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By Sean Pendergast
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Jesus Gabriel Sandoval Chavez stands on top of a mountain on 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 below 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 breathes a sigh of 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 and the dry mountain air 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," says Chavez, 27, 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 top of the World Boxing Council's superfeatherweight class. But these days he can only gaze down on the numerous opponents he has 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 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 seven. 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 opponent 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 a 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 five foot seven, 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 "Inmigración!" 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 an 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 has beaten in the United States make ten times that.