Who can grasp how boxing was once, in the 1950s, stitched into the national consciousness, live at 10 three nights a week on CBS, NBC, ABC? For the placid Eisenhower nation, a fairly routine occurrence was to witness in-progress murders prime time on network TV: i.e., the savage pummelings of Benny "Kid" Paret and Davey Moore.
The many millions who dug boxing overlooked the homicidal excesses. It was the glory era of Rocky Marciano, "Sugar Ray" Robinson, and Floyd Patterson, and a good-looking, coltish kid in the Olympics named Cassius Clay. Decades later? Clay-as-Ali is a middle-aged tragedy, his occupation-caused Parkinson's Disease a persuasive message for why real men shouldn't spar. Professional fisticuffs are discredited as cave man-like and fatally mob-contaminated; and nobody with an ounce of class cares these days who are the misled gloved chumps squaring off to be a 2001 champ.
Translation: the Pearl Harbor crew needn't fear a box-office drain when Split Decision opens June 14 at the Coolidge Corner. The protagonist of Marcy Garriott's worth-your-while documentary is-audience beware! a pugilist, and portions of the movie show him doing what he does best: pounding a hapless opponent. Also, Split Decision dares be unfashionably pro-boxing. The climactic match for the championship of Mexico is shot the way only an avid, partisan fan would see it: with attentive respect for the art of jabbing and punching and trying for a KO.
There are other drawbacks for attracting a Boston crowd. Split Decision features a disenfranchised, Hispanic cast, with many scenes in the Third World, rural Mexico. And however talented he might be, Gabriel Jesus "El Matador" Chavez is an unfamous boxer. What does it mean to the world at large that he's the #1 WBC-ranked super-featherweight?
What makes Split Decision essential viewing is the political context of Chavez's story: how he came afoul of draconian American immigration laws. As a young Mexican growing up in Chicago, he ran with the wrong crowd. At 17, he took part in an armed robbery. Caught, he served 3 1/2 years in prison. Afterward, he moved to Austin, Texas, to start boxing seriously. He kept his nose clean, and pushed to the top of boxing in the mid-90s. A championship match seemed eminent.
Enter the US Congress which, in 1996, enacted stringent laws for the deportation of non-citizens with criminal convictions. The laws were made retroactive, and applied (no double jeopardy?) even to those who had served their time for wrongdoings. As a result: in 1997, the American-raised Chavez was sent packing to Chihuahua, Mexico. There, his chances for a title fight slipping away, he remains in restless exile. He's appealed for a pardon from the governor of Illinois, so he can box in the US, before he's too old. He's hoping that the Bush Supreme Court, when it hears arguments, will find cruel and unjust the retroactive application of the 1996 Congressional laws.