The Contender

But for one youthful mistake, Jesus Chavez could be the super featherweight champion of the world. Instead, he’s facing a heavyweight challenge: how to get back in the ring and redeem himself.

April 1998By Comments

JESUS CHAVEZ’S RING NAME IS EL MATADOR, but he came out of his corner like a terrier trying to dismember a stork. Bone-gaunt at 128 pounds, his crew-cut opponent, Wilfredo Negron of Puerto Rico, was six inches taller and had a nine-inch reach advantage. Jesus missed often and sometimes badly. But in the second round alone, he threw 108 punches, and about 40 of them were haymakers that landed: hooks to the ribs, swooping right uppercuts flush to the chin, and midway through the round, he led with a left hook—a dangerous move against a right-handed puncher—that momentarily poised Negron on his heels and then delivered him to gravity and the seat of his trunks. Jesus spun off with arm upraised in the strut of the matador.

Like a bullfighter, he was young, handsome, and relentless. He had a pro record of 20-1, a North American super featherweight title, a world ranking in the top ten, and a contract with a major promoter who touted him as a future world champion. Inside the ropes on that August night in 1997, with the Austin crowd roaring and his blood racing, Jesus Chavez felt untouchable. But out beyond the fans and the noise, he was extremely vulnerable, and downright punchy. Outside the ring he was fighting the government of the United States, the country he’d lived in since he was seven. And it was poised to kick him out—for the second time in his 24 years.

The first time had been after he helped rob a Chicago grocery store in 1990, when he was a teenager. He got caught, did time, and was deported to Mexico, the country of his birth. He reentered the U.S. illegally, settled in Austin in 1994, and started his life over. He stayed straight, got in shape, and started fighting again. He turned pro. He fell in love. He was trying to buy a house in Austin for his parents and younger brother so that they could escape the hardness and cold of Chicago. But in 1995 he got nabbed by the authorities, and because of that armed robbery, federal law defines him as an aggravated felon who must be deported. He got a lawyer, who started filing documents. I wrote a letter for him. So did a former FBI agent and other friends he had made in Texas. But it didn’t matter how Jesus had behaved since getting out of jail. Last July, while he was training for Negron, the Immigration and Naturalization Service summoned him to San Antonio and ordered him to leave the country three days after the August bout. His attorney told him that he needed new counsel licensed to practice in federal appeals court. A desperate search ensued in which one immigration lawyer turned him down because of his felony, another demanded $10,000 up front, another said he didn’t want to take Jesus’ money and do nothing for him, and another warned that if Jesus even questioned the deportation, he could go back to prison.

It was no way to train for a fight. In sparring sessions he was distracted and got belted. Twelve of Negron’s fifteen wins were by knockout, and it was immaterial to him if Jesus was an emotional wreck. Finally, Jesus’ promoter, Main Events, steered him to a top immigration firm in Washington, D.C. In a deal struck with the INS just four days before the fight, Jesus could stay in the U.S. for two more months and make his pay-per-view debut in Atlantic City. That is, if he beat Negron. Afterward he would voluntarily leave the country. His lawyers hoped he might then qualify for a skilled-worker visa that would allow him to train in the U.S. and pursue his athletic career. Of course, there was no guarantee of that happening.

“All that month I wanted to quit,” Jesus told me. “But I had to have the money if I was going to be living in Mexico. I couldn’t sleep. I was getting up dead, going home dead. And they had me in against this gunner who was knocking everybody out. I was scared. But that night in the dressing room, a heavyweight on the card let me use his CD player. I put on the headphones and listened to the Gipsy Kings—good music, and I got into the rhythm. Then I greased up and wrapped up, and before I knew it, they brought in my gloves. I looked out and saw the ring and chairs and all those people still coming in. There it is, man. Let’s do it. And then there was nothing left to do but to do it.”

Negron somehow survived Jesus’ second-round assault. In the corner Jesus’ trainer, Richard Lord, and Lou Duva, the memorably chiseled and jowled patriarch of Main Events, yelled at him to settle down. He slowed the pace, but two rounds later the Puerto Rican again wobbled to his stool. Negron was in such pain that his seconds had to wrestle him to get his mouthpiece out, and he kept pitching his head and shoulders between his knees, gasping for air. He couldn’t breathe, sit up straight, or answer another bell because one of Jesus’ rights had fractured his sternum. It’s a cruel game, boxing.

“If I don’t win the fight,” Jesus reflected later, “that big promoter’s not going to be so interested. If I’m a losing boxer, how much chance do I have to get that visa?” In his mind, he was fighting for his life.

HIS IS THE STORY OF THE GOLDEN BOY, the promising kid who makes one terrible mistake and spends the rest of his days trying to overcome it. He was born in 1972 in Hidalgo de Parral, Chihuahua, the little town where Pancho Villa was gunned down and buried. His parents christened him Jesus Gabriel Sandoval Chavez, and as things worked out, he would need all those names. That region of Mexico is mining country—coal, gold, silver, and copper. Both his grandfathers worked in the mines and, for eight years, so did his father, Jesus Sandoval. His mother, Rosario, was a nurse. Jesus Sandoval feared the mines and didn’t want that life for his son, whom they called Gabriel. The elder Sandoval left his family in Mexico and eventually followed the norteños’ well-beaten path to Chicago. After he found work and a downtown tenement of Mexican families, he sent money for his family’s plane tickets. Jesus Sandoval was an illegal alien employed by the City of Chicago. He worked on maintenance crews who, at great risk, were assigned the upkeep of some of the country’s most infamous and dangerous public-housing projects. But it was better than those Chihuahuan mines.

One day when Gabriel was ten, his father dropped him off for swimming lessons at a recreation center. Gabriel heard a bell ringing, and down a hall he found his gift. He won his first fight by technical knockout as a 105-pounder. One of his coaches was an immigrant Irishman, high school English teacher, and former amateur boxing star named Tom O’Shea. Near the rec center, O’Shea later opened a boxing gym in a settlement house. For inspiration he recited passages from Hemingway on bullfighting, courage, and struggle. Some kid quipped that they must be matadors, and that became the name of the team and the gym. Gabriel also trained with two other colorful Irish Americans—Sean Curtin, an ex-pro fighter and one of O’Shea’s best friends, and a truck driver named Bob Foley, both of whom coached youngsters at a southside Catholic Youth Organization gym. Gabriel rode buses all over the city to learn from his mentors. They were crazy about this sweet-faced kid who fought with the zeal of his hero, Roberto Duran. They loved to tell the story about a Golden Gloves regional tourney when Gabriel was barely fifteen and dismantled a prison-hardened brawler from St. Louis who was ten years older.

In 1987 Gabriel’s father took advantage of a federal amnesty program and embarked on the slow process of becoming a naturalized citizen; the family was granted status as resident legal aliens. He bought a small house in a northwest Chicago neighborhood of Hispanic, black, and Polish families. O’Shea taught at a public high school two blocks from the Matador Gym, and he helped arrange a transfer for Gabriel so that he wouldn’t have to spend so many hours on the buses. Gabriel had a job at McDonald’s, he helped his father cater Mexican food on weekends, and in 1989 he was voted Chicago’s amateur boxer of the year. The next year Gabriel ran his record to 90-5-5 and reached the semifinals of the Golden Gloves nationals in Miami. He couldn’t compete for the Olympics because he wasn’t a citizen, but O’Shea had him on track for a boxing scholarship at Northern Michigan University. That summer he sent Gabriel out on a casting call for a movie about boxers, and the filmmakers called back offering him the part. But by then—to everyone’s stupefaction—he was in jail.

The streets around the gym and the school were the turf of a gang called the Harrison Gents. “I wanted to be part of that action too,” Gabriel recalled. “Hey, these guys hang out and smoke weed, and they got all the girls. They always called me Boxer. One day I walked out of school and this kid said, ‘We got this thing to do. You want in?’ Sure. Then they’ll really like me. They had a delivery van full of bread and a sawed-off shotgun. There were three of us. On the way, I was thinking, ‘Man, we got this getaway car that smells like a bakery. We put on hooded sweatshirts, one stuck the shotgun in an umbrella, and we went in a supermarket. I was backing him up. We made a lady empty the safe, then ran outside and got away. One minute I’ve got homework in my hand and the next I’m robbing somebody? I threw away my friends. I threw away my family. I threw away living in the United States.”

As soon as Gabriel was arrested, he confessed. His devastated parents didn’t have the $7,000 needed to make his bond, and he told them not to borrow it: He had made the mistake and was the one who had to deal with it. For the next eight months his world was a savage Cook County jail wing known as the Gladiator School. He participated in a Scared Straight—style program, in which inmates counseled trouble-prone teens. His court-appointed lawyer told him before his trial that he might be looking at thirty years, so he copped a plea for seven and a half. He did three and a half. He was processed at Joliet and then sent to medium-security Illinois River. He finished out his sentence at Stateville, the maximum-security prison where Oliver Stone filmed much of Natural Born Killers. His parents would make the long journey when they could. “I’d get off work on Christmas Eve,” remembered his father, “and we’d drive all night in ice and snow, then sleep in the car a couple of hours because we had the money for only one night’s motel. We didn’t want him to be alone in that place on Christmas.”

As his release neared, the INS initiated deportation proceedings. Gabriel had no money, so he had no lawyer. In April 1994 he got out of prison and was immediately put on a plane to Mexico City. He had the $50 given all discharged convicts by the State of Illinois.

At least he spoke Spanish. With the help of a sympathetic cabbie and a bus driver who cut him a deal on the fare, Gabriel made it to Chihuahua and his grandparents’ home, in the town of Delicias. He stayed only a few days—his father had arranged for a plane ticket, if Gabriel could make it across the border. A U.S. guard on the bridge in El Paso heard his American accent and waved him through, and Gabriel was soon on a Southwest Airlines plane to Chicago. Austin, a city he had never seen, was the first stop. The sun was shining brightly, and the plane came in over lush green hills and the Colorado River’s winding string of indigo lakes. He saw people water-skiing. “What a pretty place,” he thought. “If I could just start my life over, it would be somewhere like that.”

Back in Chicago he encountered friends who were still getting high, robbing people, on their way to prison or an early grave. “I can’t do this,” he said to his parents. “I can’t be here.” In passing, he told his mother about the longing he had felt staring out that airplane window at Austin. After a moment she reminded him they had some family there.

RICHARD LORD’S BOXING GYM sits among a block of metal buildings on North Lamar Boulevard that other tenants use for storage and small industry. The musty little gym is cold in winter, and on summer afternoons a large thermometer often reminds us we’re doing this to ourselves in 102-degree heat. My fiftieth birthday was a convenient excuse to give up sparring, but hitting something that can’t hit back is a terrific way to get rid of a long work day.

Richard is a bowlegged man of 43 with a long pedigree in boxing. In the sixties his father, Doug, managed and trained a stellar welterweight world champion, Curtis Cokes of Dallas. After graduating from UT, Richard turned pro as a super featherweight. He could punch, but the hallmark of his career was his outrageous conditioning. He lost just once and reached number eight in the world rankings, but the title shot never came, and he retired in the eighties.

Richard’s gym draws a lot of young men and women who can fight. I can’t remember the first time I saw the new prospect, but I recall Richard’s wary excitement the day he got a call from Tom O’Shea in Chicago. “He told me there was a tremendous talent who might come around. Said he got in some trouble up there, but he was a good kid. He just needed someone to give him another chance.” Gabriel Sandoval walked into Lord’s gym the same day.

The kid had two amateur fights in Texas and then turned pro for a $350 payday in August 1994. He told Richard, who didn’t know how illegal he was, that he wanted to be known as Jesus Chavez. Good name for a young Hispanic fighter dodging the INS and reinventing himself—the Mexican hero and champion Julio Cesar Chavez was then at the top of the pro game. It was also good cover for his amateur past up north. “That’s how we got the pro fight,” Richard said, laughing. “Lewis Wood had won thirty-five amateur fights and his first four as a pro. The only guy who’d ever beaten him was Oscar de la Hoya. Gabriel Sandoval they would have found out about. But Jesus Chavez? He’s got no record; he’s from Austin. Sure, bring him on.”

Jesus’ parents �ew to Houston for the bout. It was the first time he’d seen them since he left Chicago. As he walked toward the ring, the emotion of the moment overwhelmed him—he was crying. From the outset, Jesus and Wood went toe-to-toe. The angles of Wood’s attack were throwing Jesus off, and midway through the fight Jesus realized that Wood was a converted left-hander, so he started fighting left-handed himself, confusing Wood. Jesus won a rousing upset decision over a fighter who now holds a North American featherweight title.

Two weeks later, Jesus was again supposed to lose in San Antonio to Rudy Hernandez, a national Golden Gloves champion making his pro debut. Gale Van Hoy, a labor union official, was one of the ringside judges. “It was Rudy Hernandez Night,” he said. “They were handing out �yers, had a mariachi band. This other kid comes out in ragged trunks, old shoes, with a towel over his head, and just destroys him.”

In January 1995, in his fifth pro fight, Jesus lost a split-decision eight-rounder to Carlos Gerena. All of us at the gym shrugged it off: Gerena had boxed internationally and was on a track with well-greased skids. Our guy was living in the gym. He had a tiny room with a bed, a beanbag chair, a stereo, and a TV that didn’t work. He kept up with Richard’s rugged training regimen, sparred, and pushed us through our wheezing workouts. A couple of times his goading made me angry, but I was fascinated with how much he knew. “Relax your hand,” he told me once when I was trying to make my left uppercut more than a clumsy shove, “and raise your left heel just a little.” The heavy bag popped loudly and bounced on the end of the chain. At the end of a day we often sat on the ring apron talking about things far removed from boxing. When he grinned, his small teeth parted, and his eyebrows shot up with an air of impish wonder. He was an optimistic soul.

One day he introduced me to a pretty young woman who had short brown hair. Terri Glanger was studying photography at UT, and they once shared a ride to a San Antonio Golden Gloves tournament, where she took pictures. Her Jewish parents, immigrants from South Africa, owned several fitness stores in Texas. On the drive to San Antonio, he had told her about himself, which took her aback. But now they were dating. She picked him up at the gym at night—he didn’t have a car.

“We’d go out to a restaurant,” he said, “and I’d ask her to order for me. ‘Well, Gabriel, do it yourself.’ But that’s what prison does to you, man. I was too scared to tell a waitress what I wanted to eat. Terri told me I’d better start to think beyond boxing, and she really stayed after me to get my GED, which I did. She helped me study for it, and it was okay that I was doing stuff at an eighth-grade level. Then I went to meet her parents, and driving up she said she’d told them everything.” He laughed. “‘Let’s see now. He’s Catholic, he’s Mexican, he’s been in jail, and he lives in a boxing gym. Way to go, Terri. You can really pick ’em.’”

I thought he lived in the gym that year because he was poor and dedicated. But he also did it because he feared subjecting his relatives and their children, with whom he had lived, to the anguish of seeing him hauled off in handcuffs. When he called himself Jesus Chavez instead of Gabriel Sandoval, he wasn’t lying—those are his names. But it’s also a common Hispanic tactic of evading the INS. He got back on the radar screen in 1995 when he went to get a driver’s license and his papers weren’t in order. He was in a holding cell and would have been deported that day if Richard hadn’t known someone in the system who was a boxing fan. Released on his own recognizance, Jesus hired a lawyer who pursued a strategy of hope and delay. For a while it worked.

ON AUGUST 1995 RICHARD STARTED PROMOTING fights in the downtown Austin Music Hall. The Brawls in the Hall had two attractions: the novelty of skilled women boxing and the furious pace of Jesus’ main events. Politicians wanted to be seen with him, and law enforcement officials started bringing him kids who were in gangs to help turn them around. They were amazed at how he got through to them.

Jesus got a break in August 1996 when promoters brought in Mexican featherweight champion Javier Jauregui, who was in line for a world-title shot. He punished the Mexican veteran with left hooks to the body—his best punch—and the unanimous decision established him as a world-class talent. In March 1997 Jesus made his TV debut as a main event against a smooth and gifted puncher, San Antonio’s Louie Leija. He mauled Leija in the first round, but in the third he walked into a hook and almost got knocked out: The Austin crowd gasped as he staggered and groped like an alley drunk. Yet he was dominant again by the bell. He knocked Leija down twice and the referee stopped it in the sixth. Fox commentators burbled about him throughout the fight, and replays aired for weeks. The performance won him his contract with Main Events.

Terri had moved to New York, where she worked for a prominent photographer. Jesus �ew up after his fights, and she took him to Broadway plays and SoHo art shows. Strangers hailed him on the street. He walked in Central Park and gaped at the skyscrapers and splendor of this country. He was a rising star. An American success story.

But not to immigration officials. His advocates could argue all day that he was a legal resident when he got in trouble; that his father, the man who brought him here as a child, was now a naturalized citizen; that he had paid for his crime; that he was deported without legal representation; and that he showed abundant signs of being a responsible adult of some value. None of the human nuance mattered. Under fire from Congress for letting too many aliens slip through the cracks, the INS had no legal authority to overlook that aggravated felony. Since the fall of 1996 the agency had increased its rate of deportations by 50 percent, and about 75 percent of those expelled were being sent to Mexico. This country was committed to a crackdown on illegal immigration, and it was just getting started.

In September 1996 the House of Representatives passed a massive revision of immigration law by a vote of 370—37. The Senate concurred 84—15, and President Clinton signed it. Two weeks after the Leija fight, the provisions went into effect. Under the new law, an alien who had been convicted of only a state misdemeanor could be defined and removed as an aggravated felon. Judicial review and political asylum were greatly restricted. Families were being separated, people who came here just to work and who never robbed anyone. One of the immigration lawyers who turned Jesus down asked him, “Where is your tragedy?” He had no answer.

THE BACKSIDE OF ATLANTIC CITY has a seedy appeal, the beach is pretty, and the Boardwalk is amazing—miles of meticulously laid and unwarped parquet �oor. But the casinos get old fast. The gaming �oors sound like an asylum of berserk musicians all playing the vibes. Jesus, Richard, and I walked through Caesars Atlantic City to a basement employees’ cafeteria, where the fighters had meal tickets. When we stood to leave, an employee addressed us gruf�y: “Hey, put up your own trays.”

Jesus lit up and grinned. “Cool, man,” he said, doing as he was told.

“Reminds him of prison,” said Richard. “Except the food’s better.”

It was the biggest fight of Jesus’ young career: Atlantic City, pay-per-view, and the undercard of the Lennox Lewis—Andrew Golota heavyweight title match. The October 1997 bout was something of a family affair. Doug Lord was there to help work the corner, as he had when his son was fighting, and his great champion, Curtis Cokes, now trained Jesus’ opponent, former kickboxing champion Troy Dorsey of Dallas. Once, years ago, Dorsey had pulled off an upset and won a world boxing title. Now, at 34, he looked like his pleasure was running headfirst into walls. Recently he had undergone surgery to file down his stony ridge of brow, an accumulation of  calcium deposits and scar tissue that had caused him to lose several fights on cuts. His record had slipped to 15-9-4, but he was a far bigger name than Jesus. And he was supremely confident.

At the weigh-in—both came in at 129—they raised their fists and faced off in the ritual pose; Dorsey glared and played the moment for all the advantage it might be worth. Jesus’ mouth started working, his eyebrows shot up, and he broke into that innocent’s grin. Later he giggled at the thought of the macho staring match: “I try to do it, but I never can.”

On fight night, he walked into the dressing room and �ung out his arms like Gene Kelly. “Gonna be a great night, bro’s. I am pumped, and I just got here!” The arena filled up because of Jesus’ Main Events stablemate, Andrew Golota, a resident of Chicago. Britain’s Lennox Lewis was a narrow betting favorite in the heavyweight fight, but it was Polish Pride Night. In honor of Golota, who owed his fame and title shot to two brawls against Riddick Bowe in which he was disqualified for �agrant punches to the groin, the balconies were full of rowdies who waved red-and-white Polish �ags, wore red-and-white face paint, and brought the �oor crowd roaring to its feet as they brawled among themselves. “Low blow! Low blow!” they raised a merry cry.

In this air of bedlam—Lewis’ first-round knockout of the Pole would soon turn the revelers into unhappy drunks stumbling meekly in the night—Jesus stepped through the ropes wearing a new robe and trunks trimmed in Mexico’s red, green, and white. He embraced his father and moved around snapping warm-up punches. At the bell Dorsey charged forward, scarcely moving his head, punctuating his punches with karatelike grunts. Jesus skirted Dorsey’s rushes, working off his jab and throwing quick, �uid combinations. Light heavyweight champion Roy Jones, widely considered one of the two or three best fighters in the sport today, was in the broadcast crew. “Chavez does throw some pretty punches,” Jones said in the second round. “Textbook punches. Excellent form.”

Dorsey buckled Jesus’ knees with a booming right in the fourth, but Jesus was landing three punches to his foe’s one. From the third round on, a doctor stuck his head through the ropes to check on Dorsey. “Doing fine! Thank you!” the game fighter barked. The surgical reconstruction held up, but he suffered a small cut high on his cheek, and both eyes were closing. After the seventh, the doctor stopped it. As the victor hugged and kissed his girlfriend, his performance was greeted at ringside with an approving hum. Behind me, George Foreman’s brother, promoter Roy Foreman, sat beside Bert Sugar, the legendary former editor of Ring magazine. Sugar’s signature is an oversized fedora, an unlit cigar, and a sense of having seen it all, often to his regret.

Foreman asked him what he thought of this new one.

Four-word reply: “Too nice a kid.”

ELEVEN DAYS LATER, JESUS LEFT THE country, taking little but clothes, his bag of gear, and his dalmatian. Once again he went to Delicias. One day he returned to his birthplace, Parral; he met his 96-year-old great-grandmother and saw the Pancho Villa tourist attractions. He found a gym in Delicias and capable sparring partners. “I think I’ll be happy,” he had told me before he left the U.S. “Finally I get a chance to rest. Finally I get to kick back and, hell, enjoy a cold Corona.”

But Jesus went to Mexico with the necessary patience of someone doing time. His lifeline is the telephone. In Atlantic City I had met Steve Farhood, a former editor of Ring magazine who now provides boxing commentary for the CNN/SI network. “The contract with Main Events was a major breakthrough for him,” Farhood said. “Otherwise he wouldn’t have gotten the exposure. He’s an entertaining young offensive fighter, very exciting to watch. His big chance is going to come sometime in 1998.”

Only not in Mexico. Trying to maintain his world ranking and a chance at a title shot, Jesus accepted a fight in Mexico City this April against a journeyman opponent, but for less than 5 percent of the money he had made in Atlantic City. In the Mexican fight business, he’s an interloper, a foreigner. Jesus’ talent and appeal have made him a commodity in America, and it may be that, like a few athletes and show business professionals, he’ll get a special kind of visa and be allowed to pursue his opportunity in the United States. Among the criteria are the applicant’s economic value and international standing. After the Dorsey fight, the alphabet soup of boxing organizations had him ranked as high as first, second, and third in the world standings. But such a visa would be good only as long as he’s practicing his skill. What happens in a few years, when the prizefighter has taken all the punches he can?

“At the end of his career,” O’Shea mused about Jesus, “I wonder where he’ll be. Five percent of the boxers make eighty-five percent of the money. Those are lousy numbers, especially for the little guys. Boxing is experiencing its last gasp. All the grand heroes are gone. Ah, but Gabriel, my wife and I talk of him still. He had this joy—the joy of the warrior. I read about great generals and battles and see ones like him marching in the ranks. None of us will ever understand how he got mixed up in that robbery.”

The irony of Jesus’ exile is that he represents the wan hope of the American criminal justice system—a male youth who commits an act of violence, accepts his punishment, grows up, and rehabilitates himself. But the law says that only citizens rate a second chance. The old country, he finds, is no longer his country. So he bangs on the bags and waits, a contender in no-man’s-land.

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