Helter Skelter: The
brutal rock ‘n’ roll ride of Bobby Chacon
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.
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
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
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
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
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
“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
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
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.
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