December 12, 1986: He was only 27 years old, frazzled young the way only prizefighters and rock stars are frazzled young, and already he was facing Skid Row—a place he had known well after arriving in New York City as a child in the mid-1960s from Guayama, Puerto Rico. Three long years after last being called campeón, Juan Laporte was considered nothing more than a rusted hulk ready to be set on cinderblocks and stripped for parts. But Laporte entered his fight against undefeated Julio Cesar Chavez at Madison Square Garden prepared to hum like a brand new Camero.
Laporte, as much a Gotham staple as graffiti was in the late 70s and early 80s, turned pro in 1977 under the tutelage of Carlos Eleta and Emile Griffith. But it was a hard road from the beginning. Thirty years ago, there were half as many sanctioning bodies as there are today, and Laporte struggled to win a title at featherweight. Alas, there were no full-time policemen around (they were too busy fighting a rising crime wave) for Laporte to make his championship dream come true. In his first title shot, in December 1980, Laporte dropped a 15-round decision to the smooth Mexican legend Salvador Sanchez at the Sands in Atlantic City. A year later, Laporte faced deadly Eusebio Pedroza, a man whose mean streak sparked 19 successful title defenses over seven years as dirty as the Fresh Kills landfill.
Finally, in 1982, on his very own stomping grounds at MSG, Laporte stopped undefeated Mario Miranda for the vacant WBC featherweight title and put himself in position for the Big Money. Unfortunately, winning the title also seemed to make Laporte the maddeningly inconsistent fighter he had become by the time he faced Chavez. After losing a non-title bout to journeyman Gerald Hayes, Laporte was passive dropping his title to Wilfredo Gomez in 1984 before thousands of delirious fans in San Juan. Now, it seemed, Laporte fought according to his moods. He was in good spirits, thankfully, when he answered the bell to challenge for the WBC super featherweight title. At 24, Chavez, fifty-something-and-oh and thin as a swizzle stick, was a heavy favorite to smear Laporte like a Twizzler against the curb along Eighth Avenue. Ever since he made his US television debut in 1985 by scorching Roger Mayweather in two rounds on CBS, Chavez was a supernova ready to blow. In fact, Laporte was the last star to shine in his vicinity until Meldrick Taylor nearly eclipsed him in 1990.
Entering the bout with Chavez, Laporte sported a gaudy 17-0 record at the Garden (and its theater, the Felt Forum) and he was determined to keep his unique winning streak alive. “I knew I was ready to fight him anyway he wanted to fight,” Laporte said at the time. “For this fight I was really psyched. It was special to me. I love to fight in Madison Square Garden because I won my Golden Gloves and my championship there.” Laporte came out like a corporate raider and Chavez knew he was in for trouble within a minute of the opening bell. It was twelve rounds of hell, Laporte inspired for the first time in years, and Chavez, still developing, fighting off the assault with grim determination. By the mid-rounds, that lethal left hook Chavez threw with such precision and force had slowed Laporte down considerably, until the Puerto Rican veteran staged a violent late rally that made some believe he had done enough to win. Add the fact that Chavez lost a point in the 9th for low blows, and you had all the ingredients necessary for mysterious gumbo scorecards. Yes, even Chavez seemed unsure about the result. “It was a very close fight,” he later admitted. “I would not have complained if he had won the decision.” The final tally saw Chavez winning by 114-113, 115-114, and an improbable 117-112.
“I feel a little down because I thought I won and didn’t get it,” a downcast Laporte said after the decision was announced. “But it’s been a long time since I had a fight like that, and I’m proud of it.” Still, pride had left him battered and bruised. This is how fighters end up looking into rear view mirrors—through two bloodshot eyes—marking time at red lights, and then pulling away and leaving the future behind them. Laporte would fight on until 1999, going 13-10 down the last long crooked roads of his career.