Julio Cesar Chavez vs. Frankie Randall: 90-fight unbeaten streak snapped 30 years ago

It didn’t happen when it should have happened. It didn’t happen against the fighter that it should have happened against. However, history will forever show that on January 29, 1994, Frankie Randall handed the legendary Julio Cesar Chavez the first loss of his professional career in the inaugural boxing event at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas.

It was the night of Randall’s life and, given the stakes, one of the finest performances of that decade. However, the system almost took the moment away from him.

It’s impossible to overstate how much Chavez meant to the sport of boxing during his glory days. A blood and guts warrior, the “Lion of Culiacan” was unbeaten in 90 fights and had captured five world titles in three weight classes. And there was a purity about him. Despite reaching the status of best pound-for-pound fighter in the world, Chavez was all about flying the flag for his home country of Mexico. Nothing else mattered. His blood was green, white and red.

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The downside of Chavez’s epic run emerged when his iconic status was firmly established. So perfect was the Mexican hero’s unbeaten streak, it seemed the powers that be didn’t want him to lose whether he deserved to or not.

On March 17, 1990, the great Chavez was literally two seconds from a points defeat to super-skilled American Meldrick Taylor when he benefitted from arguably the most controversial stoppage in boxing history. Despite Taylor rising from a right-hand knockdown at the count of five, referee Richard Steele waved the bout off at 2:58 of the 12th and final round. The Chavez record improved to 69-0.

Three years later, on September 10, 1993, Chavez, now 87-0, couldn’t find the right hand to end fellow pound-for-pound star Pernell Whitaker. Truth be told, Chavez could barely find “Sweet Pea” – period. A member of the same 1984 U.S. Olympic team as Taylor, the defensively brilliant Whitaker boxed circles around Chavez and won the fight clearly. However, what actually happened didn’t seem to matter. The bout was scored a majority draw and Chavez eluded defeat. Sports Illustrated spoke for every honest fight fan with a pulse with the headline for their next cover story – “ROBBED!”

History beckons for Frankie Randall as Julio Cesar Chavez fight is announced

AFP via Getty Images

Following two routine wins, the 89-0-1 Chavez entered the ring against Randall. With a 27-0-1 record in world title fights, Chavez had now contested more championship bouts than any other fighter in history. His TKO 5 victory over Britain’s Andy Holligan had seen him surpass former heavyweight king Joe Louis, whose record of 26-1 had stood for 44 years. Ironically, Chavez’s next challenger had a style that some insiders compared to that of “The Brown Bomber”.

Randall (48-2-1 coming in) was a classy and highly adept boxer-puncher. He had quick feet, a spearing jab and his combination punching was of the highest caliber. At his best, he was a world-class technician, but the Alabama-born contender wasn’t always at his best. In the mid-1980s, Randall suffered two losses and a draw that blighted his progress and he then spent 17 months in prison on drug charges.

It could have been the end of his career, but Randall regrouped upon his release in 1990 and put together an eight-fight win streak that included a revenge triumph over faded ex-champ Edwin Rosario. The sport of boxing likes a comeback story, but the oddsmakers still didn’t like Randall’s chances against Chavez and installed him as a -1500 underdog.

And then the bell rang.

Fully aware that Chavez was a notoriously slow starter, Randall came out of the blocks fast. The challenger’s signature jab found its mark immediately and he was able to locate the escape routes with ease. Whenever Chavez got too close, he was tied up and walked backward, then the process would be repeated after the break. And that omnipresent jab was frequently followed by a sharp right to the head.

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With an unsettling murmur moving slowly through the pro-Chavez crowd, the champion went to work in the fourth. He was still tagged repeatedly, but Chavez was now answering Randall back with a pulverizing body attack and there was one memorable right hand to the chin. Fit and durable, the challenger survived the Mexican blizzard and returned to his corner with confidence

Chavez maintained his aggression in the middle rounds but he could not force a serious breakthrough. Randall would absorb one blow and fire back with threes and fours. As long as the challenger could outpunch Chavez and keep up the red-hot pace, then it would be very hard to score against him. And when referee Richard Steele (remember him?) deducted a point from the Mexican hero for a low blow in the seventh, it was a welcome bonus.

A horizontal cut became visible across Chavez’s nose in the final third of the bout and was a product of Randall’s rapier left hand. However, the champion was now in full flow and brutal body shots landed with an audible thud. Despite sustaining damage, Randall gave it everything to keep his rampaging foe off and there were times when the challenger closed sessions better than Chavez had opened them. The American’s energy levels and spirit were incredible.

Entering the championship rounds, it looked to all the world that Chavez needed a knockout. And that’s when things started to get silly. The bout was being broadcast by Showtime in the U.S. and the commentary team was in full Chavez cheerleading mode. Ring physician Dr. Ferdie Pacheco had Randall one point ahead going into round eleven and said, “[The scoring] depends on how much consideration the judges give Chavez because he’s a champion going for 100 (wins)” Bottom line: the judges should give zero “consideration”. If Chavez is losing, he’s losing.

Meanwhile, former two-weight world champion Bobby Czyz stated, “I have Frankie Randall two points ahead. Right now, this fight could end up being a draw very easily.” Randall was battling his opponent and the game itself, but another low blow, way below the belt, cost Chavez a second point midway through the round. That moment would prove to be crucial.

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Steele was officiating correctly, but now the narrative switched from Randall’s excellent performance to the referee robbing Chavez of a world title and his unbeaten record. The Showtime crew was aghast by the deduction, “He hit him low, but there’s a world championship being taken away as we sit here,” stated Czyz. Also irked was Pacheco, who gave his colleague backup on the low blow decision, “In this close a fight? Noooo, sir,” he said vehemently. Since when has the perceived closeness of a bout been considered when it comes to a point deduction?

And then Randall took matters into his own hands.

With Chavez desperate to close the gap, he made the mistake of walking toward Randall in a straight line. Never off his feet in a 14-year professional career, the champion marched onto as clean a right-hand shot as you could ever wish to see and he went down hard. This wasn’t a cartoon punch or something out of a Rocky movie. Randall measured Chavez with the left hand and put his back leg and right hip into a perfect shot that landed square on the chin.

Julio Cesar Chavez hits the canvas for the first time in his career

AFP via Getty Images

As one would expect, the warrior spirit in Chavez pulled him upright. However, any doubts about who was winning the fight, even from the fans wearing JCC headbands and the Showtime commentary team, had evaporated. There were no Meldrick Taylor miracles on this night and the champion lost the last round, too.

When the scores were announced, Randall was put through emotional torture. Las Vegas official Chuck Giampa got it right, awarding him a 116-111 card. However, Mexican judge Abraham Chavarria didn’t even attempt to hide his bias and gave Chavez a 114-113 tally. Taking away the point deductions and the knockdown, he’d given Randall just three rounds. The final scorecard from Angel Luis Guzman was also ludicrous, with the Puerto Rican official giving Randall the nod by a 114-113 margin. Had it not been for the knockdown and deductions, Chavez would have retained his title.

In the end, though, it’s the win that counts. And this one counted more than most.

Three-and-a-half months later, Randall would lose the rematch in contentious circumstances. Chavez claimed an eighth-round technical decision after pulling himself out of the fight due to a cut he sustained following a head clash. The ringside physician, Flip Homansky, admitted on air that he would have let the fight continue but acquiesced to Chavez calling for the stoppage. Once again, Randall had looked like the better fighter, but the system had evened the score.

Despite winning two more world titles, Randall would never reach those lofty heights again. There was another drug scandal following his third fight against Juan Carlos Coggi in 1996 and that was his final world title triumph. He lost the WBA 140-pound championship to Khalid Rahilou one year later.

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By the time Chavez and Randall duked it out for the third and final time in 2004, both men were ghosts. Chavez, who averaged one fight every two months in his first 13 years as a professional, had only fought twice in the previous four years. Randall, considerably more active, had lost nine of his previous 12 fights, most of those by stoppage. It was a tragic bout that Chavez won by unanimous decision.

The tragedy continued when Randall retired. The former three-time world champion fell victim to the accumulative effect of all the punches he took and those symptoms were likely compounded by a reckless lifestyle outside of the ring. He died on December 23, 2020, reportedly of pugilistic dementia.

The Shakespearian ending was perhaps inevitable, but as sad as the final chapter was in the life of Frankie Randall, his glorious triumph over Chavez will never be forgotten. He overcame demons, he overcame the odds, he overcame adversity, he overcame prejudice, and he overcame a legendary opponent.

That’s a legacy worth remembering.

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