The torch was passed from a fading Puerto Rican star to a new one when Hector Camacho was defeated by Felix Trinidad in 1994. Incredibly, Camacho would fight on for another 16 years, long after Trinidad retired. From 1980 to 2010, Camacho compiled a 79-6-3 (38) record that saw him achieve worldwide stardom amidst constant personal turmoil.
For the third time in 30 days the boxing world mourns the passing of an indelible figure in the sport’s history. Three-division titleholder Hector “Macho” Camacho died early Saturday at age 50, four days after being shot in the face and neck on the streets of his birthplace, Bayamon, Puerto Rico.
The event that precipitated his passing was sudden and unexpected. Camacho was sitting in a parked Ford Mustang with friend and driver Adrian Mojica Moreno when two assailants in a SUV opened fire. The 49-year-old Moreno was killed in the attack while Camacho, who was shot in the face, was transported to the Centro Medico trauma center in San Juan.
Camacho was placed on life support and initial reports indicated he was expected to survive. But Camacho’s condition took a turn for the worse early Wednesday morning when he suffered cardiac arrest and a brain scan conducted later in the day yielded minimal activity. All brain functions ceased by Thursday but the decision to end life support was made only after all available family members were given the opportunity to say goodbye.
Camacho’s passing continues a most painful period for boxing fans the world over, for Hall of Famers Emanuel Steward and Carmen Basilio died on Oct. 25 and Nov. 7 respectively.
Camacho was one of the sport’s most brilliant physical talents as well as an immensely gifted showman. His dazzling hand and foot speed combined with sneaky power, overflowing charisma and hard-edged street smarts made up the “Macho Man” character that lit up television screens and filled arenas for three decades – an extraordinary feat for a fighter whose game depended so heavily on speed, reflexes and timing. From 1980 to 2010, Camacho compiled a 79-6-3 (38) record that saw him achieve worldwide stardom amidst constant personal turmoil.
His was a life lived in the fast lane. In fact, Camacho was the fast lane no matter where he was or what he was doing. His aura illuminated every room he ever occupied because he possessed a quality that could only be described as “it.” It’s an asset whose ingredients can’t be manufactured or duplicated but Camacho’s was felt by those who encountered him. It was magnetic, mesmerizing and irresistible and only Camacho’s own unpredictability had the power to change how “it” was perceived.
He risked life and limb in street fights after moving from his native Puerto Rico to Spanish Harlem in New York City as a boy. The restless kid with unlimited energy and an unstructured family life began stealing cars at 12, was thrown out of five schools, served three-and-a-half months at Rikers Island at age 15 and first became a father at 16. Chaos was his constant companion and he used it to attract the attention he felt he wasn’t getting at home.
“I got myself into so much trouble, I figured I could handle anything,” Camacho told Steve Farhood in the January 1983 issue of KO magazine (a sister publication of THE RING). “I would challenge anyone. I was showing off. I wanted people to notice me all the time.”
Camacho’s life would change for the better when he met Harlem-based trainer and manager Billy Giles, who saw potential in the wild child. Camacho, who previously had competed in karate tournaments, turned his talents toward boxing and saw immediate results. Lying about his age to enter the New York Golden Gloves at age 15, Camacho won the sub-novice flyweight title in 1977 and added open titles at bantamweight in 1979 and 1980. In all Camacho went 96-4 and captured 13 amateur championships.
In September 1980 Camacho turned pro with a four-round decision over David Brown at Madison Square Garden’s Felt Forum. The card topped by John Verderosa’s seventh-round KO over Louis Hubela also included fights featuring middleweight James Shuler, light heavyweight Johnny Davis and heavyweight Marvis Frazier.
Camacho’s comet-like speed, quick-strike power, electric personality and New York roots earned him considerable fanfare early in his career. A 12-round decision over Blaine Dickson in December 1981 raised his record to 12-0 (6) and won him his first belt, the North American Boxing Federation junior lightweight title. Three more wins – including a first-round TKO over the usually rugged Refugio Rojas – vaulted Camacho to his first nationally televised fight against the 15-0-1 Louis Loy in a non-title lightweight encounter. Camacho impressed the CBS audience by dispatching Loy in seven rounds and 48 days later he did so again by stopping Filipino southpaw Johnny Sato in four. All the while, Camacho’s sequined robes, loincloth trunks, reams of jewelry and limitless bravado created a character that generated fame, money and opportunity – as well as a highly polarized audience.
After stopping Sato Camacho stepped up his level of opposition and continued to excel by out-pointing the 16-0 Melvin Paul and the 32-0 Greg Coverson, each over 10 rounds. Less than three months after beating Coverson, Camacho ventured to Anchorage, Alaska to take on 22-1 lightweight John Montes Jr., who was fresh off a decision defeat to former lightweight titlist Hilmer Kenty.
What figured to be a test for Camacho instead turned into his most memorable knockout. Moments after Camacho curled his right hand behind Montes’ neck to keep it in position, he released the right just long enough to fire a vicious left uppercut to the jaw that put Montes down and out.
Camacho added another quality win over future 135-pound title challenger Irleis “Cubanito” Perez (W 10) before challenging Rafael “Bazooka” Limon for the WBC super featherweight title stripped from Bobby Chacon in August 1983. The circumstances surrounding the vacancy were strange to say the least, for Chacon was penalized for opting to fight WBC mandatory challenger Cornelius Boza-Edwards instead of fulfilling his promotional obligation to Don King, who wanted Chacon to face Camacho – in Puerto Rico. Nevertheless, Camacho certified his high standing by overwhelming the far slower and shopworn Limon in five luminously one-sided rounds.
Camacho experienced some shaky moments in his first defense against lanky lefty Rafael Solis, who stunned Camacho with an uppercut in round three. But Camacho had the final say in round five when he scored two scintillating knockdowns, the last of which persuaded his fellow Puerto Rican to sit on the canvas for the full count.
The Solis victory on HBO should have signaled the beginning of a wondrous second phase but instead it ushered in a period that Camacho said was the worst period in his life to that point. He feuded with Giles, who accused Camacho in a USA Today article of “drowning in drugs,” and he fought only once in 1984, stopping Rafael Williams in seven in a non-title fight. The rumors of wine, women and song swirled wildly and given his history one had to wonder whether those rumors were fact.
Camacho eventually teamed up with veteran trainer Jimmy Montoya and proved to all he was back by stopping Louie Burke in the fifth round of a CBS-televised encounter in January 1985. Following the win, the stresses of the past several months caused Camacho to reveal a side of himself he previously concealed from the masses.
“I just hope everybody keeps supporting me and stays my friend because I need friends,” Camacho told CBS blow-by-blow man Tim Ryan. He then rested his head on Ryan’s shoulder and began crying.
“I was caught off-guard because I wasn’t working with a monitor and I couldn’t see what was going on until he put his head on my shoulder,” recalled Ryan in the June 1985 issue of KO. “It was an awkward moment, but a human one. When I realized he was weeping I knew it was a culmination of his feelings for the events of the past eight months. He felt isolated from the people he could trust. He was vulnerable. He had come back, he had won, he had looked good. All that on his mind caught up with him.”
A 12-round decision win over Roque Montoya on the Tony Tubbs-Greg Page undercard set up a showdown with WBC lightweight king Jose Luis Ramirez, a battle-tested 95-fight veteran who still was just 26 years old.
Ramirez’s determination, doggedness and big punch were no match for Camacho’s supreme talent, which was at its incandescent apex. Camacho’s laser-like blows sliced through Ramirez’s guard from first bell to last, his supple movement confused the ring-wise Mexican and Ramirez’s legs crumbled in round three from a pair of sonic left crosses. Camacho’s blows also broke Ramirez’s nose, which bled freely for the remainder of the contest.
Instead of swooping in for the kill, Camacho opted to remain cautious, surely remembering what happened to Edwin Rosario in his rematch against Ramirez. When Rosario tried to polish off Ramirez after scoring knockdowns in rounds one and two, the stoic Mexican rebounded with a knockout in the fourth. Camacho, who out-landed Ramirez 342-156, coasted to a comprehensive decision victory (119-109, 119-112 and 118-111) but the most memorable moment was yet to come.
During the post-fight interview, a charged-up Camacho said “Mancini, I don’t respect your opinion! Come on baby I’m gonna knock you out! And Pernell Whitaker, you can get some baby! Jimmy Paul, Larry Holmes, all you n*****s come on with it baby! It’s Macho Time!”
In a 2007 MaxBoxing.com interview conducted by this scribe, Max Kellerman said Camacho’s victory over Ramirez directly affected the career path of a legend who was seated ringside.
“I think that Camacho-Ramirez – more than Hagler-Hearns, Duran’s performance against Hagler or the rise of Donald Curry – made (Sugar Ray) Leonard come out of retirement,” he said. “Camacho-Ramirez showed Leonard that ‘here is this lightning-fast, scintillating performer who is about to occupy the same space I did in this sport.’ It made him jealous – and there was some bickering between those guys at the time – and it was as responsible as anything for his eventual comeback (against Marvelous Marvin Hagler). That’s the kind of performance it was; it said it was ‘Macho Time,’ and that boxing is his sport.”
Following a 10-round win over future Hall of Fame trainer Freddie Roach, Camacho’s career took another drastic turn. Camacho and Rosario fought evenly over the first four rounds, but 45 seconds into the fifth Rosario landed a torrid hook to the jaw that badly wobbled Camacho. The champion survived Rosario’s follow-up assault but was hurt again with a hook-cross in the final minute of the 11th. Camacho again weathered the storm and won a hotly disputed split decision.
The Rosario fight forced Camacho to confront his athletic mortality, that he could be hit, hurt and knocked out. From that point forward Camacho jettisoned the aggressiveness that raised his speed game to rarified heights in favor of a safety-first style that turned his “Macho” nickname from a point of pride to the butt of jokes.
“Usually the story isn’t so simple; we tend to construct a narrative that follows a story but in this case it was that simple,” Kellerman said of the sudden style transformation triggered by the Rosario scare. “I think Camacho thought he was invincible, he got shook up by an incredible puncher and it ruined his career.”
Though Camacho kept winning, he showed only flashes of his previous brilliance. Camacho gave up his lightweight belt after dominating Boza-Edwards over 12 sleepy rounds. On the undercard Rosario blasted out Livingstone Bramble in two rounds, a result that made a Camacho-Rosario rematch one of the hottest fights that could be made. It wasn’t to be, for Camacho appeared to not want a second helping of “El Chapo.”
Following victories over Howard Davis Jr., Reyes Cruz (suffering his first knockdown in the process) and Rick Souce, the onetime “dream fight” with Mancini was made with the vacant WBO junior welterweight title at stake. While Camacho-Mancini unquestionably would have been a better fight in 1983, the 1989 version was surprisingly close and compelling. In the end Camacho won his third divisional belt by a split decision that was lustily booed by the pro-Mancini crowd in Reno.
Several verdicts during Camacho’s 40-fight win streak were steeped in controversy, so it was somewhat fitting that it was snapped in similar fashion. When it became clear that Greg Haugen would refuse to touch gloves with Camacho before the final round of their February 1991 fight, “The Macho Man” lashed out with a flurry. Referee Carlos Padilla took umbrage, then deducted a point from Camacho for unsportsmanlike conduct. Padilla’s penalty affected the final result, for had he not acted the fight would have been a split draw instead of a split decision defeat for Camacho. Camacho returned the favor to Haugen in the rematch three months later as he won by split nod.
The end of Camacho’s run as a viable elite fighter ended on Sept. 12, 1992 when the 81-0 Julio Cesar Chavez administered a frightful beating over 12 rounds and captured a comfortable decision to retain his WBC super lightweight title. Camacho, whose left eye was pounded nearly shut, earned praise for the toughness he showed against a Chavez that was near the top of his game.
Camacho remained incredibly active as he fought 43 more times over the next 13 years. This phase saw Camacho build his record against a series of journeymen, marginal contenders and post-prime legends like Roberto Duran (twice) and Sugar Ray Leonard only to falter in big-money fights against young, peaking fighters such as Felix Trinidad in January 1994 and Oscar de la Hoya in his final major title shot in September 1997.
The 21-year-old Trinidad couldn’t knock Camacho off his feet and it took nine rounds for De La Hoya to do so. One of Camacho’s most underrated qualities was his rock-hard chin, for in 88 fights only four men managed to register knockdowns – Reyes Cruz, Chris Houk, De La Hoya and Saul Duran in Camacho’s final fight at age 47 in May 2010.
De La Hoya was so intent on beating Camacho that he offered a side bet before their match: If Camacho won he would receive an extra $200,000 but if De La Hoya won he would get to clip off Camacho’s spit curl with scissors inside the ring. But during the post-fight interview, De La Hoya apparently was talked out of it by a group that included Emanuel Steward, who was in the “Golden Boy’s” corner.
Camacho’s longevity was such that he and his son Hector Camacho Jr. fought on the same card three times – for Junior’s pro debut on October 1, 1996 and shows on February 3, 2001 and July 9, 2005. The Camachos went a combined 6-0 (2) and the nine-year span between father-and-son cards has to be an all-time ring record.
Camacho’s pattern of wreaking havoc inside the ropes and finding trouble outside them continued into his 40s. A small riot erupted inside and outside the ring following Camacho’s July 2005 victory over Raul Munoz and in 2007 he was sentenced to seven years in prison for burglarizing a computer store in Mississippi, during which the drug ecstasy was found on him. Camacho ended up serving minimal time behind bars because the judge suspended all but one year of his sentence, then gave Camacho probation. When he violated the terms of that probation, he served two weeks in jail.
Camacho’s links to substance abuse persisted until the very end, for police spokesman Alex Diaz said officers found nine small bags of cocaine in the pockets of Camacho’s friend inside the car where he was shot and a 10th bag was open inside the vehicle. There is no word as to whether any drugs were in Camacho’s system.
But for all the legal troubles Camacho experienced, most boxing fans will remember “The Macho Man” for his otherworldly ring skills, his ebullient personality and his unforgettable ring walks. At various times he wore a full-length Native American headdress, a Darth Vader-like helmet, a matador’s costume, a “Captain America” outfit with a Puerto Rican flair and mink coats that covered him head-to-toe.
He enjoyed a love-hate relationship with the fans; sometimes he’d purposely ignite them by wandering out of his dressing room during the undercard of his big fights while on other occasions he’d laugh and joke with them while happily signing autographs and posing for photos. Although he reveled playing the villain, he did so with a playful glint in his eye that suggested that he was playing a role and that the audience was part of his performance. Some fans chose to play along with him while others wholeheartedly bought into the act and chose to hate him.
Although the wild life style prevented him from maximizing his awesome gifts, Camacho still is viewed by many as a future Hall of Famer. He went 10-4-2 (2) against fighters who held titles at some point of their careers and was the only man to register a knockout victory over Leonard (though Sugar Ray was pushing 41 and was emerging from a six-year layoff at the time). Still, Camacho at his very best was among the best the sport has ever known.
“Camacho was such a phenom that what he did early in his career didn’t disqualify him from consideration as the greatest lightweight of all time someday, though he ended up falling way short,” Kellerman said in 2007. “It’s instructive to look at what a fighter’s contemporary audience thought of him, and I remember a quote from Michael Katz at the time of Camacho’s prime that said ‘this is the greatest fighter I’ve ever seen.’ Based on what I had seen, he kept the hope alive until after the Rosario fight. That alone is very impressive and speaks to his level of athleticism and talent.”
The past 13 months have seen numerous boxing luminaries pass from our midst, and Hector Camacho’s death is another grim reminder of the fragility and fickleness of life on this earth. One moment Camacho was riding in the streets of his hometown with a friend and in the next moment his life was snuffed out in a destructive – and potentially murderous – burst of violence. All the same, the mark Camacho made in his chosen sport is beyond dispute and for that he will be remembered fondly for all time.
Or, as Camacho would put it, for “Macho Time.”
Photos / Carlos Schiebek-AFP, Ken Levine-Getty Images, Hector Mata-AFP
Lee Groves, a boxing writer and historian based in Friendly, W.Va., can be emailed at [email protected] He is a full member of the BWAA, from which he has won seven writing awards, including a first-place for News Story in 2011. He has been an elector for the International Boxing Hall of Fame since 2001 and is also a writer, researcher and punch-counter for CompuBox, Inc. He is the author of “Tales From the Vault: A Celebration of 100 Boxing Closet Classics.” To order, please visit Amazon.com or e-mail the author to arrange for autographed copies.