It was a hot September night on the strip in Las Vegas. While gamblers from all over the country were playing slots and blackjack, Austin's Jesus "El Matador" Chavez was winning his second world boxing title against Leavander Johnson.
The fight was stopped in the 11th round—most ringside observers think it should have been stopped at least two rounds earlier. Johnson collapsed in his dressing room and died five days later.
No matter how tough they think they are, most boxers who kill another man in the ring have a difficult time getting back to their old form inside the squared circle. Chavez had improved his record to 47-4 with his title victory against Johnson. Since then, he’s won only two fights and lost three.
At age 37, Jesus Chavez has more to overcome than the death of an opponent. Boxers are infamous for continuing to fight long after their skills have diminished. Even "The Greatest," Muhammad Ali, lost three of his last four bouts.
Born Jesus Gabriel Sandoval Chavez in Chihuahau, Mexico, Chavez and his family moved to Chicago when Jesus was just 10. The young, undocumented immigrant showed glimpses of his future ring skills. Those skills would be tested often on the mean streets of Chicago's west side, as well as in the amateur boxing ring.
Chavez was small for his age, but his fighting skills earned him a reputation in the neighborhood and drew the attention of a local street gang. In his teens, he joined the gang known as The Harrison Gents and was soon involved in some small-time street crimes. The criminal activity would eventually escalate, resulting in a conviction for accessory to armed robbery at age 17.
Chavez spent two years inside the walls of the infamous Joliet State Penitentiary. Upon release, he was taken to the airport for a one-way trip back to Mexico.
Considered an "illegal" in the United States, Chavez found himself back in his birth country where he was labeled a "pocho"—a derogatory term used to describe someone with Mexican roots but who had been raised in the states.
Chavez's father would eventually bring his son back to America, where Jesus would find a home and a gym in Austin.
Actually, the home and the gym were one in the same. Gym owner and former pro boxer, Richard Lord, saw the raw talent in the scrappy 20-year-old Mexican-American and offered to prepare Jesus to fight professionally. Lord also gave Chavez a foam mat and some space in a closet to live.
From 1994 until 2001, Chavez achieved a stunning 36-1 record. That record earned him his first world title shot against Floyd Mayweather, Jr., considered by many to be the best pound-for-pound fighter alive today. Chavez fought hard but the fight was stopped by his corner man after nine rounds.
In 2003, Chavez worked his way back to another world title fight against Sirimongkol Singwanch of Thailand. The championship match was held in Austin, Chavez’s adopted hometown.
He won the fight in a 12-round decision, earning him his first world title. Chavez lost that title six months later in his first defense, in what turned out to be a superhuman effort. Chavez dislocated his left shoulder while throwing a monstrous hook in the third round. He fought nine rounds with the injured shoulder, losing a decision and the title after 12 grueling rounds.
In 2005, Chavez earned another title shot—this time against the aforementioned Leavander Johnson. Bittersweet is not a strong enough word to describe that second championship belt. Fighters don't celebrate a title victory when the opponent dies.
There are many reasons why fighters refuse to retire. This is a profession where 35 is the usual cutoff age. For Chavez, though, the quest for another title might mean more than just a mere refusal to quit.
He continues to fight, even though he's lost three of his last five bouts, as a way to erase a lingering nightmare. Maybe the taint that surrounded his second title victory won't be assuaged until he wins another one.
But, three years shy of his 40th birthday and with 25 years of boxing wearing on his body, the question must be posed: When is enough, enough?