The Austin Chronicle

The Inspiration of Jesus Chavez

Why a Top-Ranked Boxer, Jailed Once and Deported Twice, Became the Subject of a Documentary and a Fighter for the American Dream

By Belinda Acosta, February 9, 2001, Screens

In the 19th century, boxing was called "the gentleman's sport" or "the manly art of self-defense." The words conjure images of well-heeled, Victorian-era white men with rolled-up sleeves, exchanging bare-fisted punches in a field, corralled by spectators barking approval at well-placed hits. At stake was male pride and maybe a few teeth. For Jesus "El Matador" Chavez, the top-ranked junior lightweight contender, the stakes are much steeper. He is fighting for his life.

Chavez is the subject of Marcy Garriott's documentary, Split Decision, which opens Friday at the Arbor (see related Screens story, "In His Corner," p.56). It's the story of a good kid with a promising future in boxing who runs afoul of the law and does his time. That would have been the end of it, except that the incident triggered an arduous battle over Chavez's citizenship status, raising larger questions about redemption and the current attitudes toward immigrants, particularly those from Latin America.

At the beginning of the 19th century, the United States was central to the world's boxing scene. Waves of Irish, Jewish, and Italian immigrants (and black fighters) continually replenished the pool of boxers. Immigrant fighters were often tough and poor, lured by the promise of starting a new life in the U.S. The boxing ring was the symbolic setting for the pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps tale.

Today, the U.S. is considered the leader in the heavyweight division, and heavyweights are most recognizable to the lay observer. However, a slate of boxers in the lighter weight classes -- with names like de la Hoya, Castillo, Morales, and Chavez -- are visible thanks to pay-per-view and sports television networks. In popular culture, a spate of Latino-centered boxing movies -- Karyn Kusama's Girlfight, Carlos Ávila's Price of Glory, documentaries like Split Decision or the Academy Award-nominated On the Ropes, and the Showtime series Resurrection Blvd., which features a Mexican-American family with boxing as its backdrop -- indicate that it may be the new era of the Latino boxer. Chavez's story is yet another rendition of the search for the American Dream.

Sweat and Blood

It's easy to be turned off, if not downright revolted, by boxing. The testosterone-flushed scene is splattered with sweat and blood, swollen eyes and split lips. The pomp and posturing are fascinating, if sometimes garish. Since World War II, boxing history is turbulent and marred by corruption. Then there's that recent low point in the boxing world: when television cameras caught heavyweight boxer and convicted rapist Mike Tyson gnawing the ear of opponent Evander Holyfield -- twice.

With all the above coloring this writer's impressions of the sport, the singular question I had about Jesus Chavez was: Is he for real? He comes off well in the Garriott documentary, but he's also done time in the most brutal of Illinois prisons. The nation he considers home deported him twice -- the first time after his release from prison, the second time just as the opportunity to claim a world championship was in his reach, sent off with $50 in his pocket to Mexico, the birth nation he hadn't set foot in since he was 10. During that second deportation, his mother suffered severe health problems (the INS issued Chavez special permission to visit her). And perhaps in the most twisted of ironies, while the U.S. considers him a foreigner, in Mexico, he is considered a pocho, a word that literally means "discolored, rotten," or "out of sorts," used to described those with Mexican roots born or raised in the U.S.

It's enough to sour any young man; with Chavez, it appears to have had the opposite effect. It seems to have strengthened the patience Chavez needs to make it through his legal battles with the INS, bolstered the endurance necessary to win a world championship. Now 28, Chavez is nearing his physical peak as an athlete, and with opponents five or more years his junior, he is not just fighting against immigration policies or any opponent -- he is fighting against the clock.

A Guy You Want to Stand Behind

When a boxer uses the nickname "El Matador," you might expect some flash and chest-thrusting from him. Instead, Jesus Chavez is the epitome of mellow. He is supremely polite -- but not a pushover -- and speaks with a sincerity that loses some of its spirit when rendered in print. Meeting him in person, I immediately understood why so many have come forward to support him. Chavez is driven by a rare passion, the depth of which would be charming were it not so baldly honest, and, in turn, breathtaking. This is a guy you want to stand behind, not because of some well-concocted hype, but because his drive, his heart, his spirit -- whatever you want to call it -- is magnetic. He's the real deal.

"The art of boxing is to hit and not get hit. That's what boxing is," Chavez says in an interview during a recent visit to Austin. "What boxing is about is the fire. I have that fire back in me. I'm fighting for myself, I'm fighting for a dream, I'm fighting for a country, and I'm fighting for my family and friends. I'm fighting for the future of a possible family. I'm fighting for the future of me."

This determined man is a long way from the misguided teen living on the west side of Chicago. Though he was doing well as an amateur boxer, Chavez's need for acceptance by a local street gang known as the Harrison Gents was strong. His talent in the ring had already earned him the respect and attention he thought he lacked, heightened even more when he returned to Chicago after serving three years for his role in an armed robbery.

"These guys think I'm rough," Chavez says in Split Decision. He goes on to add, "I was somebody who didn't know what his real reason to be on Earth is at all."

Though Chicago was Chavez's home, his father encouraged him to make a change. Members of the Harrison Gents were calling the house, goading Chavez to hang out. The family had relatives all over the U.S. When Chavez decided to move to Austin, he decided he had a future. He decided to make a life for himself and dedicate that life to developing his talent.

"I think a lot of people are born into boxing," Chavez says. "I think I'm fortunate enough to be one of those people. At the Windy City Gym in Chicago, there's a sign that says, 'We can give you skills, we can give you strength, but we can't give you heart.' Boxing has to really come from the heart."

"The boxers will bring to the fight everything that is themselves, and everything will be exposed."

-- from On Boxing by Joyce Carol Oates

(quoted at beginning of Split Decision)

How You Throw a Punch

Chavez is said to have good legs; he can throw and take a punch and keep the pressure on. But perhaps his most valuable asset is his ability to "read" and react to an opponent and, even more impressively, his ability to adjust to a left-handed boxer (most boxers are right-handed).

"There are two types of fighting in boxing," Chavez explains. "There are boxers and there are sluggers. I'm a slugger, but I can also box. I would call myself a boxer-slugger. ... A boxer likes the fancy footwork, the defense, and speed. A slugger can get in there and exchange punches. That's me. The interesting thing in boxing is that everyone has their own style. There are only several punches in boxing: jab, right hand, left hook to the body, upper cut, overhand rights. But the form, how you throw a punch, that's how it varies, and what makes it interesting."

Austinites will have a chance to see Chavez in action when he meets Tom "Boom Boom" Johnson at the Frank Erwin Center on February 23. With his 50-8-2 record, Johnson is a tough opponent. Chavez has never shied from the hard fights, and this one is significant.

"I need to take him out," Chavez says calmly. The fight with Johnson is one more step toward the world title he has been training and sweating for all these years. Defeating Johnson confirms Chavez as the leading junior lightweight contender for Floyd Mayweather's title and would seal matches with other high-profile boxers.

"It's important for me to keep the number one position for Mayweather's title," Chavez said in a press conference reported by Cedric Golden in the Austin American-Statesman on Jan. 26. "I want to fight the best, win a world title, then hopefully come back to Austin for my first title defense."

"No one knows what it takes just to get into the ring," says Sean Curtain, Chavez's former boxing coach, in Split Decision. "A fighter can fall down, but if he can get back up and still fight, that's a real champ." end story

As this story was going to press, Jesus Chavez was issued his green card following a hearing in Tijuana.

Chavez's first fight in the U.S. in more than three years took place in Houston, January 4. He defeated lightweight opponent Benito Rodriguez with a TKO in the sixth round. His next fight is scheduled for February 23, 7pm, at the Frank Erwin Center against Tom "Boom Boom" Johnson. Tickets are $20-100. 477-6060.

If all goes well, Chavez may have his long-awaited chance at the world championship if a proposed fight against the current WBC super-featherweight champion Floyd Mayweather Jr. is confirmed for a June match.

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