Bull Rush

Hands on a hard body: El Matador, light as a featherweight
John Anderson

This? This wasn't the norm. This was easy.

No big deal, even though he had trained like a sadist for this bout, sparring and running and scrapping until exhaustion. Or that it took a long while to mold a body turned soft from lack of use and "too many enchiladas" back into 130 pounds of lean muscle. Hardly important, either, that some of the boxing community's Made Men were here at the University of Texas Erwin Center--dervish-turned-promoter Bob Arum, legendary trainer-turned-commentator Teddy Atlas, former heavyweight champion-turned-maundering charity case Leon Spinks. Didn't add extra weight that he, the prodigal son, had returned, donning gloves in his adopted hometown in front of 6,500 or so proponents, friends, and family.

Pressure? Come on. Jesus "El Matador" Chavez has pummeled more daunting tasks than these. Sure, one-time IBF featherweight champion Tom "Boom Boom" Johnson made the affable Chavez, 28, work to defend his NABF junior lightweight title. (Chavez's fists stung Johnson often and hard. He commanded the fight's pace, moving deftly, pounding Johnson's face and torso with powerful combinations. Chavez won a TKO on ESPN2's "Friday Night Fights" series when Johnson, beaten and battered, refused to answer the bell in the eighth round.) Sure a potential pay-per-view extravaganza in Vegas with the division's marquee name, WBC super featherweight champion Floyd Mayweather Jr., whom some pundits believe to be the sport's best in the mythical "pound-for-pound" classification, loomed somewhere in the distance as a result.

So there seemed to be a lot to think, or stress, about for the WBC's No. 1 contender. Almost too much. For another fighter, the situation might have been taxing. For another person, it might have been overwhelming.

For Jesus Gabriel Sandoval Chavez, and for everyone who's met the diminutive pugilist or taken the time to learn his plight, it was all welcome--and just short of divine.

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He was on his way to the top, you know, destined for Mandalay Bay or the Mirage, for the big payouts and the attendant celebrity. He was going to make us know his name, if not adore it, in a weight class usually marked by its anonymity. Win lots of fights. Hold a few titles. Be somebody.

Chavez was always somebody; it's just that the younger version of the quiet, instantly likable somebody he's become wasn't always thinking lucidly. That Chavez, a 17-year-old kid from Chicago's tough West Side, made a mistake. Helped rob a grocery store with some gang buddies by playing lookout. Went to prison for his stupidity. "I wasn't thinking," he told the Observer of the fateful day ("Knockdown," May 18, 2000). "The consequences didn't register at the time." Spent three and a half years in ignoble Stateville prison, which is somewhere on the order of being banished to Dante's seventh layer.

But he did his time, owned up to his mistakes. In a system that no longer hides behind the ruse of rehabilitation, preferring instead to lock its felons away and forget, Chavez is proof that reformation and repentance are still possible. Not that it mattered.

As if life hadn't already been disagreeable enough, Chavez, who'd lived in the States since his family moved from Delicias, Mexico, when he was 7, was deported. Exiled by the INS after leaving prison when some geek in a suit discovered a certain ex-con was an illegal. Mexico became his new jail. Dusty towns and fleeting hope doubled as bars.

"It was hard to be without my family and my friends," says Chavez, who moved in and out of the United States during that time, training at Richard Lord's Gym in Austin, or fighting some low-caliber fight, then fleeing. "It was a struggle."

While Chavez clung to his skills--in the prime of his career, he was forced into bouts with inferior competition because top boxers refused to travel to Mexico to throw down--pals championed the fight for his rights. Thanks in part to entrepreneur Richard Garriott, who dropped plenty of his own flow on his friend's legal defense, and Marcy Garriott, Richard's sister-in-law and a filmmaker who documented his quandary in the movie Split Decision, Chavez recently earned his Green Card and the right to live legally in America, returning for good about two months ago.

"It's a wonderful thing for him to be here," says Richard Lord, an often disheveled but engaging character who helps train Chavez when he's in Austin. "He was gone for three years. Our country left him out there, to dry out, to dry up. Look, he's just been through so much. But now..."

Now he can resume his career, pick up where the government influenced a severance. Now he can concentrate on boxing, on what he wants to do rather than what he's been shackled into dealing with.

Now, mercifully, El Matador has his life back.

He sat and smiled after the Johnson victory (a win that ran his record to a solid 34-1-0), sweat still dripping from jet-black hair, eyes dancing with pride and joy. It wasn't his first fight since returning--that was a sixth-round TKO tuneup of Benito Rodriguez in Houston in January--but it was his most engaging. Moments before, he had entertained a raucous crowd. A group that showed for him.

There were innumerable signs, from the witty--Fall down and go Boom Boom--to the suggestive and brash--You're next, Mayweather. (During the fight, Chavez, who had things under control enough to wink at a pal sitting ringside, thought of the prospective battle. "Yeah," he says calmly, sitting next to Arum in the pressroom, "there was a time in the fight when I thought forward to Mayweather. I want Mayweather.") There were matador hats, the kind worn by bullfighters, floating about, and little red capes, too.

Well, if you're going to do a promotion justice, you've got to accessorize.

"I was very anxious to get out there," he offers softly, "most definitely. To hear that noise again, to hear all the people support me was soothing to me. They were giving me good vibes. It was just a good night. This has been good, getting back here to my family and friends."

As he joked and grinned, laughed and reflected, working the room with decided grace, Chavez inspired the cynics to believe, to enjoy a genuine moment, to embrace a genuine man.

They don't come along often, professionals whom you can unabashedly support without breaking out into hives. Hard to find a guy who accepts his mistakes. Even harder to find a guy who does that while transcending the stigmas typically associated with dirty words such as "prison" and "prize fighter."

But this? This wasn't the norm. This was easy.

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