Ten years ago Gabriel Jesus Sandoval Chavez was on his way to a promising boxing career. The young man had stumbled into the sport by accident not long after emigrating from Mexico at ten years old, and he was a natural. Former local boxing star Tom O’Shea of the Matador gym in East Ukrainian Village was grooming Gabriel Sandoval, as he was called then, for a boxing scholarship at Northern Michigan University. In 1989 the super featherweight had been voted the city’s top amateur boxer, his record was 90-5-5, and he’d reached the semifinals of the Golden Gloves nationals in Miami.

But Chavez’s career came to an abrupt halt when some gangbangers he wanted to impress invited him along when they robbed a West Town grocery store. They were caught within a week, and Chavez, who had never been in trouble before, quickly confessed. Refusing to let his father put up the family’s new house as collateral for the $7,000 bail, Chavez stayed in jail until his trial, saying he had to pay for what he did. He copped a plea and spent three and a half years in prison for armed robbery. Upon his release in 1994 he was given $50 and put on a plane to Mexico, a country he barely knew anymore. His parents and sister had become legal permanent residents of the U.S., but as a convicted felon Chavez was ineligible for the same status.

He sneaked back across the border, moving in with some relatives in Austin, Texas. Hoping to make a fresh start, he took the professional name Jesus “El Matador” Chavez and began to box under the tutelage of former super featherweight powerhouse Richard Lord. In two years he was the North American Boxing Federation super featherweight champ, and in October 1997 he won a fight against Troy Dorsey that was aired on pay-per-view. But his application for a driver’s license alerted authorities to his identity, and tough new immigration laws passed in 1996 had made it next to impossible for noncitizens to stay in the U.S. after committing a crime. When he met filmmaker Marcy Garriott–who had founded the nonprofit La Sonrisa Productions to make pro bono documentaries for community groups in the Austin area–Chavez was living in a makeshift room at the gym, training and working with at-risk kids while waiting to be deported again. “There’s a whole clientele who comes just for workouts there, from all over town and all walks of life,” Garriott says. “Jesus was training people and running classes, and got to know a lot of people. My brother-in-law worked out there, and he introduced us.

“Right after Chavez was deported, a group of friends spent the next week in Mexico to experience Day of the Dead. He joined us there. It was as new to him as it was to us, even though he was Mexican and living in his own country. At that point the irony of the whole situation started to hit us. That’s when we decided to do the project.”

For Split Decision, La Sonrisa’s first feature-length documentary, Garriott–a former AT&T executive who’d had no previous interest in boxing–ended up following Chavez for two years, trailing him from fight to fight and interviewing the boxer, his family, and immigration officials. “I had no idea what would happen once he went to Mexico,” she says. “We thought he’d be back in a couple of months. We did not have any idea at that point how interesting the story would be.”

After his second deportation, Chavez moved in with his grandparents in Chihuahua and started training at the local gym and arranging matches in Mexico City. He didn’t give up on returning to the U.S., but an appeal to pardon him was denied by Governor Jim Edgar in 1998. Since then, “El Matador” has become the Mexican super featherweight champ.

“For me the most powerful documentaries are the ones that take place over an extended period of time, where you really see change in the people,” says Garriott. “It’s hard to capture the whole story, where people learn and change and grow, if you shoot just for four or six weeks.”

Split Decision ends with the 27-year-old Chavez–who still holds the North American Boxing Federation title–wondering if he’ll be too old when and if he gets the chance to fight the 21-year-old world champ, Floyd Mayweather Jr. Garriott says Chavez can’t fight in this country without a pardon from the governor or a special visa. New legislation to modify some of the 1996 laws, which have been widely criticized by legal and civil rights groups for unjustly punishing immigrants for long-ago offenses, will probably not affect his case, but he’s still appealing to Governor Ryan for clemency. “His crime was very serious, and he did not have legal status at that time,” says Garriott. “He is not the poster boy for problems with the 1996 laws.”

Garriott and members of Chavez’s family will be present for both showings of Split Decision at the Chicago Latino Film Festival. It’ll be screened at 6:40 on Sunday and at 6 on Tuesday at the Water Tower theaters, 845 N. Michigan. Tickets are $8.50. For more information on the festival, see the sidebar in Section Two, or call 312-409-1757.

–Cara Jepsen