Helter Skelter: The brutal rock ‘n’ roll ride of Bobby Chacon
29.01.06 - By MIKE CASEY: You pick up the disturbing sounds coming down the jungle wire and you never want to believe the terrible news that follows in their wake.
Article posted on 29.01.2006
When I heard that Jerry Quarry’s condition had deteriorated to the extent that he was no longer able to shave himself, it felt like a kick to the stomach. It was no less of a pleasant jolt to the system when I first learned that Bobby Chacon was similarly suffering from the ravages of pugilistic dementia and trying to make some bucks by rummaging around junkyards for aluminium cans.
Emotion is a private affair for me, which probably has much to do with turning fifty. Thankfully, I have never succumbed to the modern and supposedly therapeutic trend of telling every passing friend and acquaintance that I love them hugely. I take my grief in the same measured stride. I shed my tears privately and I can’t be a hypocrite and weep for those who don’t penetrate my heart.
Our sensitivities are probably as distinctive as our fingerprints and are entirely relative. The deaths of faceless thousands can make us shake our heads, but the plight of a familiar individual can turn us inside out. The news of Jerry Quarry’s decline was not so much of a shock to me as a confirmation of my worst suspicions, since the rumours about Jerry had been circulating for some time. By contrast, Bobby Chacon’s much storied private life was one of such constant turmoil and confusion that I eventually lost track of it until the wires began to buzz with those certain little hints and fragments of stories that tell you something isn’t at all right.
In my rare bursts of introspection, I wonder if my lifelong love of fighters is occasionally flawed. Do I forgive them of too much? Well, I like to think that I am not blindly allegiant. I have never bought into the theory that a man of courage and heroism should be given free license to do as he pleases. I didn’t have much sympathy for Tony Ayala when the authorities locked him up in the eighties and I finally ran out of patience with Mike Tyson. Grown men in their twenties and thirties cannot elicit sympathy by continuing to behave like ill-disciplined teenagers. Life might well be tough for a poor boy who suddenly has millions to spend, but don’t go telling that to a garbage man, a trucker, a beat cop or a stressed out paramedic. Never, though, have I allowed a fighter’s private affairs to affect my judgement of him in the ring.
Bobby Chacon was no angel in his heyday, as I am sure he would be the first to admit if he could still recollect even half the incidents in his storm-tossed life. But he has never struck this writer as a repugnant or inherently bad man. Like a thousand fighters before him, Bobby could never seem to balance the complexities of the everyday playing field with that unique square of real estate where the rules of engagement are so blissfully simple. He went off the rails many times, but most of the wounds he inflicted were upon himself. I would find it hard to believe that any compassionate god would regard the brutal removal of such a man’s dignity and presence of mind as poetic justice. There is something so bitterly cruel and ironic about a fighting man not being able to remember the one glorious and exceptional quality that set him apart from the rest. Floyd Patterson is now enveloped in such a fog and Ingemar Johansson is going the same way.
Hall of Fame
Bobby Chacon had one of the greatest fighting hearts of any boxer I have seen. When he was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2005, Angelo Dundee said of him, “Bobby Chacon is what I call a promoter’s insurance policy. Every time he was on the bill you had a great fight, and the fans got their money’s worth, win, lose or draw. And most of them were wins!”
Hank Kaplan, as knowledgeable a man as you will ever find on boxing, added his own tribute: “Chacon’s election to the Boxing Hall of Fame is a monument to courage, determination and pride, assets which carried him to dual world titles. A pleasing boxing style and crisp punching made him the most popular performer of his time.”
Bobby Chacon’s boxing career paralleled his life in its rich diversity and recurring themes. Paradoxically, he seemed to need the curious rush that comes from self-destruction to kick-start his motor and drive him on to the next incredible stop on the road. But for the first big crash, he would surely have been one of the greatest of the modern featherweights. He was racing towards the world championship when the wheels came off, yet they had already been loosened as far back as the amateurs.
They called Chacon The Schoolboy, but he fought like The Devil and always seemed to be fighting Old Nick at the same time. It was as if the dark alter-ego of Bobby Chacon was telling the true owner of his mind and soul that he didn’t deserve to succeed like other people. Bobby was already being investigated for use of narcotics when his application for an amateur boxing license was at first rejected. He became a two-time Diamond Belt champion when he finally got on track and made rapid progress when he turned pro under manager and trainer, Joe Ponce.
Chacon became the rebellious darling of the Southern California fight fraternity as he compiled a 19-0 slate and defeated tough cookies in Juan Montoya, Ray Echevarria and the dangerous Arturo Pineda. In 1973, Bobby secured a points win over Frankie Crawford and then twice floored former bantamweight champ Chucho Castillo on the way to posting a tenth round stoppage at the Great Western Forum in Inglewood.
The first setback of his career was certainly no disgrace, as the great Ruben Olivares was still an ambitious and frighteningly good fighter when he halted Bobby in nine rounds in June of that year.
Undeterred, Chacon powered on and balanced the books with a thrilling ninth round triumph over fellow danger man, Danny Lopez at the LA Sports Arena. Bobby was on his way to becoming the top dog of the division and captured his first world title with a TKO of Alfredo Marcano for the WBC featherweight crown. Chacon stormed through his first defence, knocking out Jesus Estrada in two rounds, but the alarm bells were already ringing.
Burning the candle at both ends meant that Bobby had to lose a lot of weight in short time for his eagerly anticipated rematch with Olivares, a famous bon viveur in his own right. It was Ruben who was pronounced to have the liver of a man of eighty when a doctor checked him out some years later. In 1975, however, the remarkably resilient Olivares could still drink like a fish and fight like a lion. He floored Chacon twice in the second round before referee Larry Rozadilla waved off the action.
At that stage in his career, Bobby Chacon appeared drained and wasted and the unlikeliest candidate for a memorable comeback. Astonishingly, his glory days were just beginning. When he dropped a decision to Rafael ‘Bazooka’ Limon six months later in Mexicali, one of the great boxing rivalries was born. The two men plainly didn’t like each other, and one has to wonder if that had something to do with their uncanny similarities. If Chacon ever had a soul mate in courage and adversity, it was surely the brawling, never-say-die Limon.
Neither man knew how to quit in the boxing ring. Both seemed obsessed with seeing how close they could walk to the edge of the cliff without toppling off. Chacon racked up fifteen successive victories before locking horns with Limon again in 1979, including wins over Arturo Leon, Gerald Hayes and the faded Olivares. An unsatisfactory and controversial technical draw after seven rounds only served to stoke the animosity between Bobby and Rafael.
In the meantime, Chacon’s private life was falling apart. In 1982, his wife Valerie, who had repeatedly urged Bobby to get out of the fight game, shot herself with a rifle. Beside himself with grief, Chacon hit back in the only way he knew how and charged on with a near maniacal will to win. No longer did there seem to be any difference between victories and defeats in his mind. Like the insatiable gambler, both outcomes had their own pleasures and unmatchable highs. When he came up short against the great Alexis Arguello in a junior lightweight title challenge, Chacon simply barrelled on to the next mission, notching his first win over his bitter enemy Limon by taking a split decision in their third match. Yet it seemed inconceivable that Bobby could come again after a punishing defeat against a like-minded man of fire in Cornelius Boza Edwards.
Chacon clashed with the Las Vegas-based Englishman at the Showboat Hotel in May 1981. The two great battlers exchanged their best shots with a rare fury, but Bobby was always fighting an uphill battle. He was cut and swollen after eight rounds and apparently fading when he rocked Boza with a big right in the ninth. Edwards fired back with typical defiance as the crowd roared its approval. Jabs became academic as the two men hooked and hacked at each other in a stirring battle of endurance. When Chacon failed to come out for the fourteenth round, his left eye puffed and his nose badly cut, the end of his rollercoaster career seemed imminent.
Those who think they know best were telling Bobby Chacon that he was finished and that a quiet and ordinary life really wasn’t such a bad thing. Such people always mean well but they can never understand the minds of special men who do special things. When Sonny Liston was asked if Floyd Patterson should retire, he replied, “Who am I to tell a bird not to fly?” When Muhammad Ali was asked the same question about the fading Larry Holmes, he answered, “Who the hell am I to talk?”
There you have it. But for the true fighting men, the world would be an insufferably cosy and antiseptic nightmare in which Big Brother would complement himself on a job well done as he looked down upon the compliant masses.
Bobby Chacon had unfinished business with his spiritual brother from south of the border. When he hooked up with Bazooka Limon for the fourth and final time at the Memorial Auditorium in Sacramento in the dying days of 1982, Chacon dusted off an old canvas he had stored in the attic of his memory and set about painting his masterpiece. With the era of the great fifteen rounder approaching its close, two wonderful tributes to the classic championship distance took place within a month of each other in that early winter. On November 12, at the Orange Bowl in Miami, Aaron Pryor, one of the most ferocious fighting men I have ever seen, stopped Alexis Arguello in fourteen tumultuous rounds for the junior welterweight championship. It appeared that Mr Pryor and Mr Arguello had an unbreakable lock on the fight of the year.
Then along came Mr Chacon and Mr Limon on December 11 to wage an even more monumental battle of heart and soul that went to number one with a bullet. To this day, Chacon-Limon IV haunts my mind in the most wonderfully uplifting way. Let us not get too deep about this and start swimming in purple prose. After all, it was only a prize fight and it didn’t change the course of history or stop the evil that men do.
Yet within the confines of its own little arena of relevance, it was a fight and an experience that pumped fresh blood to the hearts of tired people who begin to believe that the next day will be the same as the last. It was a fight that lasted for forty-five minutes yet which seemed to flash past in half that time. It had to go the full fifteen rounds, because Chacon and Limon were men who lived for such marathon tests of endurance.
All the way through, they tested each other’s courage and will at that dizzying level which mortal men can never reach or comprehend. How on earth did they do it? They just kept ripping at each other, seemingly happy that there was no way out and no short cut to the great prize at the end.
Chacon had been floored in the fourth and tenth rounds and royally battered by the time he launched the greatest rally of his career. One could imagine him offering his silent thanks to the gods for piling on the wholly appropriate melodrama. He surged down the final stretch, decking Limon in the fifteenth round to wrap up an epic triumph by unanimous decision.
That final knockdown I will never forget. It was quite glorious and quite surreal, as demonstrated by the crazy smile that suddenly spread across Limon’s battle-worn face.
I got the full story from a friend of mine who was fortunate enough to be at ringside on that wild Sacramento night. A balanced and somewhat conservative individual, he had been deeply affected by what he had witnessed. I had never seen him so stunned or so eager to talk about something. He kept shaking his head and smiling at me as he tried to analyse the impact and make sense of it.
“I have never seen the like of it in any walk of life,” he explained. “And I have been all over this world and seen many amazing things. I thought those two incredibly brave men could give us no more surprises until that fifteenth round. My heart never thumped so fast and my shirt was wringing wet from the excitement and tension. Then Chacon decked Limon and I thought my eardrums would burst from the noise. And everything slowed up that point. It had all been tearing along at a hundred miles per hour and suddenly the time crawled as I watched Limon’s reaction. That gutsy so-and-so was actually looking out into the crowd and smiling at us as he scrambled up. He seemed to be asking us what we thought of him and inviting our praise. Even Chacon’s supporters were urging him to get up because they didn’t want the fight to end. I have never seen a man look so deliriously happy. He was right where he wanted to be and loving every second.
“A lot of people at ringside noticed that incredible incident. They were just staring at Limon in utter fascination. Then it was suddenly all over and I didn’t know what to do with myself when I got back to my hotel. I normally enjoy a fight, reflect on it for a while and then move on. That’s the way it should be. But I couldn’t put this one away. I couldn’t forget about it and I didn’t even go to bed. I felt drained but I didn’t feel tired. I drank beer through the early hours and then did something I have only ever done once in my working life. I faked sickness and cancelled my business appointment for that morning.
“Even my precious career didn’t seem important after watching Chacon and Limon flirting with injury and possible death and revelling in it. How could I go to some boring conference and talk to a bunch of suits about insurance policies after something like that? Some guy sitting next to me at the fight described what he had seen it as real life. But that’s my point. It wasn’t. Chacon and Limon had stepped beyond that and made real life seem mundane.”
Bobby Chacon had not run his last race. That was Bobby’s trouble. He never knew when the last race was. One more dramatic win was in him as he avenged his defeat to Cornelius Boza Edwards by dredging up the last of his reserves to pound out a unanimous victory at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas to retain his WBC junior-lightweight crown.
However, a step up to lightweight to challenge Ray Mancini in 1984 was too ambitious and too late in the day. The Comeback Kid could come back no more and Chacon was stopped in the third round.
It was the last championship bout of Bobby career, yet not the final twist. Far from spiralling into a run of humiliating defeats in the manner of so many shopworn old champions, Chacon won his last seven bouts before finally hanging up his gloves in 1988. Among his victims were Carlton Sparrow, Arturo Frias, Rafael Solis and a certain Freddie Roach, all classy and capable men.
Some three years later, one of Bobby’s sons was killed in a gang-related shooting. It seemed to be a cruel reminder that Bobby Chacon had to give back something for everything he gained.
None of us know where we are going when we are done here, and perhaps we don’t really want to. Hopefully, we will travel to a land of greater sense and fairness in which men are still permitted to do dangerous things and are not smothered for their own good. There might even be a boxing ring so that Bobby Chacon and his countless brothers can thrive once more and show us how they did it.
MIKE CASEY is a boxing journalist and historian, a member of the International Boxing Research Organization and founder and editor of The Grand Slam Premium Boxing Service for boxing historians and fans. www.grandslampage.net
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