A friend and a true warrior hung up his gloves last weekend and Austin boxing will never be the same. Redemption and grace aren't often found in this world, much less boxing, much less in one boxer's life several times, and when it is realized, it deserves celebration. Jesus is one of those people in life you pull for and if you knew him and his story you'd likely understand why.
When he was 16, Gabriel Sandoval was involved in an armed robbery in Chicago, spent four years doing hard time, and was deported back to Mexico. He walked back across the border, assumed a nom-de-guerre (Jesus Chavez), and strolled into Lord's Boxing Gym in Austin weighing 170 pounds with a two-pack-a-day smoking habit while declaring his intention to win a world title as a lightweight. That's when the Jesus Chavez story gets interesting. Real interesting.
I knew Jesus at the very beginning of his career and we'd intersected at different times since then - the last time in Las Vegas, where we chatted for an hour between flights, Jesus sporting sunglasses to hide the two massive shiners and facial swelling that are the tax on his trade. We caught up on old friends, inquired about each other's lives, and he told me to stop back by the gym. But he was quiet and a little distant. I found out months later that Levander Williams had died.
I first met Chavez when he was a club fighter looking to make his mark, fighting for $500 purses against the hometown favorite before hostile crowds, always going for the knockout to keep the decision out of the hands of corrupt local judges, and without a pot to piss in. He was shy at first, but as you drew him out, he was incredibly funny and wise. The kind of wisdom you acquire through seeing humanity at their best and very worst and having worked through to reconcile that the same species produced both. I was blown away by his work ethic and determination to win.
At the time, he was living in Richard's gym, sleeping on a mattress on the floor in a tiny room off of the main boxing workout area and doing odd jobs in exchange for his room and board: teaching classes to alterno-chicks, yuppies and frat boys, scrubbing blood, mopping spit. There was no air conditioning in Lord's gym - and with all of the heat resistant properties of a Quonset hut - used to break 110 degrees with great regularity. Throwing up in the parking lot, reeling from the heat, chills running up and down your body, was a rite of passage for everyone who trained there.
The gym itself was a strange mix of characters, a lot of that owing to Richard's laid back personality and tolerant nature; and it was a snapshot of Austin at a certain time and place; an Austin that I liked very much and hope can be preserved. There were local frat boys training for Fight Night, pro fighters, both male and female, ranging in ability from amateur to club fighter all the way to the ranked elite, local Austin radio, writing, and television personalities, inked up slackers, Gibby Haynes, lead singer of The Butthole Surfers, Richard Garriott, multimillionaire computer game magnate and space traveller, Amy Miller, of Amy's Ice Cream fame, and an assortment of well-heeled yuppies, freaks, ROTC Marines.
Everyone got along. I've always been of the opinion that shared suffering and the prospect of being asked to spar are great ways for people to both bond and mind their manners; the egalitarian nature of Lord's gym amplified that. As Chavez's legend grew and he developed into a Top 5 Lightweight, he also singlehandedly put Austin, TX on the boxing map. Austin was now a place that you could go to see high quality boxing and that was a good thing - the electricity of a big fight is like nothing you'll experience and it was nice to see Austin become a fighter town. It was also rewarding to have personal stakes; watching him fight on HBO in front of millions and then teasing him while he was stretching days later, pushing him over with my knee when he did bicycle stretches, swapping off-color Mexican jokes; listening to James Brown's I Feel Good with jump ropes synchronized to the beat.
This was your fighter.
I'm sad to see Austin lose an institution in the ring, but Jesus is making the right choice. It was time to throw in the towel. And if he approaches the next chapter of his life with the passion of his last - chin down, gloves up - I know he'll make it through whatever life can throw at him and will, in fact, prosper. Although Jesus would never be undisputed champion or number one in the world - he was both cursed and blessed to come of age in a time when some of the greatest lightweights who ever lived are walking the planet - Jesus has heard the count and his knees have never stayed on the canvas. And that's the hallmark of a true champion.
Buena suerte, Gabriel.