CARLO ROTELLA reminisces on the career of Puerto Rican boxer Macho Camacho for the New York Times’ tribute to lives lost in 2012.
PART OF THE DRAMA OF BOXING IS THAT A SINGLE BLOW can turn the course of a bout and a fighting life. Usually that blow is a knockout punch, but in the case of Hector (Macho) Camacho, it was a left hook thrown by Edwin Rosario that did not even knock Camacho down.
When they fought in Madison Square Garden in 1986, Camacho was a young lightweight champion aglow with the promise of all-time greatness. At age 24, unbeaten in 28 professional bouts, he seemed unhittable, invincible. Blessed with impossibly quick hands and a chin of stone, he was a technically elegant and ring-smart southpaw seasoned by sound tutelage and a distinguished amateur career. Circling one way and then the other with pent-up predatory joy, he frustrated opponents’ efforts at offense and constantly sought opportunities to step in and punish them with speed-blurred combinations. Camacho made them miss and made them pay, and it was beautiful to behold.
Camacho, who was born in Puerto Rico and raised in Spanish Harlem, served three months at Rikers Island in his teens for car theft, not his first or last run-in with the law. Besotted with his own cruel good looks and honed body, he cultivated a louche party-boy persona and a provoking little curl that hung down over his forehead. But if he was prone to wildness beyond the ring and the gym, as a boxer he had limitless potential.
Rosario, a rising Puerto Rican star in his own right, was a fearsome hitter, the most dangerous opponent Camacho had yet faced. During the first four rounds of their bout in the Garden, Camacho moved and scored, and Rosario stalked him, gradually measuring the range to land telling shots.
In the opening seconds of the fifth round, Camacho pawed with his glove at a cut near his left eye, bothered by the blood. Rosario landed a straight right and then a crushing left hook that buckled Camacho’s knees and sent him reeling in retreat. Rosario pursued, going for the knockout, but Camacho, who had never been cut or badly hurt in the ring before, managed to last out the round on unsteady legs. Drawing on his reserves of resilience and savvy, he kept away from Rosario’s power and jabbed enough to take a split decision.
Camacho was still the undefeated champion. But after Rosario, fight people say, he was never the same.
That’s not entirely true, because in subsequent bouts, Camacho could be great in flashes, for a minute or a round, especially if the opponent wasn’t particularly lethal. He went on to win more titles and beat several excellent foes, amassing a record of 79-6 with 3 draws. When he lost, it was by decision and usually to the best. He was never knocked out, and he was knocked down only three times in three decades as a professional. Though he didn’t live up to his promise of all-time greatness, he did defeat a couple of undisputed all-timers in steep decline: Roberto Duran (twice) and Sugar Ray Leonard.
But Camacho really was a different fighter after Rosario. The quality of his circling changed abruptly in that fifth round from predatory to self-preserving, and it never changed all the way back. Rosario’s hook gave Camacho an intimation of not just mortality but also abjection, humiliation, ugliness. Informed after the fight that his swollen face resembled a Cabbage Patch doll’s, Camacho responded, “Hey, if this is macho, I don’t want no part of it.”
Camacho became a safety-first fighter — a quicksilver one, still overendowed with the courage and confidence it took to make his way through boxing’s world of hurt, but a careful, defensive fighter nonetheless. His priority became making them miss, not making them pay.
As the years went by, Camacho trained less diligently and partied more, getting by in the ring on natural talent and accrued know-how. Because defensive wizards are less marketable than unbeatable golden boys, he compensated with exaggerated showmanship: more manly posturing, memorable wardrobe choices (loincloths were his staple, but he once wore a diaper) and mantric repetition of “It’s Macho time!” — a slogan with more heroic resonance than, say, “Safety first!”
He ended up on reality TV, of course, dancing with the stars and talking crazy, and would have persisted in that celebrity twilight for years, had he not been killed in a drive-by shooting outside a nightclub in Bayamón, the city of his birth.
As he aged, Camacho increasingly played the buffoon, but neither his reality-TV high jinks nor his thickening physique entirely obscured the potentially world-beating fighter he was in his youth. And his still-smooth face bore no mark of the left hook that divided his life into before and after.
For the original report go to http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2012/12/30/magazine/the-lives-they-lived-2012.html?view=Hector_Camacho