LAS VEGAS -- A month ago at Mexico City's Azteca Stadium, Julio Cesar Chavez was greeted by the strangest sound he had ever heard. The four-time world champion was roundly booed by more than 100,000 of his countrymen after being introduced at an NFL preseason game between the Dallas Cowboys and Houston Oilers.
Witnesses said Chavez smiled weakly, trying to hide his dismay and damaged ego.
For more than a decade, while winning his first 89 professional fights and capturing titles at 130, 135 and 140 pounds, he was Mexico's patron saint of boxing, worshiped the same way American sports fans idolize Michael Jordan.
But now, preparing for tonight's super-lightweight title rematch against Meldrick Taylor at the MGM Grand Garden tonight, Chavez finds his pedestal among the sports greats is no longer secure.
Gladys Rosa, a veteran boxing publicist who serves as Chavez's interpreter, did her best to explain the champion's recent fall from grace.
"The Mexican people have not abandoned him," she insisted. "The adulation is still there, but they are trying to push him to greatness again. They want him to totally dedicate himself to fighting so that they can embrace him again."
Over the past 18 months, Chavez (90-1-1), once rated the best fighter "pound for pound" in the world, has appeared all too mortal.
A year ago, he exhibited serious signs of wear and tear in #F gaining a controversial draw with Pernell Whitaker, who kept his rival off-balance for 12 rounds.
Last January, "The Kid From Culiacan" suffered his first defeat and lost his junior-welterweight crown to unheralded Frankie Randall.
In their May rematch, Chavez benefited by some highly questionable judging to reclaim his title. The fight was stopped in the eighth round after Chavez suffered a deep gash resulting from an accidental clash of heads. When the scorecards were tallied, Chavez was the winner by split decision.
The criticism, from home and abroad, has put Chavez on the offensive before his rematch with Taylor.
"I am a human being. I never said I was a robot or Superman," he said. "Why is there so much criticism of me win or lose? I am not blaming Randall for the butt. It wasn't his fault or my fault. But I was ahead on the cards. I believe there is only so much controversy only because I am a Mexican.
"Some people now urge me to retire. But remember, great fighters like Muhammad Ali, Marvin Hagler and Ray Leonard also suffered defeats. I am only 32. I feel strong, and I'm in complete control of my faculties. I would like to keep fighting until I have my 100th victory. But if I lose, I'll lose fighting hard, with pride and dignity."
Despite his success, Chavez has never quite caught on with American boxing fans. The feeling is he would if he spoke their language.
Said Don King, his sole promoter since 1991: "If Julio spent more time in the States, I could merchandise him like crazy. I could make him a one-man Jurassic Park."
But that will not happen.
"Julio feels comfortable with who he is," said Boxing Illustrated editor and ring historian Bert Sugar. "And who he is is a boxing legend in Mexico. He comes into the ring with his sombrero and Mexican flag with the hopes of a nation on his shoulders.
"Yes, had he learned English, it would have helped his recognition on this side of this border. But Roberto Duran went through the same experience, and he's still fighting and popular with all the Latins."
Chavez is deeply proud of his Mexican roots. One of 10 children, he was raised in near poverty, living in a railroad car in Culiacan, a hardscrabble city of about 400,000.
Chavez recalled, "My father was a train conductor, but the government owned the railroad car, and we paid rent when we had enough money."
To help himself, the youthful Julio sold newspapers, washed cars and painted houses. He became a professional boxer at 18, and quickly earned a reputation as a fearless warrior.
Sergio Sandoval, who serves as his orthopedist, understands the love affair between the fighter and his fans. "Julio has single-handedly made the whole nation feel better about itself," he said. "He has shown that you can be poor like only Mexicans can be poor and rise above it."
Chavez is now a millionaire, but he has not abandoned his people. He still lives in Culiacan, where his designer-built home is a welcome oasis for family and friends.
It is Chavez's legions of fans that guarantee a sellout at the 16,000-seat MGM Grand Garden tonight.
Chavez's super-welterweight crown was about to tumble when referee Richard Steele ruled that a shaken Taylor, failing to respond to his questions after surviving a 12th-round knockdown, was unfit to continue. Only two seconds remained in the fight, triggering protests from Taylor and his cornermen, who figured he was assured of winning a decision.
Taylor has put that bitter experience behind him. He has tried to resurrect his career after suffering consecutive knockouts by junior-middleweights Terry Norris and Crisanto Espana in 1992.
"Chavez is on the decline and I'm on the incline," cracked the Philadelphia native who was an Olympic gold-medal winner in 1984.
Reunited with his original trainer, Willie Rush, and with daily counsel from his new manager, New Jersey attorney Michael Dansky, Taylor (32-3-1) has renewed confidence.
"I know me better, understand me better, understand the world hTC better," he said. "A lot of people think I'm washed up. But I can deal with any situation now. I'm more mature, wiser and stronger. And I will make history by becoming the first fighter to knock out Chavez."
Tough talk by Taylor. But unlike Chavez, he does not have a whole nation in his corner.
FIGHT CARD FACTS
When: Today, 5:45 p.m.
Where: MGM Grand Garden, Las Vegas
TV: Showtime, tape delay, beginning at 7 p.m.
* IBF junior middleweight champion Gianfranco Rosi, Italy, vs. Vincent Pettway, Baltimore.
* WBC super-welterweight champion Julio Cesar Chavez, Mexico, vs. Meldrick Taylor, Philadelphia.
* WBA junior welterweight champion Juan Coggi, Argentina, vs. Frankie Randall, Morristown, Tenn.
* IBF welterweight champion Felix Trinidad, Puerto Rico, vs. Ramon Campos, Mexico.
* WBC super-featherweight champion James Leija, San Antonio, Texas, vs. Gabriel Ruelas, Sylmar, Calif.
* WBC strawweight champion Ricardo Lopez, Mexico, vs. Yodsing Saengmorokot, Thailand.