Standing Eight: The Inspiring Story of Jesus "El Matador" Chavez, Who Became Lightweight Champion of the World by Adam Pitluk. Da Capo, 2006, $24.95, 248 pages.
FROM THE DUST JACKET:
Standing Eight is a riveting tale of a strong-willed boxer who has refused to stay down for the count, both in the ring and in life.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
"Immigrant issues are being hotly contested on the streets and in congress. And Standing Eight ...reads like a timely allegory for the plight of the undocumented.... Precise and passionate, Pitluk chronicles how the Mexican-born, American-bred boxer -- battling inside and outside the ring -- handles numerous obstacles: poverty, incarceration, his undocumented status, and border crossing." -- New York Post
"Adam Pitluk has really created something special...a story that can apply to many boxers that come from the poorest of neighborhoods with very little going for them, with the exception of ambition to conquer the world in the ring. Outstanding." -- Ringside Report
"A gripping sports biography." -- Boxing Digest "A compelling story." -- Texas Monthly
"A story of rags to riches, dreams shattered, dreams attained, and life lived and lost. Pitluk delivers a knockout punch. -- The Saratoga
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Adam Pitluk was a reporter for the Dallas Observer. He is today a contributor to Time magazine and has written for People and the Dallas Morning News, among other publications. A native of Cleveland, he lives in Dallas, Texas, where he teaches journalism at the University of Texas.
A CONVERSATION WITH THE AUTHOR:
"Adam, how did you meet the boxer Jesus Chavez?" "In 1999, I was a cub reporter at the Dallas Observer, a street weekly. I was on the job maybe three days and a lady walked in, asking if she could speak to the youngest sports writer on staff. She told me the story of a boxer with the ring name of Jesus Chavez. It was compelling. I pitched it to my editor and was on a plane to Mexico City. From there I went overland to the tiny town of Delicias. He and I met, and we've been friends ever since."
"What so caught your imagination that you had to meet him and years later write a whole book about him? Who is 'El Matador'?"
"He was born Gabriel Sandoval, in the Mexican town where Pancho Villa was killed and buried. He was raised in Delicias, where his grandfather and father worked as miners 3100 feet under the earth. It was gainful employment, but it destroyed your health. The area was impoverished. Gabriel's father wanted more for his family. His father's brother carried 7-year-old Gabriel on his shoulders across the Rio Grande into the U.S., while his mom pulled his sister across on an inner tube. It was the second attempt to save the family from the grinding poverty at home."
"They were illegal aliens?"
"Yes," says Adam. "Undocumented."
"They settled in Chicago. There young Gabriel, 10, happened upon a grimy gym named The Matador by its operator, a young ex-teacher who taught ghetto kids to box, to keep them off the mean streets of the infamous Westside. Gabriel was fabulous at it. He learned fast and refused to back down, even when he was outweighed or outclassed. He showed real courage. He didn't like to fight so much as he liked to compete and win. He won three Golden Glove titles, had a record of 95 wins and 5 losses as an amateur, so the trainer initiated serious contacts with Mexican boxing people to get Gabriel a tryout for their next Olympic team."
"Gabriel's still in high school at this point," I chime in.
"Yeah, 112 pounds and 16 years old. He was handsome, funny, witty, and on the way to great things, but getting distracted by the Harrison Gents."
"Who were they?"
"A street gang of kid career criminals. Gangbangers. They loved Gabriel's reputation and local celebrity, and lured him in. One of them shows up on a sunny day with an umbrella. In it is a sawed-off shotgun. Gabriel was enlisted as the lookout at a holdup."
"Was it foiled?" I ask.
"No, they pulled it off, but someone must have bragged or ratted. They were busted. Gabriel went to jail, sentenced to 7 years. Just a tragedy. But he promises his father he'll be champion of the world someday and make him proud yet. In prison, he worked out every waking moment in his cell, tied garbage bags filled with water to the ends of a broomstick and used them as free-weights. At night, he would fight his silhouette, sometimes all night. Meanwhile, his exemplary family gained permanent-resident status, thanks to Reagan's Immigration Reform and Control Act. They were on their way to becoming citizens even as their eldest endured prison."
"How long did he serve?"
"He was paroled after four years and released. That was the good news. But as soon as he was out, he was handcuffed and taken to O'Hare International and deported."
"That must have been crushing."
"His father intercepted him in Mexico. By then dad had a green card. He and Gabriel bluffed their way back across the border. Every year 70,000 Mexicans were caught and sent back, but that day father and son made it and flew home to Chicago for a reunion of the family. From there Gabriel went to a relative in Austin. He found Richard Lord's gym and literally took up residence. Gabriel, right out of prison, was slow and heavy: 160 pounds. In great shape but smoking two packs a day. The skills were evident, though. He went to work to regain his form."
I laugh. "This is where it turns into a movie."
The author laughs, too. "Yeah. Gabriel became a local hero. He took the ring name of Jesus Chavez, "El Matador" (for his Chicago gym), and won consistently. A guy named Richard Garriott befriends him, an unconventional computer genius who had dropped out of high school and become a millionaire. Gabriel slept on a worn mattress in the stuffy boxing gym; Garriott, in his marvel of a house, in a huge bed that lifted through his roof so he could sleep under the stars. The two were friends."
"Gabriel meets a college student, Terri, a nice Jewish girl from a traditional upper-middle class family. He falls totally for Terri. They're inseparable. And she falls in love with Jesus Chavez, the ex-con deportee, illegal immigrant, professional boxer, and Roman Catholic."
"Hmm. Who would play her?"
"It seemed like a nice Jewish girl's parents' worse nightmare. But Gabriel was so charming, her family just loved him. In fact, it was her mother who sought me out later to help him."
"So," I prompt, "dreams are coming true."
"Yes. On top of friendship and romance, three years after getting out of prison, Gabriel wins the North American Federation Super Featherweight Championship. Everyone is stunned and weeping with joy. A national title. He is ranked fifth in the world. This puts him next in line to face the WBC featherweight champion. He defends his own title four times and dreams of capturing the other championship belt."
"But another hitch develops," I comment. "It came out that he was undocumented. He was deported all over again, back to his hometown in Mexico and his grandparents."
"Which is where I found him in 1999," says Adam, "training alone in a dilapidated gym underneath the bleachers of a small stadium. There was no ring, just a concrete square. He couldn't even spar, and he was alone."
"Normally when a boxer trains, how many people are involved in supporting him?"
"A trainer. Often a fitness or strength coach. Sparring partners. Between 5 to 15 people at a training camp for a serious fight. He had none of that. He had to do it all himself."
"He's down there nearly 4 years."
"Right," says Adam. "And all of the boxing action is up in the States, except he does have one significant fight with the Mexican national champ. And beats him and wins over his countrymen."
"Afterward a brilliant lawyer found a loophole and Gabriel returned to the U.S. legally."
"Yes, for the first time he crossed the border legally. And by then his father was a citizen and simply sponsored him."
"How old is he, in boxing terms, when he comes back at that time?"
"Getting up there: 28. He's lost roughly eight years: four in prison, four exiled in Mexico. But he's boxing in the States again, and once again he fights his way into the top ranks. Then, the big title fight was scheduled in San Francisco. Mayweather, his opponent, is undefeated, and may be the best pound-for-pound boxer in the world. He's fluid, technically accomplished, and has ferocious punching power."
"But Gabriel wins!"
"No, it's a great fight, he's doing great, but he loses. His new trainer throws in the towel in the ninth round. Technically a knockout. Richard Lord is apoplectic, but there's nothing to be done."
"Maybe life isn't like the movies," I observe.
"And he and his girl split up."
"Gabriel's next big bout is with Singmanassuk, the Thai boxer who holds the World Boxing Confederation super featherweight title. The opponent is 26 and in great shape, with a record of 39 wins and 1 loss. Gabriel -- Jesus Chavez -- is 31 years old. The Thai fought well, Gabriel fought brilliantly. And won. El Matador was a champion once again."
"That would have been a great ending," I say, "but boxing goes on. Boxers don't stop."
"The next name opponent is Erik Morales, 'El Terrible,' who is pursuing a third championship in a different weight class. Only one other fighter had done that. The fight was savage. In the second round, Gabriel tears his rotator cuff and separates his right shoulder, gets knocked down twice, and proceeds to box the next 11 rounds left handed. He throws 856 left-handed punches, 17 with his right. He won't quit. He goes the distance and loses the decision, of course. Both fighters are battered. Like a lot of the Mexican fighters, Gabriel doesn't move his head in the ring. He just takes the punches. Morales, it turns out, has broken both his hands on Gabriel's head."
"Things do get better," I say. "He meets Aunisa Stroklund in a Barnes and Noble in Austin."
"She's a graduate of the University of Montana and a lieutenant in the Texas Army National Guard. Yes, they become an item."
"So the last loss was a huge disappointment for Jesus Chavez," I say, picking up the storyline. "And it gets worse. A year after losing to Morales, Gabriel is fighting in Las Vegas again, but this time there is scant publicity, even though it's a championship fight. His is the third bout on the card, against International Boxing Federation lightweight champion Leavander Johnson. It's the first fight televised on HBO's pay-per-view programming and starts at 6 p.m., mountain time"
"Gabriel did really well. The referee stopped the fight in the 11th round. Jesus 'El Matador' Chavez dethroned Johnson and was the IBF champion. Victory. Except Leavander Johnson was rushed to the hospital, suffering from a subdural hematoma. I was sitting there watching it happen and didn't know it. None of us did. Johnson had left the ring on his own power. They operated, but he died five days later."
"What a story," I said. "The life of the boxer is almost manic."
"It's really played on him psychologically. I remember, right before a big fight, someone wished him luck, and a fan said, 'I'll be praying for you in there.' And he replied, 'I'll be praying for both of us. I don't want to hurt anyone.' That's the type of guy he is. Leavander Johnson's father told him he's not to blame, that he should go on and keep fighting. He welcomed Gabriel at his son's funeral in Atlantic City. During the service, Jesus Chavez was asked to stand, and the congregation applauded him in support. But at the same time, it's still weighing on him."
"What's he doing now?"
"He lives in a very modest ranch-style home in a working-class neighborhood of North Austin. He married his girlfriend. She was serving in Iraq at the time of the Johnson fight."
"Is he still training?
"Well, he's trying to recover from this shoulder injury. His goal is to get back in the gym and start training. It just hasn't happened yet. Part of that could very well be because of the emotional burden, or maybe he is trying to postpone the inevitable."
"How many years do you think he has left?"
"I can't see him going more than another year. The body is just not healing right. He was always a fast healer. Thirty-three is not necessarily a dinosaur, but in boxing years... it's like dog years. It's getting up there."
"What do you wish for him?"
"I don't want to see him be one of these guys fighting well into his mid to late 30s and starting to show the symptoms of a long boxing career, like the loss of memory and judgment. I guess the short answer to that is hopefully not more than another year."
"How," I ask, "has Leavander Johnson's death affected him most?"
"He hasn't fought since."