Ex-Boxing Champ Steps Back Into Spotlight As A Face Of Addiction

Ex-Boxing Champ Steps Back Into Spotlight As A Face Of Addiction

10:56am Mar 21, 2015
Julio Cesar Chavez at his home in Tijuana, Mexico.
Julio Cesar Chavez at his home in Tijuana, Mexico.
Carrie Kahn / NPR
  • Julio Cesar Chavez at his home in Tijuana, Mexico.

    Julio Cesar Chavez at his home in Tijuana, Mexico.

    Carrie Kahn / NPR

  • Julio Cesar Chavez of Mexico stands in his corner after receiving a head butt from Frankie Randall in the eighth round of their 1994 WBC Super Lightweight Championship fight. The scheduled 12 round fight was stopped after the incident, and the judges awar

    Julio Cesar Chavez of Mexico stands in his corner after receiving a head butt from Frankie Randall in the eighth round of their 1994 WBC Super Lightweight Championship fight. The scheduled 12 round fight was stopped after the incident, and the judges awar

    John Gurzinski / AFP/Getty Images

In Mexico, the problem of drug trafficking is well publicized, but you can't say the same when it comes to the problem of drug addiction.

While nowhere near the levels seen in the U.S., Mexico is battling a growing problem — in the past decade illicit drug use has grown by more than a third.

While millions admit to using marijuana, cocaine and meth, addiction is not talked about openly, especially among the country's rich or famous, but one former champion boxer has set out to change the image of recovering addicts and rehabilitation.

Rise Out Of Poverty

In the 1980s and '90s, Julio Cesar Chavez was known for his strong chin, feared for his left hook and widely called one of the greatest "pound-for-pound" fighters of his era — and one of the greatest Mexican boxers of all time.

His rise to fame is truly a rags-to-riches story. He was one of 11 children, and his family was so poor for a time that they lived in an abandoned train caboose. His mother washed and ironed clothes for a living. Chavez says that he started fighting when he was 8 years old, and that he always dreamed of making enough money to buy her a home.

With six world titles in three weight divisions and more than 80 career knockouts, Chavez bought her the house and much more.

"I had it all — money, women, fame, cars, yachts, everything a man could want — but it didn't give my life meaning," says Chavez. "I felt nothing. So what did I do? The most stupidest thing I could."

He found refuge in drugs and alcohol.

'That's When The Failures Began, The Defeats'

In the living room of his home in Tijuana, Mexico, sitting in an overstuffed leather reclining chair, Chavez is surrounded by prizefighting photos and championship belts.

One of the framed pictures depicts what Chavez says was his most famous fight. It's a shot of him and Meldrick Taylor in the ring in 1990 in Las Vegas. Chavez had been trailing most of the fight, but with seconds left on the clock in the final round he landed a solid right and sent Taylor tumbling. The ref stopped the fight, giving Chavez the win.

YouTube

Despite the dramatic victory, Chavez says that drinking and drugs soon began to get the best of him.

"At first I [could] control it, but I just needed more alcohol and more cocaine and more and more," he says. "That when the problems really started. That's when the failures began, the defeats."

Four years later, against Frankie Randall in Las Vegas, Chavez took a solid blow in the 11th round, getting knocked to the ground for the first time in his career.

YouTube

Chavez would go on to lose five more fights before retiring in 2005. He says he spent many more years after that addicted. His marriage ended, some of his friendships were ruined and his health suffered.

Then four years ago, while at a doctor's office and anesthetized for a procedure for his ulcers, his son called an ambulance and took him, unconscious, to rehab.

"I woke up in the clinic in a room with the IV still in my arm, and I just ripped it out and started cussing at everyone," says Chavez.

But he stayed for nearly 6 months — and has been clean since.

An Anti-Addiction Ambassador

At 5-foot-7 and looking fit and trim, Chavez says addiction is not talked about openly in Mexico, and that the public is not forgiving of its fallen stars. They suffer alone for fear of criticism, he says. But that hasn't stopped him from telling his story or from helping out addicts.

At Clinica Bajo del Sol in Tijuana, a rehab center Chavez opened, some 40 men and women say a prayer before dinner. The spectacular view of the Pacific Ocean contrasts with the coils of barbed wire topping the entire facility's high brick walls.

Clinic psychologist Guillermo Rangel Mendoza says that Chavez frequently shares his story with the patients, which helps, but that the types of drugs taking off in Mexico in recent years — including meth, heroin and Ecstasy — weren't problems back in Chavez's days.

The surge in the use of designer drugs here frightens Chavez. He recently opened another a clinic in Sinaloa, and says he wants to open at least two more as soon as possible.

Julio Cesar Chavez of Mexico stands in his corner after receiving a head butt from Frankie Randall in the eighth round of their 1994 WBC Super Lightweight Championship fight. The scheduled 12 round fight was stopped after the incident, and the judges awarded the fight to Chavez.

Julio Cesar Chavez of Mexico stands in his corner after receiving a head butt from Frankie Randall in the eighth round of their 1994 WBC Super Lightweight Championship fight. The scheduled 12 round fight was stopped after the incident, and the judges awarded the fight to Chavez.

John Gurzinski/AFP/Getty Images

He seems to be changing Mexico's perception of recovered addicts. Earlier this year, a 20-foot bronze statue of Chavez went up in the main square in his boyhood home of Culiacan, the capital of Sinoloa. He's now a regular analyst on ESPN en Espanol and on TV Azteca in Mexico. And President Enrique Pena Nieto dubbed him an "anti-addiction ambassador" at a recent conference on combating Mexico's growing drug problem.

"I felt excited, happy and proud," says Chavez about the recent accolades. "At the same time I feel the pressure, the commitment. I really have to stay clean now."

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. The problem of drug trafficking in Mexico is well-publicized. Drug addiction, less so. While nowhere near the level seen in the United States, Mexico is battling a growing problem. In the past decade, illicit drug use has grown by more than a third. Millions of Mexicans admit to using marijuana but cocaine and meth addiction is not talked about openly, especially among the country's rich and or famous. As NPR's Carrie Kahn reports, one former champion boxer has set out to change the image of recovering addicts and rehabilitation.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: He's known for his strong chin and feared for his left hook. During his reign in the 1980s and '90s, he was widely called pound-for-pound the greatest fighter.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Introducing in the red corner, fighting out of Culiacan, Mexico - super lightweight champion of the world, Julio Cesar Chavez.

(APPLAUSE)

KAHN: It was an amazing rise to fame. Raised with 10 siblings and living in an abandoned train caboose, his mother washed and ironed clothes for a living, Chavez says he started fighting young to help her out and dreamed of buying her a home. With six world titles in three weight divisions and more than 80 career knockouts, Chavez was able to buy her the house and much more.

JULIO CESAR CHAVEZ: (Through interpreter) I had it all - money, women, fame, cars, yachts. Everything a man could want, but it didn't give my life meaning. I felt nothing. So what did I do? The most stupidest thing I could.

KAHN: Chavez says he found refuge in drugs and alcohol. We recently talked in the living room of his home in Tijuana, Mexico, sitting in overstuffed leather reclining chairs surrounded by prize fighting photos and championship belts.

CHAVEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: Chavez points to one picture, what he calls his most famous fight - against Meldrick Taylor, who he beat with just three seconds left on the clock. But Chavez says soon after, drinking and drugs began to get the best of him.

CHAVEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: At first, he says, he could control it, but then he needed more alcohol and more cocaine.

CHAVEZ: (Through interpreter) That's when the problems started. That's when the failures began, the defeats.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #2: One more look at the great Julio Cesar Chavez going down.

KAHN: It was 1994 against Frankie Randall in Las Vegas. Chavez suffered his first knockout. He would go on to lose five more before retiring in 2005, and he says he spent many more years addicted. His marriage ended, friendships ruined and his health suffered. Then four years ago while at a doctor's office for a procedure for his ulcers, while under anesthesia, his son called an ambulance and took him unconscious to rehab.

CHAVEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "I woke up in the clinic in a room with the IV still in my arm and I just ripped it out and started cussing at everyone," says Chavez. But in the end, he stayed for nearly six months and has been clean since. At five-seven and looking fit and trim, Chavez says addiction is not talked about openly in Mexico. He says the public is not forgiving of its fallen stars.

CHAVEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "They suffer alone," he says, "because they fear criticism." That hasn't stopped him from telling his story or helping out addicts.

Some 40 men and women say a prayer before dinner at Clinica Bajo del Sol in Tijuana. Chavez opened the rehab center high on a hill with a spectacular view of the Pacific Ocean. That's once you look past the coils of barbed wire atop the entire ground's high brick walls. Clinic psychologist Guillermo Rangel Mendoza says Chavez frequently shares his story with the patients, and it helps.

GUILLERMO RANGEL MENDOZA: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: But Rangel says the types of drugs taking off in Mexico in recent years like meth, heroin and ecstasy weren't problems back in Chavez's days. The surge in designer drug use here frightens Chavez. He recently put a clinic in Sinaloa and says he wants to open at least two more as soon as possible. And he seems to be changing Mexico's perception of recovered addicts. Earlier this year, a 20-foot bronze statue of Chavez went up in the main square in his boyhood home of Culiacan. He's now a regular analyst on ESPN en Espanol and on TV Azteca in Mexico. And President Henrique Pena Nieto dubbed him anti-addiction ambassador at a recent conference to combat Mexico's growing drug problem.

CHAVEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "I felt excited, happy and proud," says Chavez about the recent accolades. But he adds, "at the same time I feel the pressure, the commitment. I really have to stay clean now." Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Tijuana. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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