Sweet Jesus

"El Matador" could be a contender, but for the INS

Lewis Wood was -- and is -- a hell of a fighter. A hard-hitting bruiser from Houston, his combination of stone hands and quick feet saw him rise in the ranks of the amateur boxing world. In June 1992, many thought he was bound for the Olympics, save for a sharp curve on his road to Barcelona. He lost by split decision to a rising star from East Los Angeles named Oscar De La Hoya, who went on to win the gold medal. Upon return from the trials in Worcester, Massachusetts, Wood decided to go professional and has since cut a swath through the featherweight ranks.

But one night in 1994, Wood accepted the challenge of an unknown boxer fighting out of Austin. Jesus Chavez had never been in a professional fight before. A stocky kid with a chiseled build, "El Matador" Chavez was scheduled by Wood's camp because he was a no-name: an automatic mark in the win column.

"You know, I said to myself, 'I can't lose this fight. I just can't lose this fight,'" Chavez says in Split Decision, a documentary film by Austin filmmaker Marcy Garriott premiering Monday at the USA Film Festival. "My family came all the way down from Chicago just to see me fight and do good."

Jesus  Chavez's boxing career has been stymied by immigration troubles.
Jesus Chavez's boxing career has been stymied by immigration troubles.

Wood is left-handed, and lefties usually throw off even the most experienced boxers. A boxer has to learn how to deal with lefties the hard way: A few good uppercuts and roundhouses usually do the job, and it usually takes months, if not years, to perfect a defense. But Chavez learned in only one round. The first round of that fight went to Wood. Come round two, Chavez shocked everyone in that Austin audience: He switched to southpaw.

"I think that was what determined the fight," Chavez says in retrospect.

The Wood fight opened the floodgates of media attention. Chavez lit up opponent after opponent and eventually attracted the interest of boxing legend Lou Duva, who has managed and trained the likes of Evander Holyfield and Pernell Whitaker. Chavez traveled the country, leaving defeated opponents in his wake.

And then the turnbuckles turned inward on El Matador.

Chavez, who was born in Chihuahua, Mexico, was raised in Chicago since he was 7. His parents did not want the family to be forced into the same plight as everyone else in their small mineral mining town of Delicias.

"The work in the mine is good," said Chavez's grandfather Jesus Sandoval, a mine worker for the last 50 years. "It's good, but it's not healthy."

Chavez grew up on the streets of west Chicago. At 17, he wanted to impress some local bad boys and agreed to go along on an armed robbery. Chavez was apprehended and did three and a half years at an Illinois prison. The day he was paroled, an INS officer was waiting to ship him back to Mexico.

Chavez arrived in Mexico City and made his way to his grandparents' house in Delicias, where his father was waiting to sneak him back into the country.

He realized he could not go back to Chicago, and instead chose Austin as his home and training grounds. But one day in 1997, after having already established himself as a world-caliber boxer, El Matador applied for a Texas driver's license. He was detained by two INS officers on the spot.

Chavez was a convicted felon. Under the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, illegal immigrants who commit felonies are not only ineligible for citizenship but must be deported immediately. Chavez left the United States on October 14, 1997.

Now Chavez is in the United States for the first time in two and a half years. He received a temporary compassionate parole from the INS because his mother's health is failing; a legal immigrant, she has heart problems and is on a respirator. Chavez arrived in Chicago on April 7 and must leave the United States by May 6.

Split Decision will premiere at 9 p.m. at Glen Lakes 8 Theaters. Garriott, a former AT&T executive who was not a boxing fan previously, tailed Chavez for two years, interviewing family, friends, coaches, and government officials.

Locally, a prominent Dallas family, swept up by the story, has been involved with this case for three years now. Trevor and Karen Glanger were appalled to learn of Chavez's fate, especially after having met the boxer on several occasions.

Their daughter Terri had met Chavez in Austin several years back, and the two were instant buddies.

"I just think this is a human-rights thing," Karen Glanger said. "The sheer injustice of this individual case really bothers me."

While some prominent American boxers are better known for their criminal activities than for ring ability, Chavez's story is that of a man who turned not only his life around, but the lives of others. Most people he comes in contact with want to help him. From the Glangers to his old coaches in Austin and Chicago to the filmmaker herself, Chavez perpetuates sportsmanship and hope. He continues to fight in Mexico for a tenth of the money he'd be making in the United States.

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