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Jesus Gabriel Sandoval Chavez stands on top of a mountain at the outskirts of Delicias, Mexico, and takes a deep breath of clean air. For once, his eyes aren't watering. His lungs feel good.

Below him are the dust-filled towns of Delicias, Rosales, and Saucillo. Within an hour or two, as central Mexico's parched brown earth rises to scorching temperatures, the thousands of people and animals and rickety vehicles down there will stir up a swirl of dust that cakes everything with that day's layer. It's unavoidable and everywhere, forming lines of dirt in the folds of people's clothing and the sides of their eyes, the result of hours of blinking away dirty tears.

It is 6 a.m., and Chavez sighs in gratification. He turns to his friend, Martin Vasquez, and the two stand still as watchful animals. They are breathing normally now after running seven miles up a loose gravel trail in less than 90 minutes. The two adjust to the elevation as they watch the sun rise east of the pueblos, making the terra-cotta structures in the valley glow.

"Look at them down there, man," Chavez, 27, says as he squints into the dust. Martin, a 23-year-old kung fu black belt, nods and mops wet grime off his forehead with a soiled white polo shirt.

"They're all running around, working and moving about, while we're up here and they just don't know."

Chavez knows what it's like to stand on top and look down at the rest of the world and its mundane pursuits. For five years, he has stood at or near the pinnacle of the World Boxing Council's superfeatherweight class. But these days, he can only gaze down on the numerous opponents he's bested. He is the top contender in the world for his size, but here in Mexico, there's nothing to contend for.

It wasn't long ago that Chavez was a local hero in Austin, a fighter at the top of his game. He reigned over the local boxing scene and looked forward to the hundreds of thousands of dollars he expected to make in the United States as a world-caliber fighter. Then he lost his footing and fell. Far.

The simple task of applying for a Texas driver's license had an unintended result: Someone at the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service put two and two together, connecting the boxer nicknamed "El Matador" with a 17-year-old Chicago tough named Gabriel Sandoval who had robbed a grocery store, spent time in the Illinois state penitentiary system, and had been promptly deported to his place of birth--Mexico--as soon as he stepped outside the prison gates.

The INS had little interest in El Matador's top-ranked status. Neither did it matter that the boxer, who'd taken the name Jesus Chavez to fool the authorities, was as American as any Texas gringo, having lived in the states since he was 7. The agency wasted no time sending the convicted robber back to Mexico, where he made his way to his family's home in dusty Delicias.

That was in 1997. Life is very different now. Chavez has risen above the dust and poverty below, but tough immigration laws are his key opponents as he continues to dream of fighting in the United States before he's too old to be a contender.

Even though it is a cool 70 degrees in the early-morning air, both men are overheated. They wear heavy denim pants to avoid cutting their legs as they climb. Chavez and Vasquez stand at the far edge of a granite bluff lined with desert shrubbery for nearly an hour as the sunlight intensifies. They talk about their brutal training regimens, about Chavez's persona non grata status with the U.S. government--a popular subject among friends--before heading down the mountain to the boxer's aging Dodge Charger parked illegally on government land. No one bothers him about such small indiscretions because he is a local hero, and local heroes are scarce around here.

The descent into the valley is steep at first. Thick, prickly shrubs snag their pant legs with every step along the mountain path. Blood begins to show through--a few thorns always pierce the denim barrier.

Once the men maneuver their way onto the loose gravel trail, their moods become playful. They start racing each other down the mountain, grinning as they kick up dust and rocks. Vasquez, the tall one at 5 feet 7 inches, high-steps some bushes and tries to grab Chavez's shoulder and wrestle him to the ground. But as he reaches for the fighter, Chavez breaks out in a Speedy Gonzalez run, laughing as he yells "¡ Immigracion!" at Martin. The two are engaged in a little game: Vasquez plays the role of an INS officer chasing Chavez. Chavez plays himself.

The two have several near-wipeouts as they race to the bottom, back into the dust bowl. The mountain is escape; the valley is truth. Here, Chavez trains for an as-yet unscheduled championship bout under the bleachers of the poorly equipped, miserably hot Gimnasio Municipal instead of the renowned Lord's Gym in Austin. He lives with his grandparents in a humble flat outside of Delicias rather than a plush apartment in Vegas. He pulls in between $10,000 and $30,000 a year while a bunch of boxers he's beaten in the United States make 10 times that.

Life in Delicias seems like a life sentence. The only perk Chavez enjoys is his status as the sole celebrity for hundreds of miles. The entire country recognizes him, even more so now that he has beaten the Mexican National Champion, Julio Alvarez. But even that can be a hindrance. Chavez seldom leaves the house at night. He worries that a band of boozers with beer muscles might want to take a crack at a pro fighter and jump him.

El Matador avoids conversations about his fame. But everywhere he goes in Delicias, Rosales, Saucillo, and even 880 miles south in Mexico City, he is recognized and hounded for autographs.

Later that day, Chavez is pushing the pedal some 20 mph over the limit in Rosales. One of the feared, notoriously corrupt local policías whistles him to the side of the road. Chavez initially pretends not to hear him. But the big cop, sporting a Pancho Villa mustache and a loaded revolver, sits on the hood waiting for Chavez to pull over.

When Chavez stops, the big-bellied cop ambles up to the car and extends his hand: "Hola, Matador. Where have you been?" He just wanted to know why he hadn't seen the town celebrity in a couple of weeks.

The answer is that Chavez has been in Chicago and Austin for the first time in two and a half years. The INS had granted him a compassionate parole to visit his mother, who was in a coma after undergoing heart surgery. She was conscious and able to speak by the time he left Chicago in late April, though she's still in the ICU today. Chavez also dropped in for his own movie premiere in Austin. Filmmaker Marcy Garriott was swept up by the boxer's story and made it into a full-length documentary, Split Decision, which has received enthusiastic reviews. El Matador got a standing ovation from an Austin Film Festival audience.

But he is back in Delicias, his holding cell. To the locals, he is the best thing ever to come out of this impoverished town. They know if he were given a shot at the championship belt, he'd surely bring it on home to the State of Chihuahua. But for monetary reasons, promoters will only schedule such a fight in the United States. That's the real prize El Matador has his eye on.

On Chicago's West Side, where Chicago and Damen avenues meet among aging brownstones, things get sketchy at night. Many of the buildings are hollowed out, making ideal spots for squatters and drug dealers. Most stores have been tagged with graffiti, and English is a second language in almost every household.

Off these West Side streets came El Matador, a short, stocky kid with a chiseled build and a fighter's stare. Gangs are at the epicenter of youth culture in this section of the city, where Mexican and Ukrainian immigrants live together amidst so many broken homes and so much broken glass. Gangs are sometimes a young man's only source of identity, of family.

Gabriel Sandoval had lived there since he was 7. His parents thought it better to brave the thuggish West Side than remain in their hometown of Delicias and graduate--if at all--from high school to the lead, zinc, silver, and gold mines an hour and a half away in San Francisco del Oro. Gabriel's grandfather mined there for 50 years, and while the work fed his family, he knew it could also destroy their health.

It was Gabriel's father who decided the United States could offer his family more. He knew tales of other Mexicans who'd trekked north and made good lives for themselves. So in 1979, they loaded up their possessions and made the 1,700-mile trip--illegally--to Chicago. At first, the relocation was difficult for Gabriel and his sister, Lidia, who is two years younger than he. The two didn't speak a lick of English but would sit for hours and attempt to converse in Spanglish.

When he was 10, Gabriel wanted to learn karate, but the lessons were too expensive. Swimming lessons were free at the local community center at Eckert Park, so Gabriel's parents signed up both him and his sister. By chance, they were dropped off an hour early one day, and that hour would change the boy's life.

The Matador Gym--the source of Gabriel's eventual nickname--was one of many boxing gyms in Chicago at the time. In the early 1980s, Rocky fever swept the country, and city kids wanted to learn how to fight.

"I heard a little bell, like a gym bell, and I looked under this window in the basement, and they had a boxing gym. So I said, 'cool,'" El Matador recalls in Split Decision.

He was a natural. His first coach in Chicago, Sean Curtin, remembers how the wiry boy would get in the ring and box anyone. Young or old, good or bad, Gabriel wouldn't back down. He immediately became known for his fighting skills. But like so many teens on the West Side, Gabriel lost his way to the diversions of the streets. Some kids drop out of school and loaf around the city day in and day out. Others turn to drugs and petty theft. El Matador says he remembers the gang coming to him, but not like one would expect from the movies.

A big misconception about gangs and gang life, he says, is that kids are pressured into them. In reality, gangs are more or less self-contained. The only real way in is if someone vouches for you and you voluntarily join. So, too, was the case with Gabriel Sandoval. The Harrison Gents were a group of local West Side bad boys who would hang out on Harrison Street. Gabriel had friends in the predominantly Latino gang long before he was a member.

"I fought for one of my friends who was a Harrison Gent once," he says. "It was a street fight, and he was getting his ass kicked and I helped him out. It was like I walked into the gang. I started hanging out with these guys and smoking grass, fucking around, and trying to get accepted by them even more." He was 16 years old.

What Gabriel didn't realize was that he didn't need to curry favor with these gangbangers: They had already accepted him. He was a tough Mexican kid, good with his fists--a valuable commodity for a street gang.

After school one day, fellow gang members Bubba and Saito had an idea. The gang needed some play money. Knocking off a big grocery store on Chicago Avenue seemed like a quick and easy payoff. The two got their hands on a sawed-off shotgun and carried it around in an old umbrella case. But the plan was doomed from the beginning.

Bubba was the getaway man. He was going to park in front of the store with the motor running. Saito was the gunman. He would hold up the clerk. But right before the moment of truth, the boys got nervous. They doubted the two of them could pull off this caper in broad daylight and figured they needed a lookout. What about Gabriel?

The boxer was on his way to the neighborhood to hang out with the gang. Bubba and Saito approached him and made their proposition. They told him they had a little deal set up, making it sound like the sort of thing Gabriel should be begging for a piece of. They asked him if he wanted in.

"I wasn't thinking," El Matador says. "The consequences didn't register at the time."

Gabriel and Saito entered the store. Saito did the talking and held the weapon while Gabriel stood dumbfounded. He describes the scene as surreal, like it wasn't really happening. They held up a woman at the store's courtesy desk and got about $3,500 in cash.

The money was split up and soon disappeared--Gabriel never even got his share. But the payoff would last a long time. All three boys were convicted in the robbery, and Gabriel would spend three and a half years in the Illinois prison system.

Curtin, the boxing trainer, recalls working out in the gym with Gabriel a day later and immediately knowing something was wrong. "He just didn't seem focused," Curtin says in Split Decision. "We were all changing and he said to me, 'I can't believe what I did. I helped to rob the store.'"

Gabriel was marched into Cook County Jail when he was 17, shackled and scared. He stayed there nearly a year, then pleaded guilty to armed robbery. He was sentenced to seven and a half years in prison, of which he served three and a half. He was paroled early for good behavior, but not before being sent in 1993 to the infamous Stateville prison.

Fortunately for him, a couple of his Harrison Gent boys were already in Stateville, and they took him under their wing. He was accepted in prison because of his gang affiliation, but at the same time, he had to grow eyes in the back of his head. Fights and riots were commonplace. Gabriel carried a homemade prison knife everywhere he went. His blade fended off some trouble, but the way he describes it, only those who were down with a gang had a fighting chance. On several occasions, Gabriel got "called out" by a rival gang member.

"When someone calls you out, you have no choice but to go and throw down," he says. "If you don't, you're labeled a coward, and then you really get beat."

A man calls you out and you accept. The two go into an empty cell, and the door is shut behind them. A member from each gang stands lookout for guards while the two fight inside the cell until one is knocked unconscious.

"We'd be playing Ping-Pong with each other's heads inside the cell while two guys from two different gangs would be having cigarettes and talking outside. It was a game of survival, and I had no choice but to play."

Gabriel's parents were horrified by his prison stint. As far as they were concerned, Gabriel was a good kid, making good grades. Before Gabriel's trial, his father bought a new house and offered to put it on collateral for his son's bond. Gabriel would have none of it.

"I didn't want his help," he says today. "I wanted to be a man and pay for my crime, and I didn't want my father to throw his hard work away on my crime. This was my problem, and I didn't want to make it his."

While in prison, Gabriel did little but condition himself and dream about his release and return to boxing. Although he hated to fight in prison, he says confrontations were common enough that he actually honed his skills. When his yard time was over, he'd retreat to his cell and keep working out. He'd stick two plastic bags filled with water on the ends of a broomstick and do curls for hours. Then came the hundreds of push-ups and sit-ups. At lights out, the prison's security night lights created an eerie glow in Gabriel's cell--perfect for shadow boxing. He'd spar with himself all night long.

When he did sleep, he dreamed of standing in the middle of the boxing ring, slugging it out toe to toe with the champions of the world, crowds cheering his name. At the end, he was hoisted atop high shoulders, bloodied but victorious. The champion.

Gabriel was paroled from Stateville on April 1, 1994. April Fools'. Outside the gates, an INS agent waited to whisk him to a plane and ship him back to Mexico.

None of this was a surprise; the INS had informed him and his parents that he'd be deported. Gabriel, unfortunately, had never become a U.S. citizen or legal resident. His whole family applied for residency as part of the 1987 amnesty, and his parents immediately received green cards. But Lidia and Gabriel were told they were ineligible because they needed to show seven years of continuous residency in the United States. When Gabriel was 9, however, he and his sister spent one year in Mexico at their grandparents' house. Their mother had had heart surgery and couldn't look after them.

Gabriel returned to Chicago when he was 10, but his school records had a telltale gap.

At 17, the amnesty paperwork came through for both Gabriel and Lidia. But Gabriel was in prison, and the government refused to give him his residency papers. When he got out, he boarded a plane for Mexico City and arrived with the clothes on his back and the $50 given to every parolee in the Illinois prison system.

Life has not ceased to be a struggle since then. From the airport, he went immediately to a bus station and had to haggle with the driver to take him to Delicias--$50 wouldn't cover the price of the 880-mile, three-day trip. After cutting a deal, Jesus had only $15 to buy food. When he arrived in Delicias, his father was there to meet him.

Although some Mexicans scale fences, swim across rivers, and traverse deserts to migrate north illegally, he and his father walked right through a port of entry at Juarez into the United States, where they caught a flight from El Paso to Chicago. His father was a citizen, and Gabriel spoke such perfect English that it was assumed he was a citizen too. And why not? He'd spent the last 14 years in the country. This was home.

Gabriel knew he couldn't stay in Chicago permanently, though. Too many skeletons there. Word got out that he'd returned, and the phone rang off the hook at his parents' house. He wanted to concentrate on boxing, and he wanted a fresh start. His father offered to make a phone call: He had family in Texas, California, Arizona, and Nevada.

Gabriel chose Texas.

As soon as he arrived at his relatives' home in Austin, he went looking for a boxing gym. Lord's Gym is an Austin staple, and Richard Lord, a Dallas native and the gym's owner, is the closest thing to a celebrity that the Austin boxing community has. He aggressively promotes fights--without the sleaze--and makes great fighters.

His gym has an unusual clientele. "We've got such an eclectic group, from newspaper editors to FBI agents to ex-convicts to university students," Lord says. "Ninety percent of the people at the gym don't fight, but there is the 10 percent that do. The others just want to learn the skills...everything except get their nose broke. So we can accommodate them on that. But if they want to get their nose broke, we can do that too."

Gabriel went to Lord in April 1994 and told him straight-up where he'd been. He spared no details about his troubles with the law. Having adopted the new name Jesus Chavez, he pledged to turn his life around and become a champion. He told Lord everything--except that he was in the country illegally.

In those days, Chavez was strictly on the humble. He lived only to train and fight professionally. Lord immediately noticed his talent, even though, at the time, El Matador was more like El Fatty, weighing 160 pounds--significantly more than his 5-foot-5-inch frame can carry gracefully. His hard-core conditioning in prison had bulked him up. He packed on as many pounds as he could, because he needed the mass to fend off some of the bigger prisoners. At Lord's, he'd puff more than two packs of smokes a day, then work the heavy bag like a veteran.

"He came to me just out of the blue, walked in way out of shape, but I thought he had a lot of natural talent," Lord recalls. "I saw that he had all the boxing tools. He just needed someone to take him through the obstacle course to a championship."

Lord had him fight a few amateur fights and was even more impressed with how well he schooled opponents in the ring. Gabriel had fought in amateur contests before his incarceration and won three Golden Gloves competitions from 1988 to 1990, touring an amateur circuit that included Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, and Missouri.

Lord trained him hard, trimming 20 pounds off his weight, dubbing him Jesus "El Matador" Chavez and registering him as a pro fighter four months after he arrived. All said and done, El Matador's amateur record was 95-5, with one fight in Austin, one in San Antonio, and 35 knockouts. Smaller guys usually don't get knocked out. They are highly conditioned and dense with muscle, which absorbs their bee-sting punches. Thirty-five knockouts is a huge tally for a superfeatherweight.

El Matador's first professional fight was in Houston on August 5, 1994. His opponent was Lewis Wood, a hard-hitting Houston native who'd lost in the last round of the U.S. Olympic tryouts in 1992 to Oscar De La Hoya. Wood had gone undefeated since the De La Hoya fight, and his people scheduled Chavez as an automatic mark in the win column.

The fight was scheduled for four rounds, and they were four rounds of constant motion. El Matador was fighting on pure emotion. His parents flew in from Chicago, and he remembers tears coming down his face while making his approach to the ring and seeing the faces of his mother and father in the Houston audience. El Matador overcame his own inexperience and rawness, at one point switching to southpaw--Wood was left-handed--and matching the experienced fighter blow for blow. Come round three, Wood's hometown crowd was rooting for El Matador. The boxer, fighting as a lightweight, triumphed over Wood, then cut more weight and started to rock the superfeatherweight class (up to 130 pounds).

By this point, Chavez ate, slept, and breathed boxing. Literally. The family house was crowded, so Lord opened the back room of his gym to the hungry fighter.

El Matador lived there for more than two years. His room and beat-up mattress lay downwind from the practice ring, heavy bags, and free weights; it smelled awful. And BO isn't the easiest odor to eliminate, especially when it's renewed every day for eight hours straight.

The Texas heat didn't help much either. When it was 100 degrees outside in the summer, it was 105 degrees in the gym. El Matador would go outside to cool off.

Lord's Gym is a classic. The building itself is a warehouse with a two-car garage door as the front door. Even outside, trainers can be heard barking instructions.

Inside, every inch of wallspace is covered with boxing paraphernalia. There are hundreds of posters promoting the great fights of yesteryear: Holyfield vs. Lewis, Mercer vs. Holmes, De La Hoya vs. Trinidad. But today, the gym is more or less a shrine to the best boxer ever to come out of Austin: El Matador. Every one of Chavez's promotional pictures hangs throughout the gym, as do all of the newspaper clippings written about him over the years. He will never be forgotten. It was within these walls that El Matador transformed himself from no-name to No. 1.

Eventually, all of the sacrifices paid off. In 1995, Lord scheduled El Matador for a title fight against then-North American Boxing Federation champ Louie Leija.

Leija was a bruiser, and he socked Chavez good in the third round of their 12-round bout. But El Matador sucked it up--those 105-degree days came in handy. He fought back and captured the NABF belt and the attention of boxing legend Lou Duva, who has managed and trained such names as Evander Holyfield and Pernell Whitaker.

Chavez would sign a three-year contract with Duva and Main Event promotions. At the time, he was ranked No. 5 by the World Boxing Council.

But the INS was on to him.

Soon after he applied for a Texas driver's license, he was detained by the INS. Though he was a high-profile fighter, he was still an illegal immigrant and subject to deportation. The INS, however, showed mercy and agreed to let El Matador fight one more bout if he agreed on a date to leave voluntarily.

His last fight in the United States pitted him against former IBO Junior Lightweight Champion and former IBF Featherweight Champion Troy Dorsey. This was the big-time. The Chavez vs. Dorsey fight was the undercard of the Andrew Golota vs. Lennox Lewis fight on pay-per-view. The Chavez fight was significantly more interesting. Lewis stopped Golota in the first round, but Chavez and Dorsey went seven rounds of all-out brawling before El Matador prevailed.

On October 14, 1997, Chavez departed for his grandparents' home in Delicias. He wasn't even upset; he figured he'd be back in the United States within the month on some sort of waiver.

That was two and a half years ago.

When he arrived in Mexico, El Matador's Spanish was terrible. Not only did he speak with an American accent, but his words were seasoned with Chicago street slang. In those days, he was recognized only as the guy who went running through town with his deaf Dalmatian Chula ("Pretty"). People his age would call him gringo, and his grandfather would mess with him by calling him "nothing but a dirty pocho" (American-born Mexican). But over time, his Spanish developed to the point where he sounds like a Mexican national. And nobody calls him names to his face other than Matador or Campeon (champion).

In Delicias, Chavez moved into a tiny room in his grandparents' modest but comfortable flat. His room is at the rear, combining American creature comforts with a distinctly Mexican flair. The stucco walls are decorated with boxing posters, trophies, and awards from the Mexican boxing commission. He has a 20-inch TV that he uses to watch his own video footage--doing the job a trainer should. That's because his trainer is a two-hour flight away in Mexico City.

Chavez flies to the Mexican capital for training every two or three weeks, depending on whether he can snag a cheap ticket. Mexico City is a mecca for boxing, and all of the country's best fighters train here--giving Chavez some badass sparring partners, including No. 2-ranked featherweight Guty Espadas and WBC Strawweight Champion Ricardo Lopez.

When Chavez trains in Mexico City, his lungs burn for the first few days because of the pollution. The city's smog, in fact, makes Delicias' dust bowl seem like fresh country air. Chavez journeys to higher altitudes for his cardiovascular regimen, because training in Mexico City, he says, is like smoking while you run.

The commute is necessary because Delicias simply isn't equipped for a fighter of El Matador's caliber. The only boxing facility is the old municipal gym, which houses the city's lone indoor basketball court. Bleachers stretch from floor to ceiling on either side, and the smallest sound resonates throughout.

Underneath the home team's bleachers lies the boxing gym. A single light bulb burns dim against the lime-green walls. Three tattered heavy bags--donated by El Matador--hang from the ceiling, as well as a speed bag and a double-end bag. The double-end is more like a slingshot than a piece of boxing equipment. It is anchored to the floor and ceiling by recycled hunks of rubber and reinforced with rope, making the action much quicker than usual.

The most depressing part is the sparring ring. There are no ropes. No turnbuckles. Not even a mat. Fighters battle each other like gladiators on the bare concrete floor. On several occasions, a fighter has been knocked out twice in one punch--first by the other boxer, then unconscious by the cement.

Here, El Matador can't spar at full force for fear of fatally injuring someone with a knockout blow.

As many as 20 or 30 people work out at one time in the Delicias gym under the guidance of two out-of-shape, underskilled volunteers who feed them water from an old duct-taped laundry detergent bottle. One of the old trainers still spars with fighters who are half his age and one-third his belly size. After each session, he appears to have barely cheated death, sweating profusely and breathing abnormally hard. There is no phone in the gym, so even if there were an accident, there is no way to call for help.

It takes a tough and extraordinarily dedicated fighter to train in such conditions. Either that, or absolute, utter boredom. Whatever the case, youths flock to the gym. The moment El Matador walks in the door, the room clears out and the boxers crowd the benches to hang on Chavez's every move and word.

El Matador obliges them, offering advice, even one-on-one instruction. He is their hero, the only proof of a bigger world outside Delicias.

"I love working with them," he says. "I've been trying to build them a boxing gym so they can have the tools they need to become great." At a recent meeting with local officials and prominent residents, Chavez convinced the city to look into building a gym specifically for boxing. The city agreed, hoping to produce more heroes and gentlemen.

El Matador trains rigorously for an invisible opponent. He has been the No. 1 contender for a world championship for more than two years now.

His dream of one day getting a title shot in the United States is still alive, thanks to people like Austin resident Richard Garriott. Garriott has known Chavez for five years and has traveled with the young fighter to far-off lands such as Poland to watch him fight.

A well-heeled entrepreneur, Garriott is funding El Matador's legal defense, which has already cost thousands of dollars. "I'm spending lots of money because he's such a great guy," Garriott says. "He is genuine and has a really great mental balance. And he doesn't hide behind his mistake. He knows he was young and messed with the wrong group of people. He doesn't blame the system like so many others do...he has paid his debt."

Many others have tried to help El Matador return to the United States, writing letters to everyone from Illinois Gov. George H. Ryan to President Clinton requesting a pardon for the boxer. One such letter came from Gov. George W. Bush. At a hearing in Illinois in 1998, however, Chavez was denied clemency. No specific reason was given, but lawyers familiar with the case say it was either because not enough time had passed to demonstrate his rehabilitation, or that Chavez's only reason to contest his immigration status was money. Nonetheless, Austin lawyer Barbara Hines is working to gain permanent residency for Chavez.

INS agent Richard Gonzales, who has worked on Chavez's case for more than three years, acknowledges it's a long shot. Chavez is an aggravated felon and is therefore ineligible for any appeals or permanent waivers. Gonzales says he has nothing against Chavez personally, but a law is a law. "I think he's turned a leaf," Gonzales says. "The guy's got a talent; he's got a skill, and he's taking full advantage of it. I can respect that. As far as his integrity, he is a convicted felon, but I think he's on the road to being a productive individual."

Hines' response is that Chavez wasn't an aggravated felon when he was deported the first time. Back then, she says, "His crime [armed robbery] was not even considered an aggravated felony. The law changed, and now it's considered an aggravated felony. That's one reason why we think we might be able to get a pardon."

Chavez's promoter in Tijuana is working on getting the fighter a temporary parole to fight in Austin in late June. But that presents problems of its own. Promoters won't be quick to schedule an opponent until they're certain Chavez will get a visa. On the other hand, the INS won't issue a temporary visa unless a fight has been scheduled. Chavez's lawyers are wrestling with the conundrum. If El Matador fights some smaller bouts in Austin, they figure he will demonstrate to the government his commitment to boxing here and his willingness to leave voluntarily afterward.

Until then, there is Delicias. He has beaten everyone there is to beat in Mexico and says he's proven his rehabilitation in every way imaginable. He is a worthy opponent for WBC Superfeatherweight Champion Floyd Mayweather--and he deserves a shot at the belt before he gets too old to compete.

Here in exile, El Matador's life is perpetual motion. He spends all of his hours working out. Even with his series of prison tattoos, he's a good-looking guy. But he has no time for a girlfriend, he says. He saves his money for his biggest expense--a $500-a-month phone bill to the states--and prepares for a dream that may never come.

Potential trouble lurks on every corner in this rough-and-tumble town. People drink to curb boredom, and they drink a lot--all day long. El Matador struggles to stay above it all. "I've got more time in my life now than I got anything," he says. "I definitely have more time than money."

El Matador has only one more man to beat until he can rest easy. His professional record is a stunning 32-1-0, with 21 wins coming by way of knockout. He lost his one fight in 1995 and has never in his life been knocked out. Until he has punched Floyd Mayweather to the mat in the United States, El Matador will continue to rise at 4:30 a.m. and run up that mountain, leaving behind his problems in the diesel and dust.

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