“Boxing is opera to Latins,” we hear in the early moments of “La Guerra Civil,” a comprehensive visual history of one of the most momentous fights in contemporary boxing, directed with verve by powerhouse actor-filmmaker Eva Longoria Bastón. But for the bout in question that took place between Oscar De La Hoya and Julio César Chávez a quarter-century ago, Mexican communities both at home and in the U.S. had a lot more to behold and reflect on than the revered sport’s inherent drama and spectacle.
In 1996, the year of the legendary match, East L.A.’s De La Hoya was known as “the golden boy.” A darling Olympian with movie-star looks, he was so popular with the ladies that several moments in Longoria Bastón’s entertaining doc feature fans screaming or trying to steal a kiss like they’ve just spotted The Beatles. Older, tougher-looking and Mexican-born, Chávez invited a different kind of fanbase as an athlete from across the border. “Chávez bleeds for us, De La Hoya bleeds for money” was a common shorthand for how the duo were perceived in the public eye. To many, Chávez was the authentic salt-of-the-earth Mexican with his hard-knock background, whereas De La Hoya’s Mexican-American identity was a liability of sorts. The stakes were high for the fighters and fans alike, as if one’s alignment with either player would define one’s core identity as a Mexican.
This is the premise at the center of “La Guerra Civil,” and it’s perhaps repeated a little too often via the myriad colorful talking heads in this slightly overlong film — from sports journalist Claudia Trejos and actor George Lopez to historians, trainers, entrepreneurs and beyond. Yet the most notable interviewees, and the very reason the film feels urgent, are Chávez and De La Hoya themselves. Through Longoria Bastón’s extraordinary access, it’s a special kind of treat (and a healthy dose of ‘90s nostalgia) to hear from both these sensational figures at length, even if the repetitive points they make are in need of tighter cutting.
Still, one can’t fault Longoria Bastón for being over-enamored of the golden soundbites she mines from the two legends, attentively interviewed against a simple but industrial-looking artistic backdrop. Working with her editor Luis Alvarez y Alvarez, she snappily assembles their dueling words in what feels like a Chávez vs. De La Hoya rematch, advancing them with rich archival footage presented in cleanly chronological fashion. In that regard, you don’t have to be a boxing connoisseur to enjoy “La Guerra Civil,” any more than it’s required to love “Rocky.” What you will instead need is an empathetic conscience towards questions around identity, a number of which should resonate with immigrants with a dual sense of belonging. It also helps to have a thoughtful grip on what it means to compete despite the risk of losing, when you have something other than your talent to prove — the crux of many beloved sports movies throughout the history of cinema.
Longoria offers a generous perspective on these matters. Dissecting the two fighters’ respective stories from the ground up, she underscores their unifying similarities as much as their differences. We learn that both Chávez and De La Hoya had their share of financial struggles and aching childhood challenges. Growing up in poverty, Chávez braved a violently drunk father and a disapproving mother, making himself a boxer against the odds. Starting his streak as a fighter at six years of age in his uncle’s garage, De La Hoya survived one of the rougher areas of Los Angeles where, as a scrawny kid, he was often bullied by neighborhood troublemakers.
By emotionally investing in their youth, “La Guerra Civil” feels all the more meaningful as it follows both men into latter-day legend status, via stunning archival material that includes numerous notable fights — from Chávez’s title-winning matches against Mario “Azabache” Martinez, Edwin “Chapo” Rosario and Roger Mayweather in the 1980s, to De La Hoya’s victory against Lamar Williams in his 1992 professional debut. There are also stirring accounts of the athletes in the later stages of their careers, with Chávez’s addiction struggles taking up a chunk of running time.
The main event of “La Guerra Civil” — and what an attraction it is, thanks to Longoria’s abundance of footage — is the “ultimate glory” 1996 face-off between Chávez and De La Hoya. And what sports movie would feel complete without a training montage? Several are included in the run-up to the big fight, with one playfully name-checking Mr. Miyagi of “The Karate Kid.” It’s no spoiler to disclose that De La Hoya ultimately claimed victory, leaving Chávez with a sliced eyebrow as well as a bruised ego.
But you’d be wrong to assume their saga concluded there. Often branded with the pejorative phrase “pocho” (roughly, an outsider not fluent in Spanish or Mexican culture), De La Hoya never really got the approval he sought from Chávez and Mexican people on both sides of the border. “There was no passing of the torch,” laments De La Hoya, who wanted nothing more than proving his legitimacy as a Mexican. Ultimately, the duo would battle again two years later in another fight De La Hoya added to his victories — but this time with Chávez’s blessing. Their retelling of that moment adds significant punch to a spirited documentary already chock-full of them.