Ex-Boxing Champ Steps Back Into Spotlight As A Face Of Addiction : Parallels Mexican boxer Julio Cesar Chavez rarely fell in the ring, but alcohol and drugs knocked him down for decades. He's clean now and telling his story to help fellow Mexicans get clean too.

Ex-Boxing Champ Steps Back Into Spotlight As A Face Of Addiction

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. The problem of drug trafficking in Mexico is well-publicized. Drug addiction, less so. While nowhere near the level seen in the United States, Mexico is battling a growing problem. In the past decade, illicit drug use has grown by more than a third. Millions of Mexicans admit to using marijuana but cocaine and meth addiction is not talked about openly, especially among the country's rich and or famous. As NPR's Carrie Kahn reports, one former champion boxer has set out to change the image of recovering addicts and rehabilitation.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: He's known for his strong chin and feared for his left hook. During his reign in the 1980s and '90s, he was widely called pound-for-pound the greatest fighter.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Introducing in the red corner, fighting out of Culiacan, Mexico - super lightweight champion of the world, Julio Cesar Chavez.

(APPLAUSE)

KAHN: It was an amazing rise to fame. Raised with 10 siblings and living in an abandoned train caboose, his mother washed and ironed clothes for a living, Chavez says he started fighting young to help her out and dreamed of buying her a home. With six world titles in three weight divisions and more than 80 career knockouts, Chavez was able to buy her the house and much more.

JULIO CESAR CHAVEZ: (Through interpreter) I had it all - money, women, fame, cars, yachts. Everything a man could want, but it didn't give my life meaning. I felt nothing. So what did I do? The most stupidest thing I could.

KAHN: Chavez says he found refuge in drugs and alcohol. We recently talked in the living room of his home in Tijuana, Mexico, sitting in overstuffed leather reclining chairs surrounded by prize fighting photos and championship belts.

CHAVEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: Chavez points to one picture, what he calls his most famous fight - against Meldrick Taylor, who he beat with just three seconds left on the clock. But Chavez says soon after, drinking and drugs began to get the best of him.

CHAVEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: At first, he says, he could control it, but then he needed more alcohol and more cocaine.

CHAVEZ: (Through interpreter) That's when the problems started. That's when the failures began, the defeats.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #2: One more look at the great Julio Cesar Chavez going down.

KAHN: It was 1994 against Frankie Randall in Las Vegas. Chavez suffered his first knockout. He would go on to lose five more before retiring in 2005, and he says he spent many more years addicted. His marriage ended, friendships ruined and his health suffered. Then four years ago while at a doctor's office for a procedure for his ulcers, while under anesthesia, his son called an ambulance and took him unconscious to rehab.

CHAVEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "I woke up in the clinic in a room with the IV still in my arm and I just ripped it out and started cussing at everyone," says Chavez. But in the end, he stayed for nearly six months and has been clean since. At five-seven and looking fit and trim, Chavez says addiction is not talked about openly in Mexico. He says the public is not forgiving of its fallen stars.

CHAVEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "They suffer alone," he says, "because they fear criticism." That hasn't stopped him from telling his story or helping out addicts.

Some 40 men and women say a prayer before dinner at Clinica Bajo del Sol in Tijuana. Chavez opened the rehab center high on a hill with a spectacular view of the Pacific Ocean. That's once you look past the coils of barbed wire atop the entire ground's high brick walls. Clinic psychologist Guillermo Rangel Mendoza says Chavez frequently shares his story with the patients, and it helps.

GUILLERMO RANGEL MENDOZA: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: But Rangel says the types of drugs taking off in Mexico in recent years like meth, heroin and ecstasy weren't problems back in Chavez's days. The surge in designer drug use here frightens Chavez. He recently put a clinic in Sinaloa and says he wants to open at least two more as soon as possible. And he seems to be changing Mexico's perception of recovered addicts. Earlier this year, a 20-foot bronze statue of Chavez went up in the main square in his boyhood home of Culiacan. He's now a regular analyst on ESPN en Espanol and on TV Azteca in Mexico. And President Henrique Pena Nieto dubbed him anti-addiction ambassador at a recent conference to combat Mexico's growing drug problem.

CHAVEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "I felt excited, happy and proud," says Chavez about the recent accolades. But he adds, "at the same time I feel the pressure, the commitment. I really have to stay clean now." Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Tijuana.

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