and taking a pasting from Andre Ward.
The fighters who have given Cloud the most trouble are Bernard Hopkins and Gabriel Campillo, two pure boxers, and that ain't Stevenson. Stevenson is not a counterpuncher by nature, although he can fight going backward a little. Against tough but reasonably clever grinders who couldn't punch all that hard, Glen Johnson and Clinton Woods, Cloud fared well enough to win, more narrowly against Johnson than Woods despite identical scores on all six cards of 116-112. Those wins were good enough to make him a real contender, but both also showed that the guy who was knocking people out left and right wasn't the heavy hitter maybe we thought he was. Since 2009 he has just one knockout, against Yusaf Mack; only some of that is aided by a skeletal schedule. He was able to drop Campillo, at least, which indicates his power isn't all an illusion.
One hesitates to suggest that a power puncher like Stevenson is good for anyone, but if the doctor ordered anything for Cloud, it's a fighter who will mix it up with him rather than make him look like a toddler trying to work a Transformer. Cloud is at his best when he can get off volume punches working behind a high guard, something he'll have an easier time doing against Stevenson than he did against Campillo and Hopkins. Campillo also was a southpaw, though, something we saw give Cloud trouble and something that his camp focused heavily upon in advance of the bout. According to the Cloud team, he had become complacent after getting to a high level and he'll be back to the condition he needs to be in for Stevenson.
Count me sold on Stevenson's power at 175, which is no damn good for Cloud's chances. He'll have enough cleverness to set up that power and enough defense to avoid getting badly hurt by Cloud before he can drop the hammer. Stevenson by mid-to-late rounds knockout. And like Chavez in California for the split site doubleheader, Stevenson has the home turf advantage in Canada in the event it goes to the final bell, which it very well might based on Cloud's ability to catch. But I figure he gets at least dropped.