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.

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

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