A Masterpiece in a Red Headband
The red headband. Synonymous with Mexican fighters. You’ve seen it many times worn across their heads as they walk out their dressing rooms with the traditional Mariachi or Banda music playing in the background. Some people wonder who started that trend and why its only Mexicans that wear it before a big fight. Its not just a fashion statement, there’s a history to the red headband.
November 21, 1987, at the Hilton Hotel in Las Vegas, NV, outdoors in 48 degree weather; two of the sports little giants engaged in a dispute to see who was the best 135lb. lightweight in the world. The challenger and current WBC Super Featherweight Champion Julio Cesar Chavez (54-0) 45 KOs was the fighting pride of Mexico, but had not reached the icon status of “EL Grand Campeon Mexicano” just yet, he was just getting started. The current and reigning WBA Lightweight Champion Edwin “El Chapo” Rosario (26-2) 22KOs was the fighting pride of Puerto Rico and known as pound for pound one of the hardest punchers in the sport. The over/under for this fight was 8 rounds, which meant the casinos acknowledged someone was going to get knocked out and it was not likely to go the distance. To give you an example how big this fight was at the time I would have to compare it to Cotto vs. Margarito in 2008. Mexico vs. Puerto Rico is the richest most deep seeded rivalry in boxing. A Yankees - Redsox, Lakers - Celtics, Packers - Bears type of rivalry. If you take the top 2 fighters, one part Mexican and one part Puerto Rican, add a championship and you will have the recipe and all the build up and pageantry of a mega fight.
The pressure bestowed upon each fighter to win for their country, their family, and their heritage to bring pride back to their homeland was immense. Roberto Duran was branded a traitor and outcasted in his native Panama for 3 years following his loss to Leonard in their 1980 rematch. He was the embarrassment to a proud country. He was not welcomed back until he defeated Davey Moore for the middleweight title in 1983. That’s what boxing means to Latin America. Nothing is taboo, if a fighter thought he would gain an edge by drinking his own urine, not having sex during training camp, or practicing witch craft, they would do it. Edwin “El Chapo” Rosario turned to ‘brujeria’ (witch craft) to gain an edge over Julio Cesar Chavez. Rosario’s mother practiced ‘brujeria’ and was a known witch where Chapo grew up in Toa Baja, Puerto Rico. They placed a photograph of Chavez in a bucket of ice and cast a spell on Chavez so that on the night of the fight he would feel a head cold and not be able to concentrate, making him weaker and an easy prey for Rosario. To add even more fuel to the fire the two fighters almost came to blows at a press conference when Rosario threatened to send Chavez back to Mexico in a coffin. This was going to be a war. So when Chavez’ assistant trainer, Jose “Buffalo” Martin, caught wind of the ‘brujeria’ plan Rosario had in store for Chavez through connections he had in Puerto Rico, he immediately reported them to camp. Most Latin people are catholic and are very superstitious and believe in super natural forces so Chavez and his camp did not take this lightly at all. They began to worry this might have an affect on his performance the night of the fight. Head trainer Cristobal Rojas suggested to Chavez that he go see a ‘brujo’ (witch) himself to counter the spell Rosario had put on him. Eddie Mafuz, who worked for Don King and handled public relations for King’s Latin fighters advised Chavez that in order to counter the spell Rosario’s mother had put on him he would have to wear a red band across his forehead the night of the fight. Chavez admits he was very embarrassed to wear it that night but there was no way he was going to take a chance, so Chavez and his entire team wore the red headbands to counter the “bad spirits” he said. The famous Mexican red headband was born.
On that chilly night in 1987, all the trash talk, stare downs, and witch craft was done. Now it was time for the fight. From the opening bell, the crowd was witness to a career defining performance from Chavez. Savage body blows and hooks pounded Rosario’s ribcage and face. Rosario tried to box from the outside but Chavez kept pressing him, finding his way in and cornering Rosario. Chavez’ destruction of Rosario that night was legendary. Ring Magazine wrote “A description of the fight reads like a police account of a street beating.” El Chapo was victim to a brutal assault which was evident all over his face, his left eye completely shut, his nose and mouth bleeding most of the night. Chavez landed a staggering 450 of 743 shots at a 61% clip on Rosario. Most of those punches were power shots too, not many jabs were thrown in this fight, not by Chavez at least. Rosario’s corner had finally seen enough and threw in the towel; prompting Richard Steele to wave his hand above his head calling the fight to a halt in the 11th round giving Chavez a TKO victory over the feared puncher Rosario. All three judges had Chavez ahead at the time of the stoppage, Jerry Roth 98-92, Albert Tremeri 100-90, and Bob Watson had it 99-91.
There was a new pound for pound candidate and new Lightweight champ on the block and he would defend that title along with his Jr. Welterweight title for many more years to come. That performance rewarded Chavez with "Fighter of the Year" honors in 1987 from Ring Magazine over a young and feared "Iron" Mike Tyson and Sugar Ray Leonard. Chavez fought a record 37 title fights in his career, 10 ahead second place Joe Louis with 27, and 12 ahead of “The Greatest” Muhammad Ali with 25. Maybe it was superstition or good luck, but Chavez continued to wear that famous red headband after the Rosario fight in every one of those record title fights and in every other fight until he retired in 2006 with a stellar (107-6-2) 86 KOs record; one of only three men to retire with triple digit wins and single digit losses in the history of boxing. Julio Cesar Chavez was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame this summer along with Mike Tyson and Kostya Tszyu to head the 2011 class.
Now when you see Mexican fighters wear the headband it’s mostly to pay homage to the greatest champion to ever come out of Mexico. Not many know the history and how it came about. It definitely wasn’t a fashion trend when Chavez started to wear it, but now it has become a tradition amongst Mexican pugilists hoping they can perform at the level their idol did for so many years. That Rosario fight was the inauguration of a legendary fighter at his peak for the whole boxing world to witness. KO magazine wrote, “For one night, Chavez grasped perfection, clutched it to his chest, and then held it high above his head for all historians to see.” A masterpiece in a red headband.